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The Mind-Body Connection: Pain, Choral Breathing, and Mortal Danger

Spoiler: it was actually a single mighty clap of thunder, but I wouldn't know that until 9:30 pm the next day.


After 8 years, I finally decided it was time to get physical therapy to manage the chronic hip pain lingering after my final pregnancy. I was shocked to discover that my physical therapist and I share the same philosophy: his for pain, and mine for choral breathing. In two wildly different professions, the commonality of philosophy is in the mind-body connection.

I've discovered through working with him that my hip doesn't actually hurt, I only think it does. I buy into this theory-- it certainly sounds like me. My hip hurt(s) because 1) I remember that it used to hurt 2) I'm afraid it's going to hurt again 3) I do some (ineffective) things so that it won't hurt anymore 4) I know it's going to hurt 5) I'm prepared for it to hurt 6) I protect it 7) I'm hypervigilant looking for signs that it's going to hurt again, and then 8) it hurts. The funny thing here is that it probably doesn't actually hurt on its own, especially when I'm driving. In the car, after sitting, and after lying down for an extended period of time, my hip really hurts.

I'm certain everyone responds differently to a medical professional saying "no, it probably doesn't really hurt," but to me this is Great News! After several thorough exams, x-rays, and various attempts at pain management, nothing is wrong except a faulty engine warning light in my body that keeps coming on, and I can learn to manage that. I can officially go on with life.

My pain is a strange artifact from a miscommunication between mind and body. The problem isn't "is this pain real or imagined?" I definitely experience it, but there are different questions to ask of it:

1) Is this pain external (body), internal (mind), or does the pain exist in the connection between the two?

2) Do I really need to intervene in this pain or not?

3) If so, how?

I was amazed to find this triage already familiar to me. I use it all the time in choral rehearsals to encourage many singers who are breathing effectively when they think they're not.


Why do so many singers believe they can't breathe? When choristers tell me "I don't know how to breathe! Teach me how to breathe! I'm not breathing right! I'm doing something wrong!" I scratch my head. Here are highly capable people who speak full sentences all day long, sing high and low pitches, and sustain long and short tones... Singers who think they don't know how to breathe are probably in the top 1% of breathers out there!

Some don't believe they can breathe because someone told them they don't know how to breathe right. They believe it and thus make protective corrections for things that are not problems. We act as if we are defective and then quickly become so.

I got an official diagnosis for my hip pain:

Kinesiophobia: I believe that movement can cause more injury and pain. I protect myself from pain, overcompensating and underfunctioning, thus causing me the pain I'm afraid to experience.

Here are some potential diagnoses for this equivalent phenomenon in breathing for singing:

Imposter syndrome: I'm not really who I am. I don't really do what I do, so I can't. I can't breathe, so I don't.

Focal dystonia: My body won't make the sounds I want it to make because I hyperfocus on it. The stakes are too high for me to attempt to make the sounds I want to make. The more microscopically I think about my breathing, the more paralyzed I become.

Perfectionism: It's got to be right or I won't/can't perform. If I can't breathe "right," I can't breathe at all.

With a philosophy of "there are a lot of right ways to breathe" and "how do you know you're doing something 'wrong,'" I employ several beliefs when advising singers about breathing "problems:"

1) I never believe anyone when they tell me "I don't know how to breathe." Instead, I find out.

2) I refer singers to specialists when I hear ear-nose-throat issues like chronic congestion and split pitches, or if there is persistent pain or chronic vocal fatigue.

3) I start with the repertoire and from there, teach pacing. How long/big/full is a breath? Where should it be to best serve the music? How much time should it fill? What does a breath need to accomplish and how is it set up?

For singers, the only way to touch the instrument is through the mind. The only way to teach someone to use their own instrument is for them to learn it through their own senses and imaginations. Considering the mind-body connection, it begs the right questions:

1) Is breathing external (body), internal (mind), or does breathing exist in the connection between the two?

2) Do I really need to intervene in my breathing or not?

3) If so, how?

Can you meet this breathing demand?


