Welcome to a new Flute Friday/Saturday. Hoping all of you attending the NFA Convention in San Diego this weekend are having a blast and enjoying the beautiful California sunshine!
As you may have noticed, it has been 2 weeks since I posted a blog and flute “Friday” has become an increasingly nebulous title. I have had a bit of writer’s block recently and have felt creatively stuck in a rut. We all encounter those “what does it all mean?” moments now and then when we question the value of our time invested in various professional or creative endeavors. The outcome is generally a refocus of what is truly important to us or a weeding out of outdated or inefficient drains of energy. In my attempt to understand my present circumstances, I downloaded one of those cliché, change your life now!, audiobooks from Audible.com. On my morning walk the other day, I listened to the author explain a method of engaging left and right brain activities simply by practicing nostril breathing exercises. “This sounds made up,“ I thought to myself as I made my way to Starbucks for my daily cup of inspiration. Later that day I did a bit of research and discovered that there was some merit to this madness and that these practices could perhaps help musicians strengthen the ways we tackle different elements of practice and musical understanding.
In a 1991 study conducted among 23 right-handed males, David Shannahoff-Khalsa found a correlation between nostril air intake and cognitive functioning on the opposite hemisphere of the brain. (Please see https://www.researchgate.net/publication/21218159_The_Effects_of_Unilateral_Forced_Nostril_Breathing_on_Cognition for complete article text.) The nostril theory essentially suggests that if you breathe exclusively through your left nostril, you will activate properties associated with the right side of the brain and if you breathe only through the right nostril, you will activate the functions of the left side of the brain. The below chart beautifully illustrates the different operations falling under the left and right sides of the brain. Although music falls under “non-verbal information” in this chart, it is widely accepted that music actually utilizes both sides of the brain. How, you ask? As classical musicians, we process non-verbal information using numbers, notes and music theory which fall under the logical domain of the left hemisphere of the brain but also apply expressive, musical interpretation of those notes, therefore engaging the right side of the brain.
Stop what you are doing right now and take a deep breath in through your nose. Which nostril are you dominantly breathing through? You may be breathing through both nostrils, but is one easier to breathe through than the other? I noticed right away on my morning walk that I was breathing predominantly through my right nostril which seemed to make sense as I was listening intently to the author on my audible recording and considering the logical implications that the nostril theory would have for musicians. I also noticed when I began to write this blog that I was easily distracted from my thoughts whenever my breathing was focused in my left nostril.
How can we use this knowledge to improve our study of music? I think we can use the nostril theory to monitor what our body is trying to tell us about our mind and focus our energies on the musical activities that will engage the corresponding hemisphere of the brain. For example, if you are struggling to keep a steady beat or consistent rhythm, try concentrating your breathing through your right nostril for 10-12 inhales to engage the logical left side of the brain. If you are working on a cadenza or an expressive solo work and struggling to find the correct inspiration, inhale through the left nostril for a few breaths and continue. Finally, keep track of the times of day that each of your nostrils dominate air intake. For example, I have found that my right nostril is quite active in the morning hours while my left nostril takes over in the evening. With this knowledge, I may reorganize my practice into two mini sessions each day, focusing on fundamentals in the morning session (such as scales, arpeggios and articulation exercises) and solo repertoire in the evening.
I am still in the experimental stages of this theory and will be applying nostril breathing methods to future practice sessions. I challenge all of you reading this to pay attention to your nostrils while you practice. Do you notice a difference in your playing when you are breathing through the left side vs. the right? Does breathing exclusively through your left nostril enhance your creative ability or help you interpret your music and a new way? I would be very curious to know how this theory works for other flutists and if there are ways we can expand on the nostril practice to enhance the music making process.
Have you had any experience with this nostril theory? Which nostril do you find yourself predominantly breathing through? Do you agree with the nostril theory and how do you think we can use the theory to improve learning and practicing music? Please comment below!