The Pursuit of Relaxation: Brianne Borden on Music, Yoga, and Balance
Mornings start early in the Arizona desert. Though summer and fall are by far the most torturous, runners, cyclists, and the athletically-inclined start going out before dawn as early as March in order to avoid heat stroke. It’s part of the state’s culture—get up early, be outside, then retreat to the depths of air-conditioned buildings until it’s safe to set foot outdoors again.
Brianne Borden’s mornings start early no matter how warm it is (or isn’t). Her typical morning involves waking up, preparing for the day, warming up her horn and lips for the demands of her doctoral program, going to one of several yoga studios where she teaches morning classes, showering, grabbing coffee, and going to school. She arrives just in time for her trumpet students to meander into her office for their late-morning lessons. (Her afternoons usually involve lots of trumpet playing, classes, and, on some days, more yoga.)
I meet Ms. Borden, a close friend and colleague, for coffee at noon on an eighty-four-degree day in April. Though those in snowy places will envy the warmth, Phoenicians are far from content—the coming week promises temperatures well into the nineties, and the coffee shop just across the street from the School of Music at Arizona State is filled to the brim with musical twenty-somethings grousing about having to put their jeans away for the next six to eight months. With Borden, conversation flows easily; she speaks with such conviction and enthusiasm that it’s obvious why her teaching reaches so many. Though her hair is a fiery red, her spirit is far brighter, and it’s evident in her every word.
Like many classical musicians, Borden grew up taking lessons from private instructors. Her endeavors were aided and abetted by her musical family, and she dove into the realm of trumpet performance, attending SUNY Potsdam for her bachelor’s degree and the University of Colorado at Boulder for her master’s. During this time, Borden played all the classical music she could, from solo work to chamber music to orchestral parts. Though her opportunities (and her available time) to play chamber pieces are scarcer during her doctoral study, she has coached young chamber players and performed in small ensembles whenever possible over the past two years. When we met for coffee, Borden was fresh off the Arizona premiere of Storm Warning, a trumpet quintet featuring intricate section playing and semi-improvisational moments, and looking forward to her next performance with one of ASU’s large ensembles. (Full disclosure: Storm Warning is one of my latest releases.) As always, her week involves lots of yoga.
While the connection between yoga and trumpet may seem tenuous at best to some students of the classical tradition, to Borden it’s as natural as breathing. A dance minor in her undergraduate studies, she began using yoga not only as a stress relief tool but as a way to reduce her risk of injury during her performance career. Her success with this technique has led her to explore how to share her experience with other musicians, particularly brass players, who risk repetitive strain injuries every time they reach for their horns. The result: Finding Your Center, a series of lessons that introduce brass musicians to “a holistic mind-body practice with cognitive and somatic elements” (or, in layman’s terms, honing one’s ability to relax the mind and body with the goal of maximizing performance quality while minimizing risk of injury).
As she’s developed the main tenets of Finding Your Center, Borden has continually tested the content on new musical audiences through hour-long master classes. Her work has reached several institutions already, including SUNY Potsdam, the University of North Dakota, Ithaca College, Arizona State University, Bemidji State University, and the International Trumpet Guild conference. The master class centers around relaxing the breath to reduce anxiety and produce a pure sound without the tension that frequently accompanies brass and wind playing. Borden takes the time to explain exactly how relaxation techniques improve performance, drawing largely from her own experience but making connections with her students in the process. As she walks her audience through several breathing techniques used in yoga, Borden has them apply what they’ve learned, usually by playing a major scale after each method is explained. She typically ends the hour by fielding questions, many of which will inform her future presentations.
