Holding Your Breath? Should You Think About Breathing in Guitar Practice?

Many people tend to hold their breath when playing guitar. This is more common for beginners and intermediate players,

Why is this? And is it a problem? Should we try to fix it? Should we focus on breathing in our guitar practice?

Why Do We Hold Our Breath?

Holding our breath a symptom and sign of excess tension. When we are calm and focused, we breathe naturally.

If we hold breath when we focus, it means that we are tensing our bodies. We restrict our breathing as we constrict our muscles.

Should We Focus on Relaxation for Guitar?

Most of us have limited time on the guitar. If we focus our energy on breathing, we’re not focusing on guitar. We do best to use our precious guitar time for those activities that will lead to improvement and growth. Guitar time is best spent on guitar, at least in the early stages of learning the instrument.

Playing guitar takes massive mental bandwidth. We track the notes, the rhythm, the volume, the left hand fingers, the right hand fingers, our body position, and more.

If we opt to focus on breathing, something else will fall below the level of awareness. This generally means missed notes, poor form, brittle tone quality, and possible even more tension (which defeats the point).

Instead of breath, we can focus on correct placement of the fingers. We can focus on quality movements. We can use our minds to memorize and recall music.

The facility we gain will help to reduce breath-holding and excess tension. But we can also train ourselves to play with more appropriate tension.

Practice Techniques for More Appropriate Tension

So while focusing on the breath in practice is a common recommendation. But there’s a better way: to remove the blocks to natural breathing. Some of these blocks are habitual, others born of confusion (more on this below).

We can use slow practice to train our hands and bodies to release tension after each note. We can use slow scales, exercises, or other technical practice. Or we can play through a section of music at very low speed.

The main points of the exercise are (1) to remain aware of tension levels throughout, and keep them appropriate; and (2) to play each note with intention, with chosen form, position, and movement.

Going slowly enough, we can experience a pause and release in the space between each note.

When we play at full speed, we keep some of this ability to release between the notes. Our tension lessens, and we remain more aware at all times.

Confusion causes tension

One cause of tension is confusion. If we are unsure of the next notes, and/or are playing too fast, we lock up. Perhaps this tendency stems from some primal survival mechanism. Whatever the cause, confusion leads to excess tension.

To remove confusion-related tension, remove the confusion. Get completely clear about each movement, each note, each musical moment. And play at a speed that allows for continuing awareness and control.

Off-guitar Exercises for Awareness, Relaxation and Ease

Throughout daily life, we have many opportunities to improve our tension-levels. At any moment (even now), we can scan our bodies and notice any place we’re holding unnecessary tension.

We often hold tension in our faces. We also may grip with our toes, ball our hands into fists, or raise our shoulders.

Over time, as we notice and release excess tension, we become quicker to notice. With practice, releasing becomes easier.

This transfers to the guitar as well.

The Verdict: Just play guitar, and release tension throughout your day

So should we focus on breathing in practice? Probably not. There are more constructive areas on which to place our time and attention. Accuracy and precision are worthwhile pursuits that will also reduce excess tension.

With better technique and better bodily use, we are more likely to breath naturally. And we’ll do it without thinking much of it.

We can notice excess tension throughout our days, and release it. This practice may lead to lower stress, and more bodily awareness. And these will directly benefit our guitar-playing as well.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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