Sunday, October 27, 2013

Just Breathe
Many of my students come to me with breathing problems.  Not asthma, or allergies, or anything like that, but with an inability to take a breath the correct way while holding an instrument.  I watch them ratchet their shoulders to their ears, expand their chest upwards as high as it can go,  constrict their throat muscles until their tendons stand out against their skin.  I would be in pain if I took a breath like that.  They are trying to hard.  They are forcing it.

Now, please don’t get me wrong, their band directors deliver the correct information.  I just seem to be a magnet for students who ignore it or don’t understand how to put the information into practice.  Even after one on one instruction, students still have trouble doing it correctly.  They can recite the breathing process, can explain to me how their body works when they breathe, but then when they try, they still force the air into their lungs the wrong way.
Do that with your muscles flexed!
When forcing something, tension arises.  Our bodies work better when relaxed.  Ever stretched before?  Do tense muscles make stretching easier or harder?  Do you run with all your muscles flexed, or do you relax and let only the muscles work when they need to?

Ever tried to make someone else do something they didn’t want to do?  Teachers know about this.  Parents know about this.  I am sure everyone has experienced the same thing in their life.  The other person pushes back.  Our bodies do the same thing, resisting as we try to force them to do something.

To circumvent the problem of forcing, I will change the subject.  I ask them about their classes, or vacation, or their weekend, or whatever.  I get them talking and they take a break from thinking.  Then, after a minute or two, I ask them to pay attention to how the air moves into their body while they sit there.  I don’t ask them to breathe, I just ask them to notice.
It always works.  They discover that their body knows how to breathe on its own.  The air flows into our body, through our trachea and into our lungs.  The stomach moves as our diaphragm displaces our internal organs.  The chest only moves at the end of a full breath as a result of the lungs lifting against the rib cage.  Our shoulders never move because they are not attached to our lungs in any way.  

Now that they see how it works, they just have to allow their body to breathe the same way with an instrument in their hands.  They have to take advantage of what the body already knows and not force it to do something different.

I have seen this same lesson work in my own life.  Whether interacting with other people or trying to change habits in myself, forcing is never the answer.  Letting go, releasing the tension, and allowing change to happen has always worked better for me.  Think about Star Wars.  How does Luke Skywalker finally use the force (an ironic name for something that requires the absence of force)?  He stops trying.  He lets it work.
I know.  That is Darth Vader.  He is relaxed, too.
My kids always become better players when they learn this important lesson.  They learn that it applies to their fingers and technique - tense muscles don’t move as quickly or smoothly as relaxed ones; their tongues - a thick tongue resists nimble motion; and embouchure - we can never force the reed to vibrate, but we can support it while it does.  

Learning to allow things to happen instead of forcing them develops them as musicians.  The same lesson lesson can help us to be better people.

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