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The Musician's Breath: The Role of Breathing in Human Expression

The Musician's Breath: The Role of Breathing in Human Expression

by James Jordan

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Examining breath in its role as the “delivery system” for ideas in musical performance, this provocative book makes a compelling case for the power of submitting oneself to its miracles. The study is divided into two sections—the first discussing the “why” of breathing and the second providing the “how” with practical


Examining breath in its role as the “delivery system” for ideas in musical performance, this provocative book makes a compelling case for the power of submitting oneself to its miracles. The study is divided into two sections—the first discussing the “why” of breathing and the second providing the “how” with practical applications for singers, instrumentalists, and conductors. Unique perspectives on the practice of yoga and other paradigms help to reveal the breath’s potential, ensuring that all musicians—from choral directors to solo instrumentalists—can deepen their understanding of human expression through this simple practice.

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Gia Publications
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The Musician's Breath

The Role of Breathing in Human Expression

By James Jordan, Mark Moliterno, Nova Thomas

GIA Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2011 GIA Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62277-054-0


To Hear the Inaudible

You don't have to justify what is in that space before you speak.

— M. C. Richards in The Fire Within

Inspirit 1. To put spirit, life, or energy into; to quicken, enliven, animate, to incite, stir.

— The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary

I would like to encourage you never sing to anyone, and you certainly never sing at anyone. You do, however, sing for them in the sense that you let them hear what you are thinking. And what you're thinking is what you're re-creating, which has already been thought.

It just gets less and less about you every minute, doesn't it? It isn't about us.... EVER. It's about what we're singing. You should never come out on stage with something to say. They have come to be part of your life.

Now the interesting thing about singing is when we have the need or the desire to make audible this thing that goes on forever. I promise you, technically, ALL you want to think about is inhaling. Just keep the feeling of drawing in the breath while you are singing, and make your thoughts audible. Three things I want you to know today. The first is your mantra for the rest of your life: Hear it; I mean hear it exactly how you want it to be heard in every aspect.

You hear THAT, you breathe into THAT, and you make THAT audible.

— Thomas Hampson
from a masterclass at Westminster Choir College
November 19, 2009

You must work out of your own silence. Not knowing and trusting simultaneously.

— M. C. Richards in The Fire Within

Thus, the story of Adam and Eve is not about sin, disobedience, sex, or shame, but is an attempt to explain the reality of death. The first lesson in this tradition having to do with living the good life is that life, however good, is finite, a limited resource, and that one does not have all the time in the world to discover what it is or how to live it. The first duty of self-awareness, therefore, is the knowledge of the fewness of one's days. (p. 136)

— Peter Gomes in The Good Life

"Would you tell me please," said Alice, "what that means?" "Now you talk like a reasonable child," said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. "I meant by impenetrability that we've had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you'd mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don't mean to stop here the rest of your life."

— Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass

Imaginative people trick their brains all the time. That's how they accomplish their dreams. And brains love it. They're in the game-playing business. They'll play games with you if you don't give them something to do. (p. 1)

Off-stage you are in your own private world. On stage is a public world. To perform, you have to get from one world to the other. Between these two worlds you are nowhere — no longer where you were and not yet where you're going. I call this in-between area "no-man's land." (p. 113)

— Michael Colgrass in My Lessons with Kumi


These are not words that are unfamiliar to any musician. We all use them in our daily teaching, and we certainly have come to some technical common ground (we think) on the role that breath plays in the production of musical sound. But I recently have become fascinated with the other things our breath carries. I have talked about the importance of breath in the musicing process and written about it in a cursory way. But after being forced to take a closer look, I am astounded by the power of breath and the implications for deepening our musicing. I have started to "connect the dots." While I know all of the dots, and have even labeled them in a kind of pedagogical process, a clear and vivid picture has eluded me and, I suspect, many others (including my own students). Aside from carrying the more mundane matters of musicing, tempo, color of sound, and dynamic, breath is a vehicle for so much more if we give ourselves a bit of time to contemplate its miracles and have the courage to empower it.

The late Robert Shaw talked of the silent power of breathing. To paraphrase Mr. Shaw, breath goes in and out of us constantly, even as we sleep. It is never interrupted, and we need to acknowledge that it is, or rather can be, a carrier of the musical idea.

In fact, the point I attempt to make is that it is the only carrier of musical idea and human expression.

The intent of this book is to find common ground in understanding, at least on a basic level, how the miracle of sound becomes bonded to human thought and idea. While thought and human emotion are partly born in one's cognitive thought, those profoundly human emotions and ideas are delivered to audiences by way of sound, but are transported into the sounds we make by our breath. Breath is the DNA of human expression. It is a silent transport system for all that we wish to communicate; it is all that we are. If we give the idea of breath at its most organic level its pedagogical due, our refocused attention on what we breathe into our own breath will for some of us profoundly deepen our musicing and for others begin to open a door to human expression that heretofore has been mentioned but certainly not discussed as a major channel into the complexities of the human soul and its expression in sound.

