You Are Your Instrument: The Power of the Breath, part 1

Earlier this month, I had the joy of partnering in an event at the Spirit and Place Festival, a unique, 10-day long event in Indianapolis exploring the intersection of the arts, humanities, and religion. This year’s theme was “Power.” An ensemble from Indianapolis Women’s Chorus (the chorus I direct) partnered with Shiela Dimof from Santosha Yoga on an event called “Embodied Power: Breath, Voice, Yoga.” It was a yoga class with live choral music, or alternatively, a choral concert where you could also do yoga. It was really rewarding for us as the singers, and I hope the yoga participants had a great time as well!

Here’s an excerpt adapted from our application:

“Breath has power – the power to create life, and to sustain it. It powers speech, allowing us to build bridges of communication. It powers song, that we may express joy and sorrow, love and wonder. Breath powers both shouts of protest and lullabies. By connecting with our breath, we access a deep source of personal power within, which brings us into the present moment and centers us in our selves, allowing us to engage with life from a place of strength and use our breath – our voice, our selves – to power change in our world.”

Powered by the Breath. Alexander Technique for Choral Musicians.

“Embodied Power” ensemble from the Indianapolis Women’s Chorus at the Spirit and Place Festival, singing live for a yoga class!

Singers know that breath has power – in many ways, it IS the thing that powers singing. I often call breath the “engine” of the voice. But breath powers the rest of us, too, and tapping into the centering power of the breath and – importantly – the free use of our breath can have a major impact on general wellbeing.

It goes without saying that breathing is essential to life. Anatomically, your breath is at your center. The primary muscles that move the breath – your diaphragm, deep in the center of your torso, and the intercostal muscles between the ribs – are intimately connected with all the skeletal, muscular, and fascial systems of the body. (You can learn more about how your body moves in breathing from this awesome video by Alexander Technique teacher and Art of Breathing founder Jessica Wolf.)

Neurologically, breath is a deep-brain, semi-voluntary function. You can choose when to breathe, but you can’t choose NOT to breathe. Breathing is one of the first things we do in life, and we do it all the time – even when we’re sleeping.

Problems with breathing tend to start for two reasons. The first is that sometimes, we want to control our breath (perhaps to sing or play a long phrase, a high note, a low note, even to swim). We often think we need to “take a big breath” or use muscular effort in order to do those things. Guess what? You don’t! (read below to explore the idea of the non-doing breath a little more).

The second is poor coordination: when the Use of your Self (your coordination, your “posture”) is out of whack, that malfunction will show up in your breathing. In fact, when F.M. Alexander first began teaching others his methods of psycho-physical re-education, he was called “The Breathing Man.”

Using Alexander Technique to free the breath for great singing!

When I work with individual singers, choirs, and instrumentalists of all types, I often teach a practice from the Alexander Technique called “Whispered Ah.” This simple practice, which can be done anywhere, anytime, can help a person free the breath, coordinate one’s whole Self in breathing, and – because body and mind are not separate – bring a sense of calm centeredness to daily life. In addition to finding Whispered Ah to be incredibly helpful as part of my vocal warm-up process and as a teaching tool to get things moving for the voice, I personally use Whispered Ah when I’m under stress, when I feel mentally sluggish, or when I’m resistant to whatever it is I have to do.

Here’s a little taste of Whispered Ah. I’m going to offer it in two parts, so for now, let’s just see what happens when you notice your breath in a non-judgmental, non-doing way.

  1. Sit, stand, or lie down in a supported, springy, balanced, easy way. Constructive Rest is a great place to observe the breath!
  2. If you’re not already breathing through your nose, close your lips and notice the air moving in and out of your nostrils. See if you can observe it without changing it – don’t try to make the breath deeper, longer, calmer, slower, or anything else. Just observe.
  3. As you notice your breath, allow one of your exhales to lengthen. Again, not to push, stretch, or generally “do” anything, just let the exhalation get longer. Notice what this is like: choosing to use your breath without pushing. If you start to use more effort, stop, and return to a neutral breath.
  4. Notice that there is a slight pause at the end of the exhale, and at the end of the inhale. 
  5. At the end of one of these lengthened exhalations, stop. Wait in that “pause” place without holding, but without taking air in. Renew your springy, easy, supported stance or seated position. When the air wants to come in (don’t worry, it will!) allow the air to return. Practice this waiting and allowing a few times.

Give yourself the time to notice your breath, and see what effect it has on your state of being. We’ll return soon to the actual “Ah” part of Whispered Ah, but you may have noticed a change in your mood, quality of breath, and physical tension even in simply paying attention to your breath in a non-doing way.

We’re heading into the winter holidays here in the US, which can be a stressful time for many (including choral musicians). Whispered Ah is a helpful tool to bring yourself back to center, so that you can enjoy life from a place of calm and ease. Try it! I’d love to hear what you discover.  

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