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We received a great question from one of our members in Australia:

I have recently discovered that when I am fully immersed within my playing I tend to breathe irregularly and heavily through my mouth. I am not aware of it in the slightest but my teacher has mentioned that I should find some methods which allow me to improve this distracting habit as it is distracting heavily from my playing. Do you have any advice or considerations towards this or any feedback on what I could do to stop this from distracting from my performance?

We have some wonderful answers below from a few of our ISB VIBs (Very Important Bassists):

Peter-Lloyd-photo-Phillip-Pirolo-500x666As far as breathing goes, it is an ongoing topic for many performers.
Sometimes, if left unattended to, it can be a little distracting from the music.

My approach to it is to keep the issue as simple as possible.
It’s important to avoid breathing in a way that takes attention
away from the music but at the same time I believe it is very
important to maintain as natural and personal a breathing
rhythm as possible.

That said, one’s breathing does naturally change in relation to a
person’s physical exertion and emotional involvement with what
they may be playing in the moment. Playing the bass is of course
much more physically taxing than any of the other string instruments.

I recommend at first, breathing in the same fashion as always but simply
more quietly. I don’t want to force a different and perhaps unnatural way
of breathing for the performing artist. I do recommend closing the mouth
and breathing through the nose. This way can also create unwanted
distraction depending on how clear the nasal passages are.

My long-term and I believe best advice is to train one’s breathing over
time to become less co-dependent with the efforts of playing the bass.

Sitting meditation with simple breathing exercises are the way to begin.
Simply start by exhaling twice as long as you inhale. Perhaps inhale on
the count of two and exhale on the count of four to begin with. Then
move to inhaling on the count of three and exhaling on the count of six.
Then four and eight, then five and ten.

This exercise will discipline the breathing mechanism and create a
more healthy rhythm of breathing for one’s entire life, not just for bass playing.
It also has the profound affect of keeping one in the present. If you continually
return your attention to your breath you will always be returning to the present.

The finest Yoga instructors teach their students to simply breathe normally
while practicing their Yoga asanas. Don’t try to control everything as you
practice, just breathe normally. As one practices the breathing exercises
I have mentioned their normal form of breathing will become more and
more focused and centered and naturally much less distracting while
playing the bass.

Finally, if a person wants to become truly serious about their breathing
then I strongly recommend practicing the limb of Yoga called Pranayama
which is described as ‘the yoga of the breath…’
Practicing Pranayama will not only improve one’s bass playing but will
fundamentally improve one’s life.

Here is a very old anecdote attributed to the ancient yogis of centuries ago.

‘It is said that on the day a person is born the universe gives them a finite number
of breaths to breathe in their life. When that number of breaths is reached that person
passes away and out of this physical world. The mystery is that no one knows what that
finite number of breaths actually is. It simply exists without each of us knowing the exact
number. So…. if one desires a long and rich life then one needs to breath slowly…’

One more piece of wisdom that was passed on to me by a very wise woman.

‘Breathe in and say ‘yes…
….breathe out and say thank you….’

Diana GannettMy short answer:

  • Teach yourself to stop, relax, breathe at the end of a phrase or before starting a piece.
  • Knowing that your muscles (and brain) need oxygen to perform, let this motivate you to consciously breathe from time to time while playing.
  • Practice being aware of breathing during everyday activities.
  • Find a good yoga teacher.

Breathing is intricately connected with mindfulness which is taught in most every metaphysical discipline.   Hatha Yoga and Pranayama Yoga that Peter mentioned are both accessible disciplines with multiple benefits in mind/body awareness and health.

Awareness for most people in the western hemisphere is centered in the head and takes conscious effort, or pain to expand to the whole of the body.  I know this from personal experience in various meditation practices, Yoga, Aikido and Tai Chi.

A Siddha Yoga friend, and accomplished pianist, can maintain breath awareness (Ham-Sah) while performing.  I’m not there yet, but I’m working on it.  By simply developing breathing awareness during everyday activities, this mental focus becomes easier.

Breath awareness is difficult when you’re anxious, so first train yourself to relax while playing.  Before playing take a few seconds to be silent, relax, feel your feet on the floor and breathe out.  Stop and relax frequently while practicing.  You’re probably working too hard in general at playing.  Find the easier way.  Playing should feel good.

At one time, I experimented with breathing with the phrase, as a singer would.   This was interesting in that it helped maintain breathing awareness, but I mostly just hyper-ventilated.

Rhythmic breathing is also practiced in Aikido; breathing in with the attack and out with the release.  It’s very energizing and powerful. I enjoyed it so much, I wanted to apply it to Tai Chi.   However it is not as rhythmically defined and more of a continuous flow.  Simple awareness of breathing is preferred.  As one Tai Chi instructor told me when I asked about this, “Yes, I recommend breathing.”

I teach a very simple Tai-Chi form called Master Ho’s Five Elements.  It provides a laboratory of sorts for combining the multiple levels of mind/body awareness:  relaxation, moving from your core, remembering a sequence of events, imagery of each of the elements (fire, water, wood, metal, earth), flow, balance, breathing, soft-focus and more.  All are skills relevant to performing music and can be strengthened in this way, away from the demands of playing the bass.

One of my students suffers from anxiety when performing.  This is not unusual, but she reasoned that tight anxious muscles need oxygen to relax and perform well – so she reminds herself to breathe.  I found it quite brilliant and useful in my own practice.

So my advice again:

  • Teach yourself to stop, relax, breathe at the end of a phrase or before starting a piece.
  • Knowing that your muscles (and brain) need oxygen to perform, let this motivate you to consciously breathe from time to time while playing.
  • Practice being aware of breathing during everyday activities.
  • Find a good yoga teacher.

Paul-EllisonIt helps me to remember that along with being musical athletes we find our selves on common ground spiritually, emotionally, philosophically and physiologically with those engaged in the marshal arts and body disciplines. The experiential learning gleaned from each of these disciplines/practices/activities is life altering and should be strongly encouraged for all musicians — dare I say — all humans.

After experiencing Judo, Tai Chi, many individual & team sports, Alexander, Feldenkrais, Yoga, Pilates, meditation, physical therapy — and more — breathing as naturally (neutrally/normally — without specify attention or intention) seems most functional.
AWARENESS is the key here and at the very least, a prime driver for the participation in and an internalized understanding of the above.

Bravo to the Aussie for the ‘awareness’ of their breathing & the recognition that it could be a positive endeavor to address the issue.
Here’s an easy 1st step — fully realizing all of the opportunities otherwise mentioned:

  1. Be poised to play an comfortable personal natural mf open D string down bow — check to neutralize body tension and bow hold —
  2. Notice a few (3 or 4) normal inhale/exhale breath cycles —
  3. As you complete an inhale & just as you begin your exhale – initiate a down bow with a relaxed upper body gesture to the right that connects to your bow arm, elbow, wrist, fingers and bow — allowing the bow to start the string (noticing the vibrations of the bow in your fingers) in it’s horizontal oscillation — allow the right arm to complete the gesture led by the upper arm & elbow on the same plane as that of the oscillating string — this motion is completed by continuing to open the elbow & wrist on that same plane —
  4. Repeat this noticing the freedom experienced — when ready, continue by completing the full gesture with a body initiated up bow.

Among the many things attributed to the teaching of Ed barker is the use of ‘air-bow’  These bow less gestures can be great learning experiences.

It is said that the asking of a question initiates it’s resolution.

Do you have a method that works for you?  Share your ideas in the comments area below.  If you have other questions, email us at basssocietychannel@gmail.com.