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2-to-1 Breathing

Gerald Klickstein, author of the landmark book The Musician’s Way, describes a potent technique that helps vocalists dispel distraction, neutralize stress, and sing from the heart.

If there’s a more spiritually powerful art form than music, I haven’t encountered it.

Nonetheless, when it comes time for us musicians to rehearse or perform, it isn’t necessarily easy for us to connect with our spiritual nature.

Often, we deal with interference owing to how we react to various pressures, especially the pressure of performing in public.

But whatever the interference, 2-to-1 breathing helps us restore inner balance and make soulful music.

Repeated for a number of cycles, this breathing exercise triggers a calming response that also tempers the fight-or-flight activation brought on by stage jitters.

Physician John Clarke, former Chairman of the Himalayan Institute*, reports: “2-to-1 breathing helps reduce, coordinate, and stabilize the activity of the brain and the nervous system.”

Here’s how it’s done:

Sit comfortably, close your eyes, and exhale fully…

1. To a moderate mental count, inhale silently through your nose and deeply into your abdomen.

2. Exhale through gently pursed lips for double the count (twice the duration) of your inhalation.

3. 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 refocus on your breathing and counting.

Final 2-to-1 Tips

Many practitioners of this technique recommend exhaling through the nose rather than pursed lips – I encourage you to experiment with doing so.

However, I advise newcomers to 2-to-1 breathing to exhale through pursed lips because I’ve found that they may become tense when they attempt to regulate their exhalation through the nose.

You can also practice 2-to-1 breathing in a standing position, but do it seated first to discover how you respond.

Try this exercise whenever you want to instill calmness and focus your energies. For instance, you might employ it to counter nervousness at concerts and auditions. Or you could use it to center yourself in preparation for rehearsals or recording sessions.

Of course, plenty of other techniques exist that quell anxiety and boost artistry, musicianship, and well-being. I’ve cataloged abundant examples in my book The Musician’s Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance, and Wellness (Oxford University Press, 2009. 360 pages). I invite you to take a look.
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© 2010 Gerald Klickstein

Gerald Klickstein is Professor of Music at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and is an active guitarist, author, and arts advocate.

Useful Links

MusiciansWay.com – Companion site to The Musician’s Way

The Musician’s Way Blog, by Gerald Klickstein

Buy The Musician’s Way from Amazon.com: UK residents; US residents.

Also by Gerald Klickstein on VoiceCouncil.com: Practicing Performance

*The Himalayan Institute is a prominent holistic health center

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From the editor: How do you relieve stress? Leave a comment below before June 4th and you’ll be eligible to win a free copy of The Musician’s Way. VoiceCouncil will select the authors of two comments below to receive Gerald’s important book.

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  • Very nice Gerald,

    Thanks for sharing. Although I've learned similar techniques throughout my career, how easy it is to get caught up in each moment and forget what I've learned. I just got home after a long day on the job and will start practice with the band in less than an hour. Feeling tense, as I usually do, I just tried your method and it is very calming. It is singing afterall, the art of breathing is a tremendous part of that, even when being silent. And, so simple to do…a great centering mechanism :)



  • G_Alexander

    That is great advise, Gerald – do you find you can do this backstage -and/or in busy atmospheres? As for me, I am a fan of 'silent screaming' – which seems to have an immediate effect on me of making me laugh at myself and my tensions!

  • Thanks for the supportive comments Brian and G_Alexander.

    Brian: I concur that it's easy to get caught up. I find that the simplicity of 2-to-1 breathing makes it an especially powerful technique to bring us back into balance.

    G_Alexander: You most certainly can do 2-to-1 breathing in busy environments – try it and let me know how it works for you (it's a prime backstage technique to use when calming or centering is in order). As for silent screaming, I actually recommend it in The Musician's Way. It's a terrific way to either discharge pent up energy or ratchet up our energy. As I see it, we all need a range of techniques to use depending on how we feel and the situation we're in.

  • Tony Shaw

    Gerald, great technique and really great advice. All too often we prepare our songs, warm up our voice, tune the guitar, practice the chords etc. and then rush out to our audience almost in a panic stricken state. Taking the time to relax after all the preparation can really help focus on the performance. Thank you for the article. Tony

  • Sorry Gerald,

    I got caught up in your article and posted before reading about the contest in “bold red letters.” Doh! OK, so how do ya' relieve stress? Well, if I were a younger front man I'd get in trouble for that – haha. Anyway, I'll just say that I've never lost those nervous jitters before going on stage. So, embarrassing as it is, I take an Imodium with my pre-show tea and honey! That's right, I always feel I have to take a poo before going on – Oh, terrible!!! Also, knowing that I react to food rather quickly, I'm careful to eat a good portion of pasta the night before as the natural sugars break down overtime and give me a lil' push throughout the next day. I eat light, early the day of the show, and make sure not to eat anything else a few hours before performing.

    Since I'm only performing with an original band, I can take the time to prepare for each gig. I do go to bed early the night before, only after packing up my equipment and completing a thorough “idiot check” against a printed list, to ensure nothing gets left out.

