Oooh weeeee I LOVE a request! Wendy wanted me to talk a little more about breathing after a conversation she had with a tuba player. (we won’t tease her too much about that).

First stealthy secret about breathing:

If you hold your breath, you probably don’t know you’re doing it.

I want you to assume you aren’t breathing well when you play. For the sake of solidarity, I will too. Hey everyone, look at Emily! She talks a big game and then doesn’t breathe, herself! Ha HA! Can you say loser?


Second stealthy secret about breathing:

Breathing is not a series of gasps, holds, and deflating noises.

As a college-aged orchestral string player, I would chide my wind and brass counterparts, boasting that I could eat while playing and didn’t have to warm up to hit high notes. A few things came of this: I gained a lot of weight doing all of that eat-playing and the brass players would warm up and then completely drown out my eat-playing self. I learned to really breathe while playing during the summer of 1997. I had a job at Disney in Orlando, and the breathing-optional routine I had gotten into was punishing me under the 135 degree stage lights. I began to feel faint with regularity. I was losing control. During one rehearsal, a French horn player was revising the place she breathed during a phrase, and I decided to pretend I made my phrases with my breath too. I made a little ‘o’ with my mouth (sort of like a looser flute emboucher) and matched my breathing roughly to what my bow did. Although I looked a little weird, I immediately realized how held my breath had been. The dizziness eased, my phrasing and stamina improved, and my belly went from a balloon to a bellows.

Third stealthy secret about breathing:

Holding your breath invokes the downside of the mind/body connection.

Without respiration, all kinds of stuff happens: starved of oxygen in even a mild fashion, the brain diverts function from motor control in favor of staying alive and amusing onlookers with a Technicolor facial display of puce, violet, and perhaps some vermillion if you’re working on Shostakovich. In time, it draws your shoulders up towards your ears, clenches your jaw, curls your toes, and locks your torso to your butt and completely immobilizes you. If you could have previewed the experience of learning the cello and seen that, would you have signed up for a few years of it?

Although failing to breathe tends to be a symptom of the problem, it is the foundation of the solution to the actual issue. Breathing brings you back to your physical being, in stark contrast to the fickle and mostly unproductive mental freak-out playing can turn into.

5 simple exercises to help you breathe

1. Visualize a run through of whatever you’re working on, even if it’s only a few measures.

Close your eyes and hear the sound you want, be accountable for every fingering, every bow stroke, and breathe. (This one comes courtesy of David Aks, who reminded me of this during lunch the other day. I don’t mention him nearly enough around here. He’s a wonderful person and a spectacular cellist/teacher.)

2. Slow down.

No, really. Slow down. That should be the new title of this blog: Slow Down, Speedy! The sometimes slow and never speedy blog of… anyway. We hold our breath when we’re under duress. One of my students describes it as the feeling of plugging her nose and slamming her eyes shut before jumping into a freezing cold pool. There is no duress here! Maybe a little frustration, maybe some scrapes and squawks. Save the fight or flight for real instances of danger. If you slow down your practice to a speed at which you can actually play, you may be able to softly breathe again.

3. Hum.

Play a scale or snippet of your piece and hum along. Don’t worry about the quality of your voice. You probably sing much better than I do, and less frequently! Humming or singing “la la la” along with yourself is breathing. Plus, it begins to suggest appropriate phrasing: something wind players have to contend with that really benefits their musicality.

4. Count out loud.

Talking is also breathing. Plus, counting well makes the entire musical endeavor better. With a rhythmic context laid out in front of you, there is only one place for each note. Even if you struggle to find it, having a limited number of options ends up being freeing.

5. Breathing über alles.

Breathe, no matter what. Sit down to play, feel your guts, notice your normal breathing. Stay with this feeling as you attempt a scale or whatever’s cooking at the moment. Resist the urge to shallow or stop breathing when you see that your bow is skittering all over or your left hand doesn’t know what string it’s on. You are shifting your priorities from playing to breathing, because the goal of this exercise is…


So breathe. It doesn’t take weeks to incorporate it into your playing. It takes a few hours to figure out how to keep your attention on physical phenomena instead of inner landscape mania. It’s a powerful shift, and as it turns out, is important to other aspects of practice as well. Having physical goals is my big thing these days. Today, your only goal is to breathe while vaguely cello-y sounds permeate your practice space. If you do that, it’s been a stellar session. Breathing is not an accessory to solid technique: it allows it to occur in the first place.

Let me know if this helps!

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5 Responses

  1. As a former wind player, I always get a charge out of the fact that we string players can invigorate ourselves with a breath (or two) while playing a long note.

    Breathing deeply by lifting your soft pallet (the soft part in the back of the roof or your mouth)and inhaling partially with your nose makes the air go in really quickly and tends to relax the whole body instantly.

    I use breathing like this to relax specific parts of my playing anatomy.

  2. Like Elaine, I was/am a wind player and find myself breathing my phrases on cello – which works sometimes, but not when there are long held notes! I have to consciously get myself to breathe through those.

    I think it really helped when initially learning about phrasing that I *had* to figure out where to breathe… watching my husband learn cello without a wind playing background made me realise how much it informs the way I still interpret music. I often sing things I'm having trouble understanding, and it helps to no end.

  3. I attended a cello master class given by Lowrie Blake at last year's Dartington summer school. Virtually the first thing she pointed out to every one of us is that we weren't breathing!

    I occasionally record myself playing to get a more objective idea of the sound I'm making. I discovered to my horror that I hum along to my own playing with a sort of tuneless, munchkin squeal, rather like Keith Jarrett, but not so pronounced. Of course, if I played cello like Jarrett plays piano I doubt that anyone would complain.

    Thanks for the book. Do you plan further editions? One thing I noticed by its absence was any discussion of vibrato, which is something that in nearly 10 years of playing I've been unable to master to any useful extent. You could also usefully add the above remarks on breathing.

  4. Thanks for the post! You would think that breathing comes naturally but it is the opposite. I discovered that my impulse to hold my breath kicks in whenever there is a difficult, unfamiliar, or loud section. Sometimes the anticipation of any of the above triggers it as well. Relaxing is HARD.

  5. After I learned how to breathe well while playing, I became rather exuberant, let me tell you! Now, in addition to this stomping habit I have (and work to tame during recordings) I also have some of the Jarrett sighing, too. Alas, my powers of extemporaneous improvisation aren't as magical as his, but I bet our blood oxygen levels are similar! 🙂

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