About two months ago, there was a big boom that shook the house at 1:20 am. For the second time as a mother, I awoke to a sickening sound knowing something was really wrong in my home, believing my children were in mortal danger. I sat in my bed for a moment trying to figure out why I was awake, then bolted up the stairs to my children's bedrooms fearing that a bookshelf had fallen over on someone, or a car had crashed into the house, or something similarly cataclysmic had happened. When I got upstairs, there was no problem anywhere. Nothing. No one was awake. Even the cats blinked at me from the couch trying to figure out why I was upstairs. There was no fallen tree on the house, no gas explosion, no problem anywhere. My 8-yr-old, whom I believed to be awake, rambled some sort of word salad while I asked him repeatedly to tell me what had happened, but he didn't make any sense. Believing that I was also fully awake, I repeatedly yelled at my sweet, confused, asleep child "What happened!?" He had no idea what the noise was and why he was awake. He finally confessed that he did in fact know what had woke him up: "Mom, YOU woke me up." I, apparently, woke up the whole entire house.

To his credit, my husband unfailingly believed that I had indeed experienced this sound (...this is distinct from "I believe you think you heard this sound," which could have predicated his untimely murder...) and spent the following morning thoroughly exploring the house and property with me looking for what had caused the ruckus in the night. Nothing. In the absence of any accusation that I was losing my mind, I started researching-- looking into water heaters and furnaces, asking neighbors if they'd heard anything, and reading online about sleep phenomenon. Finally, I uncovered a possible explanation for what I had experienced:

Hahahahahahahahaa!!!!!! Um. Yeah.

Exploding Head Syndrome--a (normal) auditory hallucination of a loud sound experienced when falling asleep or upon waking.

I think this name is hilarious, but it seems accurate enough to describe the magnitude of what I alone had experienced during the night.

Upon further research, I discovered that Exploding Head Syndrome (again, hahhahahahaa!) is a fringe side effect of withdrawal from a muscle relaxant I had recently discontinued from the afore-mentioned hip pain. (Remember the hip pain?) I spent the day trying on the idea that I had experienced the sound internally. My husband agreed to let me wake him in the future (this is a big ask, as anyone who's seen the photo gallery from the past 10 years of my spouse napping may well understand) to help me investigate in the moment the source of a sound. I just can't in good conscience dismiss everything as Exploding Head Syndrome (hahahahahaha! Gosh, that name...). But, I believe that with help I can learn to distinguish over time what sounds are external and which are internal.

Here again is the mind-body connection at play, and those same questions:

1) Is this sound external (body), internal (mind), or is the sound somewhere in the connection between the two?

2) Do I really need to intervene because I heard this sound or not?

3) If so, how?

As I mentioned in the spoiler, the house-shaking explosion was a lone thunderclap that was confirmed by a neighbor late the next evening. It shook his house too and woke him up. He had remained awake to see if the storm would develop, but nothing came of it. I had not actually hallucinated. It was not actually Exploding Head Syndrome. But it could have been.


Richard Bach writes in his book "Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah," pub 1977:

"Donald, that's beautiful! I didn't know you could play the guitar! ... So you really know all things don't you?"

"You do too, of course. I just know that I know all things."

"I could play the guitar like that?"

"No, you'd have your own style, different from mine."

"How do I do that?" I wasn't going to run back and buy the guitar, I was just curious.

"Just give up all your inhibitions and all your beliefs that you can't play. Touch the thing as though it was a part of your life, which it is, in some alternate lifetime. Know that it's all right for you to play it well, and let your non-conscious self take over your fingers and play."

I had read something about that, hypnotic learning, where students were told they were masters of art and so played and painted and wrote like master artists. "That's a hard thing, Don, to let go of my knowing that I can't play a guitar."

"Then it will be a hard thing for you to play the guitar. It will take years of practice before you give yourself permission to do it right, before your self-conscious mind tells you that you have suffered enough to have earned the right to play well."

My first voice teacher told me "If I could remove your brain, you'd sing like an angel." When my most recent voice teacher answered my burning question "When do I get a chance to recover mid-stream when I discover vocal tension?" she replied, "Simple. You get a chance to recover with every breath." How innately wise is the body? I wonder when/how/why we finally decide to give ourselves permission to release the illusionary barriers preventing us from accessing something completely freeing and potentially life-changing.

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