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.”
At this point a brief description of some of the physiology of respiration may be helpful. Brass teachers often discuss taking a deep breath as “breathing down low” and “filling up the lungs like a glass of water, from the bottom up.” While imagery like this may help some players, it really doesn’t accurately describe where your lungs are in your body and how they take in air. Your lungs don’t really go much below your rib cage and the very top of your lungs are just above your collarbones. When we inhale the diaphragm, a membranous muscle that is shaped somewhat like a parachute located just under the lungs, contracts downward and pulls the lungs down with it. The expansion in the belly that we get from deep breathing is actually your visceral organs being pushed down and out by the expansion of the diaphragm. Since the lungs are made up of many alveolar sacs, sort of shaped like bunches of small grapes, you don’t fill your lungs with air as you do a balloon. Instead, your alveolar sacs fill individually and you can’t consciously control which alveolar sacs fill and how much. Inaccurate descriptions of how to breathe properly then can sometimes make for inefficient breathing. As the great tubist and brass pedagogue Arnold Jacobs often put it, “Breathe to expand, don’t expand to breathe.”
What’s important for us to understand here with regards to this physical description of breathing is that there is no real need to think of “breathing low.” It’s enough to simply take a deep breath and let the air go where it wants to. Efforts to thrust forward the stomach or keep the shoulders from raising may end up hindering taking in as much air in as relaxed a manner as possible. Simply let the abdomen expand (or not) on its own accord. Allow the shoulders to raise (or not) as they will. Everyone has a different body type, so trying to make your body move like someone else’s is not necessarily going to give you an accurate model to follow.
Once a comfortably full breath is taken (not too shallow or too full) exhalation is simply a matter of letting the air blow out on its own. The internal pressure created from a full breath is usually enough for the air to begin moving without resorting to extra effort. At a certain point, muscular effort of blowing out is required when enough air has been exhaled, but starting the blowing should be accomplished more from simply relaxing the muscles of inspiration rather than activating the muscles of expiration.
When these breathing patterns are happening our brass playing can feel easy and relaxed. It’s only when we allow other breathing patterns that hinder the free flow of air that playing problems result. The thing to realize is that these other ways of breathing are just as natural as how we want to breathe and they often occur as a result of normal reactions to the circumstances in which we’re performing. For example, it’s normal to feel nervous during some performances and the body’s natural reaction to anxiety is to breath shallowly and not exhale completely. Sometimes taking a deep relaxing breath and exhaling as much as possible will do the trick, but sometimes it can be necessary to reboot your breathing patterns so that you can get back to good breathing.
This is only scratching the surface of this very important element of brass playing and doesn’t address what the inefficient breathing patterns are, how to avoid them, and how to correct them when they become habitual. Tune in later for further discussions of breathing. In the mean time, you might poke around David Vining’s Breathing Blog. Although he has only a few posts there, and hasn’t updated it in some time, there is some excellent information on breathing and music playing there. For even more detail you can check out Vining’s Breathing Book or What Every Trombonist Needs to Know About the Body (both books are available for purchase here).