Great performing artists intuitively know these things presented in these pages. And we all have suspected at times in our own teaching and musicing that these "truths" about breath do exist. But breath and breathing (and their combined inherent power) have not been adopted on a widespread basis as the vehicle by teachers, music educators, conductors, and performers in general. While breathing processes are alluded to in many lessons, the miracles of breath are seldom discussed. Most of us have acknowledged in a passing way that breath is indeed important. But have we ever given breath its due? We understand its necessity perhaps, but do we really understand its power?

This book will not provide solutions, nor will it provide a specific pedagogy for achieving a type of artistic clairvoyance and expressive clarity that I hope to reignite through an understanding of breath. While I have a great and abiding belief in the power of pedagogy and process, the moment that defines artistic creation defies process, and we must accept that as both teachers and performers. An awareness of breath's power to communicate and connect is what I hope to convey and, perhaps, even clarify a bit. I also hope to provide several doors through which you can enter into a deeper expressive dimension, through breath, towards what we all want and deeply desire in our teaching and our doing — that is, to transport those very ideas through the dimensions of breath, which makes us human to those who listen to our message through sound. Such is the stuff of authentic and deeply honest communication.


The Ignorance of Breath

Out of deep breathing issue physical and psychic energies. (p. 17)

— Wilhelm Ehmann in Choral Directing

The building blocks of text, rhythm, and pitch we have been discussing are here woven into one whole: the song itself. The basic unit of the combination is the phrase, the smallest element of musical thought. Just as in the English language, the phrase expresses an idea, and several phrases can make up the equivalent of a sentence or a paragraph.

Phrases begin and end with an intake of breath, and their length is often determined by this physical limitation. Breath is to the singer as the floor is to the dancer. There is no way to escape this human necessity. It is woven into the fabric of all song. (p. 67)

— Alice Parker in The Anatomy of Melody

Mirror Neurons in your mind have "emotional" content.

I must fire your neurons as a conductor and that can only be done through the breath! We have not even begun to discover the treasures in our breath as conductors!

— Weston Noble
at The Westminster Conducting Institute
June 29, 2010

The connections which I want particularly to celebrate here today are those between the inner invisible realm of the "force" and the outer visible realm of the "flower," the inner realm of nature and the inner realm of man, connections between the invisible life of man and the invisible life of the universe, invisible that is to ordinary eyesight. Connections between human beings, between fields of study and work, the fabric of a common spiritual community. Artists are sometimes particularly attuned to these connections, scientists too, mystics too, soul-brothers too. (p. 171)

— M. C. Richards in The Crossing Point

Therefore, the basic trick is in the preparatory upbeat. It is exactly like breathing: the preparation is like an inhalation, and the music sounds like an exhalation. We all have to inhale in order to speak, for example; all verbal expression is exhaled. So it is with music: we inhale on the upbeat and sing out a phrase of music, then inhale again and breathe out the next phrase. A conductor who breathes with the music has gone far in acquiring a technique. (p. 272)

— Leonard Bernstein in Carl Bamberger, The Conductor's Art

Allow me a small digression and a bit of introspection. I have always been deeply concerned, and a bit puzzled, when I encounter musicians (especially conductors) who do not breathe during their musicing. What I hear is music that not only lacks a sonic dimensionality and richness, but also carries a muted or very murky interpretative message. Without the engagement of the breath in the musicing process, the sounds that follow always seem to be a bit labored and thin, and the sounds seemed handicapped and unable to carry meaningful human emotion or to communicate anything to anyone. Moreover, conductors who do not breathe usually are severely limited in the colors they can achieve with their ensembles. In most cases, the sound of those ensembles is monochromatic, robbing the conductors of an expressive device. Changes in style, therefore, can only be accomplished by focusing on articulation instead of articulation and color.

Elaine Brown, my teacher, always asked her students to make music that was "meaningful." As a young conductor, I thought meaningful music was that music born out of intense and sequestered score study — understanding phrase structure, harmonic motion and such. Those elements of a musician's preparation are indeed important. But the meaningful issue is: How does one make one's music making meaningful. M. C. Richards, in her book, The Moral Eye, speaks of the importance of authenticity and honesty in artistic creation. She says she knows that art will live with those characteristics when there is true "spiritual presence" in sound, word, or sight. It seems the challenge for all of us who conduct, teach, and perform is how to ensure that these mystical, almost clairvoyant qualities are in our musicing. Emphasis on the delivery system for all things human does not, in most cases, occupy a significant part of our creative thought, creative psyche, or our creative doing.

