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Back to Breathing

Michael Alsop | February 2019

    The breath is a vital component of playing any wind instrument. Certain occasions call for directors to address breathing, such as when we encourage beginners to use more air to produce a characteristic sound or recommend steady exhalation for consistent long tones. We watch for poor breathing habits and keep a list of tested analogies in our bag of teaching tricks. Rather than waiting for poor breathing habits to appear, I recommend teaching proper breathing techniques from the beginning.
    The best way to address breathing regularly is to make it a part of the daily warm-up routine. A recent survey I conducted of Bands of America marching directors showed that 84% of respondents, or at least 29% of those whose bands qualified for regional finals in 2016 and 2017, teach proper breathing during every rehearsal, usually for less than ten minutes. As with most concepts we teach, more time invested in the beginning pays dividends later. Many breathing exercises can be taught and practiced for the first time in less than ten minutes. Once established, repetition in subsequent rehearsals can take less than two minutes.
    The back of The Breathing Gym has a useful resource for establishing routines. Sam Pilafian and Patrick Sheridan, the book’s authors, provide a chart that prescribes combinations of exercises based on how much time you have and what aspects of breathing you want to address. Possible time frames range from three to ten minutes. These prescribed combinations provide a great starting point for establishing a normal breathing regimen. Over time you may incorporate your own exercises and develop groupings to meet the needs of particular circumstances.
    The book breaks its exercises into five types: stretches, flow studies, therapies, strength and flexibility, and breathing for the brain. For my teaching I have categorized them more broadly as stretches, flow/control exercises, and vital capacity studies. The stretches improve muscle elasticity and prepare the body for physical exertion. The flow and control exercises improve breathing technique and work on consistency of inhalation and exhalation at a variety of speeds and volumes with minimal tension. The vital capacity studies are the over-training exercises that work out the breathing muscles and help students become more comfortable at the top and bottom of their vital lung capacities. When warm-up time is limited, I pick one exercise from each of the three categories. A great attribute of this pedagogy is its flexibility to meet your needs.
    Aside from incorporating breathing exercises into the warm-up routine, they are also useful to address specific problems during rehearsals. When accompaniment players struggle to keep a consistent soft dynamic with good tone quality, stop and practice consistent 16-count exhales. When the ensemble is not uniformly performing a fortepiano accent followed by a crescendo, practice it on air first, then come back and add the instruments. If you see tension creeping into breaths during fortissimo sections, sustain players not understanding stagger breathing, inconsistent staccato articulation, or uncharacteristic/unsupported tone quality, there is a breathing exercise for that.
    The most common breathing exercise described by the surveyed BOA directors is what I call “In for X, Out for Y.” It is a hybrid of several Breathing Gym exercises. I set a metronome to 90 beats per minute and have students continuously breathe in for eight counts and out for eight counts. The value of this exercise comes from its versatility.
    A few repetitions of in-for-eight and out-for-eight is great for refocusing a group mid-rehearsal, providing a short break for musicians in a taxing rehearsal, or calming a nervous body before a big performance.
    If consistency of pitch or dynamics in long tones or legato phrases is a problem, the consistency of the exhale is likely the culprit. Have students strive to achieve checkpoints throughout the inhale and exhale – one-quarter of the way on 3, half-way on 5, three-quarters on 7, and full or empty right on count 1 as you turn around the breath. This is particularly useful for playing soft dynamics. Start with eights and then work the exhale to 12, 16, 24, or 32 beats – or more. As students develop the ability to exhale consistently for 32 counts (with checkpoints at 9, 17, 25, and 1), the support and consistency of air at pianissimo will improve.
    If tension at peak flow is the problem, start with eights and gradually work the number of counts down to two and two. As the numbers get smaller, focus on maintaining the relaxation that was easily achievable with the eights.
    If the music calls for a one-count breath and students have trouble taking in the necessary air, decrease the length of the inhale until you are inhaling for one and exhaling for eight. 
    If students have been holding their breath briefly before exhaling into the instrument, sometimes called capping, focus the students’ attention on a smooth transition between the inhale and exhale. Remind them that their breath should resemble an oval, rounded at the top and bottom with air always moving, not like pistons.
    If students interrupt or stop the airstream in legato passages, add light quarter note or eighth note articulations to the exercise, which allows them to practice continuous airflow through articulations without having to manipulate the instrument.
    Adapt other exercises for specific purposes. If students become complacent later in rehearsal and their breathing is lazy, exercises such as “5-15-5” or “In-Sip-Sip, Out-Push-Push” can encourage students to reset their breathing to full capacity.

