A masterclass on breathing techniques to overcome performance anxiety, and a witty way to answer a curly question to young students.
This week I attended the IRMTNZ Annual Conference in Dunedin. One of the highlights of the conference for me was Bridget Douglas’ masterclass. As a pianist and piano teacher, I have always been interested in how other instruments are learnt and taught, as I find lessons conducted by the top teachers of any instrument often spark inspiration and revelation to my own playing and teaching.
Although I have never met Bridget in person prior to this conference, her name has always been familiar. Bridget is considered as one of the top performing flautists in New Zealand. She is currently the principle flute in the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the Artist Teacher at Victoria University in Wellington. It was a treat to finally see her in action – her exquisite presence, exceptionally good posture and reassuring smile led me to imagine if Disney was doing a live-action movie about classical musicians, she would be casted as the “flute-goddess”.
And of course, one who has met Bridget cannot mention her without remarking on her dazzling head of hair.
In the masterclass, a young student performed a grade 5 piece, “Violetta’s Aria” by Verdi on the flute. The student played with a good deal of musical sensitivity, and it is clear she knew this piece very well. It is never easy however for anyone to get up in front of room full of music teachers and play, and we could unquestionably hear her nerves intermingled into her timid sound.
Bridget explained to the audiences who were not wind players that the breath is everything on the flute. The breath not only determines the length of the sound, but also the quality of the tone – from the biggest sounds down to the subtlest nuances and colours. Therefore, it is crucial any wind player knows how to breathe. Not just any sort of breathing, but deep breathing.
Knowing how to deep breathe, not only help wind players have better control over their instrument, it can also benefit any instrumentalist when it comes to dealing with performance anxiety. Many studies have shown that slow, controlled deep breaths help to alleviate physiological symptoms of performance anxiety, such as an increase in heart rate, as well as emotion regulation whereas short, shallow breathing actually contributes to an unfavourable intensification of these symptoms (see this recent Australian Study).
So now that we all know the importance of deep breathing, how exactly do we do it and what does it feel like?
Bridget had the perfect method:
Now, breathe in, feel the cold air brushing past your lips, then exhale.
Step two: this time relax your lips and inhale. Concentrate on the feeling of cold air brushing past your teeth (ouchies for those like me who have sensitive teeth!), then exhale.
Step three: wrap your lips loosely around your teeth again if you have sensitive teeth and feel the cold air swishing past your tongue this time, then exhale. Can you feel how your breath is getting deeper and longer? Good! You are on the right track!
Step four: repeat step three but focus on the feeling of cold air running down the back of your throat and visualise the air going straight down to your pelvis, then exhale. Now how does that feel? Can you feel the difference between the “teeth” version and the “throat” version?
Step five: now check your upper body posture. How is your posture now? Are you feeling more of an openness across your chest? Are you sitting/standing with a better posture?
I found this to be such an effective way to demonstrate and teach anyone about deep breathing. Once a student knows what it feels like to deep breathe, then ask them to breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, breathe out for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds. This is called “Square breathing”.
On a separate note, a little anecdote I had to share with you… have you ever tried to explain a piece or character to a young student, but the subject of your account is most definitely R16 or R18? In this masterclass, in order to get the student to be more expressive with her phrasing, articulation and dynamics, Bridget had the delicate job of informing the young student the identity of Violetta, our protagonist in the opera. Bridget explained to the student the main character of the piece, who the student is supposed to embody and communicate through her playing, Violetta, is a courtesan.
“Do you know what a courtesan is?” asked Bridget optimistically.
The student shook her head.
I swear I remember Bridget looking around the room with a slightly devious smile (I could have imagined it): “A courtesan is usually someone who is... very free with her love.”
The room burst into laughter.
“A courtesan also has lots of boyfriends, and most of them are very rich men.”
The student smiled.
“In this piece, I think Violetta is singing about how much she would like to be free and not get tied-down. You know, she is not the marrying type!”
Another rupture of laughter from the audience!
So, there you go. If you ever find yourself in the situation where you have to describe to someone a “passionate” character, and they are too young to see Dangerous Beauty, a good word to use is “free”.
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This blog post is by Melody Deng