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.