Posts Tagged music

Give it a try…

Are you unsure of all this breathing information? Does some of it conflict with what you have been taught?

I encourage you to keep an open mind and give it a try. When I came to the information it was out of desperation because I couldn’t play at all; my incentive was simply to get better.

Perhaps your incentive is simply curiosity or a desire to improve upon what you can already do. Either way, give it a chance and genuinely learn the breathing information. You might be pleasantly surprised!


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Balance and Breathing

Good breathing requires good balance, right through the core.

When we sit or stand, our bones are designed to provide the framework for this balance; they counteract the ongoing effect of gravity.

Balance is a lively, internal sensation. It is experienced internally and kinisthetically as a sense of buoyancy and lightness. Most importantly, when we achieve balance, our technique becomes effortless and we have increased endurance because we aren’t distracted by using muscles to hold ourselves up.

When we are balanced, our breathing is free and efficient. All the subtle and organic motions of breathing can happen easily and naturally, as they were intended. Balance provides the framework for excellent breathing which is the basis for great music-making.

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Handling the Naysayers

I have posted some of this information on the various forums which proliferate the internet. The responses to my postings have run the gamut from gratitude to vehement disagreement (to put it nicely!).

Few things in music are objective; rhythm comes to mind – either the phrase is in time or it’s not. The mechanics of breathing are also in this category; either you are moving well and breathing well or you are not. How one moves to breathe is not a matter of opinion, it is science.

The subjective part of breathing comes from how we choose to teach it and what we choose to think in order to do it well. Some teachers say “breathe like you are filling up a glass of water” as a metaphorical way of teaching breathing. This phrase is debunked elsewhere on this blog, but for now, I wanted to delve into the motivation for saying such a thing.

The moment the student hears the phrase, they are obligated to move in the way that it suggests. They will literally try to move their bodies as though the air travels to the bottom first and then upward a little at a time. If this motion were not really what the teacher intended then why did the teacher say this? Once the phrase is introduced, the motion is dictated.

“But I didn’t mean to take the phrase quite so literally…” rebuts the teacher. OK…then why did you say it? Once the phrase is introduced, the student will move in that way. If the student is not supposed to move in that way, then why introduce the phrase? It is a Mobius Strip of cause and effect which is unavoidable.

Don’t perpetuate myths that could not possibly be true. Let’s reserve subjective metaphors for subjective musical variables such as phrasing or vibrato. Breathing belongs in the objective category along with rhythm and intonation.

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Ribs and Arms

Your arms are not attached to your ribs, they are suspended above your ribs.

Why is this important? Because if your arms were attached to your ribs, they would inhibit the rib movement which is necessary for good breath support.

To breathe well, keep your elbows away from your ribs. Allow your ribs to move independent from your arms; with each inhale your ribs swing up and out and with each exhale they swing back down and in to thier neutral resting position. This motion must happen regardless of the position of your arms.

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Why this is so important

In May of 2002 I was diagnosed with embouchure dystonia, a neurological movement disorder which makes it impossible to play due to uncontrollable muscle spasms. Now that I have fully recovered, I can see very clearly that my breathing misunderstandings contributed to the development of dystonia in my playing.

Dystonia has no medical treatment so in order to reclaim my career, I had to re-learn how to play from a holistic, movement perspective. In the process of doing this, I discovered that there were many things about breathing that I thought were accurate, but turned out to be wrong. Some of these things are embedded in traditional pedagogy and some of them are things I managed to come up with on my own.

This blog is devoted to debunking some of the misunderstandings about breathing that many musicians believe – a sort of “mythbusters” for musicians. I encourage you to keep an open mind as you read because you will probably encounter some information that contradicts what you have been told. Everything on this blog is anatomically accurate – it is information based in fact, not necessarily tradition or metaphor.

The Breathing Blog is the reflection of what I learned from my recovery from dystonia. I hope, by sharing the information with others, that I can help those at risk avoid what I went through. Perhaps some of the information will improve your playing or, at the very least, clear up some nagging questions you’ve always had about breathing.

For more information about dystonia, visit my personal web page, listed under the resources section.

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The Pelvic Floor

The pelvic floor is a network of muscles which serves as the floor to the abdominal cavity. These are the muscles you would clench tightly if you had to go to the bathroom but there were no bathroom around.

When you inhale, your diaphragm presses down hard on the contents of the abdominal cavity. The viscera contained in the abdominal cavity (the stomach, intestines, etc.) flow down and out in a distinctive tide-like motion resulting in abdominal expansion in the front, sides and back. The viscera also flow downward, pressing down on the pelvic floor.

When the viscera press down on the pelvic floor, its downward arch deepens, if you allow it. This motion is rather like stepping onto a miniature exercise trampoline. Upon exhalation, the pelvic floor springs back up, as though stepping off the trampoline. The pelvic floor helps you exhale if you do not clench the muscles which comprise it.

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Handling the Naysayers – Band Directors

Band directors hate it when they see students lifting the shoulders in a contrived effort to take a big breath. In a sort of knee jerk reaction to seeing this, many band directors will say “breathe low” or “fill up your belly” or “don’t move your shoulders.”

I agree that lifting the shoulders in this contrived way is a bad thing but even when we breathe properly, there is some incidental shoulder motion. The danger in telling students not to move the shoulders is that they might actively hold them down and that’s not right either! The answer is somewhere in the middle.

So what’s a band director to do?

Too much attention on the inhale often results in some sort of problem. Musicians produce the tone when they blow, not when they inhale. I propose we focus on the blowing and the sound that results from good breath support. Furthermore, band directors who can demonstrate good breathing and the resulting good tone are way ahead of those who can’t.

I would think the best case scenario would be for the band director to stand on the podium demonstrating each instrument. When the students see the good breathing technique and hear the resulting good tone, they will begin to make healthy attachments between the two. A sound is worth 1,000 words to a musician and the earlier we can create these healthy connections, the better.

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