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Portrait of Harry Belafonte, singing, 1954 Feb...

Portrait of Harry Belafonte, singing, 1954 Feb. 18. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Do you play an instrument upon which you can produce sound without breathing?

If you answered “Yes,” I beg to differ!

Listen to the sound. Does it have life? Direction? A core? Does it mean something?


Two students come to mind whose approaches to the piano are relevant to the subject of breath.

One, an adult beginner, usually begins playing so softly that no one can hear it. The includes herself! When I ask her to play out, her response is always the same: “I was just trying it out.”

What is the purpose of that? If you can’t even hear yourself, aren’t you wasting your time? Fear of making mistakes might explain it. If you can’t hear it, you didn’t play it wrong.

But what if you played it right? How would you know?

The other, a college freshman, has been playing for several years. She has good technique, for the most part. She phrases well.

So what’s the problem?

There is an invisible wall between her body and the instrument. She plays only with her hands. The sound is nothing special, because it isn’t convincing.  She is not in charge because she (her body) is not participating.

Bringing the music to life

We all need to sing! This is not my idea alone. Robert Schumann advocated working with singers as often as possible. When I was a student, the pianist Ruth Slenczynska said in college convocation presentation that the piano is categorized as a percussion instrument in orchestra programs. The next thing she said? “My piano sings!

Even if you have never sung in your life, try it! Just close the door if you’re self-conscious.

Benefits of singing

It is only by singing that you can:

  • phrase effectively
  • know when a breath is needed
  • experience the time needed to negotiate large ascending intervals
  • crescendo and diminuendo well
  • ritard enough to be effective but not so much that you run out of air
  • accompany singers
  • play hymns for a congregation
  • truly know your music ~ you should be singing all the parts!

A challenge

Please take a chance! Sing as you practice. Let me know how it goes.

Do you teach your students to breathe?  Why or why not?

Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!