Tiny Grains of Sand: The Warmup and the Breath

We see past time in a telescope and present time in a microscope. Hence the apparent enormities of the present. Victor Hugo


Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

It is difficult for us to perceive the small, the distant. This is why both telescopes and microscopes are such magical manipulators of the world, devices that strong-arm it into revealing itself. Some things however, aren’t revealed by such physical devices but are instead revealed by the scope of the mind, of reason, of imagination. Getting better at music requires such tools, such perception. What do we need to see that is so small? So distant?

Imagine your musical ability is made up of tiny motes of sand. At birth some minute piles might be slightly bigger (call it “talent” or “innate ability” or “proclivity” if you must) but because the amounts are so small, they can’t be easily seen, and are therefore similar. As you go through life, things you do, the environment in which you live, and your beliefs will add to your teeny tiny pile of musical-ability-sand, one invisible grain at a time (and if you practice incorrectly, you might even be taking tiny grains away from your pile). Research continues to show us that becoming a great musician has little or nothing to do with the pile of sand you start out with. It takes work, a lot of it, and the only way to get that work, the only way to get good no matter your starting point, is to pile it up. This takes effort and time: an ability to trust in tiny increments of progress, and an ability to see distantly, into a future where all that practice has added up to a pile of sand that can be seen, felt, and heard. All that practice and piling up of experience will give you the ability to make music, to communicate musically.

One of the best ways to both remind yourself of some of those grains in your pile of sand, and to add more, is the warm-up. The warm-up is a time to reconnect with the ways of making sound that are specific to your chosen instrument. The warm-up (often no more than 5 minutes), is a reminder to get the body firing in the way it should. The breath is one of the first things I focus on in my warmup becasue it’s so fundamentally important. And since I’m giving a talk on breathing at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival (come say hi if you’re attending), the rest of this post will convey some of that information about taking a good breath. Of course, the breath is also important for percussionists, pianists, and string players (just watch Yo-Yo Ma play, or Glenn Gould, or the fantastic jazz trio Bobby Broom/Kobe Watkins/Dennis Carroll and you’ll see that they breathe with their music). If you’re not a wind player, the following may be less useful, but still interesting.

Because visualization is an important aid to helping us understand how things work, consider the following animations. Here’s how respiration works:

And here’s how the diaphragm muscle works, the muscle that controls the breath, the one your music teacher has probably mentioned:

It helps to know of these things when taking a breath, but also important is exactly how the breath is taken. Specifically, how open the throat is. If you can hear your inhalation, you’re doing it wrong. There’s a simple device called a breathing tube that can be made from an empty toilet paper roll or from a 3/4 inch piece of PVC (teachers: you can buy a 10 foot length for around 4$: makes about 25 tubes). Here‘s my vid explaining how to make and use one. Basically, the device makes you open your throat to take a breath in the way that you need to do if you’re playing a wind instrument. This is especially true for flute and tuba players!

There are 3 stages to the breath. Sort of. The 3 stage-breath is just a device to help understand the process of taking a good breath for wind players. In reality, the steps happen almost simultaneously. Nevertheless, it often helps to break things down until you get it, then piece the pieces together into a coherent whole. Here is the last video on the 3-stage breath. If you practice it frequently, and with a breathing tube, you might want to sit down. If you’re not used to breathing in this way, you’ll be come light-headed and might even pass out. Be careful!

Do some of these slow, considered breaths during your warm up to remind yourself how it’s done. You’ll be on your way to making it an automatic process. Another grain for your pile of sand! Have fun, and good luck with your practice…

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

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