Three breaths – re-engaging during practice and rehearsals

A few weeks ago, my colleague Sharon Paul shared an experience with me that I think demonstrates how powerful even a simple mindfulness-based technique can be in changing the dynamics of a practice session or rehearsal. Sharon is the Director of Choral Activities at the University of Oregon, and is in my opinion, one of the finest conductors and pedagogues in the field. I mention this because musicians like Sharon, who are experts and have a lot of effective strategies at their disposal, are not often surprised at the effectiveness of a new or novel technique. I asked Sharon’s permission to mention her story on the blog, which involved the use of a technique that I call “three breaths”.

The “three breaths” technique is an especially useful strategy during moments when we are tired, frustrated, or no longer have the ability to successfully maintain focus. Using “three breaths”, we can “reset” our attention in a gentle yet skillful manner. This is an important distinction, because when we are feeling less than optimal, any forced attempts at paying attention are likely to result in the exact opposite of what we desire.

The technique is actually rather simple. During “three breaths”, we ask our students – or ourselves if we are the ones dealing with a wandering attention – to inhale and exhale slowly and deliberately for three full cycles. We do this while maintaining a relaxed and balanced posture, and while keeping our focus on the physical sensations of our breath. After we have completed the cycles, we allow ourselves a couple of minutes of just attending to the breath, without changing or otherwise deliberately interfering with its natural ebb and flow. Like many mindfulness activities, we also gently remind ourselves to reengage with the object of our attention anytime that we feel our minds are beginning to wander. These self-reminders should be gentle, non-punitive, and free of judgment.

In Sharon’s case, she was working with a talented honor choir of high school musicians. Although the students had been working hard and were attentive, the rehearsals were long and she could sense that she was starting to lose them. After the exercise, the students were not only re-engaged, but the atmosphere in the room also seemed to change. As Sharon describes it, there was an almost palpable feeling of focused and meditative calmness afterwards that permeated the room.

As a conductor and studio teacher, I’ve used different versions of this exercise in both large ensemble rehearsals as well as individual lessons. I’ve tried it with middle and high school-aged musicians, and with college students as well. In all cases, I can confirm what Sharon observed – a sense of calm and focused re-engagement from the musicians, and all without having to force the issue of paying attention.

Based on current scientific findings, it is difficult to determine exactly why something like the “three breaths” exercise works as well as it does. We know from research that long-term meditation training, or even a disposition towards mindfulness, seems to improve how the prefrontal cortex moderates activity in the amygdala and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex of the brain (Creswell, Eisenberger, & Lieberman, 2008).

To clarify, the prefrontal cortex is associated with attention and emotional regulation, and areas such as the amygdala and the dorsal anterior cingulate are linked to emotional processing. When we speak about self-regulation as a desirable and necessary quality for successful learning, we are essentially talking about an effective relationship between these two areas of the brain. In many imaging studies, long-term meditators seem to demonstrate improved function in the prefrontal cortex, an indicator of effective self-regulation.

When compared to long-term meditation practice, the “three breaths” exercise is rather limited, and would in all likelihood have a negligible or minimal effect on these areas of the brain. Yet, despite a lack of extensive research on short, mindfulness-based induction strategies, there are at least two studies that seem to indicate some type of measurable effect based on limited practice.

In a study by Arch and Craske (2006), a group of students who engaged in a 15-minute mindfulness induction, compared to students who were prompted to actively worry or who were not prompted at all, reported decreased reactivity to emotionally aversive images. Also, in one of my own studies (Diaz, 2013), musicians who participated in a 15-minute mindfulness induction before listening to an excerpt of La bohème attributed heightened engagement as well as an increased sense of novelty to engaging in the induction.

Although neither of these studies are conclusive, they do suggest at least the possibility of a moderate effect based on engaging in some kind of attenuated mindfulness-based induction. Besides, even if the science is not quite there yet, at the very least, taking a moment to breathe, reset, and re-engage – even as a basic practice or intention – is likely to help and at the very least, unlikely to hurt the rehearsal process.

References

Creswell, J. D., Eisenberger, N., & Lieberman, M. (2008). Neural correlates of mindfulness during social exclusion. Unpublished manuscript, University of California, Los Angeles.

Arch, J. J., & Craske, M. G. (2006). Mechanisms of mindfulness: Emotion regulation following a focused breathing induction. Behavior Research and Therapy, 44, 1849–1858.

Diaz, F. M. (2013). Mindfulness, attention, and flow during music listening: An empirical investigation. Psychology of Music41(1), 42-58.

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The initial stages of MBWP are focused on developing physiological regulation and embodied grounding as a means of aiding meditative practice and artistic expression. Working with our breath and bodies helps to calm our nervous system, facilitating our ability to anchor our awareness in the present moment.

During the middle stages of the curriculum, concentration and awareness are cultivated through mindful and deliberate exploration of our senses, emotions, and patterns of thought, leading to greater clarity, stability, and equanimity.

As we non-judgmentally examine our habitual ways of feeling, thinking, and acting, we gain insight into how our perceptions color reality, giving us the opportunity to let go of unfruitful ways of experiencing and responding to ourselves and others. We then work on reframing our experiences such that they are aligned with our personal values.

During the final stages of MBWP training, after reducing our reactivity through mindful awareness, we develop the capacity to act intentionally in the world, using our experiences, aspirations, values, and ethics as a compass for wise and compassionate action.

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