Musicians as Athletes: Breathing - not just for wind players!

Take a really slow, deep breath. That felt good. (Yeah, I did it too. I can't type "take a deep breath" without also doing it. Just did it again.) Do it again and notice what moves as you inhale. Do it one more time and notice how you feel as you exhale. It's pretty great, isn't it? Deep breaths are freaking magical, and we don't use them nearly enough!

When you are breathing naturally at rest, your basal rhythm of breathing, the diaphragm contracts slightly, causing the dome to flatten. The volume of the thoracic cavity expands, causing a decrease in intrathoracic pressure, which draws air into the lungs. When the diaphragm relaxes, intrathoracic pressure normalizes and air exits the lungs. This is a shallow breath. For a deep breath or forced breath, there is even more going on. The forced breath is one you take when you are exercising or performing an activity that requires you to manipulate your breathing…like singing or playing a wind instrument. Take a look at the following video to see what muscles are working during forced breathing:

Now that you’ve got the visual, let’s do an exercise that’ll help you feel all those muscles working as you breathe:

You probably noticed how good it feels  to take a deep breath. The simple, but also not so simple explanation is that deep breaths stimulate your vagus nerve and thus the parasympathetic nervous system. Stay with me now…

Your sympathetic nervous system is in charge of your fight or flight response and all of the stress associated with it. It’s the gas pedal for your nervous system. Your parasympathetic nervous system helps turn that down. It’s the brake pedal. An oversimplification of sorts, but it’ll serve for the moment. Homeostasis depends upon a balance between the two, but think about how often you feel stressed in a normal day, even mildly. Think about how often you consciously take the time to take a deep breath and balance things back out. Need some inspiration? (See what I did there?)

When you take a deep breath and stimulate the vagus nerve, your brain has at its disposal more of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which increases calm and focus. Stimulating the vagus nerve also lowers your blood pressure, meaning less wear and tear on the blood vessels. Consistent practice with deep breathing (like in meditation) increases brain size, specifically in areas associated with attention and processing of sensory input. Finally, and the coolest one I think, is that controlled breathing can ALTER THE EXPRESSION OF GENES involved in immune function, energy metabolism, and insulin secretion! Are you inspired to inspire?

And here’s a little preview of the next installation of Musicians as Athletes…the deep breath is your BEST FRIEND when it comes to getting over performance anxiety!! But, more on that in the next one!

Cathie Apple1 Comment