Wind players with too much wind? Is that possible?
Do you ever take a deep breath to play - a really good one, where you can feel your lungs expand all the way around - and then immediately feel like you are about to run out of air?
Have you had a moment of panic in performance when you can feel the sensation of breathlessness setting in and then run out of air even faster than you might have otherwise?
Many famous flutists have taught the concept of only breathing for the phrase, meaning taking in only the amount of air the phrase dictates rather than as much as you possibly can. Of course this makes sense as it creates a natural phrase and enables an organic breath in at the end of the phrase before beginning another.
Only in recent years are we seeing scientific studies that explain why this teaching concept is correct and how we can actually be over-saturated with oxygen. This can even happen (and does frequently for a large number of people) during completely mundane activities like watching tv and sleeping.
If it’s possible to have too much oxygen in our system when we are doing something as inactive as binging Netflix, it stands to reason that we could certainly be over-breathing without even realizing it while playing our instruments.
There is no way to provide the broad picture of how beneficial both efficient, anatomically correct natural breathing and structured breathwork are for all of us in this blog. However, a little knowledge of some foundational basics of breath are important. I really believe that most of us would map how our breath works in the body incorrectly if we had to describe it.
Oxygen keeps us alive. It helps our body circulate many of the nutrients it needs. Breathing, when done correctly, can stimulate the vagus nerve and calm our nervous system (or the opposite if we are truly in danger). Our breath removes toxins from the body, with the big one being CO2. In fact, when you lose weight, you lose most of it in the CO2 of your out-breath.
Amazed yet? Our breath does incredible things in the body on its own when it is working properly. When we take it a step further and practice breathwork techniques like pranayama (one of the eight limbs of yoga) or conscious breathwork we can learn to calm, soothe and ground ourselves. We can even begin to rewrite neural patterns that have been created by traumatic events or just plan bad habits.
Now that we have some background, let’s get back to CO2.
Most of us habitually over-breathe. Check yourself right now: is your mouth open? Are you breathing in and out of your mouth while you read?
Notice if there is anyone around you. Are they breathing through their mouth right now?
When we breathe through our mouths, not only do we miss out on the crucial passage of air through our nose and sinuses, we breathe more and more shallowly. This continued shallow breathing builds up the oxygen in our system and creates not only a lack of CO2, but also an intolerance to it.
A lack of tolerance to CO2 means that as we come to the end of an exhale, hold our breath, or breathe out for a long phrase while playing a wind instrument, we can’t sit with the discomfort of having more CO2 present and breathe in rapidly or immediately.
As wind players, we interact with our CO2 tolerance every day, usually without ever learning about it.
When playing our instruments we are often expelling air to the point of discomfort. In addition, we deal with nervousness, which can cause shallow breathing and bring the discomfort of CO2 intolerance to the forefront.
If we are breathing in more often then we need to when playing or breathing in a fast shallow way when we’re nervous, then we are actively bringing a greater and greater amount of oxygen into our system. In turn, our lack discomfort with CO2 grows.
I think it’s worth emphasizing that CO2 is not just a waste gas, but an important part of the cycle of breath and rejuvenation of the complex systems in our body.
One of the most practical ways to improve our breath control and capacity in our playing is not through fancy breathing exercises, but rather by paying attention to our every day habits and behaviors.
A remarkable number of us are mouth breathers. Again, check right now - are you breathing through the nose or the mouth?
Just by increasing the amount of time you spend breathing in through the nose you can feel more calm, increase your CO2 tolerance, and strengthen the systems in your body that are built around breathing.
Some practical ways you can increase your nose breathing (Please note that I am not a doctor and if you have contraindications like a heart or lung issue, you should talk to your doctor before trying any of these exercises):
These are changes we can implement every day to help ourselves feel more calm, feel more “comfortable” with that low-on-air feeling, and to have a healthier relationship with our breath.
Begin with your daily habits. Awareness is key, and by simply becoming more aware you can create huge health benefits for yourself.
When you feel ready to go beyond the daily habits, there are few basic exercises we can start with to build and grow our CO2 tolerance:
Many professional athletes have seen huge improvements in their performance through breathwork and exercises for CO2 tolerance. Doesn’t it make sense that we might also benefit as wind players who work with oxygen and CO2 every time we pick up our instrument?
I want to include a snippet of my personal experience since I started exploring breathwork in the last year as a testament to the impact it can have.
One of the things I have always struggled with in performance is the feeling of breathlessness. Some of this comes from nervous shallow breathing, which I have done my whole life. That habit was amplified during a period of time when I had a B12 deficiency (which can lead to breathlessness) and created even more subconscious poor breathing habits.
Recently, when I was away for an orchestra festival I used a large hill on the campus where we were staying to build on my nose breathing walks. Every day we had rehearsal over the three weeks, I walked up this (VERY!) steep hill to rehearsal slowly enough that I could continue breathing through my nose. If I started breathing through my mouth or feeling like I needed to, I stopped until I could continue on breathing only through the nose.
Not only did my pace improve (admittedly it started out pretty slow - that hill is big!), but my feelings of breathlessness due to nerves in rehearsal and performance became more manageable and notably different. I was shocked at the rapidity of the change. It certainly inspired me to continue exploring all the many ways breathwork can improve my quality of life and my flute playing.
I hope you are feeling inspired to explore what your breath can do! If you are interested in the topic, I highly recommend the follow books:
Breath, by James Nestor
The Oxygen Advantage, by Patrick McKeown
A Practical Guide to Breathwork, by Jesse Coomer
Let me know - was this all new information? Are you reconsidering how you might approach your breath in play and your daily life?
Hi, I'm Morgann! Flutist, teacher, aspiring yogini, and life long learner figuring out how to create my way through life one crazy idea at a time.