Solving Breathing Issues: the Power of Self Concept

by Lea Pearson

This lesson took place in the context of a group, the Transformational Teacher Training Program. While the program is centered around pedagogy, we also offer master class opportunities for the teachers to work on their own issues. This student had been wanting for some time to address breathing. 

Dr. P is myself, T is the student. This adult has their own studio, teaches group lessons in local schools, and is an active performer. The text in blue represents my intentions  and inner dialogue as I am working with the student. The time set aside was about 35 minutes.


Throughout I am using three foundational Body Mapping tools:

Observation: I am continually watching, listening to, and sensing what is happening with the student.

Inquiry: I inquire about what is going on, being curious instead of assuming that I know what they should do.

Validation: I validate and celebrate what they do, reinforcing their ability to think and feel and solve problems for themselves. 

This approach is based in somatics – the felt sense of the body.

It is student-centered in that it focuses on the student’s experience.

It it is infused with trauma-based practices: safety, trust, choice, collaboration, and empowerment, which allow a student to feel safe to explore.

While this student is not experiencing trauma, it is my belief that the self-concept they describe is caused in part by years of music training that emphasize correction over creativity, and external evaluation over one’s own experience. 


Dr. P – What would you like to know about breathing?

T – I just feel like I don’t have as much support and air as I should. And I know that’s a dangerous word, “should.” But it feels like I have less than I have had in the past. So, where did the air go? And how am I using it less efficiently these days? 

I have this weird thing going on, where sometimes as I’m breathing,  (more often when I’m playing than when I’m speaking), I get this weird catch. I feel like something gets stuck. And then it goes like that. (gestures to tightness in chest) I suddenly have to take a reflexive breath. 

Dr. P – Okay, great! I want to talk with you about that. But first I want to ask you a question. 

First Theme – Lack of support and air

The first thing you said was “I feel like I don’t have as much support and air as I should.” All right. 

So the question I want to ask you is: if you did have as much support and air as you wanted, how would you feel? Can you can you recover some aspect of that feeling?

T – Okay. Yeah. I feel like as I am using it, there would be air there. It’s hard to explain. Some of my kids are getting bigger phrases than me now! So that’s where I’m like, “Wait a minute! I used to be able to do this.”

Dr. P – Let me ask the question again because you like to go into stories. (T nods and smiles.) It’s important, when we’re teaching, to acknowledge when a student goes off on a tangent. If you don’t bring them back, it weakens the teaching in some ways, disempowers it.

This is a Byron Katie question. She would say, “who would you be, if you didn’t have that thought?”

My question to you is –  If you had as much air and support as you wanted, how would your body feel?

T – Probably more relaxed going into the process.

Dr. P – Okay, tell me more about that. Where in your body, and how, would you feel more relaxed? 

T – Well, specifically here for some reason here (gestures to chest).

I feel almost like, I gotta squeeze every ounce of that air for all it’s worth.

Dr. P – Okay. When you’re breathing out? 

T – Yes. 

Dr. P – Okay, great! That’s a really useful comment, because you’re telling us where something feels limited in movement. Basically, you’re saying you’re not getting the movement that you want for your ribs to move. Good. 

So the other question I want to ask you is when you feel  – (interrupts self) hang on… 

Before I go there, is there anything else about how you would feel? If you did have enough air and support, what would be different?

Second Theme – Confidence 

T – Well, I would feel confident going into a long phrase, because I know part of it is mental. Right?

Dr. P – Okay, so what is the physical expression of confidence?

T – It’s a lightness and freeness and lack of tension. As opposed to feeling like I’ve got to squeeze out every last ounce. As I’m talking about it, I feel like I’m probably doing this with my body.  (gets tense). Yeah, I am preparing myself. So I’m probably blocking as I do that.


Dr. P – Preparing yourself for what?

T – For the use of my body, but not in a way that is working for me. 

Dr. P – Okay, I see. 

T – I feel like I’m preparing. But I’m actually creating a problem.

Dr. P – Okay, so this is this is really helpful – to listen to your language. Are you listening to yourself? 

T – Yes. 

