When I was a young student, I got into the habit of breathing on the preparatory beat in most performance situations. This stemmed from years of various directors holding the prep until they maintained the attention and focus of their ensembles, and when the ensemble was ready, the director began the piece.
As a musician this did two things:
1.) It taught me that I had only a set amount of time (i.e. the prep) in which to take in air as the ensemble ‘breathed together.’
2.) As I began to take in more air, I was putting an exorbitant amount of tension into my body.
Relaxed Breathing Makes Quality Sound Easier to Produce
Having been a high school band director, I understand from a classroom management setting that these directors were trying to get the ensemble to play the downbeat together, but in doing so were not allowing their musicians to practice relaxed breathing.
A relaxed breath is one that starts first from a relaxed body. While breathing correctly with a tense body is not impossible, it’s certainly much more difficult. There are enough problems getting in the way of younger musicians making quality sounds on their instruments as it is. The last thing you would want to do is to add in something else to make it more difficult for them.
Teaching preparatory beat breathing also instills in students the muscle memory that we should be doing all the time. Think about a long series of rests (or even just two bars) and how you react to breathing when you’re supposed to start playing again. Most likely, if you’re accustomed to breathing quickly on a preparatory beat, you’ll simply do the same thing and take a short, shallow, quick inhale on the beat right before you have to play.
Retraining young students, or older students, to breathe correctly can be very difficult, but is vital to proper sound production. As educators, we must allow the breath to be both controlled and relaxed while still maintaining tempo, meter and time in the performance.
Here is an example of what some younger musicians do by breathing on the preparatory and then what their subsequent breaths look like:
Practice “Long-Meter-Breathing” to Improve Your Sound Production
In my own playing I often refer to ‘long-meter-breathing,’ meaning whatever time (or pulse) you’re performing in is what you should be practicing your breathing in. It is a technique that takes a bit of time to get used to, but will keep the body relaxed and allow you to take the air in slower (and also achieve a better quality of inhalation) while preparing to play. Air is either moving in (inhale) or moving out (exhale). It should never be stagnant or held. Composers put rests in their music for the music to breathe as well as the performers to breathe. The time (space) is there, so take advantage of all of it.
Practice these extended inhales with your student or ensemble the next time you want to work on a focused beginning, while maintaining tempo and time. This will also allow your ensemble members to work on their internal metronome and adjust their ‘long-meter-breathing’ over a series of smaller intervals.
The Importance of Breathing Exercises
While breathing exercises are not the answer to every problem, I have found that improper breathing (and adding tension into the body) is usually the root of what is affecting the student’s fundamentals. While it is possible to perform very musically with tension and be a very technically proficient performer, it simply makes the task of music making that much harder. As educators we need to set every student up for success, and focusing on this one simple fix will help all of our students succeed no matter the skill level.