Breathing awareness is second nature to those musicians whose ability to produce a sound on their instrument depends upon their breath. Singers, trumpeters, flutists, sax players, et al., are constantly forced to be aware of their breathing. They are always looking for the “spaces between the phrases” in which to grab their next breath. We drummers are not, and this lack of breathing awareness can adversely affect our groove!

Think about it: have you ever noticed that you hold your breath while lifting heavy objects such as a large bag of dog food, or while weight training at the gym? Interrupting the breath can be a normal response to highly focused physical activity. While it might be okay for a few seconds, it’s not helpful to drumming for many reasons.

First, deep, regular breathing is the key to being relaxed, and relaxed is what we want to be while drumming! In fact, I believe that being able to access a state of relaxed concentration is the key to mastering any activity, not just playing the drums. When I was younger, I would experience stage fright quite often, and I wish someone had simply told me to “watch my breath”! One time I was performing with my high school jazz band, and both of my shoes fell off during one song…talk about freaking out! A little breath awareness certainly would’ve helped me to deal with that!

On the other hand, the excitement one feels prior to giving a performance can be utilized in a positive way, and need not lead to the near-paralysis that characterizes stage fright. There are many Yoga-based breathing exercises that are perfect for helping to calm those pre-performance jitters. You can choose one that appeals to you, and do it for a few minutes prior to going on stage. I’m not a Yoga instructor, but there are many great books, websites, DVDs, etc. that discuss breathing exercises.

In addition to easing performance anxiety, the way one breathes has a profound effect on one’s energy level. When I drum, I want to be alert and energized! The next time you begin to feel tired while drumming, take a few slow, deep (from your belly) breaths, and notice your heightened alertness. Drummers often need to be able to repeat rhythmic patterns over long periods of time, in light of this, good breathing is essential in the process of supplying oxygen and removing lactic acid from the muscles (which prevents muscle fatigue and cramping).

Another aspect of our drumming that can be improved by breath awareness is being able to leave some “air between the notes”. Because we can play as many notes as we wish (well, as many as our chops allow us!) without having to pause to take a breath, we drummers are often guilty of “overplaying”. Silence is what allows notes to be heard. If we as drummers hog all of the silence by filling it with our notes, there will be no space left for the other musicians who are trying to make music with us! Being aware of one’s breathing is a wonderful reminder to us to “leave some air” for the others we share the stage with. Try it! You’ll enjoy the warm response you get from fellow musicians when you choose to play (a little) more collaboratively.

While drumming, try to become aware of your breathing as often as possible. Breath awareness helps to keep us “in the moment”; it helps to increase our focus on the task at hand (making music), and minimize stray, negative, and distracting thoughts. Breathe from your abdomen (diaphragm), not just from the top of the chest. You’ll be pleasantly surprised how this simple practice will improve your groove!

Until next time,
Mike Marble