Breathing for Focus and Relaxation – The Happy Rock Way

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Breathing for Focus as taught by Rob Reck at the SWOSU Band Camp

I am writing these instructions to provide a resource for students who have taken my Psychology of Performing Music class at the Southwestern Oklahoma State University Band Camp. We call it the SWOSU (pronounced Swazoo or Swoh-soo) Band Camp. The hope is that this will allow students to do even more with the breathing techniques we learn in class when they return home. I have had many wonderful students and I hear back from them about how they have used what they learned. (I relish this feedback. It is how I learn.) I have gotten request for written instructions as well as an audio or video to provide a guided “breathing” session. It seemed best to do the written instructions first.

For those who have not been in the class, I feel sure printed instructions may not be the best way to learn this. But a lot can be done with just the basics, and a second goal of this piece is to keep it simple. I wish everyone good fortune in learning to balance focus, relaxation, and positive energy by using some simple breathing techniques.


First, a little about the science behind what we do. Some will want to skip down to the how-to section.

The principal behind a relaxing breath is to breath in and out as you count slowly and steadily.  A quick breath, even a deep quick breath, is of little value.   The rational behind this idea is the theory that breathing slowly and deeply at a measured speed turns off the Flight or Fight Response, first described by Walter Bradford Cannon. (You can do your own research about this response and the amygdala, the part of the brain that seems to trigger it.)  An increasing body of research,  (including this study) has confirmed how slow breathing can stimulate the vagal nerve and have a calming effect.

The flight/fight response would be useful if you were actually needing to run away from physical danger (flight) or go into physical combat (fight). Otherwise it just adds stress to our modern life. Your flight fight system gets activated and the physiological results have no purpose.  Flight/fight is not nearly so helpful when a person is getting ready to perform music, take a test, interview for job or make a speech. Or, for that matter, countless other potentially fearful situations that do not require a physical response.  The flight fight reaction does not respond to verbal language. Telling yourself to “calm down” does not work. If someone tells you to “Calm Down!” it can make it worse. Many of us have personally experienced this.

On the other hand,  there is no way that you would  count and breath slowly (and deeply – deep is important) if there was a bear in your cave. And this incongruity (five syllables- Yay!) communicates with your lizard brain (a brain structure called the amygdala)  where flight/fight begins. In short, the theory is that the deep slow breath communicates with the inner brain to convince it to calm down.  While I may have taken liberties in simplifying this explanation, the point is that it works and does not require a long time to learn or any special skill.  Feel free to research the underlying science.

I have seen it work countless times in my performance psychology classes and with individuals. There is research that shows that it works.  However, the point of this post is to encourage you to experience this for yourself.

One last thought: People are different. Some do better with one breathing technique and some with another. This is fine. For most the third technique is the best. But if you like another one better you are not alone. Take what works best for you.  There are also other patterns of counts recommended by other sources.

A word of warning: Do not perform an extended breathing exercise while driving or similar activities.  A breath or two to avoid road rage is fine.

The Basics of Counted Breathing:

Three variations in counted breathing with my names for them…

  1. Two dimensional breath: Four counts in and four counts out. Some people are good with this one and do not need to proceed to the others.
  2. Triangle Breath: Breathe in for four counts, hold four counts, and out four counts. Everything else is the same. You are just gently hold your breath in this one.  Gently use your inhaling muscles to hold still when your lungs are full.   Once again, use all four counts for each step.
  3. Square breath (my favorite): In four, hold our, out four, hold four, repeat.

This is key:  While you are doing counted breathing your mind may wander or otherwise seemingly lose focus.  This is fine.  As soon as you realize it, ever so gently and calmly move back into your breathing pattern.

1.  Notice pattern has stopped.
2.  Calmly and easily start pattern again.

Anything else.   If the pattern stops it is just fine!   Noticing that it has and gently restarting it is a kind of mindfulness.   Even though it may seem that your mind is wandering, your mind will actually eliminate a good bit of stress in the time between when the pattern stops and the time when you restart.

For all of these variations, inhale and exhale deeply and slowly. And breathe smoothly. Make sure it takes all four counts to breath in and the entire four counts to breath out. Focus on that. For many people hit helps to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. Try this and see.

It seems simple. It is simple. But it works. This is a “mindfulness” meditation. Again, if you notice during your session that you aren’t actually counting your breath because your mind has wandered,  just easily move back to the counting and continue. This is true for all the variations.

Think at a slow speed: In, two, three, four and Out, two, three, four. But slowly!!!!  Try two to five breaths and notice how the tension leaves your physical system each time you exhale.  If you in a pressure situation two or three minutes can help, especially if you have done this in more calm setting at home.

For most people twenty minutes is a good maximum.  . Sometimes if I have a big performance coming I will do more than that.

People who have compromised lung or heart function) should consider whether the “out four, hold four” section is right for them.

As an aside, counted breathing works a lot better when you are going to sleep than counting sheep. One of those times when your mind wanders away from the pattern you will fall asleep.

I have edited out the 2nd part of this post.   It just didn’t seem to resonate with people.  If you would like to know more, please contact me by commenting on this blog.  Inquiries welcome.  There are simple things that can be done to make this more effective.


A Few Parting Thoughts – From My Last Concert Program

I wYouCanNeverHaveanted to address the audience at our last concert before I retired. I knew the concert was plenty long and the seats in our school gym were not the most comfortable.  Any more than the most brief necessary remarks seemed inappropriate. So I decided to write it all out and insert it into the concert program.   Oddly, some of the ideas have surfaced in other blog posts I have written since then. I was unaware of this until I re-read.

