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Breathing and the Brain

I’m working on the Bach E Major Partita, and it’s significantly difficult for me.  Not so much the notes, although E Major is not the most effortless key on the oboe.  Not so much the music-making, although I could work my whole life on solo Bach and never be perfectly satisfied with my choices, because it’s that complex and THAT good.  No, the problem is breathing, and breathing is always a challenging thing for a wind player.

Oboists can play long, long phrases with ease. The opening in the reed is so tiny that it really rations the air, so we can play longer lines than any other orchestral wind instrument.  It’s also comparatively easy to circular breathe on the oboe, which means that we can actually take in new air while  playing and maintain an uninterrupted line.  The downside is that an oboist can never fully expel her air through that tiny opening.  We end up with excess carbon dioxide in our lungs, and as we breathe in again the new good air stacks on top of the old and we find ourselves in oxygen debt even though we are full of air.  At a certain point, after snatching breath after breath, the oboist has to release all of that bad air with a “Pah!” and gasp and pant until normal lung function returns.  In other words, we can play inhumanly long phrases but really only a few of them in a row before it starts to hurt.

The solution is to take frequent exhales as we play, and frequent small inhales, and occasionally make one extremely long line to amaze and delight the audience.  The long line part is natural to us, but the frequent small outs and ins take some getting used to.

I began teaching a whole new crop of private students recently, after graduating FOUR at the end of last year.  The new ones are all much younger - sixth and seventh graders - and I’m having a great time getting them going.  I was working with one of them on this very skill just few days ago, and my lecture to her reminded me of what I need to work on myself. 

See, I said to her, your brain has a lot of jobs, and one is to keep you alive.  When your brain starts to think that you might be running out of oxygen, it really wants you to stop what you are doing and breathe.  And it is sneaky.  Your brain will make you make a mistake because you will stop if you make a mistake.  Then it gets what it wants, but unfortunately you don’t, because you stopped and now I will yell at you.  Who is the boss of you, you or your brain?

Your task is to learn how to breathe at all the places that you have planned. When you are practicing breathing, work through mistakes without letting them stop you.  Force your brain to learn that you can DO this thing, and that getting a little breathless does not mean that you will die.

Practice a difficult measure, then see if you can get to it and THROUGH it from your last marked breath.  Try it from two breaths earlier.  If you end up uncomfortably out of air or you consistently make a mistake even in a passage you have practiced, you may need to add more exhales or inhales somewhere.  

Every bit of that lecture - which I’ve given before - resonates with me in my current work on the Bach.  And here’s the part that I needed to add in for myself.  This Partita was written for a violin, and as such has few obvious places to breathe.  Although most of the dance movements later in the suite have clear phrase points which I can use to subtly refresh myself, the first movement is four straight pages of sixteenth notes - beautiful sequences and progressions which flow from one to another continuously.  I would love to be able to play the thing from beginning to end without an audible breath.  I would love to be able to elide from one idea to another as I believe it is written.  But the demands of being an actual human cause this to be impossible.  

 Given that I have to take time to breathe at least occasionally, it’s probably better to do it more often and more intentionally rather than making one giant hole in the middle of an otherwise steady run of notes.  I have to choose to phrase more overtly, so that I can truly take a breath or two and not just subsist on tiny sniffs and circulars.  And Bach does allow for that.  I could choose to hurry through sequences, aiming for four or six bars in a single breath, or I could take each micro-phrase on its own terms, letting it react to the ones before and set up the next ones.  This latter approach gives me ample opportunities to breathe - but overusing the technique can become tiresome.   Either strategy can be musically appropriate, and I need both in place to shape the work in a continually interesting manner.   I need to balance my own physical needs with the desire to present Bach’s perfectly structured work perfectly. 

And that is what is hard.  I’m loving the challenge.  But this movement may not make it onto my October recital.  No one will be mad if I wait until Spring? 


  1. I am, as others I am sure, very grateful for the detailed description of the breathing techniques required in playing the oboe. It is so detailed, simplified and with excellent clarity. I truly hope you keep these notes in a safe place because there will be many students in the future who will be grateful and appreciative to read them.(maybe in the form of a textbook, or manual?)
    Going back to the post of “Transcribing Mendelssohn”, I was in awe of the project. For anyone else I would have considered it a presumptuous undertaking; you seem to take it on as a routine challenge. I am not even sure that “good luck” is appropriate here. As you put it in today’s post, you tell your brain to do it and it does it!
    Does it mean that the M violin concerto is already transcribed? It was first on the list. I have one possibly ignorant query. In transcribing a violin partita for the oboe, don’t you have the freedom of modifying the duration of any note, ever so slightly, to accommodate the breathing needs of the performer, and still maintain the integrity of the original phrasing?
    I’ll be looking forward to hearing all. And I’ll be adding the works to the list of….Variations on a theme by Paganini, Listz’s transcription of Rigoletto….
    Best wishes

  2. Hi, Dimitri!
    The Mendelssohn is done, such as it is - at least in the first movement (which I'm playing in October) I know exactly what notes I intend to play and have reworked the unplayable bits to my satisfaction. I admit that I've not made a full transcription in an actual notation program - but I have my plan in place.

    Bach is trickier. You are absolutely right that in a solo piece I can bend and stretch the phrasing to accomodate the air - but to do it in an ideal musical way is the challenge. I THINK at this point that I'll be performing one of the smaller movements in October and saving the BIG Preludio for my Spring recital set, but there's still a little time for me to surprise myself and conquer the thing...

  3. Hello Jennet, I hope you are taking running seriously enough to study the stretching routines and how muscle groups help/inhibit each other: proper running technique MIGHT yield the best understanding and care for woodwind playing. I took-up Tai-Chi awhile back to remedy chronic pain in the back, legs, neck and arms. This is where I discovered that I had been breathing incorrectly for 30 years! I never realized that abdominal breathing is NOT belly breathing, which is just as bad as upper chest breathing.

    Now, American vs. German reeds call for different air strategies, but the breathing itself still works the same in all cases: a matter of correctly using physiology. My sound had always been powerful because I used my entire gut (not so much my rib cage) to pull and push: but this was also wrecking my spine. Now, I have to re-build dormant muscles that expand the rib-cage and support the gut: my "spare tire" is only PARTLY due to needing to loose weight, it is also due to overworked muscles that have overly lengthened for blowing while not being able to perform their postural functions.

    This is beginning to fix now, but for a few months, I felt rather choked doing Tai-Chi or playing oboe because of the weak muscles having to strain while they re-learn their real purpose.

    ... just a word to the Wise and some warning to students.

  4. I have to admit, Robin, that the actual how-to of breathing has never been my focus. Is it possible that I just luckily started out right and stayed right? The downside of this, though, is that when I have students who struggle to understand the concept of Support, or who clearly are breathing inefficiently, I don't always know exactly what to tell them. I experiment with a lot of different words, and some work and some don't...


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