Overcoming Obstacles
    While incredibly worthwhile, there are some obstacles to incorporating breathing instruction in a program. Of the BOA band directors surveyed, the most common challenge described is getting commitment from students. Younger students will often put forth lackluster effort because they do not yet grasp the importance of proper breathing. Some find the exercises silly and feel embarrassed in front of their peers. Others find that the exercises require more effort than they are willing to contribute and fake their way through the process.
    As with everything we do, if the routine is monotonous, students will lose interest. The Breathing Gym DVD can be a real asset, with the authors providing instructions and effectively modeling the exercises. However, it is inadvisable to put the DVD on and follow an identical routine every day. The DVD offers an occasional reference, but I encourage you to learn the exercises and take the students through them yourself or with the help of student leaders. Demonstrating how seriously you take the exercises will likely lead to greater commitment from hesitant students.
    Another thing you can do to improve student enthusiasm is to explain the value of practicing breathing away from the instrument. Students of all ages like to know why they are doing things. Arnold Jacobs used an analogy about how race car drivers need to have a working knowledge of what happens under the hood, but once the race starts, it should be one of the last things on their minds. Similarly, we want students to understand how breathing works and develop automatic habits that they do not have to think about while performing. Football players in my bands understand that overtraining in the weight room prepares them to push their opponents around the field. Many of the breathing exercises are overtraining exercises, meant to make the body comfortable using air beyond what is typically needed while breathing at rest.
    It also helps to apply concepts from the breathing exercises to playing as quickly as possible so students can understand the benefits. While incorporating breathing exercises in the daily warm-ups is important, it shouldn’t be the only time students do them. For some, there will be a disconnect between warm-up and application, just like the students who ask, “why do we practice scales all the time?” while remaining oblivious to all the scales in their music. This requires coming up with playing exercises to bridge the gap.
    Perhaps students are struggling to take a large one-count breath without tension in a particular piece of literature. Have the students perform the “Quick Breathing” exercise. Then apply the exercise to instruments with air only while fingering the notes. Then perform the exercise on a single pitch. Finally, return to the passage of music and apply the new, relaxed breath. Remind players throughout the process that the point is a big, tension-free breath in one count. Once the students understand how an exercise will help their performance, they will have greater appreciation for the breathing practice.
    Students frequently have difficulties staying relaxed and avoiding tension during breathing exercises. A big reason for doing them is to establish good breathing habits while playing, so students should be kept from practicing bad habits while breathing away from the instrument. This takes careful monitoring from the teacher and reminders the instant tension is noticed. Do not be afraid, at any time in a rehearsal, to stop and have the students do a cleansing breath or big sigh to reset the body. This reset is especially important after performing some of the more strenuous exercises from The Breathing Gym. The final challenge described by several directors is making sure that proper breathing is maintained once the other responsibilities of playing are added into the mix. The best ways to address this problem have already been mentioned here: provide frequent reminders and find the exercises that can bridge from air-only exercises to playing.
    John Drew, Professor of Trombone at Florida State University, once said in an interview that breathing is at least 80% of what we do as wind instrument players and is the most important technical and physical aspect of playing (ITA Journal 2008). Authors of several of the most popular textbooks for instrumental methods classes emphasize the essential role of proper breathing in wind instrument playing. It is our job as directors to make sure that students are set up for success and practice good breathing habits, and using breathing exercises, such as those from The Breathing Gym, both at the beginning of rehearsal and interspersed throughout, is one of the best ways to make sure that happens.