Borden’s doctoral dissertation will revolve around the continued development of Finding Your Center, a process she’s already begun documenting on her website. Though she prefers to present her work in person and engage directly with students, Borden has produced three videos to date—an introduction to Finding Your Center and two instructional videos, titled “Foundational Alignment” and “Three Part Breath.” The videos walk viewers through fundamentals of successful yoga (and musical) breathing and posture. In each one, Borden appears as the calm, collected, matter-of-fact instructor her students come to know and love. The in-person presentation is a little more nuanced; the information is the same, but Borden jokes with her colleagues and emanates compassion as she sits onstage. Her professionalism allows her to showcase how effective a teacher she is, but her interest in her peers’ wellbeing is the driving force behind her creative (and pedagogical) output.
On a ninety-plus-degree afternoon just days later, Borden rushes into the music building, out of breath and determined to get to class on time. As she slides into her seat, she shoots me a sideways glance, greeting me with the half grin, half grimace that accompanies most music students into the end of the semester. “Today’s been rough,” she admits. A last-minute call to sub for an early morning yoga class upended her usual routine, and she’d spent the rest of her time since running from the studio to school to home and back again in a desperate attempt to prepare for the school day and be a good mom to her dog, Bailey. Despite the frantic pace of her day so far, Borden relaxes as she settles into the classroom. The lines on her face begin to ease as she realizes she’s returned once more to her normal routine.
Unusual days like this put Borden on edge the most. Like most musicians, she lives and dies by the schedule—“Google Calendar saves my life,” she tells me with a grin—and changing even an hour can throw the entire day into chaos. Her color-coded calendar is full to bursting with classes, lessons, ensembles, and performances, so scheduling things like rehearsals can be next to impossible. “I usually have an hour here or there, but lining that up with other people’s schedules is a challenge,” she admits as she recounts a day spent trying (and failing) to coordinate rehearsals for her upcoming recital. For her last doctoral solo performance, she’s taking the opportunity to create a program of mostly chamber music, and scheduling rehearsals with a brass quintet, another trumpeter, their accompanist, and her cellist brother (who lives in California) has proven almost impossible.
After many compromises and a few rehearsals, though, Borden is optimistic with just over a week to go. “It’s going to be fun!” she exclaims, and looking at her background, it’s not hard to see why. After countless hours at SUNY Potsdam performing chamber music as an undergraduate, Borden’s prowess earned her the brass chamber music teaching assistantship at UC Boulder. She’s taken multiple trumpet ensembles to the semifinal round of the National Trumpet Competition and continues to coach her private students when they have upcoming chamber performances. She is a dependable, passionate soloist and a solid section player, but Borden shines the most in small ensembles. Her skill set allows her to play everything from tonal and modal music to avant garde works utilizing extended techniques, and she doesn’t let what she’s learned go to waste. Her most recent recital included works by Faillenot, Balay, Arutunian, and others—the only pre-Romantic composer on the program was Vivaldi. This willingness to wade into the music of the last hundred years sets Borden apart from the rest of the Arizona State trumpet studio; while many of its members are often content to take the “old boys’ club” mantra a step further to “works by old dead boys,” Borden actively seeks out new and less frequently performed pieces, bringing variety and depth to a repertoire that can get a little too repetitive in the wrong hands.
For now, though, it’s business as usual for the intrepid professor-to-be. Students must be taught, papers must be written, dogs must be cared for, and the end of the semester is looming. Besides performing her own recital, Borden must attend her peers’ performances and prepare her trumpet students for their juries. Free weekends have become a thing of the past, but that doesn’t faze her. Just like the rest of Tempe’s student body, this time of the semester holds one golden promise: summer is fast approaching.
Hundred-plus-degree temperatures don’t sound enticing to most people, whether desert natives or not, but Borden sees the free time as another opportunity to explore. Though her schedule will still be hectic, yoga and trumpet playing have already taught her one of life’s most important lessons: busy doesn’t have to mean stressful. She plans instead to maximize her free time by practicing, sleeping, going to yoga classes, and adventuring with Bailey. One day, a job hunt will be on the horizon, but this summer is for relaxation. She’ll just have to rise before dawn with the rest of her adoptive city and see where the morning takes her. ♦