Yesterday I was taking a lesson with my Alexander Technique teacher, Eileen Troberman and we spent much of our time working on breathing. She had just returned from a workshop in New York and she was overflowing with enthusiasm for some new things she had learned. Eileen is always working on something new in her understanding of how the body works and moves so I learned long ago to just go along for the ride. I credit my longstanding work with her for most of what I know about playing and teaching the piano with something akin to fluency or ease.
Breathing is such an inherent part of our everyday life experience that we don’t give it much attention until the process stops working the way we think it ought. And since playing the piano doesn’t require an exhalation to create a tone, unlike singing or playing a wind instrument. As a result I have never spent a lot of time thinking about breathing as a technical feature of my work at the piano. Years ago when I was a university music student I discovered that I had a tendency to hold my breath when I was struggling with some really tough technical challenge. In these moments I would also observe that the difficult bit would cause to me tighten up all over, to the point that it seemed that every muscle in my body was absolutely rigid with tension. I have since learned a myriad of strategies to cultivate physical ease in my playing and to counter this impulse toward rigormortis. Still, I rarely think about breathing as part of this process.
On the other side of the coin, there have been some wonderful moments when playing with other musicians when we would find ourselves intuitively breathing together as a single organism. This spontaneous empathic unity almost always creates an absolutely amazing musical experience for both the performers and the listeners alike. Organizing rhythms and phrases around the ebb and flow of breathing seems like such a natural thing to do. So why isn’t this something I think about customarily?
This week I am spending time thinking about these details both at the piano and away. I have learned that there is lot to this business of respiration that I don’t really understand, so I have been simply observing what happens when I breathe. For example, it has taken me some significant mental gymnastics to develop a clear understanding of how the diaphragm moves downward in space as it expands with an in breath. And conversely, that the release of the out breath has it returning upward towards its starting place. Also, it has been surprising to learn how flexible the ribcage is during the whole process, as it expands and contracts with each breath. A fringe benefit of this investigation is that there are few things found in every day experience that will provide as much restorative energy as a period of ten minutes of sitting quietly in order to simply observe your own breathing.