Dr. P – Great! So this concept of preparing to breathe. Do you do that when you’re asleep?

T – Oh, no. 

Dr. P – Do you do it when you’re talking?

T – Probably not, but maybe.

Dr. P – So let’s do a little étude. Tell me what you are doing today.

T – Okay, after I teach today, I’ve got to head out to do sectionals at a middle school and go to a rehearsal.

Dr. P – Okay, great. Did you prepare to breathe in order to say that? 

T – No. 

Dr. P – Why not?

T – I was concentrating on getting the words out. 

Dr. P – Right! Basically, you knew what you were going to say because you’ve seen your calendar for the day?

T – Yes.

Dr. P – So now I would like you to say the same thing again. But actually prepare to breathe in the same way that you prepare to breathe when you’re playing. Can you do that? 

T – So, I am going to the middle school today to teach sectionals and then I have rehearsal afterwards.

Dr. P – All right.

T – I did a bigger breath.

Dr. P – What else did you do to prepare to breathe?

T –  Well, I think I dropped my voice a little lower. I went into teacher voice.

Dr. P – Is that something you liked or that you want to do? Is it something that feels limiting?

T – My teacher voice?

Dr. P – Yeah. 

T – Actually, I don’t mind it. I feel like it’s easier for my students to understand me when I get up in my nasal southern voice. 

Dr. P – Okay. And does it make you feel more powerful using that teacher voice? 

T – Yes, definitely. 

Dr. P – Okay, so that might be something we want to remember. 

Is there anything else that was different in your body about preparing to speak?

T – Well, when I lower my voice, it requires a kind of dropping. 

Dr. P – Explain. 

T – There’s something that drops here. (gestures to lower torso)

Dr. P – Yes, it’s called accessing the pelvic floor!

T – Yeah.

Dr. P – Okay. So this is really interesting. The way you’re preparing to speak is actually helping you. But from what you said, the way you usually prepare to breathe when you play is not so helpful. 

The more clearly they can describe that, the more it becomes accessible to them.

T – Right.  

Dr. P – Very interesting.

T – Yes. Yes! And you know I think it’s that access to the pelvis that is probably the difference there. For some reason, I feel more lower abdomen area involved in the vocalization process. I’m allowing my belly to resonate. Versus when I go to play, I think about the resonance up in my sinuses. And perhaps here, yes. (gesturing to chest)

Dr. P – That’s a fascinating distinction. See how we’re starting to tease this apart without actually going into a whole lot of specific breathing instruction? You’re saying so much about how you think about breathing.

T – Well, yeah, it’s about how I use my body.

Dr. P – Why, in playing, would you want to cut off half of your body?

T – Because of that whole idea of where I’m supposed to support? (gesturing to belly)

Dr. P – Okay. And you learned that as a flute student? 

T – Yes. When I’m speaking, I can create my phrases. But when I’m playing, I feel like I have less than control of the phrases. It’s like the composer dictates the phrases.

Dr. P – And that’s somewhat true. 

T – I’m thinking, if I had a student that was struggling with a long phrase, I would just say, let’s find another place to breathe here. I need to be doing that for myself now. 

Dr. P – Well, that’s great!  So actually, what I think I’m hearing you say, is that in some way, you’re trying to do it “right?” 

T – Yes.

Dr. P – According to what you think the composer wanted. Even if you don’t necessarily know this composer, you want to make it “right.” 

So, let’s compare that with your job as an artist. When you’re playing a piece of music, what is your job as an artist?

T – It is as best as possible to convey the wishes of the composer. That’s what I think anyway,

Dr. P – So where do YOU fit in?

T – I’m kind of the conveyance. I’m just the means when trying to convey something. Every once in a while, I feel like I have something to say as well. And in those cases, I’ll just kind of tweeze it out a little bit more, put my little spin on it. Especially if it’s a living composer whom you can dialogue with. You really have to be able to ask, “Okay, is this what you really meant?”

Dr. P – I love this! It’s really interesting stuff about being an artist. 

How do you then account for everybody’s different interpretation of the same piece, everybody playing it differently? If they’re all trying to do what the composer wants?

