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.) 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. It is not nearly so helpful when a person is getting ready to perform music or make a speech. Or, for that matter, take a high-stakes test. 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. But, 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 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.
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 get you to do your own research by doing your own counted breathing.
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.
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. Breath deeply and slowly. And breathe smoothly. Make sure it takes all four counts to breath in and the entire four counts to breath out. It seems simple. It is simple. But it works. This is a “mindfulness” meditation. 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. Do this before you do a five to ten minute session as described below.
2. Triangle: Breath 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. Once again, use all four counts for each step..
3. Square breath (my favorite): In four, hold our, out four, hold four, repeat.
For most people twenty minutes is more than enough. Sometimes if I have a big performance coming I will do more than that. People who have compromised lunh 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….
Many people get everything they need out of counted breathing without proceeding to the extended session described next. That is fine. The next section those who want a regular program of breathing to instill calmness and reduce stress generally.
I want to encourage you to explore this, but many positive benefits are available if you haven’t gotten everything prepared for the session described below.
What you will need:
A quiet place (at first) where you will not be interrupted. After you are an experienced “breather” you will be able to do this on the school bus, in the subway, on stage or back stage before a performance or in the hall waiting to be called in to play your solo or to audition. But initially you should begin in a comfortable quiet place.
Some way of timing your session. Sometimes people fall asleep unintentionally when they learn to calm themselves. (Counted breathing can be an effective drug free sleep aid.) You need a sound that will signal you that your session is over that is not truly alarming. There are timed meditation sessions on YouTube that start and end with the sound of meditation bells. It is not necessary to actually watch the video. These bells are an excellent traditional sound for easily ending a breathing session. Some modern phone ring tones which are soothing also work well.
Some people use a soft metronome beat, especially at first. I did not, but it is OK if you find it helpful. Metronome apps can also be found online. Once a person gets a sense of the timing the exact speed of the breath is not important. You can define your own “slow” speed. One beat per second (60 on the metronome) is a good place to start. Some people do, however, prefer to keep the metronome going. Experiment and learn what works best for you.
Before you begin your first home meditation session
Sit or recline comfortably in a place where you will not be disturbed. Have the metronome and meditation timer handy if you intend to use one. It is also possible to have a friend help you count by counting the breath slowly. They can also serve as a timer. Comfortable clothing is good too, but is not required. A counted breath can be effective even when you are in an uncomfortable theater costume, choir robe, tuxedo, or marching band uniform. When you are doing a counted breath each segment of the breath will be four counts long. (For now.) Make sure to think about breathing in lots of air in a relaxed manner. Do not try to force a big breath in, but do think of filling up easily and naturally. Let your body figure out how to get the air in.
A word to the wise: During a timed session you may notice that you are nice and calm, but you have stopped counting and breathing deeply. This is a normal occurrence. Not only is it normal, it can be a good thing. When you notice the counting has gone you may also notice your mind is rather floating in a very good place. This feeling will, if you are laying down, lead to sleep. As soon as you notice it just return easily, effortlessly, and smoothly to your counted breathing.
When you are through, rouse up slowly to give your mind time to transition from your relaxing breathing session to everyday life.
There are advanced techniques that go beyond what is here. These are much better explained in a lesson or a live workshop rather than on paper.
I want to give a big thank you to who ever is sharing this in the UK. It is nice to know that it is sparking some interest outside my circle.