10 Proven Ways to Improve Your Breathing Collected By Will Kimball

I’ve posted before about Will Kimball’s excellent blog. Kimball teaches trombone at Brigham Young University and usually posts on historical topics. Here is a great essay he wrote concerning breathing for brass players. He searched through scientific literature to get at the truth behind breathing and came up with 10 Ways To Improve your breathing based on what we know scientifically.

  1. Practice taking deep breaths
  2. Eat fruit and vegetables
  3. Don’t smoke
  4. Stay physically fit
  5. Allow full expansion
  6. Don’t wear tight clothes
  7. Avoid eating a lot before performing
  8. Relax
  9. Maintain good posture
  10. Take big breaths, even when you don’t think you need them

Much of the above list he compiled is common sense, but some of it goes against the grain of our brass playing urban legends. For example, Kimball mentions the belief (among some brass players) that carrying some extra weight improves lung function or lung capacity, scientific studies actually show the reverse to be true. Time to hit the gym a little more.

The last point, taking big breaths even when it doesn’t seem necessary for the phrase, has at least one caveat. Citing Arend Bouhuys, a specialist in respiration who has studied musicians, Kimball points out that with a larger breath less effort is required to exhale air, helping the musician to maintain relaxed effort in playing. Essentially the internal pressure of having a full breath means the musician simply relaxes to begin exhalation, rather than having to engage the muscles of expiration. However, Kimball also notes that in soft playing that this practice could potentially work against the player as he or she will need to work against the natural tendency for exhalation with the full breath or risk moving too much air.

Although Kimball doesn’t refer to it, I think that the same can apply to extreme upper register playing as well. Playing in the upper register requires a much smaller aperture and moves less air, much like playing soft. Often times I find that taking a very large breath to attack a pitch in the upper register results in too much air pressure and taking in a bit less air makes it easier to get a clean attack.

At any rate, the whole article is worth a read and Kimball supplies links to all the scientific studies he cites there. Go check it out here.

Building Embouchure Stability In Low Range – Less Air, Not More!

A recent thread on the Trombone Pedagogy Facebook group has gotten me thinking about building embouchure stability in the low range. The specific topic there concerns a particular student who has a very unstable embouchure in general and on low Bb has an uncontrollable waver in her tone. I don’t have permission to share the video, but I do have some photos that illustrate the same situation.

25pedalbbfront-copyThe photo to the right is of a trombonist playing a pedal Bb. I chose this photo because the student trombonist had a similar looking embouchure formation on her low Bb. Note how the embouchure formation has collapsed and is very loose looking.

While it may be necessary at first for inexperienced players to get into the extreme low register like this, overplaying like this will very likely cause issues down the road if the player doesn’t make corrections (click here to read up and view some video footage I documented). Like all habits, it can be difficult to correct and the longer a player relies on collapsing the embouchure formation to play low the harder it will be. Unfortunately,  some of the default advice I was reading on Facebook also seemed to encourage practicing in the low register in a manner that makes it harder to make the necessary embouchure corrections.

Asking a student to “blow more air,” or even to simply “support” the note with the air is going to make it harder for the student to play in the low register with the same level of firmness in the embouchure formation as the rest of their range, but this is what some teachers recommend. Personally, I prefer to help a student with this issue by developing exercises or practicing musical passages that start in a higher range and descend to the problem area with a decrescendo. Playing softly in that low register makes it easier for the student to hold the mouth corners firm, maintain the overall embouchure formation, and use a bit more mouthpiece pressure for additional embouchure stability.

27highbbfront-copy27lowbbfront-copyFor comparison, here are a couple of photos of a different player. The photo to the left is a high Bb (Bb4/ledger lines above bass clef staff). The one to the right is the same player playing a low Bb (Bb2/in the bass clef staff). Note how similar they look from the outside (I happened to catch the vibrating lips on the low Bb when the embouchure aperture was close to closed, but at their peak opens you can see a bigger difference on the embouchure aperture between these pitches).

Playing softly and accepting a thinner tone will help a student to successfully experience what it feels like to play in the low register with a stable embouchure formation. As she gets more comfortable playing that way she can begin adding air and working to open up the sound, but if the embouchure formation collapses again she should stop, reset, and try again with just a little less air. Over time it will get better and easier to add more air. However, it’s important for her to stop encouraging this habit as quickly and completely as possible. Throwing more air at an embouchure formation that is too loose and unstable will not help her build the strength and control to stop collapsing.

