Are you sure that you breathe when playing the piano?
It might seem like an odd question – of course we continue to breathe while playing! But to what extent are we aware of our breath, and how it affects our technique, musicality and comfort at the piano?
Breathing: it’s vital!
These questions are I believe among the most important for any piano player. As the famous classical concert pianist András Schiff recently said:
“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.”
“Natural breathing” means breathing deep into the abdomen. Watch a baby and you will see the gentle rise and fall of their stomach, and the sides expanding and contracting with each breath. This is natural breathing.
As adults, however, our breathing is often more shallow, even limited to the chest/lung area. This is due to many factors, including anxiety, constrictive clothing, or even just a lack of attention to our breathing.
For pianists, the matter can be made worse by bad sitting posture, and because the sheer complexity of playing the piano leaves no room for paying attention to our breath.
It’s imperative to fix this, and reestablish awareness in our breathing. Crucially, it is imperative to ensure we aren’t holding our breath while playing. At the same time we need to avoid forced breathing. But how do we know when this is happening?
The central problem is this – most of us focus on our breathing about as much as we think about how to walk, speak, or sit on a chair. Basically, we don’t think about it at all. And because of this, the connection between our mental focus and the physical activity itself becomes broken.
In this article, I will consider how we can use very simple exercises to help reestablish our awareness of breathing while at the piano.
Before trying the exercises, check that your posture at the piano is good:
- Sit on the front half of the stool, with feet slightly apart and flat on the floor.
- Sit tall, and try rolling the pelvis and find a neutral position, where you are neither slouching nor forcing the small of the back inwards.
- Draw up your height – imagine a golden thread coming out of the crown of your head, being pulled gently upwards. Tuck in the chin.
- Make sure your shoulders are completely relaxed, and that the arms are hanging without effort or resistance.
- Place your hands gently in your lap.
A good teacher, experienced pianist, or appropriate practitioner will be able to look at your posture and advise on (if necessary adapting) all these points if in any doubt.
The goal is to ensure your posture allows:
- healthy technique,
- freedom of movement,
- and natural breathing.
- Breathe in through the nose, deeply into the abdomen first, then letting some air into the lungs (don’t breathe to full capacity – aim for about 70%, a golden qigong rule!).
- Breathe out slowly. Don’t force your breath – simply observe it.
- Slow deep breaths for a few minutes until you are calm.
As an experiment, try this with your hands cupped around your knees, and your elbows tucked into your sides. Observe your breathing – evaluate the quality, ease and depth.
Next move your hands to the top of your thighs, and allow your elbows to move away from your body on each side, so that they are sticking out, and open. Again evaluate your breathing.
There is an important lessons for pianists right here – if your elbows are tucked into your sides your breathing will most likely be more shallow, and predominantly fill the lung area. But if your elbows are opened away from the body, breathing is much more free, and oxygen easily moves to the abdomen. This is what we want.
Keeping your elbows open also allows you to use your forearm to lead the hand when playing (which is good), rather than the other way around (which is less good).
The following musical examples can be printed off for non-commercial use:
Keep the printed copy at the piano, and try using these exercises daily before piano practise.
Feel free to use the exercises with your students if you are a teacher, and give them their own copies of the sheet for private practice use.
- Try this with just one hand, and repeat several times.
- Then try and repeat with just the other hand.
- Allow the speed of your breathing to determine the tempo of the notes.
- After repeating several times with each hand, try with hands together.
Now see if you can reverse the breathing pattern:
As you practise Exercise 1, be careful not to force your breathing – continue to observe it, and adapt your playing to match the speed and depth of your breath.
Over time, and with practice, you will be able to play the exercise at a variety of tempi, both slowly and more quickly.
This is a variation on the above. All aspects remain the same, except that now the notes are articulated differently. You may notice that this seems a little more difficult, because the music you are being asked to play does not to closely follow the flow of the breath:
Now see if you can reverse the breathing pattern:
Points to Note
Practising Exercises 1 and 2 you will observe:
- Remember, the purpose of this Piano Qigong exercises is to help players reconnect their mental awareness of breathing while playing notes at the piano.
- The exercise is purposely easy to facilitate this.
- The octaves selected for these exercises are away from the middle of the piano, preventing ulnar deviation, awkward positions, and allowing the arms to remain free, without elbows tucked in.
- Teachers can share the exercises by rote.
- Try to vary the exercises and make up your own alternatives – but stay alert to your breathing, and see how different exercises can help with this.
If you found this article helpful, previous Piano Qigong exercisers may also help. Each exercise complements the others, adding to their effectiveness and building into a cumulative programme that can be used to help ourselves and other pianists:
- Earth Posture: discover a balanced natural posture with effective weight distribution using this very easy standing meditation.
- Open and Commence: a simple breathing and stretching exercise with a particular focus on the wrists.
- Opening the Chest: an extension of “Open and Commence”
- Sit up and Shut Down: a simple hack to help reduce the effects of anxiety
All of these exercises will help with your ease of breathing at the piano!
And there’s more …
In More Breathing at the Piano, I develop the ideas in this post a little further, including more exercises you can use…