Once you have assimilated breath control, this useful skill can be added to the smorgasbord of performing tools in your pianist’s ever-increasing armoury, says Melanie Spanswick.
Breath control. It might be a topic more closely associated with singing than piano playing, but developing secure breath control can by a most helpful asset, especially for those who regularly perform.
A ‘deep breathing session’ such as the following can be a beneficial and fun way to begin (or even end) a practice session. I often begin piano courses with this exercise.
- Stand up straight: your feet should be parallel with the width of your shoulders. Knees should ideally be flexible and not at all stretched, so that moving is easy (imagine you are preparing to ski, with the knees in a slightly bent position). Sway from side to side freely, and find your centre by allowing body movement to become smaller and smaller.
- Breathe through the nose and imagine your stomach is filling with air, encouraging the diaphragm to contract downwards (wear elastic or comfortable clothes!). When you take in air, make sure the belly is totally supported, so it can expand fully.
- Hold the air-filled stomach for a moment, then change the breath direction from breathing in to breathing out. Start breathing out by pursing the lips, making an ‘F’ sound, thus allowing yourself to feel a connection between the air-filled stomach and the mouth. Aim to be aware of a pillar of air between the stomach and mouth. Hold this position for as long as possible.
- As you release the diaphragm, the muscles of the stomach will take over, supporting your breathing as the air releases. Watch how the stomach caves in and finish with a ‘shh’ sound, making sure all air has been expelled.
- Then, once again, change direction of your breath, as you repeat this process. When executed correctly, you may feel slightly dizzy to begin with, and if so, take more time and slow down (or stop for a while and try again later). Repeat the process around five times at the most to start with. It should be done rhythmically and with purpose. Breathing out must take longer than breathing in. Breathing in could be considered the passive part of this exercise, and breathing out, the active part (it’s possible to stand or sit whilst doing this exercise).
Once practised a few times, you will hopefully feel a sense of tranquillity by the end of the process. The ‘flight or fight’ instinct will calm sufficiently and this may help alleviate nerves, or at least help to control the rapid breathing associated with nervousness before and during a performance, as well as aiding concentration whilst playing.
About the author
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.