The Pianist’s Breathwork

Playing and Living • Beyond the Notes

Breathwork is a form of meditation that relies on the body, rather than the mind, to do the work of calming. It lowers stress by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system and increasing oxygen to the brain.

Breathing is the first and last thing that we do as humans. And yet most of us breathe in unconscious and restricted ways, leading to dire consequences for our bodies, physical health and emotional wellness.

But as Jennifer Patterson advocates in her brilliant The Power of Breathwork (2020),

“Breathing happens unconsciously all the time, but it can also be consciously and intentionally engaged with. How present you are to your breath is how present you are to your life. By bringing consciousness to the breath you can interrupt automatic responses, reactions, thought patterns, and more.”

During breathwork practice we intentionally focus on and systematically adjust our breathing patterns. Such exercises have been a core element of meditation, yoga (pranayama) practice, and qigong for centuries, but have recently been popularised worldwide by the wellness movement and as a mindfulness technique.

Breathwork is now also recommended by the NHS here in the UK as a tool to overcoming stress. Many find that this practice promotes deep relaxation and leaves them feeling energised.

In this article I am going to consider the value of simple breathwork practice for pianists, explaining how and when it can be a helpful tool, and introducing you to some easy and popular breathwork exercises that you will be able to try for yourself, straight away.

When breathwork is helpful

Proponents of breathwork, ancient and modern, point to many benefits of the practice. Patterson summarises and suggests that among these, breathwork practice can help:

  • increase cognitive function, improve memory, concentration, and sensory processing
  • develop more effective communication
  • lead to an increase in creativity
  • promote a deeper connection with your body
  • address the impact of chronic stress and trauma
  • sustain energy throughout the day
  • improve emotional health, including relief from depression, anxiety and traumatic residue
  • reduce blood pressure and heart rate
  • alleviate physical pain
  • ease feelings of anger and resentment

It doesn’t take much imagination to realise that there are many situations and contexts where as musicians it would be helpful to realise these benefits, for example:

  • before, after, or midway through a practice session
  • when experiencing physical tension during playing
  • when taking a break during a music session
  • before a lesson, performance, exam or audition
  • whenever travelling, or if our sleep pattern is disturbed

As a teacher, I find it beneficial to do a short breathwork practice between students when time allows. The practice has proven, for me, a highly effective way to reset my thoughts, focus, and give better attention to each individual I teach.

A few minutes of breathwork can also be useful at the start of a lesson if working with a student who is anxious or tense. Having introduced a simple breathwork exercise I will then suggest the student arrive early and practice breathwork in the car for a few minutes before coming in.

Using a breathwork app

Several excellent breathwork apps are available, including some which are free. In general these act as timers, signalling when you should breath in and out using sounds and visualisations. The best of them will introduce you to other helpful breathwork practices if you are interested. 

My favourite app is Calm (find out more here), but an excellent free alternative for breathwork is Joachim Nohl’s Breathe • Calm Down • Meditate, which is available for either iOS or Android devices (find out more).

Of course you don’t need an app to breathe, or to practise the exercises that follow. You can simply count time in your head, listen to the ticking of an old clock or set your metronome to 60bpm and it will be fine!

Getting started

Caution: if you have experienced trauma, feel overwhelmed or panicked when practising breathwork or other mindfulness practices, it is advisable to seek the help of a professional therapist or health practitioner.

As a practice which offers so many instant benefits, breathwork couldn’t be more simple. Anyone can access its benefits, anywhere, and any time. No special equipment is needed, nor is the practice itself inaccessible to beginners.

A short breathwork practice can take less than five minutes, and should probably only be practised for 2-3 minutes at first. Breathwork practice can be done on the spot, wherever you happen to be. But it helps to find a quiet place to practice.

Breathwork is best practised daily to build its benefits into your life. However, you can also do an “emergency breathwork” practice whenever you like, experiencing immediate help.

First, make yourself as comfortable as you can. Loosen any clothes that restrict your breathing.

  • Standing: place both feet flat on the ground, feet hip-width apart.
  • Sitting: use a chair that supports your back, place your arms on the chair arms or in your lap, and keep both feet flat on the floor.
  • Lying down: on a bed or yoga mat, place your arms a little bit away from your sides, with the palms of the hands facing upward. Let your legs be straight, or bend your knees so your feet are flat on the floor.

It can be wonderful to practice outdoors, but in any case consider the quality of the air you are breathing. I have given in-depth advice about this important topic in my article The Pianist’s Air (here).

