I vividly recall my first exposure to the art of breathing through musical phrases. It was at Merrywood Music Camp in Lenox, MA where I played second violin in a string quartet coached by Boston Symphony Principal violist, Eugene Lehner. The Berkshires nestled cabin that reverberated with Mozart’s G Major chamber offering, K. 387, was the perfect setting for spiritual music-making. To this end, Lehner would “breathe” out separate lines in our four voice choir, making sure we were not playing downbeat to downbeat, but instead “feeling” a horizontal, flowing melodic thread, while we listened attentively to our partners. Before long, we were breathing in counterpoint, emulating many chamber musicians who graced the Music Shed at Tanglewood.
The Beaux Arts Trio (Menachem Pressler, piano) was a Festival featured ensemble that produced well-sculpted, fluid phrases. Audience members, within ten rows of the stage, would experience the ebb and flow of the breath as it was ingrained in the performance.
My most beloved piano teacher, Lillian Lefkofsky Freundlich, coaxed my phrases along by singing over my playing. While there was no specific instruction about the role of the breath in beautiful phrasing, her voice with its rise and fall, had an abounding energy to cadence. (I learned by osmosis to “feel” and produce long, free-flowing lines) Naturally, these were aided by relaxed arms and supple wrists.
As a mentor for many decades, I embrace a breathe into your playing paradigm. Using scales and arpeggios as a basic model, I help students avoid a fall down accent on the very first introductory note. I encouraging them to inhale naturally, and then express air into the first of a bundle of directional notes. These move horizontally with a “lift” that defies gravity. (Leon Fleisher refers to gravity-defying piano playing in one of his Masterclasses)
Most piano students have had little or no exposure to the breathing dimension of piano playing, so it becomes a new cosmos to explore.
By example, the attached excerpt from a lesson in progress focuses on launching scales and arpeggios with breath, direction, and contour.