Drumming and Breathing

by Roy Burns

The concepts and methods presented in this column represent my own personal experiences. They are not intended to be the last word on the subject, nor should they be construed as the only way. All I can say for certain is that I have experienced what is presented and it has been of much help to me.Fortunately, I received much love and support from many people as I attempted to discover what would work for me. The people who most influenced my attitudes and feelings in this area were Swami Rudrananda (Rudi) with whom I studied for many years; Greg Brodsky Aikido Master, psychotherapist and natural healer who now directs an Aikido school in Santa Cruz, California; and Mr. “R”, who has helped me to understand much but who does not wish to be identified.

Many of the breathing exercises learned in my studies were of great help to my career in drumming. The ability to remain relaxed under pressure, to raise my energy level when tired, and to be more creative musically was enhanced by healthful breathing techniques.

The breathing exercises, when practiced consistently, promote a more relaxed attitude which makes learning easier. Your thinking influences your breathing and your breathing influences your thinking. Regardless of education, whether or not you can read music, and no matter what your musical style, these breathing techniques will help you to develop naturally.

If you are very angry or upset your breathing is often fast and short. If you become very frightened it may be difficult to breathe at all.

Another example is to become angry at someone and suddenly discover that you are mistaken; that there is no need to be angry. Even though your mind has realized the error, it may take minutes for your breathing to return to normal.

If you are very angry or upset, a friend will say “Take a deep breath and calm down.” People often say this instinctively without even having studied breathing techniques.

Notice that the key word is deep.

As these examples indicate, thinking and breathing are inseparable. Therefore, in order for breathing techniques to be beneficial they must be accompanied by a relaxed state of mind.

Drummers have a lot of pressure on them. Other musicians depend upon the drummer to establish the feel and the energy level of the music. Other rhythm section players are important to be sure, but most musicians would agree that the drummer plays a key role in most bands. Pressure means tension. If your mind is tense, much energy is wasted.

If your breathing is erratic, if you hold your breath while playing or if your breathing is very shallow, energy is wasted. It is not necessary to breathe any special way when performing as long as you do not hold your breath.

Develop good habits. Relax and your breathing will take care of itself naturally. When playing and practicing your mind should be concentrated on the music and the drumming.

There are various energy centers in the body. Any good book on Yoga will explain and describe them. The energy center drummers need to be concerned with is the one-point or body center. It is referred to as Hara in the Japanese martial arts. Sometimes it is called the naval center or the earth center. I prefer the term center as it seems to be the most important for drumming.

Your center is located in the region approximately two and one half inches below the navel. It is in effect your body center. Watch how a very young child walks. The abdomen is the center of balance.

Carefully observe the breathing and the abdomen of a great lead trumpet player or an opera singer. It all comes from the body center.

Watch any great drummer who plays dynamically but still remains relaxed, with shoulders forward, arms loose, feet dancing on the pedals, artfully poised on the drum seat. His center of balance is the abdomen or in my view, the center.

To develop this center and release the energy that it contains, think of your breathing as a bellows on a fire. To increase the heat and release more energy from the fire, you blow air onto it causing it to burn faster and hotter. Breathing exercises perform much the same function on the center.

Lie on the floor on your back with your feet slightly apart and your hands at your sides with the palms up. Inhale slowly, through your nose, filling the abdomen first and the chest last. Then push your center out by inhaling just a little more.

Exhale slowly through your mouth. At the end of your exhale, tighten and contract your abdominal muscles to exhale the last bit of air.

Breathe slowly and regularly and do not hold your breath at any point. Repeat this process, slowly, for fifteen to twenty minutes. Then rest for a few more minutes. This is a refreshing and invigorating exercise, especially after a heavy practice session. It also helps to release the tension one accumulates as a result of concentrating and trying hard.

Always keep part of your attention on your center.

Sit on a chair with your hands cupped in your lap. You can also sit cross-legged on the floor with your posterior on a pillow to help keep you back straight and relaxed. Either way, cup your hands in your lap just below your center.

Breathe in slowly, through the nose, filling the abdomen and concentrate on your center. Observe as you inhale that longer going in yet it hasn’t started to go out yet. The air sort of makes a turn around, not going in or out, before the exhale begins.

Concentrate on this turning point without holding your breath. Just be aware of it. This turning point is your center.

Do not fill the chest with air. Breathe with the abdomen only.

As you exhale, do not contract the abdominal muscles. Just breathe out easily and naturally. There is no need to expel all of the air for this exercise. Breathe slowly and rhythmically. Relax.

This exercise will energize your center and concentrate your energies. It will also calm your mind and improve your ability to concentrate. Energy and concentration are needed in order to play drums creatively and consistently.

Remember, keep your attention on the center where the breath turns around. If your mind wanders, don’t worry about it. Gently bring the mind back to your center again and again. Don’t force it, just keep bringing your attention back to the breath and the center.

This exercise can be performed for fifteen to thirty minutes. Daily practice yields the best results. This is a very good exercise to use prior to practicing or performing. It will also energize you when you are tired.

To achieve a peaceful feeling and attitude, perform the same breathing exercise with the following variation. Allow your breathing to become slow and relaxed. About every third or fourth exhale, do not breathe in again for a few seconds. Don’t struggle or force yourself to hold out the air. Just relax and don’t inhale for several seconds.

In this space or gap in your breathing, feel the sense of peace. With practice you will discover how long the gaps should be. You will discover your own rhythm. This may be performed for fifteen to thirty minutes. This is a great exercise when you have had a hectic day.

The techniques and methods described will be of help if they are practiced sincerely and consistently. They will not necessarily help you to “outplay” anyone else. There is no magic breathing exercise that can be used against others. However, they can be used for you. They can help to achieve your full potential naturally.

These techniques are not a substitute for regular practice, training or experi ence. They will help to develop more endurance, more patience and greater concentration.

A relaxed frame of mind and an energized body will help you to learn more easily and more quickly. The absence of tension and the increased energy will help you to perform up to your full potential.

As you develop, your confidence will grow and you will begin to uncover hid den resources within yourself that you may not have discovered otherwise.

You may experience warmth or a tingling sensation when practicing the breathing exercises. This is perfectly natural as you become more aware of your own energy. You may simply feel more relaxed and experience a sense of well being.

If you do not experience any of these feelings, it may be because you are very tense. Don’t force it. The breathing exercises will gradually “thaw out” your center until the energy can be released and felt.

There are many breathing exercises and many ways of thinking that can help improve your drumming. What I have presented in this article are a few of my favorites.

For further study on how breathing, thinking and drumming can be combined to make practicing and playing more rewarding see my book. Natural Hand Development, distributed by Music Sales Corporation, New York City.
©Copyright 1980 by Roy Burns