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Five Truths about Breathing

Micah Everett | October 2017

    Breathing is a major area of instruction for wind players, and for good reason: Not only does air supply the fuel needed for tone production, but tension, inefficiency, or poor technique in the breathing process can make playing unnecessarily difficult. This is especially true for players of larger and lower-pitched instruments, for which the air requirements are greater than for their smaller and higher-pitched counterparts, but poor breathing can negatively affect playing on all wind instruments.
    In some cases, incorrect breathing techniques are not the result of blatantly wrong information. Instead, incomplete explanations are to blame, in which students and perhaps teachers take a concept that is sound when properly applied but becomes harmful when emphasized to the point that other important breathing concepts are overshadowed. Sometimes simple overthinking is to blame, but failure to consider the entirety of the breathing process in instruction and execution can also lead to problems.
    Whatever the means by which breathing difficulties arise, the following five truths represent aspects of breathing that I frequently see neglected or misunderstood by students and, if I am not careful, even by me. For nearly all of these, the problem is conceptual rather than practical; simply conceiving of the body and the breathing process correctly will yield benefits without the addition of new exercises or drastic alterations to playing or teaching.

The body is a three-dimensional entity.
    Arguments among teachers and students about breathing often center on the question of whether the lungs fill from the bottom up or everywhere at once. (It is the latter, but more on that later.) Regardless of one’s position on this question, common explanations from both perspectives often come from an implied viewpoint that the body in general and the lungs in particular are two-dimensional. The body is considered from up-down and side-side perspectives but not from a front-back one. The lungs are thought of as being in the front of the body, with little acknowledgement that they extend all the way through the chest to the back. This mental concept leads, unconsciously, to the body moving with the breath in such a way that up-down and side-side expansion is allowed but front-back expansion is minimized, and a certain amount of potential air volume is never realized. For more barrel-chested individuals like me, this unrealized capacity can be a considerable amount, indeed.
    Think of the lungs in three dimensions, and feel them expanding in all of those directions as you inhale. If you haven’t thought of the body in this way before you will likely notice an immediate and drastic change for the better.

The lungs are in the chest, not the abdomen.
    Often paired with the two-dimensional lungs problem is a focus on movement in the abdomen when breathing. Many of us have had teachers who admonished us to breathe low to play, and when rightly understood and applied this can be a correct instruction; a proper breath includes movement in the lower part of the torso. However, when this is overemphasized or misapplied it can lead to several errors.
    The first of these is simply that students will conceive of the lungs as being in the belly rather than in the chest. This leads – unconsciously, like the error previously discussed – to breaths where abdominal motion is exaggerated and motion in the chest, sides, and back is restricted; thus maximum air volume is not attained.
    Even worse, the emphasis on abdominal motion can lead to excessive engagement of the abdominal muscles when playing, creating unnecessary tension that can extend to the legs, arms, shoulders, and embouchure. While the abdominal muscles do come increasingly into play as one ascends into the high register, the best results are achieved when muscular effort is kept to the minimal amount possible for the instrument and range being played.
    A somewhat less harmful but sillier-looking error related to this is the aforementioned bottom-up approach, where the lungs are conceived of as filling like liquid being poured into a bucket, rather than like air being blown into a balloon. I have even seen techniques where people will move the abdomen, the sides, the chest, and the back in sequence whenever taking a breath, and the effect looks like a bizarre belly-dance. While there are perhaps some therapeutic applications in which breathing sequentially in this way is helpful, a normal breath involves allowing the lungs to expand in all directions simultaneously.
    While proper breathing involves motion in the abdomen, this is a secondary motion that occurs as a consequence of the diaphragm lowering and flattening, not a primary motion undertaken by the abdominal muscles. The lungs are in the chest, so that is where the air goes. Keep that in mind when breathing and, again, allow the lungs to expand omnidirectionally. When this is done, the ribs, spine, diaphragm, and other structures of the chest and abdomen will move in a delightfully coordinated manner to allow a full, relaxed, comfortable breath.

