Supporting Teachers • Promoting Learning
Written by ANDREW EALES
Lesson Notes is an occasional series of blog posts reflecting on specific lessons I have given and the particular issues that arose and were addressed.
Eva (not her real name) learnt to play piano as a child, but took an extended break in early adulthood. A few years ago she returned to playing. Since coming to me for lessons she has completed the higher ABRSM grades and gained a DipABRSM performance diploma.
Eva continues coming for a 90 minute consultation lesson once a month. Her focus is on expanding her repertoire, and at present she is working on Bach’s Partita No.1 in B flat major.
In this lesson, we address the importance of the breath in alleviating shoulder tension, using three dance movements from the Partita as example repertoire.
Eva’s Shoulder Tension
Eva has a longstanding issue with tension, which is most acute in her shoulders.
Over the last few years, I have shown her how to use simple Piano Qigong exercises to address tension and help reconnect the mind-body awareness. In addition to those already included here on this site, I have taught Eva additional qigong stretches which specifically address the shoulder area.
Over time it has become increasingly clear that the core problem promoting Eva’s shoulder tension is shallow breathing. By shallow breathing, I mean short, minimal breaths which only reach the lung area. I would contrast this with medium breathing, reaching to the diaphragm, and deep breathing into the abdomen.
Shallow breathing is for many people their default behaviour. There are however many practices which promote better health through deeper breathing, of which Qigong is my preferred route. Aside from these health benefits, I have found that working on breathing can have a profound effect on a pianist’s playing. For more information, please read my articles which pertain to this crucial issue:
As I listened to Eva play through he first couple of movements of the Bach Partita, it was clear that work was still needed on the breathing:
Firstly, her shoulders were visibly tense. Try tensing your shoulders, and then focus on the breath; you will observe that breathing is shallow.
Secondly, the playing and tone production sounded rather forced; the music didn’t dance, and phrases weren’t convincingly shaped.
A longer consultation lesson allows plenty of time to work both on the music and on the whole pianist in terms of their interaction with the instrument, and this Bach Partita offers a perfect vehicle for working on all aspects of breathing.
Eva is an advanced pianist, but the ideas which follow could equally be adapted for use with intermediate players, using (for example) the dance pieces from Bach’s Anna Magdalena Notebook.
Breathing with Bach
In the same way that the Piano Qigong Breathing Exercises allow us to focus on our breathing at the piano, so too do these wondrous Bach dance movements. Indeed, if the breathing can take account of the dance movement itself, then the breath can actually lead the playing.
In the lesson we explored how focused, controlled breathing could be integrated into three of the dances: the Corrente, Sarabande and Menuet I.
The Corrente (more usually spelt Courante) has three medium tempo beats, and is quite lively, with lots of triplet quaver movement. Conveying a sense of three beats per bar without this passage work sounding messy can be a particular challenge here.
Eva had mastered the notes and fingering effectively, and could play the piece with impressive security, even beyond the desired tempo. However, clarity of articulation and rhythmic ‘spring’ were lacking. By the second half the music gradually rose in a crescendo of tension, the ending a palpable relief.
I suggested, at a slightly more restrained tempo, breathing in more deeply during the first full bar, out in the second, and so on. As well as relieving the tension, this led to Eva playing with a firmer focus on the first beat of each bar, emphasising the dance rhythm far more effectively.
Importantly, tension in the shoulder was somewhat relieved. And from a musical point of view, phrasing improved too.
Eva initially played this beautiful slow dance with deeply felt expression, but without the firm, stately pulse and clear emphasis on the second beat which is such a feature of the French-styled Sarabande adopted by Bach.
A focus on the breathing quickly fixed this. Here, I suggested a faster, but deep, intake of breath on the first beat, followed by a slow exhale on beats two and three throughout.
The slow exhale can also do wonders for dissipating tension, and after spending some time playing and working on the movement, Eva was significantly more relaxed in her whole posture and engagement with the instrument.
Eva commented at this point about how much ‘better‘ and ‘happier‘ she felt, and there was a sense of breakthrough.
The momentum and direction of this dance lends itself less well to focused breathing than the preceding Sarabande.
The tempo either allows for steady deep breaths to be taken across the duration of a four-bar phrase, or (as I initially recommended) for shorter breaths to be taken over two bars.
Eva initially tried breathing out in the first bar, and breathing in on the second, noting that the breath thus follows the falling and rising contour of the main melody line. However this did not work consistently throughout the whole movement, and reversing the process offered different insights.
Finally, up to tempo, the piece worked better with breathing in for two bars, and out for the following two. This also encouraged a slightly more nimble articulation, and better sense of phrase direction. And above all, it again helped with relieving the core issue of shoulder tension.
I left Eva with these further considerations:
Firstly it’s important not to let breathing become contrived; focussed breathing in this context is a means to an end, not an end in itself. We should be aware of, but not over-analyse, our breathing while playing at the piano, or else it can actually become a fresh source of tension in itself.
Secondly, we should practice concentrating on our breathing away from the piano. There are several vehicles for doing this, including the practice of yogic pranayama breathing exercises, as well as the breathing focus within mindfulness practice. Qigong remains my preferred and recommended medium, and specific exercises which I feel can help pianists are shared freely here.
Thirdly, realise that some music simply doesn’t lend itself to focussed concentration on the breath. There are plenty of great pieces in which our playing cannot be led (rhythmically, or in terms of phrase shape) by the breath alone.
That’s okay! Because we can use exercises and specific repertoire (such as these Bach pieces) to reconnect wth the breath, so that it becomes natural and subconscious whenever we play.
And within any piece, we can also identify specific moments within the musical narrative where we can consciously check in with out breathing.
While focusing on breathing and coordinating the breath with phrase shapes and dance rhythms is not my typical teaching approach, it certainly proved effective in this instance, addressing the core issue of shoulder tension with rather dramatic results.
Eva’s playing noticeably improved during this lesson, and as a result of her work focussing on her breathing.
She left with refreshed tools for addressing her shoulder tension as well as a better understanding of the rhythmic conventions of baroque dances.
Following the lesson, Eva said:
“I now feel much more relaxed playing these pieces. My brain feels more relaxed, my body feels more relaxed, and especially my arms feel more relaxed. And I really think that the pieces Sound much better too!”
Please note: “Eva” is not this student’s real name.
However, her story is told here with permission, and with my gratitude.
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