Before starting one of the breathwork practices below, tune into your natural breathing, as follows:

  • Firstly, close your eyes or soften your gaze.
  • Do nothing other than observe your own breathing. The very fact that you are drawing your consciousness inward will begin to calm and centre your mind.
  • Just feel your breathing rather than trying to control it.
  • Try not to be distracted by other thoughts; fix your focus entirely on the breath.
  • Breathe in through your nose. Breathing in through the mouth is generally not good for you, even in moderation.

When you have fully relaxed into your natural breathing, you will sense its own automatic cycle. This is the cycle which you will now begin to control, using the gentle introductory exercises below.

The four stages of each breath

A simple observation of natural breathing shows that there are four stages in the basic cycle. You will soon become aware of them, and basic breathwork exercises focus on varying the duration of each of the four.

The four stages of breathing are:

1. Inhalation: breathing in
2. Compression: holding the breath
3. Exhalation: breathing out
4. Intermission: pausing

In breathwork exercises, the first stage is sometimes split in two, so that the practitioner can pay attention to where the breath is led:

• Breathing into the lung/chest area
• Breathing into the abdomen/stomach area

Three practices now follow.

The first focuses only on inhaling and exhaling without holding or pausing between breaths. The second introduces you to directing all four stages of the breath. And in the third practice, the inhalation stage will be spilt in two so that you can develop your focus and intention further.

Practice 1 • Relax

This first and easiest practice is helpful when your are feeling restless, anxious or overwhelmed. Taking in a deep breath followed straight away by a longer exhalation reduces stress by slowing the heart rate and relaxing the nerves.

For the pianist, the practice is useful midway through a piano practice session, recording or when taking a break from administration or computer work.

4 counts: Inhale deeply through the nose and into the abdomen/stomach. Imagine healing light entering your belly.

6 counts: Exhale slowly through the mouth, with lips pursed as though blowing out a candle. Visualise dark smoke leaving with the out breath.

Practice 2 • Focus

This exercise is one of the most popular breathwork exercises, sometimes called box breath or four-square breathing. It will help you to improve your performance, sharpen concentration and reduce stress.

For the pianist, it is the perfect breathwork exercise to use before a lesson, exam, or performance.

4 counts: Inhale slowly through the nose, noticing both your chest and abdomen expand. 

4 counts: Pause at the top of your inhale; try not to tense as you hold your breathe for a few moments.

4 counts: Gently exhale through the nose, releasing your breath without force.

4 counts: Pause again, resting before the next inhale.

Practice 3 • Restore

This final practice is helpful for developing control and quality in your breathing, and is thought to restore energy by boosting the amount of oxygen in your bloodstream.

For the pianist, it can be particularly useful after a practice or performance.

3 counts: Inhale deeply through the nose to the abdomen, allowing the belly to fill. Place one hand over your stomach, feeling the expansion.

3 counts: Place your other hand on your chest. Continue your inhale, expanding the breath into the lungs.

6 counts: Slowly release the breath, exhaling through the mouth, feeling your belly draw inward and your chest drop as it relaxes.

The Three Locks

In Qigong practice we take these practices to a deeper level by learning to coordinate our breath with physical stretches and movements (neigong), and with seated meditation practice (neidan).

The Three Locks can be applied during the second stage of the breath (holding the breath) to create a therapeutic compression within the abdominal cavity, further enhancing the health and longevity benefits of the practice.

According to Qigong instructor Daniel Reid,

“This compression gives a strong boost to venal circulation, opens the meridian system, and helps activate the pneumogastric nerves of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomous nervous system. The locks are applied at or toward the end of inhalation, held in place briefly during compression, and released on exhalation.”

Daniel Reid: A Complete Guide to Chi-Gung (2000)

The Three Locks are:

1. The anal lock: lifting the pelvic floor and perineum upward
2. The abdominal lock: very slightly pulling the lower part of the abdominal wall inward toward the spine
3. The neck lock: contracting the throat muscles to clamp the glottis over the trachea.

These should be applied in order, and released in reverse order.

This technique is for the more advanced practitioner, so should not be tried by the beginner reading this.

Closing thoughts

Breathwork has made a significant difference to my quality of life, health and wellbeing, with a beneficial impact on my piano journey.

I hope that by trying the simple exercises in this post you will discover similar benefits and be encouraged to explore the practices further.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.