T – So here’s the thing, and this is probably speaks volumes about me. I’m like, “Well, of course I want to hear Emanuel Pahud’s ideas. Who the hell wants to hear my ideas? Who am I?” That’s where I am. 

Now, I’m not always like that. There are things that I play that I’m like…

Dr. P – (interrupts…)

Well, let’s, let’s pause and deal with that.

Okay, so, you don’t always feel like you have an artistic voice. That is a very different statement from being a conveyance.

How do they feel different to you?

T – That’s is a really interesting point. I have to think about that. Because I said it, right? Out of my mouth! So am I just a highly skilled worker? Or am I an artist? And honestly, I probably treat myself like I’m just a highly skilled worker 80% of the time.

Dr. P – Okay. So here’s the question. This is really important, because we don’t always map ourselves as artists, right? 

What’s the feeling in your body? 

When you think of yourself as an artist, how is the feeling in your body different from when you think of yourself as a highly skilled worker

How do you embody those two differently?

T – Oh, wow. Okay. It’s a big difference. Because I go into one feeling like I can’t do anything wrong. 

And the other one I go into thinking, “Please don’t let me screw this up.” That’s two different mental frames going into the whole situation.

Dr. P – No kidding! Hold that for a minute, let your body really feel those distinctions.

As you are feeling them, notice if thinking and feeling those two different ways changes how you breathe! 

T – It does make a difference.

Dr. P – Yeah! Can you articulate how?

T – Well when I go to a piece thinking – “I’m gonna have fun and I hope the audience has fun too,”  that’s an artist mindset. I’m thinking, “I enjoy this. I want to share this with them. And I hope they enjoy it too.” When I approach it that way, I do play better.

Dr. P – What exactly do you do better when you approach it with fun, and sharing the music?

T – Okay, everything. I breathe better. I sound better. I engage better. I feel more successful. 

Dr. P – All right. Great! So that is not just better. Right? That’s phenomenal! (gesturing excitedly) That’s music making! That’s artistry! That’s communication! That’s relationship! That’s connection with the composer!

T – Yeah. (Smiling)

Dr. P – Okay. Now tell us what the other one is like.

T – It’s “Please don’t let me screw this up.” 

Dr. P – Yep. What does that do to your body? 

T – Everything is tense. And nothing is working together. 

Dr. P – Okay. It’s not coordinated. Right?

T – Yeah. Especially if there’s any virtuosic aspect to it.

So instead of just getting in a flow with the music and enjoying the music like it’s a song that’s coming out of me, I’m thinking, “Oh, fingers, please don’t do this.” Or if it’s a long phrase, “Please. Have air be there. I gotta make it all the way through. Yeah, please.”

Dr. P – Feel it!  Can you feel how much pressure that puts on you? 

T – Oh, yeah. 

Dr. P – It’s like what you said, squeezing. It’s squeezing you to make it come out. 

T – Right. “Please. Make it come out right.”

Dr. P – Okay, that is huge. Are you feeling the hugeness of this distinction?

T – Yes, I am. Yeah. So here’s the thing, then how do I start transforming into believing I’m an artist?

Dr. P – Let’s do it right now! Play something for us that you know by heart – just a couple phrases.

T – (Plays Mozart G major first 2 phrases)

Dr. P – Wonderful! What were your thoughts as you were playing?

T – When I started I was like, “Okay, here we go.” And then, “oh, wait a minute. Here comes the telling section. Oops. I haven’t played a note this morning. Why? Why did I pick this?”

Dr. P – So this is a great choice! Because every audition has this Mozart concerto on it. Let’s go a little deeper. 

Get yourself in a mindset of “I gotta get this right. Or I’m gonna lose my job.” And do all those things that you do when you’re trying to make it right.

T – (plays again)   All right, so I screwed it up.

Dr. P – That’s it. Okay. What was that like? 

T – Oh, that sucks. 

Dr. P – What did you notice about the way your body was feeling?

