The Breathing Bow and Stage Presence.
(Adapted from an article that appeared in the Strad Magazine in 2002)
I am in a room with fifteen other people in sweat pants. We are in 'balasana'. Our yoga teacher, Pete, is saying 'With each out-breath let the spine untwist, let it release and lengthen....'
Pete has been saying variations on this stuff every week for a year, but this week he comes over to me and lays a gentle hand on my lower back as I breathe out. Just lays it there. I am a thirty-three year old woman in child's pose and suddenly, through his touch, I become aware that movement is 'happening' in my body without my will, without my control. With each out-breath I am getting longer. My arms are moving, my neck has lengthened, and it is then then that I finally begin to understand the relationship between breath and movement.
It's a bit late, but in the months that follow I get excited about breathing. I get excited about Greek and Latin words that mean wind and breath and soul, about the fact that everything, including life itself, once taken in, has to be let go of, about the possibility that breath-work could change a society that is addicted to having and holding, if not the world. We do not move music, I think, it moves through us. Performance is about receiving 'inspiration' and letting go of 'expression', and so, naturally, stage fright manifests itself in hyper or hypo-ventilation - taking in too much or not letting enough go. Most of all, however, I get excited about the connection between breathing and bowing. The in-breath and the out-breath - expansion and contraction - are, I realize, the essence of what we call 'down bow' and 'up bow'. Given that we are always trying to 'sing', our bow arm surely is equivalent to our breath, just as the fingers on the bow are equivalent to the lips teeth and tongue? It's all starting to make sense. Like a zealot I start asking my colleagues whether anyone mentioned breath during their training. Ninety per-cent say no, and that is when I start to write my thesis, The Breathing Bow, and extract of which appeared in the Strad magazine in 2002.
Despite its absence from so many of our instrumental lessons, I have found working with breath to have a profound influence on all aspects of playing: Understanding tension and release in both technique and music, for example, and movement as something organic and free. (Think of the tennis player who makes his preparation - breathing in, then his stroke - breathing out, and then sets the ball - the sound - free.) In particular, however, I have found it to have a profound influence on stage fright. Or should we say stage 'past' or stage 'future' since, as fear can only exist in relation to the past or the future, it is the opposite of stage presence? Observing the breath coming in and out of the body as one does in meditation practice, and extending that observation to the preparation and release of a gesture brings about a state of concentration which not only frees the body but can also clear the mind of the crippling fears and judgements that increase tension and force us to be anywhere but in the present moment. Incorporating breath in to our practice is a way to become embodied, to experience our body as the primary instrument, not the violin or cello, and certainly not our thoughts.
In my own personal and teaching practice I have developed these simple exercises to help connect the breath with the bow-arm. I do them almost every day in some form or other and stage fright has become a thing of the past. In fact, though in my twenties I could never have imagined it thus, performance has become something I look forward to, something spontaneous, easy and natural.
(If you try them please remember that these are only exercises and that I do not recommend anything other than breathing naturally when playing!)
THE BREATHING BOW
PART ONE: FOUR BREATHING EXERCISES BASED ON THE YOGA BREATH
One. (You may find it easier to practice this first lying on the floor.)
1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, arms hanging loosely by your sides. Make sure that the weight is distributed evenly on your feet, not on either edge, front or back and that you knees are unlocked. Allow your belly to be soft. Think about the natural S shape of the spine but do not exaggerate it. Let your shoulders rest on your rib-cage. Check that your shoulders, elbow, wrist and finger joints are all unlocked. Let your neck be long and free. Try not to force anywhere.
2. Inhale slowly and deeply in three distinct stages. a) To the count of three in to the abdomen. Fill the abdomen with air so that it protrudes, as if you are filling a balloon. You can help yourself by gently resting the palm of your hand on your abdomen and pushing the palm outwards as the abdomen fills.
b) To the count of two in to the rib cage, filling it, again, like a balloon. Fill the front, sides and back of the rib cage as it expands. Place your hands gently on the sides of the rib cage and push them out with your breath.
c) To the count of one in to the clavicule.
