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Local musician uses breathwork with wind instruments to improve expression, resilience 

May 18, 2023   ·   0 Comments

By Constance Scrafield

Alexandra Park, behind Orangeville Town Hall, is home to a carved wooden statue of two musicians on the 2nd Street side of the park. One plays his saxophone, and the other is on his harmonica, Ryan Grist and Larry Kurtz. The statue honours the volunteers of the Orangeville Blues and Jazz Festival. Recently, Mr. Grist talked to the Citizen about playing and teaching music and the many virtues of breathing well that playing a musical instrument can teach. 

Mr. Grist commented at the outset, “Not a lot of people realize what a musicologist does. Some of what we discover can be very obscure or so specific you’d never think that someone would think of it.”

When Mr. Grist was injured as a carpenter, he began looking for other avenues. He was drawn back to music and managed to get full funding for work on his Master’s degree at York. His focus was on something applicable that could help people, especially young students, understand how breathing is taught. Ryan Grist is now a Ph.D. candidate.

He expanded, “Instructors can be fuzzy and even inaccurate, like the idea of pushing from your diaphragm. It is passive on exhalation and some kids don’t have a really good knowledge about this until doing music later in university. Wind instruments are so reliant on breath. We must realize you have to use your intercostal muscles (the muscles between the bones of the rib cage) and abdomen and that we don’t really feel the diaphragm muscles. Because, if we don’t teach this reliably, we’re sending a poor message.”

Understanding good technique of breathing came when he was working on the flute because there’s so little resistance. Mr. Grist started doing a nose breath exercise to ensure he had enough air and realized he was starting to feel better. 

“I was feeling so grounded and relaxed after my practice. That led to my MRP [Major Research Project] for my Masters.”

Currently, he is designing a woodwind doubling course and workshops that help students to play better and teach young students about body awareness through music. He hopes this helps musicians become more expressive and resilient. 

“This also applies to voice and brass but those are a little outside my area,” he said, adding, “If we have an integrated practice, we can get the wellness benefits of correct breathing from the way the body works.” 

Taking these lessons to young students gives them a jump start on playing better and feeling better. Warming up as short a time as three to five minutes and integrating it with the curriculum can make these lessons simple. The health benefits from it, he offered, with a young band, can be attained with something as simple as taking a nose breath on a four-beat rest. It helps everybody to relax and be calm.

“There’s lots of scholarship about using breathing and mindfulness in a classroom.”

“My focus is on using it in music,” Mr. Grist observed.

His big hope rests in adding to the body of research that shows the massive benefit of how mental health is helped by this. He hopes that by demonstrating this, it will help the arts in the schools not to be cut. 

Working with private students who have come back to him, saying, “I really feel better,” heartens him to want to keep working this way and talking to teachers that are commenting, “We need that in the school now for the students.” 

It is a likely result that students may practice more because it makes them feel good, and they will take that into the rest of their lives.

The performance part of the research, as he said, is that poor breath gives a poor sound. The association of breath and sound leads to: “If you don’t prepare with a full tank, you can’t drive as far.” 

His analogy is if you don’t prepare, poor breathing is a distraction. Instead, learning to use a nose breath and stretching out or pacing out your breath improves playing an instrument.

“There would be a method book,” he said, “A method book will hopefully be built into the Ph.D.”

Mr. Grist’s ambition is to make this information available and integrated into the curriculum. At this time, most of his teaching has been to undergrad, high school and elementary.

“I’ve been in elementary schools here for ‘show and tell.’ I go in with a bunch of saxophones and the kids see them and then hear them and it’s amazing to see how they react. That’s my favourite thing.” 

Presently, he is going to York University and his MRP “Breathing Pedagogy for Woodwind Practitioners” was accepted “with Distinction” and translated into four languages. Now he needs to learn two languages, opting to study French and Spanish, mainly for reading purposes. 

Through his research, he hopes to expand our knowledge of physiology, “how that will affect our playing and how we approach phrasing; how we are in the world; how we are with other people.”

He did a survey with an elementary school, and the only kids that were aware of the benefits of breathing were the ones that had been in therapy. He hopes to change that. Deep breathing is one of the first tools used to calm a person down. 

One thing about breathing, notes the wisdom, is that we all do it.

Of all in which Mr. Grist is currently involved, musically, he is teaching privately and thinking about a new way to deliver the integrative breathing method for a duo or trio group. His lessons aim to help students to play together and correct misconceptions about how they are breathing, hoping to influence their musical experience, “stemming from how I benefitted from my own experience.”

Back to our roots as humans, “Long before we had anything, we were exploring sound, mimicking nature, grounding in wonderful music. Before we are born, we hear the rhythm of our mother’s heart. I don’t think we should lose it.” 

Ryan Grist is available for gigs, weddings, and receptions in various jazz configurations. You can also hear him with Soul Collective and the Rooftop Big Band at this year’s Orangeville Blues & Jazz Festival. 

Mr. Grist is also accepting new woodwind students.

For details and to inquire about lessons, go to

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