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Breathing While Playing Guitar

Unlike wind players or singers, us string folk don’t have to worry much about breathing while we play–except to survive and all that. However, breathing with the music can make a lot of difference in expressiveness and musicality of an interpretation.

The simplest, easiest place to take a breath is before you start playing. Instrumentalists and singers do this all the time and don’t even think about it–so do good conductors! Your breath and the beginning of a piece should be in tempo with it. A good strategy is to think of the opening bars, then keep that tempo in your head. Then breathe on the beat before starting. The next easiest place to breathe would be between big sections of a piece. If you just closed a big section, take a breath before beginning the next. This gives the music some space to relax and sound like an idea just finished before rolling into the next part.

The next step is to start thinking like singers or wind players. Where are the phrase endings? Before the start a phrase is a great place to take a breath. Beyond that, you’ll have to work out what helps you be the most expressive. I tend to breathe very erratically when I really let go and get into a piece, with phrase/section beginnings and endings and with the smaller note groupings as well.

Breathing can also help with some difficult rhythms. I use this trick a lot. When I have a group of sixteenths or other quicker notes where the first 1/4 of the beat is a rest, like this:

picture-10

I tend to do a quick breath on the 16th rest to really give myself the feeling of the downbeat without playing it.

Do you think about breathing while you play? Is it something you plan out?

7 Responses leave one →
  1. 2009 March 3
    Noel permalink

    This topic is very interesting to me. I have a background in martial arts, especially “internal” ones that utilize breath and “chi” in such ways as to maximize results. My initial interest in the martial arts led me into other meditation disciplines such as Buddhist practice, Vipassna,etc.

    The thing that runs through all of these meditation practices (martial and otherwise) is that breath focuses awareness. The thing is that as motion becomes more complicated, awareness becomes difficult to maintain. Thought begins to escalate, and all of a sudden, BAM! , you are right back in the middle of “monkey-mind”.

    Have you ever noticed that if you just stay focused and DON’T think, that playing comes effortlessly, and then the thinking starts and …. mistake! You might be able to regroup, but then you start thinking about making more mistakes and … BANG! mistake again.

    Now in Classical guitar this is much easier said than done. There is so much going on that it takes a ridiculous amount of focus to maintain awareness and not just go through the motions of playing. Sometimes you have two distinct lines going on, rhythm, thinking ahead, etc. Really, good playing (and practicing) is about focused awareness, not just playing around on your instrument – thus the reason why most teachers don’t advocate too much playing in one session and to break up longer practice sessions into smaller parts.

    It seems to me that guitar (and classical music in general)is almost as much a training of the mind (used in a more universal sense rather than ego)as it is a technical exercise involving the fingers. Ultimately, the end goal of playing is unification of the mind and soul through the instrument to the music – the creation of true Art. A goal we can all only strive for. Perhaps a bit off topic and too mystical for some, but it is my approach to music nonetheless.

    Noel

    (note: this was taken from an early Delcamp post of mine)

    • 2009 March 3

      Really interesting, Noel. Some things I hadn’t considered before.

    • 2013 March 29
      Ÿriel permalink

      I cannot even begin to describe how correct you are, in every possible sense; good playing truly is about focus and presence of mind, and I believe this is what separates good players from mediocre. I’ve been playing guitar for about two years now, I would say I have most of the theory, intervals, and the general layout of the fretboard understood, and have a good grasp of most techniques…I am now at the point where I can no longer just play the things that I am working on without having to put in effort, and must become one with the instrument in order to improve myself. It can be very frustrating, especially for me, as I am a thinker and always have been…pondering nature, philosophy, and the cosmos is something of a second language to me, and so is thinking about music and coming up with phrases and passages in my head. Now is the point however where I must, for lack of a better expression, literally learn to free my mind…there have been moments where I feel I’ve succeeded, during which I was able to play complex phrases and melodies I’d never even dreamed I’d be able to, but as soon as I began thinking my success vanished, and now I must learn to control that temporary lapse so that I may channel it…learning an instrument is one thing, learning to become proficient is something completely different, and requires a combination of focus, calm, and understanding which few can attain, and one which greatly develops character and is, in my opinion, a wonderful looking glass and perspective through which to analyze the world and experience everyday life.
      Your comment is not off-topic or mystical my friend, and is probably one of the most pertinent and concise that I’ve seen in years.
      Kudos.

      – Ÿriel

  2. 2011 September 23

    Curious article. I don’t know what my breathing is like, but I feel like I don’t breathe when I play (getting in the zone). Always been curious about setting up some kind of monitors to find out what my breathing and heart rate are doing during a performance. Any idea?

    • 2011 September 24

      You could use something like a heart rate watch to check that. I’m not sure what you would do for breathing.

      Easiest way: make a video. Observer afterwards.

  3. 2011 October 7
    Justis permalink

    While you are playing you should be fully concentrated on that musical piece. I believe thoughts about breathing could act like a distraction during that time. Of course, I have heard that breathing slowly makes you more relaxed and calm. And it can be true: take a several deep breaths before playing to feel calm, exercise yoga in your free time to be more healthier or etc. But it shouldn’t shouldn’t occupy of your brain during performance.

  4. 2012 March 29
    Burak permalink

    Hey,

    I am not a classical guitar player but flamenco. as you all know in flamenco we tend to play more tense then any other style and like this topic i realized that i don’t bread while i am playing. Well now sinds a coupe of days i started running and focusing o my breathing and its starting to come while i am plain also i have to get used to this but my sound still ounds loud and i use less power. So my advice go running but while running try to focus on you’re breathing otherwhi it won’t do any good. run slow and inhale 2 steps and exhale 4 steps.

    I hope this will help.

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