Now do the same in reverse, emptying first from the clavicule, then the rib cage, then the abdomen.
Make sure your arms are hanging loosely by your sides. Repeat the above exercise and observe what happens to your arms and shoulders as the breath fills the rib cage and the clavicular area. Observe the arms being pushed ever so slightly away from the torso by the sides of the rib cage as they fill with air. They may not actually move in space at all but observe that tendency. Similarly observe how, as the breath fills the clavicular area the shoulders rise very slightly. On the out-breath observe how the shoulders fall very slightly as the clavicular area empties, and the arms fall back towards the torso as the rib-cage and abdomen empty.
Repeat the breathing exercise a third time, This time on the in-breath amplify the movement of the arms by letting them float up and away from the torso. This should be a small movement at first but can become bigger. The most important thing is not to 'do' anything, but rather to allow the arms to float away, never leading but always following the movement of the breath. They should feel almost weightless. On the out-breath observe and amplify the reverse with the arms moving back towards the torso.
Repeat exercise three. This time do not control the out-breath but rather let it be quick, as if you were blowing out a big candle. On the faster out-breath let the arms fall heavily and passively back to your sides, again being led by the fast release of the breath.
PART TWO: THE BASIC BREATHING BOW EXERCISE.
N.B I use the French tirer for 'down-bow' and pousser for 'up-bow'. Push and pull seem to make a little more sense to me.
1. Empty the abdomen in preparation. (I realize this will feel unnatural as is not the usual preparation for playing.)
2. Place your bow on the string at the heel.
3. Breathe in deeply to the count of six, filling the rib cage, and as you do so let the bow arm follow the movement of the breath, allowing the arms to be pushed out away from the torso and thus taking you to the point of the bow.
4. When you reach the point start to exhale slowly, also to the count of six. Let the bow-arm follow, falling back towards the torso and therefore taking you back to the heel. It is important at all times to let the breath lead the movement. Here, for example, the out-breath starts first, and the change of direction in the bow follows naturally.
I give three variations on this exercise here but there are of course an infinite number.
This variation illustrates the natural difference between tirer and pousser. In its natural unevenness it is close to the swung rhythm of baroque and jazz music that we all try so hard to iron out.
Do exactly as in the basic breathing bow exercise, but this time, on the out-breath (pousser) let the arm fall passively and heavily back to the torso (as in breathing exercise three). This will mean a tirer to the count of six and a pousser to the count of two.
This variation is the most 'natural', emphasizing the curve of the bow and the bow stroke. Starting on the out-breath, the bow comes to a natural point of stillness at the middle when the abdomen is empty and, on an in-breath in the second half of the stroke, prepares you for the bow change which, in turn, comes on an exhalation. Observe how this and all subsequent exercises give you natural variations in bow-speed and how the notes you play have natural crescendi and decrescendi, becoming curved and not straight.
1. Breathe in as preparation (and let the bow make its natural preparation in the air with the in-breath)
2. On the tirer breathe out for a count of three. Feel the natural point of stillness at the mid-point, and then breathe in for a count of three as you move towards the point.
3. As before, let the start of the exhalation lead the bow change and on the pousser breathe out for a count of three, feeling the natural point of stillness at the mid-point, and then in for a count of three as you move towards the heel.
Now bring in the left hand. On a scale experiment with changing the pitch when you change the direction of the breath. Really feel the leading/preparation/active quality of the in-breath and the quality of almost passive response of the out-breath.
1. Breathe in for preparation
2. On the pousser play C for a count of three on the out-breath, then D for a count of three on the in-breath.
3. On the tirer play E for a count of three on the out-breath, then F for a count of three on the in-breath.
Play with different ratios of in and out-breath. For example:
1. Breathe in for preparation
2. On the pousser play C for a count of four on the out-breath, then D for a count of two on the in-breath.
3. On the tirer play E for a count of four on the out-breath, then F for a count of two on the in-breath.