For the second year I am not getting ready for school at this time of year.   This seemed like a good time to share this with my blog readers. I usually edit, but this is clipped directly from the program file.  Feedback appreciated.


To Students (current and former), Parents, Friends, Relatives, Colleagues, et al,

I have had a lot on my mind as my final year in Broken Arrow draws to a close. I decided it would be a good idea to write some things down rather than spending a long time telling you all about it. I do, however, reserve the right to save a few things to tell you later this evening.

I am so grateful for the love and support of so many people who have made it possible for me to do what I do. My student’s success rests directly on the efforts of so many people who have been their for our students, our school, and for me personally. A good teacher can become a great teacher when surrounded by people who share the same cause.

First, I would like to thank my wonderful family. They have tolerated having a music educator/performer/composer/arranger in the family all these years. Although we are all musical, having the Dad of the house involved in so many musical activities is, I think, especially challenging. Somehow through it all we have managed to raise two amazing children and even find some time for church work and for some travel. The dogs seem happy and healthy too. They have truly been the wind beneath my wings.

I would also like to express my appreciation for the opportunity to work with your children as they have passed through my program these past twelve years. There is no such thing as a perfect school system (or a perfect teacher) but we get a lot of things right here in Broken Arrow. Parents are a big part of this, both in support of their own children and in the school system. The people of Broken Arrow have high expectations of our school system and have been courageous and determined in their quest to insure the availability of a great education for their children.

This includes the support given at the ballot box. Our wonderful new orchestra room is a direct result of sacrifice by parents and, indeed, everyone in Broken Arrow. This room serves both band and orchestra students at Childers Middle School. Some people are very critical of schools these days. When public schools are doing well it is because the people of the community stay involved in a positive way to make sure that the local school does not go down the path to mediocrity. I had a student return to my orchestra after attending school in another district for a time. The first day back she said, “You know all those things teachers say about how good this school is compared to others? Well, it is true.” People of Broken Arrow must not take this for granted. This school system needs you and it will continue to need you long after your students graduate.

I have worked with eight different middle school principals in three middle schools here in Broken Arrow. On the whole, they have been awesome. The administrative team I now work with on a daily basis is top shelf. I really appreciate this. It is not always so. Early in my career I worked with a superintendent that was, after I left that school, arrested and convicted of embezzlement and arson. (No, really.) It is a breath of fresh air to work with administrators who truly care for teachers and students.

Teachers have been under increasing fire, it seems. A lot of times, when we have not been feeling the love, my fellow teachers have been there for each other. It makes a huge difference. I could say more about this, but I have a nice essay called “On Teachers” that is on my blog. (

Now this may seem a little harsh, but someone needs to say it. We continually compete at auditions and contests with orchestras from other schools that are chock full of students who study privately. We have a good number of students who take up private lessons in high school, but by this time they are already behind the learning curve. The combination of individual lessons by a private teacher and playing in a school ensemble is powerful. Students benefit from the one-on-one attention, and they learn both musical and people skills by playing together with others. If students are having success in class lessons should be considered. You do not have to do what we do at our house. My son takes lessons in French Horn, piano, and voice. One or two will be fine. Congratulations if your child is already studying privately. Perhaps you could share the benefits of private instruction with others. Students who do not study privately are still valued orchestra members. But if you would like to provide this for your students be assured that lessons with a good teacher is worth the investment of time, money and gas for the car. In addition to lessons, there are summer opportunities for musical growth. Tulsafest is held at TCC. Summer strings is held right here in Broken Arrow and is an exceptional value.

Quality instruments are also important. A high quality instrument is a true musical and financial investment. Like financial investments, they can be kept for a long time and, in some cases, sold for more than their original cost.

Sadly, too many students who are really good at orchestra leave the program for other things where they do not have the same success. Or, even worse, for things that offer no challenge or growth. It is really hard to catch up after a year out of orchestra, even with lessons. This is a decision that can mean giving up a lifetime of music enjoyment. I have repeatedly seen average students who stick with an instrument become above average students, both musically and academically. I have seen above average students become academic superstars. The decision to keep playing is a little bigger than what to order at Braum’s after the concert. Watching this year after year has been so painful over the years. It is not about “my” orchestra, especially at this point. In fact, since it is not about me at this point, perhaps someone will listen.

I have also seen students leave orchestra to truly pursue excellence in another field. This is awesome. I always tell students who leave orchestra that I expect them to rock whatever they decide to do. One of my former students won a state individual golf championship. Two others paid for college with athletic scholarships, one in softball and one in soccer. So perhaps not everyone should stay in orchestra. But leave for a positive reason. I have had too many students come into my office over the years and literally cry because they wish they had stayed in.

I have one last recommendation for those involved in our orchestra program, regardless of the role they play. Orchestra is an amazing and great thing. Internationally it is the most common professional musical ensemble. Professional orchestras are found literally all over the world on all the inhabited continents. We actually have two professional orchestras here in Tulsa. My advice is this: Be your own kind of awesome. Orchestra offers a unique experience to students that makes it an important piece of the fine arts puzzle. This is a valid experience for students who intend to study music in college as well as those who play for fun. Orchestras make a great range of music. The instruments truly speak to people. If you try to out band the band or out choir the choir or out drama drama department it is a waste of time. We can stand proudly along side those other great organizations best by doing what we do and doing it very well. It is up to all of us, parents, students, orchestra teachers (and former teachers) to let people know about it.

Thanks to everyone for making my time here a great experience!

At this point I think I need to be quiet and let the music talk.