I am a collector of books. I love to spend time at a book store, and I always bring something home to put on my bookshelf. History, fiction, biography. I have a lot of books. I don't always read the books on my bookshelf. Sometimes I just look at them,
The other day, as I was sitting on the floor looking at my collection of books on music, I pulled out a book on practicing, Passionate Practice, by Margaret Elson, that I had purchased in 2008. Still had the receipt in it. No, I had never even cracked the binding! This morning in particular, I pulled it out, opened it up, and enjoyed the first few chapters. Over the next few weeks, I intend to get through the whole book. In the meantime, I can share some of its contents.
For openers, B-R-E-A-T-H-E. Yeah, right there in black and white. When you sit down to play the piano, (or whatever you sit down to do), remember to breathe. I have coached my students to take time to breathe before performing in a recital, or even mid-lesson, and to consciously relax their shoulders. Seems to make all the difference.
Navy Seals use the 4-7-8 breathing technique to calm their nerves and help them focus on the task at hand. Breathe in for 4 counts, hold the breath for 7 counts, and exhale for 8 counts, and repeat. I have found this technique to be quite effective in stressful situations, and I even use it at night to help me fall asleep!
I've also tried box breathing, or 5x5x5 breathing, Inhale for a count of 5, hold the breath for a count of 5, exhale for a count of 5, hold for 5, repeated 5 times. Again, effectively relaxing.
Seymour Bernstein, in With Your Own Two Hands, states that the importance of breathing "in the interpretation of music cannot by overemphasized." He suggests that you practice different breathing techniques as you practice the music, perhaps inhale on one phrase and exhale on the responding phrase. For soft passages, you might try holding your breath. "You will discover that difficult passages are facilitated when you inhale before you play them and exhale as you play them."
Mr. Williams, my 6th grade teacher, used to count to 10, "So help me, Hannah, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10" and then proceed to yell at us for one misdemeanor or another. Perhaps he should have practiced a breathing technique instead; might have made 6th grade more bearable, for all involved!"