T – Tense from the get go. Well, actually, the first couple minutes, I thought “Hey, I can do this.” And then again, it was “Oh, I don’t even – I don’t actually really know. I can’t visualize the music.” That’s when I realized, I don’t have this memorized. “I can’t. That was muscle memory. I don’t know this from memory anymore.”

Dr. P – All right. That’s what I call good information! You noticed some important things about how you think and play when you’re in that state.

Dr. P – So here’s what I want you to do next. 

Dr. P – Imagine that you’re in a school, in a gym. And you’ve got all these little first, second & third graders sitting around you on the floor. You’re there to play music for them. You remember how operatic and fun Mozart was! So you are telling a story with this music. You’re looking around at them and playing to different ones and catching their eyes and doing a little smile with them and showing them how incredibly fun this music is. Can you do that?

T – (plays again)

Dr. P – Great!! Tell me about that. 

T – Well, I made eye contact. I made a connection. I felt like, these are my friends (referring to the group on screen.) They just want to hear me play well. And it was a lot freer!

Dr. P – Okay, so do you think those first, second and third graders care where you take a breath? 

T – Oh, no! But what I get upset about is, these are my colleagues. J. knows that’s the wrong place to breathe. K. knows I was in the wrong place. A part of my brain is like…

Dr. P – Ok. How often are you able to recognize that voice that’s telling you that you’re wrong?

T – Like 5000 times a day!

Dr. P – Okay. If you recognize that voice over 5000 times a day, what are you doing about it? Are you letting it take over and control you?

T – That’s a good question. Honestly, I don’t know! Maybe. That’s not a good answer is it!

Dr. P – That’s a perfectly good answer! I want to address this because it’s really important. You’ve been wired to think and feel this way this way for so many years. 

Your whole brain, body, being, feelings, emotions, experiences, thoughts – all of it – is wired to be afraid of doing it “wrong.” You’re wired to fear that somebody else will notice that and they’ll think bad things of you, or they’re not going to give you a job, or they’re gonna get mad, or whatever it is they’re gonna do.

So let me ask – is that your default state? 

T – Okay, maybe not with teaching, but often in performing. I’ve been known to tell myself, “See, this is why you’re in a community orchestra, not a real orchestra.”

Dr. P – YES! So when we recognize those thoughts – that’s where we get to make changes and have agency over our own lives. 

I would invite you to start exploring an alternative response to that critical voice, because it’s a powerful voice. And it’s beating the snot out of you, keeping you from being the beautiful artist that you are. 

I’m guessing that you don’t hear it as much when you’re teaching, that it’s more related to performing. 

T – Oh, yeah, yeah. 

Dr. P – Because you are a fantastic teacher. You love those kids. You’re so creative, and so fun with them. 

So you do have that already – that ability to be fully you. You can change that “fear response.” 


Dr. P – So. Does that feel like something you could do?

T – Oh, yeah, yeah. I just I need to pay more attention to it. It’s one of those things that becomes background noise in my daily life.

Dr. P – Yes. You notice it, and you change it. You notice it, and you change it.

T – Right, exactly.

I say this to my students when they’re learning something, “Now that you hear it, you’ll do better right?” Now that I hear it – “Oh, that’s what I’m listening for.”

Dr. P – Yes! So this is also about listening to your body. Your body is the first responder. Your body is going to tell you when you go into that habit of “Oh, geez, I’m never going to get it right” – quicker, probably, than your thoughts will.

I invite you to begin to explore this your playing.



We spent a little longer than I intended today but I think this is all really really valuable stuff. So T, while you process that a little bit, let me ask everybody else: 

What did you notice? What’s your response to what we did today and how we approached this issue of breathing?

First Theme – Lack of support and air

K – As I was I was listening to you play. I was envisioning the children. I didn’t even think about where you were breathing. What I was hearing was the beauty of you telling that story to the children. I could see the tension of “oh, I’ve got to do it right.” But when I saw you just relax and start interpreting the music to get the children involved, there was a whole huge difference. Huge difference.

Dr. P – What was the difference that you saw and heard? 

