Musicians' Health Collective

Musicians' Health Collective: Supporting the health of musicians

Stage Fright, Your Sneaky Hypothalamus...And Breathing

As part of my previous post, I talked a little about the nervous system, and how our body creates this "fight or flight" response in reaction to external stresses.  The next question then, is how to keep homeostasis between our stress response and our relaxed cellular repair parasympathetic system?  Last time, I talked a bit about conscious breathing, but let's go back to stage fright first.  I love this Ted Ed video about stage fright, because it tells us things we already know (from performing) but goes in a bit more detail about the hypothalamus, which is a regulator in your autonomic nervous system and a player in "fight or flight."

We've all seen the posters and images that say "just breathe" and whatnot, but there is a touch of truth to that.  Connecting to the quality of your breath is a great way to get control of your autonomic nervous system, which ultimately works independently. 

We've all seen the posters and images that say "just breathe" and whatnot, but there is a touch of truth to that.  Connecting to the quality of your breath is a great way to get control of your autonomic nervous system, which ultimately works independently. 

So this video pointed out some obvious things: preparation is essential, everyone's experience is unique, and your mental state affects your reaction.  Notice how the video ended?  By focusing on the breath.

Bringing mindfulness (of the breath and body) into the music space is an amazing way to start to

a) Become more aware of your breath quality/duration/depth

b) Become more aware of when your body freaks out

c) Start to gain a bit more control of the stress response.

While yoga and meditation practices can be a great way of gaining this experience, the simplest thing to do though is to start noticing how you breathe (short, shallow breaths?  Deep diaphragmatic breaths?  Belly Breaths?)  in day to day life.  Many traditions (Buddhist and non-sectarian) use the breath as a beginning point of awareness, and as a musician who is often under stress daily, this can be helpful. 

If you're in an orchestra and you're a soloist (wind player, section leader, conductor), take the few seconds before rehearsal or during tuning to check into your breath and your contact with the chair.  See if you can settle your energy downwards into your ischial tuberosities (sit bones)  while feeling into your ribs and belly as you inhale.   If you're preparing to speak (either to a class or committee) and you're nervous, do the same thing: begin with your quality of breath as a way of focusing your scattered mind and feel your feet rooted into the earth solidly.  Shallow breath means that less oxygen is in your body, and therefore less oxygen to your brain (and a less focused brain too!).  Another thing- to upregulate and energize, we lengthen our inhalation, if we want to calm the body, we lengthen the exhalation.  Want to learn more about breathing works?  This is also a great Ted Ed video to get started with!  In the upcoming weeks, we'll learn a bit more about meditation and how that practice can help musicians.