In the previous article, I talked about how simply concentrating on what you thinking about when playing music will make you a better musician… and you can make the change without even having to play or sing a single note of music. This technique is a practical example of what I’m talking about.
There’s three points that distinguish musical breathing from regular, old ‘staying alive’ breathing.
Musical breathing is an exercise that:
1/. fills the lungs with a volume of air,
(a volume that gets larger the more you practice it);
2/. is preceded by the practice of the slow and steady outward flow of that air;
3/. is in time to a beat (typically, the tempo of the song you are performing).
I am now going to show you a very simple trick that will make you a better, more mindful musician, without you having to do anything musical per se.
introducing breath mapping
Let’s start with singing. First we have to pick a song… but not any song. It has to be a song where you can clearly hear the vocalist’s breathing.
Depending on the philosophy of the music producer, the degree to which you can hear the breathing of a vocalist in a recorded song can vary widely.
For now, I have chosen the first verse and chorus of Adele’s Someone Like You. It doesn’t really matter what you think of the song; or whether it’s in the style of music you want to be in, it’s just an exercise.
So… write out (or copy) the lyrics for the song, and every time you hear Adele take a breath, put in some kind of a mark… for this example, I’ll use a forward slash.
Put on some headphones and/or turn this song up loud; and listen carefully.
What you’ll have is something that looks like this:
/ I heard / that you're / settled down that you / found a girl and you're / married now I heard, that your dreams came true / guess she gave you things / I didn't give to you / Old friend / why are you so shy? / Ain't like you to hold back / or hide from the light / I hate to turn up out of the blue uninvited but I couldn't stay away I couldn't fight it I had hoped you'd see my face / and that you be reminded that for me / it isn't over / Never mind I'll find / someone like you I wish nothing but the best / for you too don't forget me / I beg / I'll remember you said: Sometimes it lasts in love but sometimes it hurts instead / Sometimes it lasts in love but sometimes it hurts instead yeah
What you have before you is a breath map.
Some people have excellent memories. They hear a song, and memorise the lyrics. Many ‘visual’ people––myself included––need to write the lyrics down and see them on paper, to be able to memorise them.
In any case, when you’re choosing a song to study, writing out lyrics in this way––with breaths (where possible) leading the lines––will set up much better breathing habits. Breath mapping your lyric sheets is an excellent way to remind you that there’s more to singing than just remembering words.
Pick a song, write out the lyrics, and mark out where the breaths are. Without doing anything musical, you’re already a better musician; because you are becoming mindful about how and when singers take their breaths.
breath mapping, part 2
The next phase of this process is to breathe along to the song.
Not sing. Just breathe in time to the rhythm…
I’ve tweaked the Adele track even further, and overlaid my (wheezy old) breaths in time to a click track to better illustrate the relationship between breathing and rhythm.
Breathe in with Adele and see if you can steadily exhale over the parts where she is singing. It’s harder than it looks; and you’ll see she is doing some amazing things with her breath control.
NOTE: If you’re not used to breathing exercises, I suggest you sit down.
And, if you begin to feel light-headed… stop!
Breath mapping isn’t something that you necessarily have to get too hung up on, if you don’t want. Just do a few charts and see how you go… there is, after all, no “one right way” to learn music.
And besides, different performances of the same song by the same singer can yield completely different breathing patterns. You can see Adele singing a (slower) version of Someone Like You here, and compared to the album recording, she takes extra breaths sometimes, other times she combines lines with one breath… producing a different breath map.
As talked about in the four stages of competence, this exercise is all about bringing musical breathing out in to the light of your conscious, before going back to doing it unconsciously again.
And once again notice that, you haven’t sung a single note of music.
footnote for guitarists, drummers, etc…
Want a super easy, super effective way to improve your sense rhythm? Of course you do!
Step away from your instrument; play a recorded version of the song you want to master; and simply breathe in time to the music. Quick breaths in on the “four and” part of the beat, followed by slow and steady exhales over the next section. This is a great way of getting your whole body into the rhythm of the song… and it should be incredibly relaxing.
Soloists can also benefit from breathing in-between phrases; especially when improvising. It’s obvious that your playing doesn’t rely on breathing as a singer does; but doing it anyway is a great way of humanising your playing.
If you can read music, or are guitar tab user, your version of breath mapping is to put breath markers in between the musical phrases.
It’s all too common for performers to tense up and take short, shallow breaths… especially when concentrating… and especially when nervous. Entwining the habit of musical breathing into your practice will help you experience the musical moment more fully.