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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Howe


We learn, over many years, to play our string instruments by being taught technical stuff: hand positions, position changing, scales and bowing technique etc. We learn how to combine all these elements together and sometimes, with a lot of hard work and an equal amount of natural talent, all our hard work pays off and we become accomplished string players. It's a slog becoming a good string player because there is so much to learn.

One of the things that I think is most important in learning to play a string instrument is learning how to be relaxed while we are playing. If we feel more relaxed then we would be able to play more freely and naturally and we would enjoy playing so much more. It’s hard to move your bow in a relaxed manner when you feel tense and anxious. I guess if this was talked about more during a string players formative years it would count as a more holistic approach to learning. In general there is more emphasis on this kind of thing these days because wellness and wellbeing are being recognised as being very important for us all. But in the specific context of string playing I don't see it being talked about much. It's something that could be taught right from the start. I’ve come to this conclusion after many years, and I think we can boil it down to one pretty simple thing – we need to learn how to breathe properly when we are playing.

Given that I’m a composer, I decided to try and create a piece of music that was specifically created to show string players, through the way the music is phrased - what they could do to learn how to relax while playing. And it’s all based on breathing.

The piece is called, funnily enough, 'The Air We Breathe'! And it's a short, easy piece written for string quartet in D major. I wrote it to demonstrate the simple idea that we breathe in on the up bow and breathe out on the down bow. We must never hold our breath, but keep breathing, always. We need to create a feeling that our playing always has a sense of forward movement, as opposed to a feeling of being static and tense. When we are playing in any performance, even in the quietest and slowest music, there needs to be this feeling of forward moment. To help ourselves get through these tricky moments maybe we should imagine that while we are alive our breathing never stops, so when we are playing we should concentrate on our need to breathe and keep breathing with every movement of our bows so that we can play in a natural musical way, without anxiety and tension.

In the piece itself there is always a pulse, like a heart beat – one instrument always plays moving crochets. There are suspensions in the music that resolve along with the players ‘breath’, creating a natural flowing feeling. Up and down scales work to create the feeling of breathing as we ascend up and down. Of course in reality you wouldn’t have time to always be taking big breaths in and out when you play. Well you could, but it might be a bit disruptive. On the other hand, better that than not breathing at all and having a miserable time feeling consumed with anxiety. But breathing can be subtle and if you just think about the feeling of always breathing, as you move your bow, then you CAN keep moving your bow!

So what seems to be, on the surface, a pretty straightforward piece of music, 'The Air We Breathe' is trying to say quite a lot. I think personally that it is quite a touching piece. I enjoyed writing it and I enjoyed playing it too.

I've created a YouTube video called "How to stay relaxed when playing a violin..." It deals with the same ideas as in this blog post. At the end of the video there is my recording of 'The Air we Breathe'. The video is on the channel called 'Bazaar Music', the designated channel for The Little Music Bazaar.

If you'd like to watch the video then this is the link:

I hope you enjoyed reading this post and that it makes you think about breathing a bit more while you play! Enjoy!


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