That said, performances (and most rehearsals) are different. The above advice is for practice and private lessons. When you perform it’s more important to do whatever you have to in order to sound good. If that means collapsing to play low, that’s fine. Over time the student will be able to play correctly with enough comfort and volume that she won’t even think about making a change, it happens because it has replaced her old habit.

Air Pressure, Pitch Range, and Dynamics

A recent discussion over at the Trumpet Herald forum got me thinking a bit more about the relationship between the pitch and dynamic being played by a brass player and how the breathing functions. Many brass players and teachers talk about using “faster air” for high notes, “blow harder” for loud notes, or “hot, wet, breath” for getting a rich, dark sound. These sorts of descriptions are fairly common, although many variations exist and not everyone feels similarly about their effectiveness in playing and teaching.

It is, of course, necessary to consider that playing sensations are a pretty unreliable way of talking about what exactly is happening in the player’s physiology or in the acoustics of the instrument. What to one player might feel like “blowing harder” might seem more like “faster air.” Furthermore, what works for a brass student and one stage of his or her development may become counterproductive later. This is why it’s important to have a good teacher who can watch you play and make corrections as needed. Teasing out those corrections often will take the form of analogies such as the ones I described, but we have to fall back on trial and error.

All that said, I find the science behind playing mechanics and instrument acoustics fascinating. Regardless of how you feel like you play, there may be some insights we can glean as players and teachers into breathing by taking the time to learn more. This can be a controversial topic, as reading through the Trumpet Herald topic can show. It’s even been a topic I’ve blogged about here that inspired some heated debate in the comments. In part this is due to differences in opinion about whether knowing this can be helpful or is a waste of time. My thought here is that trying to learn more about the way things work is never a waste of time, provided you are aware of the risks of going down the wrong path for a bit and recognize that you might just need to backtrack. Better still is to learn from those who have already done the research and had something to say about it.

One group of researchers, Jonathan Kruger, James McClean, and Mark Kruger, replicated a famous informal experiment that Arnold Jacobs supposedly did measuring the air pressure of brass players on different instruments and comparing how much blowing pressure and airflow were used for pitches. Jacobs noted that as the blowing pressure increased as the player ascended in range while the airflow decreased. He also claimed that players of different instruments would use a similar intra-oral pressure for the same pitch, so that a trombonist playing a “high Bb” would be blowing with about the same amount of pressure as a trumpet player playing the “middle C” (both pitches would be Bb4). Kruger, et al, found some of this to be true, but some of it to be different.

Intra-oral compression does increase as pitch increases and airflow decreases as pitch increases in each of the four members of the brass family. Both measures are also sensi- tive to changes in loudness (dynamic). Figure 2 shows changes in airflow and internal air pressure for a trumpet performer ascending the open pitches from the G below middle C upward while playing as close as possible to 85 decibels. As Jacobs observed, the larger bore instruments require less intra-oral compression and produce more air- flow when playing in their normal ranges than the higher instruments. Contrary to Jacob’s assertion about the simi- larity of instruments playing the same pitch, we observed measurable differences.

Other researchers have done similar experiments and found similar results. Kenneth Berger’s article in the Journal of Applied Physiology, Respiratory and articulatory factors in wind instrument performance (full article behind a paywall, abstract only), notes that the trumpet requires more intraoral pressure that other wind instruments studied.

A third paper published by 10éme Congres Fancaise d’Acoustique is thankfully written in English here. Freour, Causse, and Cosette noted similar results. In their article, Simultaneous Measurement of Pressure, Flow and Sound during Trumpet Playing, they wrote, “…it appears that pressure increases with both pitch and loudness, that flow increases with pitch and tends to decrease with dynamic.” They also note that the results of their study open up new questions that can now be addressed, such as the influence of air compressibility and even blood distribution in the respiratory system while playing.

So what are the implications for teaching and practicing brass instruments? At the very least I think we understand that blowing pressure and air volume do depend on the pitch range and dynamic being played. Knowing this, we might want to practice and teach being more aware of how we’re blowing while playing and changing those factors. Through this awareness we can learn our personal playing sensations in such a way as to memorize the feeling of when things are sounding and feeling good as well as better troubleshoot for those times when they are not.

Stabilizing the Embouchure

Daniel shared a video of his embouchure with me and asked me about helping his range. After watching it, I wrote the following in response. Since the advice I gave Daniel is something that I continue to work on myself, I thought I’d share it here.

