Magazine article American Harp Journal

The Teaching Corner: Just Breathe!

Magazine article American Harp Journal

The Teaching Corner: Just Breathe!

Article excerpt

HOW many times have we seen students sigh or exhale loudly at the end of a piece, or unintentionally rush the end of a phrase to catch their breath? And, as teachers, how many times have we seen that lack of natural breathing when playing, while not integral to tone production, causes undue tension and a lack of naturalness in phrasing and pacing of music? And, how many times have we caught ourselves in this very same act of holding our breath while practicing a difficult passage?

After a series of chamber concerts with strings and woodwinds, I once again collaborated with a soprano this fall. At the first rehearsal I was in awe at the quiet intensity, intention, and organic quality to her breath. The soprano prepared and set her breath as if the backpressure to her instrument were that of an oboe or bassoon! Next to her, I could feel the intake of air. This made her extraordinarily easy to follow, and even though we had not performed together for many years, the synchronicity of our breathing gave an instant cohesiveness to our phrasing. Breathing together was likely the element that made our performance 'click.'

Here is what I observed in the soprano's breath: Centeredness, Natural Phrasing, and Release. Her warm-up routine consisted of a series of exercises designed to explore her pitch range, and also to keep her breathing deep and consistent. This kept her from falling prey to shallow breathing before a performance (which increases the performer's tendency to engage the primitive 'fight or flight' portion of the brain by depriving it of oxygen). It also kept her physical posture open and relaxed (Centeredness), allowing for intentional, and natural phrasing.

How many times have you or your students performed with a wind player with poor breath support, or a not yet very well developed lung capacity? Working with musicians who tend to breathe at inappropriate times, or a different time at each rehearsal and performance, makes it challenging for an ensemble to reach a musical consensus. This kind of musician may have choppy, mechanical phrasing--the very antithesis of Natural Phrasing. And, not every phrase requires the same type of Release.

This collaborative experience has caused me to re-dedicate myself to the idea that teaching breathing to our students begins in the studio and the practice room. Respiration can become a natural part of pulling the harp back and raising hands to the strings. As harpists, our students can discreetly exhale as they pull the harp back (no one will notice since their attention is directed to the movement of the instrument itself), and the upward movement of the diaphragm during the subsequent inhalation can be used to prepare the hands on the strings. …

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