On Breath and Tempo

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For the last year or so I have been attending tai chi classes in local parks. I tried it on a whim when I was looking for things to take me away from my screen, and have kept doing it both because it is enjoyable during the session and I always feel good afterwards. It’s good for a sense of balance, both physical and mental.

Recently our teacher, Perry, was making some interesting observations about breath and tempo in the context of the Form (the extended sequence of moves that always features in the last 15 minutes so of the class), and I found myself wanting to reflect on parallels with musicking. Breathing and tempo are, after all, pretty central to our craft too.

In tai chi, breath is always coordinated with movement, whether in the individual qigong exercises or the full form, breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth. There’s an intuitive logic to the patterns once you get accustomed to them; after a while you can figure out quite readily which part of a move invites inhalation and which exhalation.

The first observation that Perry made the other week was that the moves in the Form don’t all take the same amount of time. Therefore, whilst the breath is clearly regulated, the actual pace of breathing is flexible: some moves require shorter (and consequently shallower) breaths, some longer (and thus deeper). This gentle irregularity is clearly part of the aesthetics of the Form, contributing its sense of fluidity, making it feel organic rather than mechanical.

Now, as I have remarked before, breathing for singing is in some ways very different from other modes of respiration. It typically involves much shorter in-breaths, while the out-breaths are extended by the way the valve of the vocal folds measures the air out over the ensuing phrase. (This is why a cleaner tone helps you sing longer phrases.) But we do experience that sense of flexibility and fluidity you get from variability of phrase-length. The musical narrative shapes our experience of breath in much the same way that the composition of the Form does.

(There is a whole separate set of questions about how we experience breath in conjunction with music when we’re playing instruments that aren’t driven by our own lungs. How do string players experience breath in relation to bowing? Do pianists or guitarists or harpists coordinate breath with musical structure at all? Do let me know when you’ve figured out the answers.)

The other thing that Perry was talking about was the overall tempo of the Form. Like tempo in music, there is a range of speeds at which it will work, which are partly dependent on the content of the activity itself, and partly dependent on the internal state of the person executing it. His advice was that it needs to be slow enough that you can be fully aware of what you’re doing, but not so slow that you distract yourself mid-flow.

There’s always plenty to keep your mind occupied while doing the Form – the content of the moves, coordinating the breath, awareness of how you’re rooting your weight into the ground even as you shift it from foot to foot. Go too fast and you won’t have time to consider everything. Go too slow, though, and you’ll leave space for your mind to wander: I’m sure you get some of the benefits of going through the motions slowly while you compile a shopping list, but you’ll certainly lose the dimension of mindfulness.

There’s an obvious parallel here with music, and I particularly noticed it having been feeling somewhat pressured by the existence of metronome markings in the Margarent Bonds piece I wrote about the other week. Defining tempo in terms of the experiential state of playing feels much healthier. I will check in periodically with a metronome to see how my felt tempi relate to the composer’s instructions, but if the tempo at which I can attend to all the details I want to attend to is slower than marked, so be it. Just because a composer specifies a speed doesn’t actually change the feature of a piece music having a range of tempi at which it will make sense.

The other point to note about tempo is that there is a direct experiential connection with the breathing patterns we noted above. Doing the form (or singing the song) too fast doesn’t just mean your mind is skating over the surface without engaging with the whole, but your breaths also become fast shallow as all the movements/phrases take less time to execute. Likewise, as we discover in rehearsal every so often, slowing something down can give the brain more time to work, but there comes a point where it becomes impossible to make the breath last long enough.

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