By the way, I still have a backlog of emails from players who are waiting for some embouchure help from me. I’m sorry about the delay, and please feel free to drop me a reminder email about it.

Hi, Daniel.

Your situation is one that is kind of tough for me to be specific based on what I can see on a video. In person there are some things we could try and they might provide better clues, but for now I think you should think about having a good overall embouchure formation. Once that’s working a little better it becomes easier to get more personalized.

Watch the video and see how your lips open for the breath and then have to come together quickly as you attack the pitch. This way of breathing is great for taking in large breaths very quickly, but it’s rough on the chops. First, every time you take a breath the mouthpiece has to lighten up on pressure when you open your lips, but then has to “crash” back against your lips for the attack. It’s not as stable and it’s rough on endurance. Secondly, when you go to attack the note it’s very tough to have both the lips firmed correctly for the note and the mouthpiece to be on the right place on the lips.

Just for practice, I’d suggest you take any warmup/routine exercises you do and as you go through a practice session, do a little bit of the following:

  1. Firm your lips as if you were going to buzz.
  2. Place the mouthpiece on the firmed lips and don’t allow yourself to change the position of the lips at all (you might want to wet your lips to set the mouthpiece so it can more easily slide to where it wants to go without twisting up your lips in any way).
  3. Breath in and play the exercise.

When it comes to inhaling for the first note of the exercise you should start out by leaving your chops set, ready to play. You can learn to do this in stages:

  1. Breathe through the nose (your lips firmed and the mouthpiece pressure as if you were already playing).
  2. Breathe through the mouth corners while keeping the lips inside the mouthpiece together. A little more mouthpiece pressure than you might use while playing can help you keep the lips center together while breathing through the mouth corners.

Eventually it can really help to go to breathing through the mouth corners like #2 just above all the time, not just for the first note after putting the instrument on your lips, and not just for exercises. But for now just spend 5-10 minutes a day at the beginning of your practice trying this out for the first notes you play when you put the horn to your lips.

If you find that as your practicing this that your mouthpiece placement wants to drift in any direction (up, down, left, right), allow that to happen. Your placement looks very close to half and half, which actually is not that common. If you find getting the high notes out is easier with a placement higher or lower on the lips, spend some practice time playing with that mouthpiece placement and see what happens.

After a couple of weeks of trying this out let me know how it feels to play now and even take another short video. Please take a look at the link I sent earlier. It will tell you the things to video record that help me figure out what’s going on.

Good luck!


The Breathing Gym

Tubists Sam Pilafian and Patrick Sheridan have created a number of resources for wind and brass musicians called “The Breathing Gym.” There is a book and DVD that go together, but this particular 10 minute video I came across on YouTube is a different video than the DVD, but contains many of the same breathing exercises.

One of the great things about these exercises is that they are away from your instrument. Sometimes players will develop a conditioned response to playing their instrument in a way that they automatically breath inefficiently for performing as soon as they put their instrument up to their lips. Practicing breathing exercises away from the instrument can help develop a new breathing habit that is then more easily transferred to performing on the instrument than trying to fight a habit straight out.

Try going through this 10 minute video first thing in the morning just before you practice and see if you notice any difference in your first notes of the day. I’ve found that especially as I get older that in the morning my breathing muscles are a little stiffer and less responsive in general and sometimes will stretch out a bit before I play my first notes of the day. These breathing exercises take this to another level for me and really help me get the air moving.

My “Anti-Jacobs Stance” – A Clarification

YouTube user ChokatinSheepseki initiated a conversation on the comments section for my video Brass Embouchures: A Guide For Teachers and Players. Because YouTube limits the number of characters in each comment there it makes it very difficult to have an intellectual discussion there and it’s very easy to leave an erroneous impression. In an effort to respond to some of his comments and to offer ChokatinSheepseki a chance to more clearly and directly criticize my ideas I thought I’d post some more lengthy responses here. I’m going to pull some of his comments out of context in order to address a single topic at a time (you can read our whole exchange here in order).

You have it all backwards, and your anti-Jacobs stance simply makes you look all the more arrogant.

And in the next comment:

You appear to be taking an anti-Jacobs position in a desperate attempt to gain notoriety.

