Breathing and stretching exercises for healthy practice and living
Compiled for Pianodao by ANDREW EALES
In my article about Breathing at the Piano, I shared some tips and simple exercises to help you reconnect with your breathing while playing.
That article was warmly received. I have heard from and worked with many players who found the simple exercises helpful, even revolutionary for their playing. If you’ve not already printed off and tried the FREE exercises, please check them out before going on.
The aim here is to help players easily check in with our breathing when at the piano. To understand the importance of this, please read about “Awareness in Breathing” in my article What is Qigong and Piano Playing and refer back to my article András Schiff and Natural Breathing for more background.
In this article, I will now build on the foundation of the exercises and ideas previously shared…
How is Your Breathing?
Too often when playing the piano, attention to our breathing can be crowded out or closed down altogether as we focus intently on other aspects of reading, listening, technique, and so on. This phenomena isn’t limited just to piano playing. Many of us rarely if ever notice or consider our breathing as we go about our daily lives.
If you can easily check in with your breathing while you play the piano, that’s really good news (and quite unusual) – and it means you probably don’t need the exercises which follow. However, a surprising proportion of piano players are unaware of whether they breathe or not while playing, let alone the quality of their breathing.
How about you? As you read this, ask yourself –
“how is my breathing while I play the piano?”
Does the answer to this question come easily?
A Natural Context
We need to develop our Awareness in Breathing while playing the music and exercises that are already a part of our daily piano routine, Active Repertoire and ongoing piano journey.
With that in mind, in this post I will make a few suggestions and observations about how you might incorporate breathing into your (and your students, if you teach) standard practice regimen.
Before going further I must again recommend that these breathing exercises are practised within the context of a broader engagement with the Qigong for Pianists exercises freely available on Pianodao. These include breathing and stretching exercises away from the piano which will have a profound impact on your general Awareness in Breathing.
Take a Deep Breath..?
One other important point to underline is that breathing “deeply” is not what we are aiming for here. Efficient, healthy breathing is not the same as deep breathing.
In his seminal book The Way of Qigong, Kenneth Cohen explains:
“A common fallacy is to assume that by expanding the chest cavity, one is thereby sending more oxygen to parts of the body that need it. Rapid expansion and contraction of the chest cavity actually causes oxygen to bind too tightly to the haemoglobin molecules, so that less is released to the cells. It also causes a constriction in the blood vessels, further preventing the oxygen from reaching its target. Oxygen delivery depends more on the quality of breathing – ease, grace, and efficiency – than the quantity of air forced into the lungs with each cycle of respiration.”
In all Qigong exercises, I advocate the 70% principle.
Make it your aim not to exceed 70% of your capacity or your ability. Be balanced, avoiding extremes of duration or difficulty in all your practice, nether avoiding challenge nor trying too hard.
The 70% principle allows you to develop practice that is sustainable, and which over time will grow your capacity and help you reach your goals and potential.
Let’s get started with this very simple exercise. You could use this at the start of the practice as a way to settle down and bring awareness to your breath while seated ready to play the piano.
- Sit at the piano with attention to your posture – sit tall, with feet flat on the floor, relaxed shoulders, arms, and hands resting over your knees.
- Close your eyes, or adopt a soft focus, and take a few breaths – breathing in slowly, and out again.
- Allow the breath to go deep to the abdomen/stomach area first, inhaling to around 70% capacity before allowing the breath to inflate the chest and lung area, also to around 70%.
- Reverse the process breathing out – firstly deflating the lungs and finally the abdomen, but don’t force all of the breath completely out – don’t squeeze in the stomach beyond a relaxed position.
- Don’t force the breath, either its depth or rate – simply observe it.
- Now let’s start to play the piano. Play a C major triad with the left hand, two octaves below Middle C.
- Check that your arm is not tucked into the torso at the side – the elbow should be loose, but hanging freely.
