2-to-1 Breathing

“2-to-1 breathing helps reduce, coordinate, and stabilize the activity of the brain and the nervous system.”
–John Clarke, M.D., former Chairman of the Himalayan Institute

If we feel unsettled prior to playing or singing, 2-to-1 breathing is a powerful tool that helps us restore inner balance and kindle creativity.

Repeated for a number of cycles, this exercise triggers an innate calming response that also tempers the fight-or-flight activation brought on by performance nerves.

Here’s how it’s done.

Sit comfortably, and release your shoulders, neck, and jaw. Close your eyes, allow your spine to lengthen, and exhale fully.

  • To a moderate mental count, inhale silently through your nose and deeply into your abdomen.
  • Exhale through gently pursed lips for double the count (twice the duration) of your inhalation.
  • Repeat.

Continue for 5-10 cycles or several minutes, but reinstate normal breathing if you become lightheaded. If any thoughts intrude as you breathe, let them go without judgment, and serenely refocus on your breathing and counting.

Many yoga practitioners of 2-to-1 breathing recommend exhaling via the nose rather than pursed lips – I encourage you to experiment with doing so, especially if you’re adept at breath control. I advise newcomers to this exercise to exhale through pursed lips because I’ve found that, at first, they may become tense when they attempt to regulate their exhalation through the nose.

You might do this exercise whenever you want to dispel agitation and instill calmness.

For instance, you might use it to counter nervousness before concerts and auditions, to center yourself in preparation for practicing or composing, or even to help you get to sleep following an exhilarating show.

Additional pre-performance techniques are described on pages 157-170 of The Musician’s Way.

© 2010 Gerald Klickstein

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7 Responses to “2-to-1 Breathing”

  1. Jena Gruver said:

    Apr 01, 10 at 09:14

    As a musician I can relate to nervousness that one experiences before a performance. It really can be overwhelming. Personally I have tried deep breathing exercises and honestly sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I have never tried out the whole exercise though, mostly because I have no place to sit down immediately before I perform. I do believe that there is something behind the yoga practice and would like to try it at some point. However, I do think that it would be difficult to not pay attention to the thoughts that enter your mind and simply push them out again. I feel that do that would take time and practice. It would be a nice ability to have though as I’m sure most of us would love to just be able to push thoughts out of our minds every day.
    I have used other techniques I have tried in order to aid nervousness. I’m sure everyone has heard of pressure points. I have researched which points help one to relax and which ones release tension headaches and so on. I don’t know whether it is just a placebo affect or what but sometimes if I can find the right spot, I feel much more relaxed. If you’re interested in pressure points I suggest researching them and trying them for yourself. The most powerful and personal relaxation aid for me is praying. This may just be my religious bias, but there is a comfort that comes from knowing that someone will be with you through every aspect of a performance, good or bad. The same fact aids in everyday life.
    In conclusion, I feel that we each have our own way of preparing for nervous situations and making ourselves feel better. Whether we use yoga, routine, prayer, or depend on luck, we all have techniques that work for us. The best way to figure out what works best for you in my opinion is just experimenting.

  2. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Apr 01, 10 at 10:57

    Well said, Jena. You’re right on target that we all have to experiment to find the pre-performance routines that best suit us. 2-to-1 breathing is one of many possible tactics that can help defuse nerves, yet no single such technique is likely suffice in all situations and for every individual. BTW, 2-to-1 breathing can be done in a standing position; novices, though, should stick to sitting until they know how they respond.
    In The Musician’s Way, I describe ten personal technques that we can use backstage along with numerous other task-oriented and situational techniques (e.g., imagery, prayer and affirmations, music therapy, movement, etc.). Please see Part II of the book for more info.
    Thanks for the comment!

  3. Barbie Osborn said:

    Apr 02, 10 at 15:57

    I would have to agree with Jena. There are numerous exercises that can be suggested. However, every person responds differently when performing. It can be a mental response, a physical response, or both. Although breathing may calm one person, I find that stretching all your muscles in a quiet space can provide the needed release of excess energy. I always enjoy a new idea, but there are so many ways of calming the nerves. While breathing can be extremely efficient for some, I always find that when performing my legs shake. Although this habit is usually not visible to the audience, it is very counter-active. I am yet to find some sort of remedy to end this incredibly annoying problem. I am interested in any ideas!

  4. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Apr 02, 10 at 16:22

    Hi Barbie – I agree with both you and Jena: no one course of action is likely to be effective for everyone.
    Regarding your shaking legs, tremor in the limbs is one of the most common responses to performance nerves; it’s a manifestation of the adrenaline surge triggered by the fight-or-flight response. Be confident that you can alleviate this problem!
    You should probably work with a performance coach and maybe an Alexander technique teacher to help you grasp new ways of moving, sitting, and standing. In the meantime, you could try letting yourself move and release muscles a bit more as your perform; check that you’re breathing freely into your abdomen rather than letting your breath become shallow; you could examine your preparation strategies with the help of your applied teacher to ensure that you learn your material deeply and can trust in your preparation; you could meet with a campus counselor to obtain some personalized approaches to dispelling jitters; and you could even experiment with a confrontation approach: in a performance in studio class, let’s say, attempt to make your legs quiver even more – I know, it’s counter-intuitive, but some people gain insights from that sort of experiment.
    Most of all, be fearless, and have fun making and sharing your music as well as tackling problems as they arise.

  5. Karla said:

    Apr 26, 10 at 23:35

    For all of us who suffer from shaking limbs, I have to tell this story. I am a pianist and was introduced to The Musician’s Way about 9 months ago. I have suffered for many years from cold and shaky hands while trying to perform. About two months ago, on the evening of a performance, I was quite worried that my hands were going to get cold and shaky. Worrying about it was adding to my nervousness. All of a sudden a thought occurred to me – I have been performing for years with cold, shaky hands, and I’ve gotten through it each time. So I gave my hands permission to be cold and shaky, because I knew I could handle that. To my amazement, my hands were warm and secure for the first time ever. It was a truly liberating experience, and I am continuing to build on this in every performance since that day.
    Mr. Klickstein, it was your book which triggered this wonderful process. I have already read your book through numerous times, and I gain new insight every time. Thank you so much!

  6. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Apr 27, 10 at 11:29

    You’re most welcome, Karla. Thanks for sharing your inspiring story. You’re providing a shining example that performance problems can be overcome. Congratulations!

  7. Steve Kogan said:

    May 27, 10 at 19:31

    If you are performing for others, you can easily get frightened, but, if you play for yourself, you shouldn’t get frightened at all.

    Can you go on stage and play for yourself, or are you too overwhelmed with the adversarial surroundings?

    Perhaps it’s something as disconcerting as playing in formal stage clothes which you never wear when you practice and rehearse!!!

    As a male violinist, I cannot imagine playing on stage in a strapless gown with my shoulders and upper chest exposed … stage fright supreme ….!!!

    I would love to see Vengerov or NigelK performing bare-chested … and perhaps their lead would liberate male violinists and elevate their performances to great new levels ….!!!!