I was pretty surprised by the statement that I have an “anti-Jacobs stance.” I have offered some criticism to some specific ideas he has said about brass embouchures here, but  I direct that criticism to specific ideas that I believe to be factually inaccurate. In fact, in that same article I mentioned how much Jacobs has influenced me as a teacher and player and acknowledged how effective his “song and wind” approach can be. I merely am arguing that there are other tools that are useful and good teachers and players need to grow beyond a single teacher/player’s approach – particularly as new information becomes available.

A few years back you told me that you thought Jacobs was WRONG on many issues. Now you say that he had a profound influence on your teaching and practice.

I’m afraid I don’t recall the specific conversation ChokatinSheepseki is referring to. I participate in a number of brass forums as well as frequently reference Jacobs here. At any rate, I don’t see how commenting that Jacobs’ ideas on a particular aspect of his pedagogy needs revisions makes me “anti-Jacobs.”

I have an axe to grind when it comes to people who feel that they can gain some credibility by “taking on Jacobs” and being utterly disrespectful by posting a photo of spaghetti stuck to a wall in a cheap attempt to downplay the importance of breath, wind…whatever you want to call it. If that’s not arrogance, I don’t know what is. A CSO member would never behave like that, even if they were spot on with their “convictions.”

This is what is sometimes called a “straw man argument” (ironically also an ad hominem attack, the very thing that he is accusing me of). In this case, ChokatinSheepseki’s criticisms aren’t specifically against something I actually said, but a misrepresentation of my thoughts that is quite easy to criticize. In fact, in the very article he mentions I wrote the following:

“One of the reasons that this is such a popular pedagogical method is because it’s very effective. Putting attention on the musical expression does have a tendency to work out the kinks in a player’s technique. Efficient breathing is also an extremely important part of good brass technique.

Just so I’m clear here, I’m not advocating that we throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

In the video that ChokatinSheepseki’s comments on I said:

“Looking at the embouchure closely shouldn’t imply that breathing is unimportant to good brass playing, it definitely is. Breathing is, however, better understood by most teachers and therefore receives much more attention. I’m merely recommending we add another tool to our toolbox, not replace what’s already effective.”

That’s hardly downplaying the importance of breathing to brass playing.

spaghetti_on_the_wallFor the record, I did use a photo of spaghetti splattered on the wall as an illustration for Jacobs’ statement he always addressed an embouchure issue with assignments of music. I made the analogy that without a good understanding of embouchure form you can end up unconsciously trying out so many different things in an effort to make a correction that in the process of fixing one thing you might end up with other issues that need to be addressed later.

ChokatinSheepseki appears to agree with that particular statement by Jacobs that assignments of music should be sufficient to address brass technique by itself.

The CONCEPT of a good sound in the BRAIN puts the body in the position that it needs to be in. Of course, you can try to consciously manipulate muscle groups and produce sounds, but such commands mean that the focus will not be on the music.

This is an interesting idea and one that we can have an honest discussion about. With regards to whether the body and brain will simply figure itself out when the attention is placed on music, there has been some research done on the difference between learning complex motor skills through intrinsic methods (goal oriented, e.g., pay attention to the music) and explicit methods (process oriented, consciously manipulate the motions you need to play). Having done some academic reading to learn more about his, I learned that when one is used exclusively, research indicates that the intrinsic approach is superior. However, research where subjects used a combination of the two approaches showed even better long-term results (this topic deserves a post of its own later that focuses exclusively on this research).

This is one of my criticisms of how many have interpreted Jacobs’ teaching into such a false dichotomy. If you listen to his masterclasses or read the books about his teaching very carefully you’ll note that one of his psychological tricks was to convince his students that he wasn’t telling them how to play while he was teaching them how to play. Case in point, here is an excerpt from Arnold Jacobs: Song and Wind, written by Brian Frederiksen and edited by John Taylor. The bold text below is my emphasis to address my point.

A common problem is that of a double buzz, or as Jacobs calls it, “segmentation.” This happens when the embouchure is set for vibrations higher than what is actually desired. A major factor is insufficient air to fuel the vibration. It is, in fact, hardly ever an embouchure problem. The tongue’s position is too high and forward in the mouth. To correct segmentation, adjust the embouchure to vibrate at the pitch that is desired – play with a thicker air stream and keep the embouchure open.

Frederikson  (1996), p. 126.

In other words, address the physical causes of the double buzz not through assignments of music, but by correcting the specific mechanical issues that lead to the double buzz. This is contradictory to Jacobs’ other statements that he addresses embouchure issues only through assignments of music. My feeling here is that when dealing with brass technique we can spend some time dealing with the mechanics of how to play, provided that we also keep the end goal of making good music in mind and be sure to spend practice and teaching time addressing that as well.

