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Musicality and breathing

Determining how and where to breathe in a piece of music is challenging. There are musical parameters to guide you. Rhythm, whether the free rhythm of honkyoku or the metered rhythm of folk-song, can be considered as a moving train. The train won’t stop or slow down whilst you figure out how and where to breathe.

So, one has to strategize (musically) to breathe in a way that accommodates the moving train.

In both honkyoku and sankyoku, breathing isn’t arbitrary. There are breathing points that build on the musicality and phrasing of the music in important ways. Often these points are indicated in the scores and can be respected, but they are not the only points where you can, or should breathe. The best avenue for learning when to breathe is to become very familiar with the piece with a teacher, and thus make musical decisions that respect the idiom. Some long phrases simply cannot accommodate a breath for aesthetic reasons, and it’s better to strategize around length of sustain or blowing pressure, rather than break the phrase with a breath.

Often a player will use way too much breath in the first few notes of a long phrase. If you can concentrate on rendering those first notes with 'lean' breath, then the longer phrases will be much more playable.

The old classical koten honkyoku invite space and contemplation. The elegance of the phrasing can be enhanced by careful breathing between phrases. The long diminuendos of honkyoku phrases expire into needle point emptiness (ma). At this point ma is stillness: no breath, no movement, no sound. The diminuendo reverberates in both the player and the listener’s mind. The pause is full of respect, and a breath is only taken just before beginning the next phrase. If a breath is taken directly after a phrase ends, then the elegance and poignancy of the ma is deconstructed. Thus the breath intake can be a part of the music and is considered as such in the honkyoku tradition.

 

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