“The bow must be a living thing at all times, and all living things need to breathe” – Steven Isserlis, cellist.
For me, the breath is the thing that binds all of this together. No-wonder it is at the root of so many spiritual practices! It is inspiration and expression, tension and release, taking in and letting go, expansion and contraction. It is not ‘ours’ though it passes through us, and it connects us with ourselves, our bodies and the audience. With all living things. The ocean breathes, trees breathe….It is everything we are and everything music is. When we are aligned and in harmony, we feel as if we are being breathed, just as we can, in performance, feel like the music is playing us. Working with the breath makes and builds these vital connections.
Breathing Bow Exercise One: The Arms’ Response to the Breath
Finding the seeds of movement in bowing.
Stand comfortably with your arms hanging loosely by your side. Breathe slowly and deeply, being aware of the breath filling and emptying the front, sides and back of the rib cage. Bring your awareness to your arms and observe any response they may have to the expansion and contraction. If you feel the movement, amplify it, allowing the arms to float up and away from the torso on the inhalation, and fall back on the exhalation. You may also observe a slight rotation in the arms as you breathe in and out.
Breathing Bow Exercise Two: Cello Wings
Opening the arms out like wings on the inhalation and folding back on the exhalation.
(NB. This exercise is unnatural in one way as we almost never prepare to play with an exhalation.)
Seated with the cello, start at the heel at the bottom of an exhale. As you inhale and fill the rib cage, allow the breath to lead your arm as it opens out like a wing in response to the expanding rib cage. At the tip of the bow, pause and enjoy the tension of the full rib cage. Allow the exhale to lead your arm in folding back towards your body on the return to the heel. Notice the tension as the arms open and the release as they fall back with gravity and amplify this. The down bow will become slower and deeper, and the up bow faster and lighter.
Breathing Bow Exercise Three: The Curved Bow
Using the breath to find the curve of the note and the bow.
Inhale to prepare. Start at the heel with a full rib cage. Exhale for three counts on the down bow and allow the bow to move in response to the release, coming to rest at the end of the out breath (probably somewhere near the balance point). Then inhale for three counts as your arms open away from your body, and your bow to moves towards the point. Let the following exhale lead your bow change, so you exhale for three counts on the up-bow, coming to rest again near the middle, and inhaling for another three counts as you move towards the heel. Always let the breath lead the movement. Observe the difference in bow speed and contact point as you gather and lose momentum.
Finding the breath in the rhythmic pattern.
How we choose to practice depends on the music we are playing. For example: If we are playing a piece in three (the slow movement of Dvorak concerto for example) it is helpful to practice breathing out for two counts, coming to rest, then breathing in for one on both down and up bows. This corresponds to the minim and crotchet rhythm. If we are playing a passage in 4, we may look to see where the impulse, the resting place and the preparation are in the musical shape (after the three if it is a dotted minim and a crotchet or after the two if it is two minims).
Breathing Bow Exercise Four: Vibrato
Using the breath to link up the right and the left sides of the body.
Do the exercises above on a scale and allow the left arm to release and come to rest by your side exactly as the bow arm does on the exhalation. Then, on the inhalation allow the arm to open out (always following the expansion of the rib cage) and notice how the width and intensity of the vibrato naturally mirrors the bow speed.
“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
My teacher, Timothy Eddy, once said to me ‘Ruth, something inside you has to move before you are moved to play.’ In a world where so much is taken at face value, from the outside – in, the breath is a vital teacher, reminding us to be embodied, to live and play from the inside-out.
A desire to make music from the inside-out is growing. I often wonder if it is a reaction to the virtual outside-in world in which so many of us artists find ourselves, and the human and spiritual meaning we long to bring back to the act of making music.
Working consciously with the breath is powerful because we develop a felt sense deep inside the body of the mechanics of movement, of how muscle groups work perfectly together, especially when we change direction (up and down, left to right etc). This felt sense somehow manages to bypass our intellect, which can be a very helpful thing in our learning (or unlearning) process.
Injuries come not from tension, but from lack of life. They occur when things are static. If tension and release were in a healthy relationship, connected to the music and centrally generated in the body, I feel fairly certain there would be no injury.
Have you ever had the feeling when you are talking with someone that they are not listening at all but rather waiting for any cue to jump in with their own point of view? Or do you recognize that kind of non-listening in yourself? And do you sometimes mistake this kind of non-listening for listening when you practice and perform?
Have you ever wondered why so many jazz, world and folk musicians are so relaxed, so chilled? Why their phrases are so often like ripples made from a pebble dropped in water, their movements as natural as the bounces of a skipping stone? I think it is because they are allowing the music to follow its own destiny. Their mind is not constricted by thought and their body not brittle with commands and control. Rather than making the music, they are in a constant state of becoming it.