When I tell non-musicians that I’m studying flute performance at the graduate level, they generally reply with a semi-confused smile. I clarify, “I pretty much play the flute all day, every day. It’s so much fun.” They light up. “Oh wow! That sounds like a blast!”
It is an absolute blast - especially if you take into consideration that “blast” can also mean “to blow up or break apart,” because that’s exactly how it feels sometimes. Creating music involves a lot of self-study and self-criticism. You must be analytical of your tendencies, judge them as beneficial or not-so-helpful, and then be willing to change them without blowing up or breaking apart on the inside. I deeply believe that this ability to self-evaluate makes musicians more accepting, thoughtful, kind humans. But sometimes, when we get stuck in that hyper-aware loop, it can make us really, really anxious humans.
What does anxiety have to do with breathing? Well...
Your breath and your anxiety are directly linked.
I don’t mean that you are anxious because you are breathing the wrong way, or that your clinically diagnosed anxiety can be cured with breath! I simply mean that there is a correlation between the fight-or-flight response of anxiety and the calming effect of slow breath that is worth investigating in your body. There is scientific evidence to back me up, too!
In 2006, this scientific study showed that mindful breathing slowed the breath rate, the heart rate, decreased blood pressure, and gave participants “the experience of alertness and reinvigoration.”
Harvard Medical School recommends deep abdominal breathing and complete oxygen exchange to slow the heart rate and battle anxiety. This article also mentions meditation and yoga. Just sayin’.
Most exciting of ALL! In 2012, a study of 46 musicians found that ONE 1!!!!111!! single thirty minute session of slow breathing could reduce performance anxiety.
Taking deep, slow breaths in the practice room, backstage, or even first thing when you wake up can help to break the hyper-aware loop and bring your brain back to reality.
Your breath and your musicianship are directly linked.
As you exhale, your heart rate decreases. Extended exhales over a long period of time are recommended to slow the heart rate and help you chill out.
If you play a wind instrument, think about this: You take a deep breath, put your instrument to your mouth, and exhale for maybe ten seconds. You’re already doing a breathing exercise, my precious angel friend!!! Just like mental practicing can improve musicianship even while you’re away from your instrument, practicing deep breathing away from the practice room can make your phrasing and breath support more efficient when you get back in there.
If you don’t play a wind instrument, have you ever started a phrase by taking a deep breath? Have you ever been in the middle of a passage and realized that you were holding your breath? Deep breathing causes relaxation which causes clearer thought processes which causes quicker muscle movements which causes better musicianship. I’m sure you get my drift at this point, right?
Have I convinced you yet?
By practicing mindful breathing, you can improve breath support and control and manage your anxiety (and your body’s responses to it). Developing a breathing practice is like rubberizing your insides to protect them from the eventual blast, you know? Yeah, you know. Let’s take some deep breaths together. CLICK HERE for the first video in my brand-spankin-new three-part breathing series.
Note: If your anxiety is debilitating, frequent, or severe, I highly suggest that you take a deep breath - and then call a therapist/counselor. Go to your school’s counseling center. Breathing can absolutely help you in brief situations, but it is not a medical treatment. You deserve life outside of your anxiety. I love you!