In a New York Times2 review of a performance of The Wound Dresser (1988) for orchestra and baritone, the composer, John Adams, is quoted as saying, "In an astute description of the poem in a program note, Mr. Adams calls it the most intimate, graphic and profoundly affecting evocation of the act of nursing he knows of, a text 'astonishingly free of any kind of hyperbole or amplified emotion,' yet filled with imagery 'of a procession that only could be attained by one who had been there." The review continues:

"Bearing the Bandages, water and sponge, Straight and swift to my wounded I go," he sings. As the description of the scene becomes rawer, the music shifts from meditative restraint through restless agitation to controlled intensity. Now and then you hear a consoling battlefield trumpet. The music is driven by Whitman's words, set with a deft blend of achieving lyricism and conversational naturalness. Mr. Hampson brought myriad colorings to his singing — an almost spectral tone to convey the image of blood that 'reddens the grass, the ground,' and the plaintive beauty touched with longing when the poet describes the 'burning flame' he feels as he tends to soldier amputees who dare not look at their stumps. (p. C7)

Given the review above, and the music the composer wrote to carry the text, how then is it that we as musicians arrive at an "interpretation?" How is it that we set about doing what that composer has charged us with? How do we communicate the human message within the text?

All music, if it is worth "doing," carries profound human messages within its words sung or its sounds played. Those messages, when understood by performers and teachers, give interiority to art ... profound human expression. Those messages must be sought and studied both through the words and the notes of the composer. Then after what I refer to as a moment of clairvoyance, where one understands in the most profound human way the "meaning," then it is the job of the performers to transport that message to others.

Many believe that an understanding and "interpretation" of the text is sufficient. I also believed that for many years and used that as my mode of operation. I thought that the sheer act of score study allowed me to somehow, magically, transport the message. What I failed to see was that while my understanding is an important step in the interpretative process, if I do nothing further, then the message is held within me. The experience of the performance in this case would be solely mine. The listener would somehow distill what I had been feeling, but just knowing a translation or "knowing" an interpretation of the words does not magically communicate those ideas to an ensemble or an audience. How does one first have a point of view, and further, how does one convey that point of view?

What I failed to understand for so many years is that the only vehicle for the transport of the deepest and most profound musical idea is breath. After one understands the physical process of breathing, and one understands that breath is taken during a state of intense vulnerability (to be explained in this book), then one must buy into the concept that it is only through breath that human spirit can be transported into the musicing process. Breath is the only way to carry the message. You cannot inflict interpretation of message while executing a phrase. The phrase must be uploaded before any sound is made through and in the breath. Breath transports the idea from conductor to ensemble, and breath likewise transports the idea from player or singer to listening audience. Every breath in a piece must be viewed as an opportunity for expression and transmission of the idea at the moment. You cannot will a musical idea — you must breathe the idea, and then the musicing takes care of itself.

We must hold ourselves to a higher standard as artists to breathe ideas, not just think them. It is your breath that will make your musicing honest, even meaningful. The intention of your breath is far more important than any physical gesture or facial expression. Through your breath, you can achieve and experience musical clairvoyance. If you can recall a musical performance where you felt the music was dull, listless, and its message veiled, most likely you did not empower your breath to do its work. When you overlook the power of the breath, you try to will the sounds you make; you tend to make sound instead of allowing sound to happen. Breaths are taken because they must be taken, but they are never empowered or inspirited. Don't underestimate the power of your breath to transport, transform and, at times, even be redemptive for your expressive lives. Breath, when viewed from this perspective in the musicing process, will refine your awareness and bring you into a deeper, more profound, and more meaningful relationship with the composer's intent.


The Clairvoyant Breath: The Moment Of Choice

Tap into your silence. Listening and receiving ... you are empty in a way so that the impulse has someplace to enter. Let the ear be your main organ.

— M. C. Richards in The Fire Within

For a composition is, after all, an organism. It is a living, not a static, thing. That is why it is capable of being seen in a different light and from different angles by various interpreters or even by the same interpreter at different times. Interpretation is, to a large extent, a matter of emphasis. Every piece has an essential quality which the interpretation must not betray. (p. 225)

— Aaron Copland in What to Listen for in Music


Excerpted from The Musician's Breath by James Jordan, Mark Moliterno, Nova Thomas. Copyright © 2011 GIA Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of GIA Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

James Jordan is a senior conductor at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, where he conducts the Westminster Williamson Voices and the Westminster Schola Cantorum as well as teaches undergraduate and graduate choral conducting. He is the author of Evoking Sound, The Musician’s Soul, and The Musician’s Walk. He lives in Yardley, Pennsylvania. Mark Moliterno is an adjunct associate professor of voice at Westminster Choir College of Rider University. He teaches private voice and yoga lessons for a wide range of students and for educational programs. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey. Nova Thomas is the author of Toward Center. She is an assistant professor of voice at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, is a professor of professional practice and departmental chair at the New School for Drama at New School University (formerly the Actors Studio Drama School), and teaches with renowned actor and Tony Award–winner Denis O’Hare. She lives in New York City.

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