K – What I heard was warm. You were sharing your love and your warmth with those kids. You’re looking at us, and it’s like, “Oh, okay, I can do this.” I felt, “This is fun. I can listen to this. It’s beautiful. Very beautiful.” And your runs were just flying.

Dr. P – Fantastic. Fantastic! That’s awesome. Beautiful feedback. 

Second Theme – Confidence 

H – It was powerful addressing the root cause of the tension that makes breathing an issue. 

Dr. P – Yeah, we don’t talk about this stuff very much. But it’s all there.

J – Yeah, I agree. I’ve noticed for myself the emotional component of stuff is really powerful. And I agree with K, that when you were playing for the kids, even your first breath was really different. The first time you played it was was kind of up high. And then when you played for the kids, it was just more settled and more resonant. 

I feel like you can really add breaths everywhere. It’s just how you musically put them in there.

Dr. P – I love that, J. Another way to say that is: ask the music when it wants you to breathe. There are always options. The pressure we put on ourselves to try to do it right is humungous, and very limiting.

You now have tools to start noticing that, and to make changes.

CODA – TAKEAWAYS from other participants

J – I was amazed the kind of root cause approach that you took. You didn’t jump in to fix it. You delved deeper. I’ve had my struggles emotionally. But the more you talk about these things with other people, the more you realize that we’re all struggling with all the same things. It makes me feel like I’m not alone.

Dr. P – Wonderful! Why do you think I took that approach? 

J – You could try and “fix” a lot of things. But if there’s underlying emotional stress and tension, that’s not going to go anywhere until you address it.

Dr. P – It was what I heard in their language and saw in their body. When they first said, this tension here, (chest) I’m thinking, okay, maybe we need to explore rib movement. But the more that they talked, I sensed there was a lot behind it. I thought, “we have got to start to unpack this a little bit and see what’s going on, because these thoughts are causing limitation in and of themselves.”

K – I was thinking that when we are invited to be a part of the solution, it means more, and is more impactful – as opposed to somebody telling us what to do.

Dr. P – Yeah. Yes, absolutely! That’s empowerment and collaboration!

So T, what is your takeaway from today?

T – I’m so glad to have this support and have people that can kindly unpack it and not just criticize – “Gosh, why can’t you get this? Why can’t you do it?” Or, say well-intentioned things that are hurtful.

What was important was that you made me be in it and talk and figure it out. Instead of just saying, “try this, try that.” Instead of a “let’s fix it” approach, it was about being curious: “well, what in the world is going on?”

Dr. P – Yes. Curiosity!  Because when I hear those limiting words from someone, I wonder what they mean to this person. How are they embodying this? How are they trying to escape from it? 

T – Right, right. 


Dr. P – So, beautiful job T. Thank you so much for being vulnerable, for allowing us to witness your process in a safe place where you get to be real! You’re going to work through it. 

Quote from Barbara Conable, Founder of Body Mapping (paraphrased)

Augment your concern for students’ body maps with concern for their maps of the self. Just as the body map governs movement, the self map governs the student’s relationship to everything that is happening in the studio or class.

Mapping the diaphragm as the source of support represents devastation in the body map. In the same way, “Oh, I wouldn’t consider myself an artist,” represents devastation in the self map. 

Both can be changed, and both must be changed for success.


Lea Pearson

Music Minus Pain | Transformational Teacher Training Program | Crack the Codes of Breathing and Tension

Lea Pearson, DMA, has been studying education, psychology, movement, anatomy, neuroscience, Body Mapping, the Alexander Technique, entrepreneurship, leadership, performance practice, and Dalcroze Eurhythmics since 1970. 

A licensed Body Mapping Educator, she is an award-winning Master Teacher, a Kennedy Center-trained Teaching Artist, a Fulbright Scholar, and a Certified Health Coach. Formerly a member of the South Bend Symphony, Jackson (MI) Symphony, and a sub with the Toledo Orchestra, Lea performs works by women, Black, and other under-represented composers.

Her dream is that every musician will share their artistic vision with joy and ease – wherever, whenever, and for as long as they want. To that end, she trains teachers in the Transformational Teacher Training Program “Music Minus Pain“.