Playing with Presence 3: Biofeedback Therapy

In the third and final installment of Playing with Presence, a blog series that explores current techniques that can help stressed-out musical folk get back in tune, I’ll discuss a technique called Biofeedback Therapy.

During my exploration of different therapies that could expedite the healing of a very debilitating and persistent injury, I visited the Musicians’ Clinic in Hamilton, Ontario. This unique medical facility, designed specifically to treat musicians dealing with performance-related health problems, opened my eyes to new ways medicine is modernizing its approach to musicians’ health.

The effects of stress on our bodies is long known. From stressful work environments, to domestic problems, to loud and congested commutes home; sources of stress are abundant in our lives. Musicians especially, when working towards professional careers, face routine pressures to learn large volumes of difficult music under time restraints. Being a career musician is competitive. With orchestral and university positions difficult to come by, most musician need a “day job” to support their craft. Musicians who rely on performance as a livelihood are under enormous pressure to constantly use their bodies day in, day out with very little time for rest and recovery.

Unfortunately, though they may try to hide it for a period of time, many musicians will have to face the reality of performance injury. It’s been researched that up to 70% of career musicians have faced some form of injury in their lifetimes, yet it’s something rarely addressed in studios or university curricula.

Among the other techniques discussed in this series, including Body Mapping and Alexander Technique, Biofeedback can be a useful tool in the musician’s arsenal to combat stress and mitigate injury.

Biofeedback is the use of technology that monitors different bodily functions such as brainwaves, breathing, or heart rate. The patient sees the data on a monitor expressed as a real-time number or graph. Working with the medical practitioner, the patient learns to manipulate this information through relaxation exercises. For example, if blood pressure is too high, the patient can regulate it via breathing techniques. While the technology is very useful, it is ultimately about the patient becoming aware enough of his own body to practice these techniques away from the clinic.

In my case I used a device that hung on my earlobe called a photoplethysmograph. Say that three times fast! It was a sensor that measured my heart rate. I won’t pretend to be the expert when it comes to the physiological relationship between breathing and heart rate but I know it has to do with the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. When we inhale, our heart rate momentarily goes up as the sympathetic nervous system is engaged (the one responsible for fight vs. flight). On exhalation the parasympathetic nervous system(rest and digest) engages and the heart rate slows and we feel more relaxed. Both systems are part of the autonomic nervous system and are not voluntarily controlled. That being said, we can actively influence them through factors such as our breathing.

Now enters the fun part. At the clininc, to help reduce my feelings of stress we focused on lowering my heart rate via regular breathing. With the device on my earlobe attached to a computer monitor I was able to see my heart rate expressed as a wave-length on a graph. When I inhaled the curve went up, and when I exhaled it went back down. Up and down, up and down. The trouble with my waves was that they were very messy. They were erratic and pointy and quite turbulent looking.

To smoothen them out a second “pilot wave” was added by the computer. It was now time to play “Breathing Hero”! I had to match my breathing close enough so that it could bring my heart rate into a smoother wave pattern like the one on the screen. It was challenging at first but I soon caught on.

Then the doctor turned off the pilot wave and I was left all on my own. That was much harder because I had nothing to model. Eventually, after some practice, I was able to smoothen my waves out as my heart rate rose and fell much more regularly.

This was only Round 1. In Round 2 the doctor handed me a video game controller and I got to play a 3D racing game on the computer (yay!). At the same time, however, I had to maintain that very same breathing pattern. You know how when you’re playing a video game and you get all tense and stop breathing? Well I had to overcome that tendency. If my breathing/heart rate became erratic the car would stall. So in order to get enough speed to win the race, I had to relax and focus enough on my breathing. Eventually I got it and the doctor was surprised that it didn’t take me longer. I found a little trick to it that seemed to surprise him: breathing in time with the video game music 😛 It actually made it easier than simply trying to create the even waves on their own!

Lest I got to cocky it was time for Round 3. This was the real life application. I sat down at the piano with a Chopin Prelude in front of me. The doctor then asked me to do the same thing, see if I could maintain that beautiful wave pattern while playing my instrument. Well I have to say this is when it started to fall apart. There are two schools of thought on breathing while playing:

  • Breathe with the phrasing of the music itself
  • Breathe on your own, separately from the musical phrasing

I would’ve loved to have an option 3, “don’t breathe at all”, which was basically how I was always playing. In this context, the objective was to maintain that beautiful wave pattern while I was playing, no matter the speed or difficulty. This was extremely challenging because the wave pattern was at a different tempo than the music. I was playing the Chopin Prelude at one speed, while breathing at another!

This one took me a few sessions to get. When I did figure it out, a new calmness permeated my body. The music sounded less hasty and I wasn’t always leaning forward into the next note or measure.

Imagine that, something as simple as breathing. So essential, yet so easy to forget. While I write this about my experience as a musician, clearly this technique can benefit anyone. Imagine, while you’re sitting in rush hour, you remind yourself to breathe evenly. Suddenly you are back in your body and in the present moment and maybe even your heart rate is a little bit lower. What a concept!

So concludes Playing with Presence. I hope that you’ve taken something away that can lower the stress meter for yourself and, if you teach, your students. Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions. I believe more people need to learn about these effective techniques.

Till next time! And in the meantime keep on breathing, keep on playing 😀

One thought on “Playing with Presence 3: Biofeedback Therapy

  1. A wonderful message!
    Crossed our biofeedback specialists, so they were delighted

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