Again, because ChokatinSheepseki and others frequently misinterpret my thoughts here, I’m not suggesting that focus on music and breathing are bad for your brass playing. They are extremely useful tools when the situation warrants. However, there are other approaches that when used at the correct time and place can also be helpful. There’s no need to use one exclusively over the other.

While ChokatinSheepseki “politely” refused my offer to move our discussion over here where the comments aren’t restricted to such a short length, I hope that he will reconsider and take the time to point out the specific parts where we have disagreements. Contrary to the implications in his criticisms, I do not have an “anti-Jacobs” stance. Furthermore, I’m perfectly willing to change my opinions if presented with good evidence and logical arguments that point out flaws in my presentations.

I’ll close this post by letting ChokatinSheepseki have the final word for now.

Actually, I sent you a G-rated version of my original comment.

I’ll let you get back to more important tasks, such as analyzing embouchures to see if they go north, south, east, or west, and pinpointing the exact number of coffee beans Beethoven preferred in his morning brew.

Misconceptions About the Diaphragm and Another Look at Wedge Breathing

I’ve blogged a bit about some of David Vining‘s writing before.  If you’re not familiar with Vining, he’s a fantastic trombonist and at one point in his career suffered from focal task specific dystonia in his embouchure.  He eventually persevered and was able to make a full recovery and return to playing.  Vining is an advocate of an approach where the goal is to better understand how your body moves and functions when playing so that your analogies don’t get in the way of you’re technique.

Here’s a link to a short, but excellent article Vining wrote on breathing.  Specifically, he discusses how some current pedagogical practices rely on descriptions of breathing that are anatomically inaccurate and how they can lead to breathing in a way that hinders a musician’s playing.  He first illustrates by linking to an excellent video that shows exactly where the diaphragm is and how it functions.

Having recently been experimenting with “wedge breathing,” I found a couple of things Vining mentions interesting, as they mirror some of the drawbacks I noticed while practicing wedge breathing. Continue reading Misconceptions About the Diaphragm and Another Look at Wedge Breathing

Wedge Breathing

I recently got a question from Justin asking about a breathing technique, endorsed by some great trumpet players like Bobby Shew and Roger Ingram, called “wedge breathing.”  I was familiar with the concept, but I’d never really seriously tried it.  I did some research to learn more about it and spent the last week practicing it and trying to get more comfortable with it.  Keep in mind that the following perspective is only one week’s worth of practice, but I think I’ve got the general feel of it now and have some observations I can share.

First, what exactly is wedge breathing?  Here is the basic gist as I understand it. Continue reading Wedge Breathing

Breathing and Brass Playing – A Look At What’s “Natural”

Out of all the different mechanical elements that go into performing on a brass instrument, efficient breathing ranks not only as one of the most important but is also perhaps the most natural, if anything about brass playing can be called “natural.”  Breathing is, of course, an integral part of life and we all already breathe naturally already.  The breathing pattern that is conducive to good brass playing is something we don’t need to study, per se, as we already know how to do it.  The trouble we run into is that breathing patterns that hinder good brass playing are equally natural.  The difficulty we have isn’t learning how to breathe well, it’s in allowing it to happen without other breathing patterns creeping their way into our playing.

This is harder to do than it sounds.  Breathing is one of the few bodily functions that is both autonomic (unconscious) and also under our voluntary control.  Under the right circumstances we can allow the autonomic functions to move the air correctly, but it is just as easy for unconscious breathing patterns to interfere with our playing.  The trick is to understand not only how breathing affects brass playing but also how to allow the correct patterns to work without interference.  There is simply no way that you can breathe that can be said to be “unnatural.” Continue reading Breathing and Brass Playing – A Look At What’s “Natural”

Rebooting Your Breath

Have you ever felt nervous just before a very important performance?  Have you ever felt so anxious that you literally couldn’t catch your breath as you started to play?  It’s so tough to stop that “fight or flight” breathing once it’s started, because it’s a natural biological response.  It also makes it harder to play a brass instrument.

Sometimes taking a few deep breaths can do the trick, but it can help to “trick” your body into resetting your breathing patterns.  I’ll sometimes do this short exercise just before stepping out on stage and have given it to a lot of my students who get nervous just before performances or juries.   Continue reading Rebooting Your Breath