What is the one topic almost never discussed by violinists that is the essence of being alive? Breathing!
Recently I have been undergoing a life-changing process which I will now bore you with. One of my favourite Youtubers described how taping up the mouth at night seems to have become rather popular and then proceeded to test the technique out. With little more information than that, on a whim if you will, I tried it myself. It seems to have some kind of good effect and improved the quality of my sleep so I decided to explore the topic further, opening a can of worms I was completely unprepared for.
Within days of starting the procedure I read a book called Breath by James Nestor, who intertwines his experiences of researching the topic of nose-breathing as opposed to mouth-breathing and the historical background. For example, he cites research from a scholar who spent his live with tribes and cultures that escaped the pervasive influence of the western world. They all had healthy teeth and few of the most most egregious illnesses such as asthma and diabetes.
Typically, not only was there no mouth-breathing, but there was also a recognition of its dangers. He witnessed mothers gently holding their children’s mouths shut to ensure correct breathing habits were inculcated. The book presents a scary discussion of how the invention of processed food that does not need to be chewed has led to small mouths, overcrowded teeth, a larynx collapsed deeply into the throat and a huge array of sleep disorders as well being linked to a variety of diseases. Human being are the only species on the planet that can actually choke on food.
Furthermore, it seems that these days between 10 and 20 percent of people breathe through their mouths. Unfortunately, the mouth is not part of our breathing apparatus. It simply does not have that function. The nose, apparently, has at least 32 functions it performs while regulating the process of breathing. One of which is producing nitric oxide which facilitates the flow of oxygen into the blood and does a lot of other exciting stuff. I really recommend reading this book and ‘The Oxygen Advantage,’ if you want a handle on this topic. It may be life-altering for you too!
However, I imagine you are asking what this has to do with violin playing?
Well, one other horrifying fact I came across is that the optimum number of times to breathe in a minute is around 5.5. Most of us stressed out moderns breathe far more rapidly than this but are not really taking in much oxygen as we use only the top part of the chest and pushing out too much CO2 which needs to be present for the blood to actually absorb oxygen. Moreover, this type of breathing, done through the mouth, is essentially mimicking the condition of fight or flight when the parasympathetic nervous system is being activated.
This is not the right state to be doing violin practice in. According to the Youtube videos of Patrick McKeown (author of The Oxygen Advantage) the advice "Relax and take a deep breathe," is exactly the wrong advice to give to someone who is nervous, possibly before going on stage. The typical reaction to this advice is to gulp down air through the mouth and stick out the upper chest.
In fact, to relax we need less oxygen with a slower cadence of breathing done through the nose. We need to recognize that all breathing at all times should be through the nose.
Truly world-class athletes train to nose-breathe so that relative to the huge demands they are placing on their bodies they are not panting and out of breath. (One rung down this is not always the case). We violinists too, should be taking great care to nose-breathe during our daily lives. Perhaps try to think about it whenever we can and consciously breathe in through the nose to a slow four count and out for the same or a little longer.
The kicker is we should also try to do our essential daily exercise breathing only through the nose. At first it feels terrible because ones nasal cavities are flaccid and unused, but within a short time it is normal to experience around a twenty percent increase in breathing efficiency. Do more exercise and pant less!
For violinists, in order to do the maximally effective practice and to be able to perform to the best of our ability, those of use who mouth-breathe need to take a serious look at this issue. I am relearning how to breathe at an advanced age (it doesn’t matter how old you are ) but it is hard not to fall into old habits when one is focusing intently on music. So, I am not at all embarrassed to say I will be taping my mouth shut every time I practice. This is not extreme. It matters.
P.S. Here is a useful video on the subject: https://youtu.be/LpK_sbxEcKU.
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