- Breath in steadily, paying attention to the smoothness and freedom of the breath.
- As you reach the “top of your breath” – the 70% point where you won’t breathe in further – release the left hand chord and play another C major triad, this time with the Right Hand two octaves above Middle C.
- The chords should be joined, legato.
- Slowly exhale, while holding the Right Hand chord.
- As you reach the “bottom of your breath” – the point where you have naturally exhaled – release the Right Hand chord and replay the Left Hand triad, again legato, repeating Step 2 from above.
- Continue to repeat these steps, alternating the chord between hands as you breath deeply, freely, slowly in and out.
Do not “force the breath” at any point – the speed of your breathing should determine the tempo of the exercise. The most important aspect of the exercise is that you observe your breathing and follow it, rather than trying to control it.
The chords follow the breath, and not the other way around!
Now let’s move on to some more standard exercises, and consider the breath as we do so:
A Dozen a Day
Edna-Mae Burnam’s A Dozen A Day is rightly a classic of the piano pedagogy literature, offering a brilliantly conceived introduction to many of the most important piano techniques.
Once you have downloaded and tried the exercises which I published in Breathing at the Piano and tried the exercise introduced above, you will be ready to try focussing on your breathing while playing the short exercises contained in A Dozen A Day.
In many, if not most of these exercises, it will be easily apparent how you might coordinate your breath with the written exercise. Consider the imaginative pictures for further ideas – exploring different breathing possibilities for yourself will have the added advantage of allowing you to become more in tune with your own breathing patterns and natural, healthy, creative choices.
But remember: never force the breath. Keep to the 70% principle.
You could mark in pencil where to inhale, where to exhale, using simple symbols or arrows to indicate your preferences. But always be willing to also try the opposite synchronisation, as this can deepen the focus.
Not all players and students enjoy practising scales, but many of mine have commented that they find them to be relaxing and meditative, which I find very interesting.
Certainly they provide the perfect opportunity for combining standard technical exercises with Awareness in Breathing.
A basic way to combine scales practice with Awareness in Breathing is to inhale on the ascent and exhale when descending.
And once again, you could also try reversing the synchronisation, exhaling on the ascent and inhaling as you descend.
Try this playing:
- One octave hands separately and/or together, very slowly, coordinating the tempo to the rise and fall of the breath;
- Two octaves, a little quicker, still allowing the breath to determine the tempo;
- Three octaves, faster now; and
- Four octaves up to a fluent speed.
Playing scales in Contrary Motion can be even more effective, pulling the imagination into the expansion and contraction of the abdomen and lung spaces.
And as with all scales practice, try a range of dynamics, articulations, and vary the balance between hands. Always observe any effect this might have on the breath.
Having spent time focussing on breathing while playing scales, try doing the same while playing arpeggios. However, the tempo here will perhaps need to be steadier than usual so as to coordinate with the breath.
Once again, try different dynamics and articulation – and if you are a more advanced player how about trying two octaves in contrary motion?
It is important to stress that the exercises in this article should be selected (and can be adapted where necessary) to match the pianist’s current level of playing. Breathing at the piano is an issue for beginners, and right up to concert pianists, and I have now provided some ideas suitable for players at all levels.
Once Awareness in Breathing can be integrated into these simple patterns and exercises, it can become more natural when playing pieces. I will explore this more in a future post.
In previous posts I have referred to András Schiff’s point that a lack of natural breathing while playing the piano can lead to tension and discomfort in wrists, the back, and so on. Certainly it is my shared belief that Awareness in Breathing can help foster healthy playing.
I will conclude with the added suggestion that natural breathing can also aid musical fluency and bring our playing to life. So when you next sit down at the piano, notice your breathing.
How is your breathing?
Let me leave you with one final quote, from a different tradition, time and place – but which again puts a spotlight on the importance of the breath:
“Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”
Genesis 2:7 (NIV)
Qigong for Pianists
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