What's with the breathing?

"So... What's with the breathing?"

Post-concert, this is one of our most Frequently Asked Questions. It's most often posed by those who are new to chamber music. Recurrent sniffing must come across as a particularly curiosity-piquing part of our voodoo. What on earth could it possibly be for?

To answer this, let's first consider the nature of chamber music itself. I like to think of it as the rock band of the classical genre. Because only one person plays each part, replacing him or her with someone else would transform the group's musical alchemy.

 Case-in-point: think of the original Beatles — John, Paul, George, and... Pete Best. They just weren't the Beatles without Ringo.

Case-in-point: think of the original Beatles — John, Paul, George, and... Pete Best. They just weren't the Beatles without Ringo.

The salient part of this analogy is chemistry. We all know what human chemistry is, and what it isn't. Here's my favorite definition, courtesy of Psychology Today:

"Taken together, the core components of both friendship and romantic chemistry [include] non-judgment, similarity, mystery, attraction, mutual trust, and effortless communication."

Each characteristic the author lists above strikes me as more and more relevant to musical chemistry. (To wit: a few sentences later, she describes the feeling of being "emotionally in-tune," and of "clicking.")

Short answer: the breathing has to do with communication. It's one of the ways we wordlessly communicate musical intent with one another. In other words, it's a tool that helps us shape music together in real time.

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While this all may seem mysterious, I'd like to draw your attention to one of the most staggering mysteries of human nature itself. Specifically, of human evolutionary psychology.

As I love telling my chamber music students: all humans have ESP. I mean this in the sense that we are capable of perceiving information with the mind, and not exclusively through our physical senses.

Don't believe me? Take this test. While taking it myself a few years ago, I felt I was grasping at straws. There seemed to be no way I could correctly guess a stranger's feelings by looking at a picture of their eyes alone, with nothing else to go on — not even the rest of their face. But after completing it, I learned I’d only guessed 2 incorrectly.

I was stunned by the implications of this study. Humans are remarkably adept at reading people's feelings and intentions. Presumably, this emotional intelligence evolved out of the demands of navigating our survival as social beings. While I intellectually appreciate this explanation, it still seems entirely magical to me. (And I like it that way.)

An experience I had as a young professional in a string quartet comes to mind. A mentor took me aside to tell me that I really didn't *need* to look at the other players quite so intensely. Peripheral vision can intuit a lot of the same information without my creepy, bulging-eyed, incessant stare. While those are my words and not hers, she’d correctly intuited my over-scrupulousness by watching me.

Of course, our intuitions about people’s feelings and intentions are often dead wrong. But the fact remains that our ability to read people is remarkable.

When I really want to hone my chamber music students' spidey senses, I have them turn away from each other to eliminate the visual component altogether. They pretend to hate doing this, but I can tell they get a big kick out of it. Cultivating this ESP is one of the top priorities of the chamber musician.

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So yes, we get plenty of information just from looking at each other. Eyes, whole, faces, and body language give us a ton of data. And observing others’ breathing adds an extra layer of information to what we intuit happening with and between those around us.

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One of my favorite events of the year is our annual sightreading party. None of the music has been rehearsed or discussed beforehand. Sometimes, we're playing with people who we aren't accustomed to working with in a chamber music setting. But everyone we invite is capable of some Jedi-level chamber musicianship.

I love that all we have to go on is our chemistry and musical communication. The presence of the audience means we do our best not to stop or have any hiccups. Issues of timing (tempo maintenance, change and relationships; entrances and exits), affect (character; style; mood; volume; tone color), phrasing (shaping ideas, on both the micro and macro level), intonation, and flow (within each part and within the piece as a whole) are all created intuitively and spontaneously.

Normally, these things warrant thoughtful discussion in rehearsal. It goes without saying that they are never fully perfected. And yet, I am always delighted by how cohesive and exciting these completely unrehearsed "performances" can be.

The way each player breathes lends a crucial dimension to the information we read from each other. I can't quite explain it. But then again, I can't explain the eye test, either!

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Some people find musicians’ breathing distracting. Sure, it can sometimes come across as affected. The video below came up in a chat room in which people were bemoaning excessive breathing in the performance of classical music. (Ah, the internet.)

Personally, I have no problem with this. The players are clearly inhabiting the music as intently as possible. Their breathing is congruent with their interpretive choices. And it's clear this was mic-ed extremely closely. Generally, I tend to give loud breathers the benefit of the doubt. (I myself can be a fairly loud sniffer, since I'm almost always a little bit congested; I've definitely been asked to tone it down in close-mic-ed sessions now and then!)

All musicians aspire to reach something transcendent. In yoga, the quickest way there is through pranayama. This Sanskrit word is composed of two parts: prana (life force, or breath sustaining life) and ayama (to extend or draw out). Pranayama:

"... is most often translated to mean ‘mastery of the life force,’ or sometimes, ‘removal of obstacles to free the flow of life force.’”

I can't think of a more poetic way to describe the greatest aspiration of any musician's practice.