Pitz Quattrone giving vibroacoustic therapy treatment to Peggy Irons
An estimated 5 to 20 percent of Americans suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA, according to the Mayo Clinic. It's a disorder in which breathing stops during sleep because of blockage in the airways. Many things can cause this blockage, and, if left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to more serious health problems including increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Clinical treatment often involves the sufferer's use of a continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, machine, which feeds oxygen to the subject through a mask.
But there might be another way.
A 2005 study published in the British Medical Journal suggested an exotic, alternative treatment for sleep apnea sufferers: playing the didgeridoo. The study concluded that subjects who played the ancient Aboriginal wind instrument for at least 20 minutes per day, five days per week, saw improvements in their sleep. That's because the intense, sustained breathing necessary to produce the didge's distinct guttural drone helps strengthen the inner-throat muscles. These are the culprits that relax during sleep, causing the obstruction.
"Playing the didge is like doing push-ups for the lower throat muscles," said didgeridoo guru Pitz Quattrone, who offers lessons for sleep apnea sufferers at his recently opened Didgeridoo Vibroacoustics studio in Berlin. Quattrone has been playing the didgeridoo, or yidaki, for more than 25 years and hopes to offer good vibrations to those willing to embark on his experimental journey to better sleep.
As a potential sufferer myself — I've never undergone a sleep study, but I have my suspicions — I decided to attend his three-week session last December to see what the buzz was about.
The studio is housed in an old building that was once a schoolhouse. Quattrone, 54, greeted me with a warm smile and an open hand. His laid-back cadence, natural threads, and shoulder-length salt-and-pepper hair gave off a hippie-surfer vibe. As we chatted next to his display of didgeridoos, he frequently used the word "man" — as in "Hey, man" and "Cool, man."
Other students began to arrive, some with didgeridoos already in hand. Quattrone had us introduce ourselves and explain why we were there. While one attendee had a confirmed case of sleep apnea and another suspected she did, not all participants were there to seek OSA relief. One person was investigating vibroacoustic therapy as an alternative for her son, who has bipolar disorder. Another attendee simply enjoyed Aboriginal culture.
Quattrone started by giving us a rundown of what he'd cover in the class and a brief history lesson of the didgeridoo. Next, he demonstrated the foundation for playing the instrument: fluttering the lips to make a motorboat sound. He instructed us all to flutter our lips en masse. It proved surprisingly challenging, especially when attempting to sustain it for longer than a couple of seconds. Also, there's no way to do it without looking and feeling goofy. But mastering that technique is essential.
Once we warmed up, those of us who wanted to purchase didgeridoos headed over to Quattrone's display to select one. He handcrafts the didges himself, sourcing much of his raw material from the softwood Paulownia tomentosa, or princess tree. Though nonnative, the tree grows abundantly in North America and is considered invasive. But its naturally hollow branches are perfect for making didgeridoos. Many of Quattrone's instruments were made from branches of a princess tree on the University of Vermont campus.
Next, we were ready to make some noise. Quattrone suggested we spread out around the studio, giving ourselves space to hear our own sounds. As we struggled to vibrate our lips within the narrow openings of our didgeridoos, the room filled with a cacophony of rumbling, vaguely fart-sounding sputters and toots. The awkward hilarity of these sounds did not go unnoticed. Quattrone took this opportunity to point out a fun fact: Being masters of fake fart noises, children often pick up the technique more quickly.
Giggles under control, I decided to give myself some additional space and wandered into the adjacent vibroacoustic therapy room. It is adorned with cerulean twinkle lights, kaleidoscopic light projections and tufted sheets pinned to the ceiling like giant, fluffy clouds. At its center is a vibroacoustic table, a tool Quattrone uses in another form of therapy — with his own didgeridoo twist.
At a glance, a vibroacoustic table doesn't look much different from any old massage table. But concealed within it are transducers that emit high-intensity, low-end sound waves from recordings made specifically for vibro tables — and, in Quattrone's case, a miked didge as well — that massage the person who lies on it. This form of vibroacoustic therapy can provide relief from stress, anxiety and other ailments.
Quattrone checked in with each student, listening intently and offering tips for good technique. Don't puff up your cheeks as you blow — keep them flat and tight. Don't let air escape from the corners of your lips. He told us to inspect our didges, making sure to line up their slightly ovular openings to completely cover our mouths. Keep your neck straight, not tilted down. That is tricky, since it's natural to glance down at the didge while playing it.
We took a short break to rest our lips — mine felt like fireworks were exploding inside of them. It was a peculiar, intense sensation.
Quattrone demonstrated some sounds that are used in classical Aboriginal storytelling: the boing-boing of a kangaroo, the tremulous buzz of a mosquito, a dingo's gruff bark, a chattering kookaburra and ocean waves lapping against the shore. He explained how, through the subtle use of the tongue, the drone can be augmented and rhythms can be injected. Pull your tongue back from your fluttering lips, and the tone widens and deepens. Push your tongue toward your lips, and the tone constricts and rises. To make the dingo and kookaburra sounds, send your voice through the didge as you drone.
Quattrone also began to explain circular breathing, which allows a didgeridoo player to go for long periods of time without breaking the drone. The technique is daunting and takes significant practice. It's not something we would master in a three-week session.
Here's the concept in a nutshell: You continue to push air through the didge with your mouth while breathing in through your nose. It's kind of like the conundrum of patting your head while rubbing your tummy, only about a thousand times more difficult. The trick is to sneak a breath in while the cheek muscles push air outward from the mouth — not the lungs. Quattrone made it look easy.
Over the three-week session, I made noticeable improvements, both in the quality of my drone and my ability to sustain longer notes. My first night playing at home, I could barely sustain a drone for 10 seconds. By the time I headed back for my second lesson, I could drone for more than 30 seconds.
As for my sleep, I can't say that I'm magically cured, but I've noticed that I don't wake up as frequently during the night as I used to.
Quattrone stressed the importance of putting in time. "I'm totally convinced any amount of didge playing is going to be beneficial," he said. "[But] it's a long process. It's not a quick fix. It's not like you take a pill or put a mask on.
"If you're willing to work at it," he continued, "you're going to see a lot of great results."
Pitz Quattrone's next three-week didgeridoo/sleep apnea workshop, on three successive Tuesdays, begins January 24 at his studio in Berlin. $75 plus cost of didgeridoo.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Deep Breaths"