Breathing exercises increase efficiency, but not capacity.
    Regular use of breathing exercises by wind players seems to have started in the drum corps and marching band worlds, but with the advent of The Breathing Gym and similar programs their use has become common in a variety of contexts. There is good reason for this widespread popularity – breathing exercises work. Never­theless, there is some misunderstanding of how these exercises improve performance. To put it briefly, breathing exercises do not increase lung capacity. Our lungs reach their maximum size when we reach adulthood, and any increase in lung capacity experienced by younger students occurs because of the growth of their bodies generally.
    Nevertheless, while lung capacity itself is not increased by using breathing exercises, the efficiency with which we use the capacity that we have is. Think of all the muscles and structures that come into play to allow and contribute to the expansion and contraction of the lungs every time we breathe. Breathing exercises are essentially a type of overtraining of the breathing apparatus, which over time becomes more flexible and efficient as these exercises are performed. As a result, we become able to move air more easily and effectively when playing.

We inhale to exhale.
    For wind players, the primary purpose of breathing (other than to sustain life, of course) is to make tone production possible. Creating sound is the main thing, and that is a function of exhalation, not inhalation. Thus, in a certain sense, the most important part of the breath is the exhalation. Despite this, students often focus too much upon the inhalation, or more specifically, on creating the feeling of having filled up with air, rather than focus on efficiently moving that air through the instrument. The problems with this are threefold.
    First, the sensation associated with having taken a full breath is often not the result of having filled with air, but rather an unconsciously created muscle tension that the student associates with filling up. As has been suggested previously, breathing fully is a relaxing experience rather than a tense one; a full-capacity breath should feel pleasant rather than stressful. In fact, the tension created to generate that artificial sense of being full actually ends up depriving the student of the ability to efficiently use the air he has.
    In any case, even the correct sensation of having filled up should be a somewhat rare experience, because not every breath has to be at full capacity. This statement will come as no surprise to oboists, trumpeters who perform frequently on piccolo trumpet, and other players of high-pitched instruments, but to many low brass players it is tantamount to heresy. Most of the time, though, we have ample opportunities to breathe, so much so that attempting to take in a full breath every time will only create tension and timing problems rather than facilitating better playing. Focus on using a correct, relaxed, efficient breathing technique, and take in the volume of air needed for the passage at hand. Think of a good breath being more about correct methodology than high volume.
    Third, seeking the filled up sensation inevitably leads to a hiccup of varying severity between the inhalation and the exhalation, as the player needs to hold momentarily before releasing the air to achieve the desired sensation. This leads to the final topic for this discussion.

Stopping the air destroys timing and coordination.
    “Breathe together, play together” is a common refrain among band conductors seeking uniform initial attacks from their ensembles. Indeed, you might have even observed fine string and percussion players achieving coordinated entrances by breathing in time as an ensemble. A well-timed breath benefits more than ensemble performance, though; even individual tone production becomes more effortless and pleasing when the inhalation and exhalation occur evenly and in time. Sadly, even students and directors who acknowledge the importance of breathing together and in time fail to reap the benefits of doing so for one simple reason: there is a pause – however brief – between the inhalation and the exhalation. When this happens, even a group that begins the initial breath in unison will fail to play the first note precisely together. Players sometimes notice that their initial attacks have an explosive quality but do not always understand that momentarily holding the air before playing is the cause of this.
    The solution to this problem is simple in concept but sometimes challenging in application. To eliminate this issue, simply inhale until the exhalation begins, without even a split-second pause between the two. This will deprive students of the sensation of filling up, as was indicated previously. Instead, the sensation when playing should be one of constantly moving air – in and out. Internal subdivision of the beat becomes vitally important here, as continuing the inhalation for the entirety of the preparatory beat can be effective only as long as everyone agrees on the duration of that beat. Repeated practice of the initial breath and attack, with and without a metronome, individually and as an ensemble, is necessary both for creating and reinforcing the correct breathing sensation and for perfecting timing. The benefit of improved performance is more than worth the effort needed to apply this and all of the concepts discussed here.