András Schiff & Natural Breathing

Breathing and stretching exercises for healthy practice and living
Compiled for Pianodao by ANDREW EALES

András Schiff, surely one of the most respected concert pianists of our time, made the following extraordinary observation in a recent interview with Pianist Magazine (No.76, Feb-March 2014):

“For me, it is breathing that is vital. You must breathe naturally, like a singer. Pianists and string players often tend to forget the necessity of breathing and they can become very tense; then they get back pains and wrist pains and so on. Usually it can be sorted out through the breathing.”

Breathing is a subject that I have rarely seen discussed in connection with piano technique, and even less so in the context of pianists’ injuries, their causes, cures and corrections. Schiff is hitting on a point that it would seem is indeed too often overlooked.

In this article I will consider the links between natural breathing and Qigong practice, as well as offering a simple breathing exercise that anyone can try…

Qigong for Pianists

The Pianodao site elsewhere highlights the benefits that Qigong practice offers pianists, and it is worth stating right away that these closely tie in with Schiff’s comments above.

The word Qi (chi or chee) can be translated as “breath”, while the word gong means “exercise”. Qigong as a single word can thus be translated as “breathing exercise”.

Addressing Schiff’s point, Qigong breathing exercises can be used by pianists as an important key to unlocking the problems that lead to injury.

In a moment I will introduce a very simple breathing exercise for you to try right away, but first consider this quotation from the popular contemporary Daoist (Taoist) writer Deng Ming-Dao:

“A central concept for Dao is breath.
Without breath, there is no life.
The complexity of this idea is great indeed.
You breathe: that brings you oxygen.
You breathe: that sustains you.
You breathe: that regulates your heartbeat,
feeds your brain, makes your blood red.
Deeper still:
You breathe, and the entire energy field of your body is sustained and set into motion. When that field, so intimately tied to breathing, is integrated with your mind, you have the power of spirituality.
Breathe. Don’t crassly think of it as mere gas.”

Deng Ming-Dao,  365 Tao Daily Meditations, San Fransisco 1992.

Considering how important breathing is, it is extraordinary that we give it so little attention, and little wonder that we damage ourselves by doing so.

Natural Breathing: an introduction

So what exactly does it mean to “breathe naturally”?

Schiff mentions breathing “like a singer”, so let’s start by noting that singers breathe from the diaphragm, into the abdomen. This is likewise regarded as foundational in Qigong practice. But there are many reasons why in daily life we tend not to breathe so deeply.

In his book ‘The Theory and Practice of Taiji Qigong’  (Third Edition, Chichester UK, 2011), Chris Jarmey explains that to breathe naturally we must regulate our emotions and thoughts.:

“Your emotions directly affect your breathing and vice-versa. When you are excited, tense or angry you breathe faster and more shallowly, and perhaps irregularly. When you are sad or depressed, you breathe in a sort of collapsed, half-measured way. When you are relaxed and at ease emotionally, you breathe more slowly, deeply and smoothly.

…it is important that you are able to calm yourself if excited, or motivate yourself if depressed. In other words, you need to regulate your emotions and thoughts.”

For the pianist, the need to regulate our emotions and thoughts perhaps becomes most obvious in the lead up to a performance, and as we address the anxieties so often experienced in that context.

However, we must change our perspective to consider this issue not only in terms of performance anxiety, but whenever we play the piano, be it private practice, playing at home for pleasure, attending a lesson, or giving a public recital.

And while we all aim to play “with feeling”, we must not lose control of our breathing in the process. A frequent signal of this comes when, at moments of heightened emotion in the music, the pianist’s shoulders become tense and raised.

The challenge for us all is to express emotion in music while at the same time maintaining our regulation of our thoughts and emotions: hardly an easy task!

But help is at hand: just as our emotions influence our breathing, so too the connection is so strong that by learning to take charge of our breathing we can gain back control of our emotions. In other words we must develop our awareness of the two-way traffic between breathing and our emotions, learning to use the one to regulate the other according to our needs. This is one of the many goals of qigong practice.

Jarmey goes on to explain:

“The key to this is to initially do nothing other than observe your own breathing. The very fact that you are drawing your consciousness inward toward your breathing will begin to ‘centre’ your mind. Perhaps not the first time you try it, but with repetition over time, your mind will habitually become more still as a result.
Thus to encourage good natural breathing you should relax,
observe and feel your breathing rather than control it;
try not to think of anything in the past or future;
breathe through your nose.
When you are truly relaxed in natural breathing, you will feel as if your breathing has its own automatic cycle, as if you are passively riding on the rhythm of your breath.”

Why not try five minutes of focussed natural breathing before you start to play the piano, each time you sit down to play?

Following the above advice, relax as best you can and try to breathe deeply through the nose and into your abdomen. Simply Observe.

I will be interested to hear feedback from you in the comments below – tell me how you get on with this!

Find out more about Qigong for pianists here.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.

4 thoughts on “András Schiff & Natural Breathing”

  1. Dear Andrew,

    Thank you so much for this heartening and important post, which I discovered on Facebook.. I am so glad to know about your work, and I was happy to read Doug Hanvey’s article as well, on mindfulness for musicians.

    Your work seems very in line with my own, which is outlined in my book, The Art of Practicing: A Guide to Making Music from the Heart. In fact, Chapter 4 of the book is all about practicing mindful breathing before practicing. And I teach a summer program called Mindfulness, Confidence & Performance.

    Thank you again. I look forward to receiving your emails. And I would enjoy meeting you sometime.

    Kind wishes for the new year,

    Madeline Bruser
    Founding teacher of The Art of Practicing Institute

    1. Thanks for your kind words and – an honour to hear from you!
      I read your book some years back and remember enjoying it as a pioneering work. Thank you so much! And I must pick it from the shelf and have another read!
      I agree that it would be great if our paths cross 🙂

      1. Thank you for the kind words about my book, Andrew. If you have a come to New York, please let me know. 🎶

  2. I’ve discovered this need to relax and breathe naturally WHILE playing in the last 10 years or so. It helped my playing tremendously. Then in teaching, I’ve tried to really encourage even my littlest ones to relax their shoulders, sit in a more lifted fashion (like a singer), and breathe while they play. Thank you for sharing this. I need to read more!

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