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Recently, I've started to develop an interest in classical music, specifically chamber music and, more specifically, piano trios. Having listened to a few performances now, I can't help but notice some heavy breathing going on with violin and/or cello players, which I, quite frankly, find utterly annoying. It kind of ruins the performance, for me.

Here is such an example, of the kind of breathing I'm talking about.

What is up with that? Is that really necessary? Forgive me my possible ignorance, but it sounds a bit like posturing to me.

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I find it interesting that the breathing ruins that performance for you more than the shiny velvet suit! – NReilingh Feb 14 '13 at 21:24
@NReilingh Yeah, that's actually cringe-worthy as well. Didn't really notice it yet, as I was listening to it, rather than watching it, while doing other some work on my computer. – Decent Dabbler Feb 14 '13 at 21:35
If you find the breathing in this recording annoying, I am afraid you will find some audible breathing in certain solo cello performances (as well as singing along) unbearable, as there is only one instrument, recorded at close distance. – ogerard Feb 15 '13 at 7:53
I'm not really sure where these close votes are coming from, so I've edited the title to make it a bit clearer. – NReilingh Feb 16 '13 at 14:34

There may be a small amount of "performance practice fad" about that, but for the most part it does serve a purpose.

Breath is used in many styles of music as a cue. If you think about wind instrument players, for example, every phrase is preceded by a breath, and experienced players will take that breath in rhythm. As a rhythmic gesture, it can be used to communicate time between an ensemble of players.

String instrument players don't need to breathe to play, but they still do it for reasons of cuing/communication. Chamber music is often heavily involved in this kind of dynamic cuing, where it's not so much a single conductor leading the ensemble, but the ensemble players showing each other how and when they're going to play a certain phrase, when that phrase occurs in tandem with another player.

Now, I mentioned how as well as when, and that's because the nature of the breath can also communicate the way something will be played. The particular breath you referenced sounded a bit like a nostrils-flared angsty-breath, which would not be out of place given the music that they are playing, though whether it was slightly overdone in that situation is a matter of opinion.

Lastly, the more meticulous of us out there will say that you never want to breathe audibly in a recording scenario, because it'll be picked up by the mics, and if you're a wind player after all you should be breathing through your mouth (in fact audible breathing can be used as a diagnosis for excess neck tension in wind instrumentalists). But, frankly, it's become a bit of an idiom in classical string performance, and audiences like to be wowed by how "emotional" a performance is even if they have no idea how to perceive emotion in classical music.

Personally, I don't find myself bothered by it, as it only tends to fill otherwise empty space instead of interrupting a musical gesture.

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It can be used for communication, as already pointed out - and this certainly seems to be the most cited explanation when you query that of a musician who seems to be doing it excessively! Showing emotion is also a common reason given, that it somehow brings out more authenticity and heartfelt contrast in the piece.


What is up with that? Is that really necessary? Forgive me my possible ignorance, but it sounds a bit like posturing to me.

Despite the above, this is a pretty common perception, and despite the fact people with this opinion seem to be often looked down on by professional string players as if they have no business critiquing their performance in such a way, there is definitely an element of truth to it (in some performances anyway.) When used moderately I have no problem with it at all, but even as a violin player I must admit some parts in some performances, including the above, do sound a little "overdone" in this respect. The same goes for physical movements; I'm no fan of completely rigid performances and indeed I'll do this myself to a certain extent mainly for benefits of communication - but some guys just take it to the extreme, and you're definitely not the only one that can find that off putting!

Having said that, it'd be unfair to say that everyone who seems to be doing this is doing it deliberately - apparently I have a tendency to overly excessively move my eyebrows when playing. No idea I was doing it until a friend mentioned it!

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I have been a string player for many years (Double Bass), and the fact of the matter is that bowing an instrument is a very aerobic exercise, especially at a fast tempo; but, even doing long slow notes is a kin to sustaining a long hum vocally.

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Although an amateur performer, I tend to take deep breaths regularly during concerts/performances, even when just playing little songs at church. These help me to re-focus on the task at hand, and think 'it's a new passage here,' etc.

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The answer to this question depends of course from person to person.

Myself and many colleagues think of the bow to the violin as the diaphragm is to a singer. Like that we talk sometimes about "breathing" with the bow. Not forced rule like bow up = breath in but to phrase a melodywith the bow as if it was air inside the lungs that has to be enough to sing out the phrase with nice legato. If you understand this analogy I would say that the bow sings and the breathing is done by the musician.

Another reason is to give a cue, and there it's exactly the same body breathing/muscles like a pianist or conductor.

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My personal opinion is that when you play a very moving piece like this one, you kind of forget to breathe normally! I know that when I get very into a guitar piece or something, I find that I have been holding my breath because of the beauty of the music. And sometimes it's kind of physically exerting.

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