    I'm an early riser and horribly anal retentive so the band meets up early and heads to the club to set up and sound check, allowing ample time afterward to go back home in order to put our game faces on. Often I'll just relax, meditate, and do some mild warm ups before heading back out. I also perform silent practices…iow, listening to the songs in my mind in order to mentally hear my parts…imagining them in my mind saves my voice and keeps my mind keen to pitch.

    Generally I will only drink Pedialyte and water the entire day. Pedialyte is awesome for keeping those electrolytes in order and doesn't have the harsh, acidic-feel of gator aide. I do dump a 5 hour energy shot into the Pedialyte though…being mostly made of Vitamin B compounds, it gets consumed over time and doesn't leave me feeling jittery. It's seem like a lot of stuff to do to get ready but all of you other pros know ya' hafta do what resonates with you. Some singers may just smoke a phatty and shoot from the hip. I'm too old to take that approach…need my mind to be nimble!

    So that's my pre-show stress reliever…what do you all do for after show stress? That's the toughest one for me…I feel emptied in a good way, but I can't go to sleep until 6am or so the next morning. I read, play video games, sit outside and listen to the bugs chirping? This is all well and good as long as I don't have work the next morning :)

    Hey G! I love the silent screaming technique…it made me laugh when reading it…seems a fun way to let go!



  • Paco67

    Sometimes I think that we overconsider what singing is. Singing must be very natural. Everybody is borned fully equiped to do it, so we should just stop thinking about it. Obviously, some warming up is recomendable, but I believe that is all. We are there to have a nice time doing what be like. My favourite way of getting ready to go on stage is just to have a couple of beers with my band mates while talking about anything. In my case, I have experienced that the more I think about it, the poorer the performance. The same way you do not think when walking or reading or speaking or eating or whatsoever, why trouble your mind about singing?

  • Tommie Slade

    The way I neutralize stress and distraction is to relax and have fun before I sing with some friends laughing and joking. A laugh goes a long way toward helping u to relax and even to laugh at yourself

  • paula

    Before any performance (I'm not a pro… just a hobby singer and I love it) I actually noticed that my muscles are incredibly tense: shoulders, neck, chest.. And all of you know those parts should be relaxed to boost the performance and help the voice resonate more naturally. So what I do is a simple exercise:
    feet together, then put one foot forward (e.g. left), bend your knees a little and let your one arm (should be asimetric, so right arm) hang. Then start to dangle your arm as if you were having a very heavy ball in your hand. Then start swinging it as in bowling – important! eyes should be closed :-). Do it couple of times, then change the side and relaxed shoulders, neck, chest, arms and voice are guaranteed :)


  • paula

    I also found another way to relieve stress. Good balance… I practised on a balance trainer. Just after the exercises I got off the device and stood better,and somehow deeper in my feet. My breath was calmer, relaxed, and my singing was more powerful.


  • Zena

    I relieve stress by walking, or chilling out on the lake and also eliminating certain foods. Another way is making sure that I have some me time which consists of a massage (full body), facial, and reflexolgy. And what I find even more extra special is when I am driving, I have special music that helps keep me calm and focused so, for example, if I am stuck in traffic and I am anxious to get somewhere, music just does it for me it “soothes the savage beast!”

  • Zena

    Hey, I've just read other people's replies and discovered I made a very generalised explaination of how I relieve stress, when you were making reference to singing. Whoops!
    I must say that I do make sure that I have my vocal warm ups (vocalisation techniques) that I have been using for over a year now. And they have worked tremendously, plus with the aid of a vocal coach to help make sure that I am applying techniques correctly.

  • Hannah Marie

    I find going for a walk is a great way to de-stress as it clears your mind; gets you away from your usual environment and the fresh air helps too. It’s also amazing how things you come across-people, trees, even graffiti- can inspire you.

  • Danadoll77

    Meditation…it takes practice to meditate correctly.  But when you find the meditation focus that works for yourself (counting your breaths in your head, focusing on a pleasant place or fantasy, or counting as you clear each thought that comes to mind as you dismiss them) it is very soothing and can often times relax you enough to feel sleepy.  It also causes an affect of a kind of inner contentment, like you can see the world for what it is and it in turn causes a great feeling of happiness and satisfaction.  For me it is like giving me wings and a positive feeling that I can do anything, and I can sing better than anyone coming my way.  It seems pointless for the first few weeks, but with 15 minutes of practice a day, to as long as an hour after it gets easier, it provides clarity and focus.  I notice every part of myself and how to make it help my performance without losing focus.  Takes me to my happy place…lol!

  • Danadoll77

    I do have to agree…laughing is so much fun anyway, heck I laugh all day, and it makes everyone else around you feel happy too…I’ve never screamed silently though.  Do you just imagine yourself doing it, or is it more like a mouth closed trying to scream type of thing…it is funny trying to imagine it!  LOL!

  • when it comes time for us musicians to rehearse or perform and sure that I have my vocal warm ups but Just after the exercises