Breathing Easily

Some words on breathing well.

I was relieved to hear Sarah Willis (french hornist from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra) at a recent masterclass [at the Australian National Academy of Music on June 12th 2012 - link to highlights] explain (as she gestured to the lower abdomen) that “diaphragm” breathing never worked for her. If a player with such strength and power (particularly in the lower register) doesn’t advocate the diaphragm, then this topic deserves further attention.

Based on discussions over almost thirty years with many people including teachers, singers, dancers, athletes, and brass players from all sorts of backgrounds, I have also come to the conclusion that the widespread concept of “diaphragmatic breathing” is misunderstood. Our efforts to “support” with the diaphragm inevitably result in a tightening of the stomach (abdominal) muscles - the diaphragm involuntarily moves irrespective of whether we use “shallow” or “deep” breathing.

How then do we allow the lungs to fill to their maximum and then use the air properly?

• the entire body must be relaxed and loose, particularly the abdomen
• the throat should not be tight or closed; the air just passes through
• keep the pelvic floor uninvolved (the opposite may be of benefit to singers, but I don’t believe it assists with the production of sound on brass instruments)

Breathe in through the mouth and form an “O” with the lips. Make the lips the point of “friction” between the outside world and the body - wet them and feel the coolness as the air rushes past. It will go to all the right areas in the lungs - you don’t need to fill the bottom half first, or breathe into your back or stomach. Let the chest expand as it needs to.

To remind yourself of how wonderful a “relaxed” breath is, take a long slow breath in through the nose, and breathe out through the teeth (SSHHH). Many people using James Thompson’s The Buzzing Book, will be used to the sensation of nasal breathing. My teacher in Germany in the early 1990s Joachim Mittelacher, is an advocate of nasal breathing for all playing, and he was a fiercely powerful and strong bass and contrabass trombonist. I have also spoken to commercial lead trumpeters, who employ nasal breathing in the high register, so as not to disrupt the embouchure setting.

When playing, exhale without force but waste air rather than conserve it. If you run out, take another breath! Avoid breathing through the instrument, and keep the inhalation sounding “dark”.
Playing high involves:
• being relaxed
• developing strength (through plentiful, patient, and organised practice)
• hearing the pitch in your head
• imagining a great sound
• being efficient with the articulation.

I delivered a workshop for university aged brass students for Melbourne Youth Music last week, and there was much confusion and interest amongst the players about how to breathe properly. This indicates to me that there is a lot of teaching taking place along the lines of “diaphragm support”. I’m not convinced that it is of benefit, and in any case I don’t see evidence that breathing is being explained well.

Don’t take my word for it. Try breathing without the abdomen, put your attention onto the lips, speak to people with experience in yoga breathing, then draw your own conclusions.

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