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Breathing is Essential

Proper breathing is essential to playing a wind instrument. It directly affects tone production, intonation, endurance, range and tonguing. Although breathing is a natural reflex action, the proper breathing necessary to play wind instruments is a skill that must be learned. It is not essential that beginning students understand exactly how their anatomy works while breathing. In fact, this can be quite confusing. It is critical, however, that students experience, firsthand, proper breathing through appropriate activities.

Proper breathing like anything else takes practice.

Steps to Proper Breathing:

A. Sit up on the edge of a chair with your chest and shoulders relaxed, and back straight.

B. Hold your head erect with your chin slightly elevated.

C. Relax your throat, as in a yawn.

D. Place your hands at your waist and inhale through your mouth. Inhale deeply so that your waist expands against your hands. Your shoulders and chest should not rise. If your waist does not expand, try one of the following breathing activities.

i) Place your hands at your waist and inhale through your mouth. You should hear a low-pitched "ah" during the inhale: or

ii) Place your hands at your waist and inhale deeply through your nose; exhale immediately. Duplicate the feeling while inhaling through your mouth: or,

iii) Place your hands at your waist and inhale deeply through a soda straw. (Brass players can achieve the same effect by inhaling through the shank end of their mouthpieces.); or

iv) Place your hands at your waist and inhale deeply through your mouth. When your lungs feel completely filled, take three more sips of air; or

v) While standing, lock your hands behind your knees and inhale deeply.

E. Place your hands at your waist. Count slowly, "1-2-3-4".

Breathe deeply on count 4, quickly filling your lungs with air.

F. Set your embouchure and mouthpiece as if you were about to play. Count "1-2-3-4". Breath deeply on count 4, quickly filling your lungs with air.

Good breathing technique not only makes the sound better, but it also helps us stay focused on what we're doing, and it calms our nerves. Remember everything we are, as wind and brass musicians come off, on how we breathe.

More Breathing Exercises:

  1. Think of blowing "through" the instrument. Make the target of your blowing something out in front of you, like the music on the stand. Practice without the instrument by blowing out onto the back of your hand, onto hanging pieces of paper, etc. This mental shift prevents the "wall" from getting set up.

  2. Take a full breath for one count, hold the air in for four counts, blow out over two counts, and repeat several times. When holding the air in, do not close the throat! Instead use the muscles of the ribcage and diaphragm to hold the lungs in their expanded position. You should be able to talk easily at any time, without having to unlock the tongue or throat first.

  3. Take a full breath and hold it as in the above, and look out the window. When a car drives by, "play" a note as if on trombone, that is, blow out the air with a "tu" or "du" articulation. Repeat using other random events.

  4. Hold the three middle fingers of your right hand on the back of your left, lightly push against it and allow the right hand to spring away. The left hand also moves slightly as it accepts the energy of the right. This is a good model for starting a note. Now take a breath and blow with the "tu" articulation. Synchronize the actions of your tongue with those of your model.

  5. Now, pick up the instrument. Can you inhale and at the point of being comfortably full, start to play without a pause? Think of a wave; you are always inhaling or exhaling, and there is no point where you are holding static air.

  6. Play a random series of notes, alternating between breath attacks (Ho) and normal attacks.

  7. Practice buzzing with a piece of paper dangling in front of the mouthpiece. Try to blow steady air onto it. Notice how the flow drops away in the low range.

  8. Place the index finger vertically against the lips, and suck air past it. Try to get a low, open sound.

  9. Pick up a straw, and take several breaths through it. Concentrate on sucking against the resistance of the straw. Add a straw and take a few more breaths. Keep adding straws until you get up to six or seven (close to an open throat). Finally, go back to the original straw. Does it feel any easier than the first time?

  10. Try to blow out a candle at 10 paces.

Some Common Traps

  1. Overbreathing

  2. Brass players should avoid going over the point of feeling comfortably full. Trying to cram air into the lungs causes all sorts of tension problems that can manifest themselves as neck, shoulder, or arm repetitive-use injuries.

  3. Expanding to breathe

  4. It is possible to engage all the respiratory muscles with the throat partially or fully closed so that no air enters, and in fact this does happen to brass players in stressful performance situations. It is related to the "fight or flight" response. Unfortunately, we don't have sensory nerves in the lungs to tell us if air has actually entered. We are oriented towards the outside, and it is best to rely on external signs that we are taking a breath. For example, we can focus on the feel of the air as it passes our lips or the cold sensation of it on the back of our throat. We don't need to tell it where to go; as long as it is going in, the body will put it in the right place. Think of it this way: "breathe to expand, don't expand to breathe."

  5. Excess Friction. If you breathe with a tight oral cavity you reduce the flow and work too hard. Friction at the point of entry (the mouth) can translate into too much tension elsewhere in the body. On the other hand, an open inhalation seems to relax everything, including the following exhalation. You can feel the difference by pronouncing the vowel "ee" and taking a breath, then pronounce "ah" or "oh" and notice how much freer it feels. Think "open" when you breathe.

  6. Support with the diaphragm