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Between the notes – why breathing space matters

An overriding issue for many students is the need for breathing space during performance. This is seemingly such an obvious point, but it’s one which is challenging to put into practice

An overriding issue for many students is the need for breathing space during performance. This is seemingly such an obvious point, but it’s one which is challenging to put into practice. Melanie Spanswick explains. 

The composer Claude Debussy said that ‘Music is the space between the notes’. This space can be created in many ways, but it’s a vital component, both in approach to a performance or actually between notes and phrases of a piece.

Creating space isn’t about changing the pulse in a piano piece, using copious ritenutos (or accelerandos)  or using excessive rubato (taking or ‘pulling’ time), but rather giving a small amount of time to breathe; this provides the audience with the opportunity to savour each note, each phrase and enjoy the music.

It isn’t just the audience that benefits here either: all performers require time to refocus and process musical thoughts during their performance. This space is even more crucial for less experienced or anxious performers because if they can ‘build-in’ space into musical phrases, they will be able to control their playing so much better, discouraging the ever-present problem of rushing or ‘speeding up’; an issue which so often affects even the most talented young players.

Create more ‘thinking’ or ‘breathing’ time

Public performance of any kind is all about control and focus, so if you are able to develop a way of creating more ‘thinking’ or ‘breathing’ time, then the level of your performance skills will increase dramatically.

Apparently, Winston Churchill regularly inserted ‘pauses’ into his speeches and he even calculated the exact time or length of each break! Here are a few ideas to help create breathing space in piano playing;

  1. Whilst learning a new work ensure each phrase is not only given its full length, but also a very slight space between each one. The length of space will totally depend on the speed of the piece, but even if it’s just an extra second, this allows every new phrase to be introduced properly with an expansive sense of time and without any sense of rushing or hurrying (a problem which can kill musicianship).
  2. Before starting to play any work, always count a bar in your head (at the intended tempo). This focuses the mind and gives the audience a sense of expectation. It will help determine the speed from the outset as well (it’s amazing how many performers start at an ‘unexpected’ tempo) and it can also establish a certain sense of calm.
  3. Space can be created within each phrase. If a work consists of a series of large chords and they are given slightly more time to sound than usual (we are talking nanoseconds here!), this allows them to reverberate, resonate, and reach their full measure of expression. A performance will suddenly take on a new level of musicianship and sensitivity, if each and every note is ‘placed’ carefully.
  4. Staccato (or short, detached) notes especially need to be given full space or time. If you have a group of staccato or non-legato crotchets, each one will be articulated much more quickly than legato crotchets (ie leaving the key bed swiftly), but there must still be a clear ‘space’ between one sound and the next, particularly in slow music, otherwise the beat or pulse will be perpetually unstable and there will be a sense of rushing throughout. As mentioned above, every note must be placed with care.
  5. Extra time between movements of pieces – especially at the end of a work – generates an atmospheric quality perpetuating the expression in the music; it allows the emotion to linger in a positive way, for moments beyond the expected time.
  6. It is said that pauses can make a musician, so with this in mind, build in a clear sense of space when playing any work. This also applies to use of the sustaining pedal, which should generally be used sparingly to enhance the piano sound rather than obscure it. Clean pedalling will also encourage breathing space between chords and thematic material.
  7. What feels like a slow tempo or long pause to a performer, is often interpreted  quite differently by the listener. It’s true to say that a performer in a state of focus, concentration and stress, perceives speed to be slower than it really is; we often play much quicker than we intend. So with this in mind, longer pauses or gaps between sound are sometimes a good idea and again, can be addressed during practice time.
  8. Pianists needs to remember to breathe too! An obvious point, but occasionally performing can be an overwhelming experience and fear takes hold. Young pianists do sometimes forget to breathe, literally. Alleviate this issue by breathing deeply when practising and perform frequently in front of an audience (or small group). Experience is crucial when learning to play in public.

The more space created generally, without disturbing the pulse, the more beautiful and harmonious the performance. This is a subject worth musing on for any performer because it really can make all the difference.


About the author

Melanie Spanswick
Melanie Spanswick

Melanie Spanswick is a pianist, writer, teacher, adjudicator and composer. She is the author of Play it again: PIANO (Schott) a three-book piano course for students who are returning to piano playing.