If you’re one of my students, you’ll be familiar with me barking “breathe!” from time to time, or more subtly encouraging respiration with an exaggerated sigh of my own, hoping you follow suit. Although it may seem silly to focus on this elementary stuff while the hands are being asked to do such extraordinary things, breathing is as essential to technique and musicality as it is to staying alive, itself.

Breathing Basics

Physiologically speaking, breathing brings oxygen into the body and flushes out carbon dioxide. The mechanism seems simple: the diaphragm contracts and causes the ribs to move up and out, and from there, the lungs can inflate and do their whole gas-exchanging gig. The lungs cannot inflate on their own, which is something you’ll want to keep in mind as we examine how this process can go wrong for so many musicians.

A quick look at what happens when breathing becomes erratic or held:

The first thing is an accumulation of carbon dioxide in your cells, and a deprivation of oxygen and nitric oxide, briefly acidifying the body’s chemistry a bit. Even after a minute of less-than-ideal breathing, the brain’s cells go into survival mode: if you’re very short on the thing that keeps you alive, the budget gets shifted to the essential functions. So you’re not going to have the same kind of access to higher brain functions and critical thinking you would under normally-oxygenated circumstances. In addition, your muscles and coordination suffer, again, on orders from the brain’s oxygen austerity office. When the priority is baseline survival, the brain shunts all of the body’s resources away from the finer aspects of cognitive function and motor control.

Taking better breath

So apparently when you breathe, your belly is supposed to expand a bit as the diaphragm contracts and your ribcage opens.

Sounds simple, right? Turns out I’d been doing it ALL wrong for most of my life, for two separate reasons.

First off, I was a huge breath holder all the way through my first year of college. I found moments to gasp for air here and there, but I really did engage in some tense, maladaptive breathing as part of my Type-A generalized freak out. I discovered how to breathe as a cellist when I spent the summer at Disney, watching French horn players plan their phrases while the other sections were rehearsing. I realized there were so many different kinds of breath: you don’t have to gasp, or fill your lungs to capacity; it’s possible to take sips of air and expel them slowly, which also slows the heart and has a profound anti-anxiety effect.

The second cause was the intense pressure to look as thin as possible at all times. To avoid the appearance of having any belly at all, I’d tighten and suck in my abdominals when I breathed in, forcing the air up into my chest and neck. Exhales were the moment to relax, and my belly would move outward at that point. Like this:

This tendency is referred to as paradoxical breathing (here’s a video). In extreme cases, it can be dangerous and cause oxygen levels to drop. In cases like mine, it’s just terrible form that can do all sorts of nasty things to the body. What kind of nasty things?

  • overworked and strained ribs, neck, upper back muscles
  • gradual loss of musculature used in proper breathing, leading to feeling out of breath during exertion
  • headaches
  • shoulders that gradually become pulled towards the ears
  • lower back pain
  • digestive and bowel problems as the diaphragm pushes into the abdominal cavity
  • menstrual pain worsened by intra-abdominal pressure

Correcting these tendencies begins with a return to the source: the diaphragm.

Somewhere to start

An easy exercise to strengthen better breathing technique: lie down and place one hand on your upper chest, the other over your belly button. With a gentle inhale, put some air into your belly while keeping the chest still. I don’t use the phrase “fill the belly with air” because this instruction causes most people to engage other muscles to artificially poof out their abdominals instead of using the diaphragm to gently cause the area to rise. We’re not going for a gasp, or for maximum capacity. This is about comfortable, gentle, soft breath. It may take some concentration, but there should be no feeling of work or strain. The exhale is long and slow. The shoulders and chest should not move during ideal technique, but if you’re trying to undo the habit of breathing up into your chest and neck, look for this to diminish over time. If you’re feeling zesty, try a book or two on your tummy for added resistance.

Although the causes vary, most people get into maladaptive breathing as a reaction to stress.

(Here’s one study. Heck, here, have anotherAnd another.)

What’s most interesting is that just as the effects of stress on the mind can cause your body to react, it is possible to exert at least some small measure of influence on the mind by taking control of the body. Instead of mind over matter, it’s matter over mind. 🙂 We can force the pulse to slow, blood pressure to drop, and levels of perceived stress to crater if we concentrate on the right breathing techniques. nb: this is not to say that the source of our stress is not real or worthy of reaction, nor is it commentary or judgement. This is just a tool that might be useful, especially for those of us who have a tendency to

  • stick on memories, ideas, sensations that are worrisome
  • have a hard time feeling like we are allowed to relax
  • punish ourselves for imperfections
  • be super ambitious but can’t turn it off
  • disassociate from or lose awareness of the body, experiencing the world via the mind only

I have no doubt that my thoracic outlet syndrome has been amplified (and was perhaps caused entirely) by shallow, paradoxical breathing patterns. Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that my breathing while playing has been relaxed and diaphragmatic for the last 20 years! But everywhere else? Yep. Right up into the scalenes and upper ribs, which incidentally are the things surgeons remove during the surgery I am considering. When did I do it most?

  • in the car, especially during traffic, extra especially when I was running late
  • when I was in pain
  • during times of emotional stress
  • when I was concentrating, especially during writing
  • screen time, especially when consuming news

So now, I’m working on being conscious of my breathing. I check in at least every few minutes- more frequently when I’m meditating, driving, typing, and going to sleep. I catch myself back in old habits all the time, but like every habit ingrained over the course of a lifetime, the trick is to be patient and curious when confronted by how much you have to unlearn.

In summary: breathing well allows your cells to flourish, your mind to unwind and do higher quality work, and your body to function properly. It is absolutely possible to hurt yourself with something as seemingly innocuous as improper breathing. The breath sets the stage for everything you do!

So that’s part 1. Part 2 will look at the relationship between breathing and musicianship.


Other resources:



gif from Conscious Leap.