In “Developing a Technique to Improve Your Talent,” I laid out 6 things that I have been using actively in my teaching to improve my students’ talent.  This post will investigate the first of these, Breathing awareness and control.

“I am so totes aware of my breathing!” you might be thinking, especially if you are a vocalist or a woodwind/brass player.  However, in my experience, there are very few people who are truly aware of their breath.  Breath awareness is not just about being able to breathe in and out and notice it.  It is the ability to do something very complicated and still notice your breathing.  For those who do not use their breath to create the music, it is about using your breath to provide energy and power when needed, and to provide relaxation and smoothness when needed.  I would like to tell you that I can teach you breath awareness and control in this post, but my mother told me not to lie.  I have never met a musician who could teach this skill, much as I would like to say that I have.

The person I learned breath control from was my yoga teacher in Houston, Robert Boustany.  Boustany did not actively teach breath control or awareness, but he constantly reminded us to use our breath to do the stretching.  By falling into a yoga pose on the edge of comfort in an exhale, then breathing in to effect a stretch and relaxing into a deeper pose on the next exhale, breath control became a natural consequence of this work.  I did not immediately notice an effect on my playing.  It took almost a month and a half, until I realized that I had much more powerful breathing.  Yoga had strengthened my diaphragm, and given me much smoother breathing while I was playing.

Are you ready to being learning how to improve your breath control?  OK, a few steps you will need to do in order to make a real difference:

Long-term improvement of breath awareness and control

First, it is important to understand what you will need to do in the long term to truly improve your breath awareness and control


Yes, to make real improvement, you will need to be in shape.  In other words, you need to be able to pump oxygen to your brain easily even when you are resting.  There are many strong opinions out there on what is the best exercise, but I will only limit it to this statement: you must do aerobic exercise, where your heart rate is elevated for 20 minutes continuously.  Do this for 2 months and you will get the benefits that will help you with breath control and awareness.

Do Yoga or T’ai Chi

If you wish to become a guru of breath control and awareness, I strongly recommend you study either Yoga or T’ai Chi for at least a semester, practicing daily and attending classes at least once per week.  Other forms of centering such as Zen meditation, Alexander Technique and so on are all very good for you, but in my experience, the active use of breath in the two practices mentioned are the most directly applicable to the work we do as musicians.  Part of the reason for this is that playing an instrument like cello is intrinsically unbalancing for the body, and so you will need to do something to re-balance the body, otherwise breath control is  impossible when you are doing something athletic like playing very loud and fast because the body is simply too weak.

If you want to understand how breath can be used to direct your attention and expand it, I’d place my money on yoga or T’ai chi.

Short-term improvement

The next ideas are things you can start trying to do right away in order to improve your breath awareness and control.

Learn to breathe down

This is a technique I first learned from a voice lesson.  My teacher had me exhale, and then cinched a belt around my chest.  Thus, in order to avoid asphyxiation, I had to learn how to breathe down into my diaphragm.  A less militant way to learn this is to place one of your hands flat against your chest, and the other flat against your stomach.  Try first to push the hand on your chest away from your body with an inhale.  On the next inhale, try to push your stomach out first, and then push your chest out when the stomach has pushed out fully.  This is breathing down.

When you breathe down first, it provides more oxygen, had an indirect stretching effect on your smaller muscles in the chest, abdomen and back, and helps to strengthen the diaphragm.

Use breathing to split up your practicing

Most people practice in what I consider to be a controlled frenzy.  Pianists are particularly prone to this practicing error because it is so easy to play continuously on the piano.  Basically, this involves playing a passage until you make a mistake and then jumping to the beginning of the passage and repeating it again and again as if you were a CD player trying to play a CD with a large gouge in the surface and anyone listening will start to get a headache almost immediately but to you it feels just fine.  *GASP*

Instead, simply use this system: play until you make a mistake of some kind.  Stop, breathe in fully using what you’ve learned about breathing down, and then breathe out fully.  Resume practicing.

Using that simply formula, I have seen students strip 5-30 minutes of wasted practice time away.

Practice coordinating your breathing with a scale

This one only works for those who do not use their breath to emit sound.

When practicing a slow scale, you can try a few ways of coordinating breath with playing:

1. breathe in.  Exhale and begin playing after about 1/4 breath.  Notice the feeling of playing this way

2. breathe in.  Breathe out.  Inhale and being playing after about 1/4 breath.  Notice the difference

3. Play a slow scale: breathe in, change note.  breathe evenly at the same speed as the note’s length.  If you use a bow, use the entire bow and match your breath to it.  Breathe out on the note change and match the speed to the playing. Don’t do this too often, you may get light-headed.  If you do get light-headed, stop playing, close your eyes, relax, and breathe normally for a minute and you will be fine.

4. The hardest one: play a slow, relaxed scale, breathe slowly and deeply as the body wants to.  Do not attempt to coordinate the two activities, but be fully aware of both.  As you are playing, use the breathing to relax and soften the muscles in the body.

Advanced breath control and awareness

The final level of breath control and awareness is practicing the total awareness of breath.  When I am performing, I am always aware of whether I am breathing in or out, whether my breath is supporting the musical character or assisting me to release my body to perform a complex and difficult passage, or whether it is simply present.  To practice this level of total breath awareness, there is really only one two things that you can do:

1. Learn to breathe down, use breathing to split up your practicing, practice coordinating the breathing with the music

2. Practice slowly so that you can be aware of your breathing while you are also aware of the entirety of the music you are creating.  Your breathing becomes as much a part of the technique of realizing your music as the playing of the instrument.


If you wish to master breathing, expect the process to take you about 2 years to get comfortable, and several more to master it.  This is not a quick fix, but you will start to see results immediately, especially with the use of breathing to split up practicing.

Here is my assignment for the week: choose a passage you have had trouble mastering, and practice it using breathing to split up your practicing.  In the comments below, please reply and describe how the work experience changed for you.

Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed this post.  See you next week with the post on alternative focus points!

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