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.
The abs are, in fact, antagonists to the diaphragm (they help you blow air out). Therefore, those who advocate keeping the abs engaged at all times are creating isometric tension in their playing (never a good thing!)
Technically speaking, wedge breathing doesn’t require you to engage the muscles of the abdomen at all times, but you are supposed to do so through most of the inhalation. Vining points out that doing so will actually inhibit your ability to take in a comfortably full breath. Wedge breathing is something largely advocated by trumpet players, rather than low brass players. As playing trumpet requires less air than low brass, I imagine that this drawback is less of an issue for trumpet.
Abdominal expansion is a secondary motion of breathing which occurs as the result of the diaphragm’s downward motion. When the diaphragm contracts, it becomes less highly domed and wider around and pushes down on the contents of the abdominal cavity. The contents of the abdominal cavity spread out all around the body – front, sides and back – and that is where abdominal expansion comes from.
As discussed by Roger Ingram, the initial step of taking a breath in wedge breathing is to push the stomach out. According to Ingram, this “creates a vacuum” and starts the initial inhalation. This makes sense according to my understanding of the anatomy, since the expansion of the abs creates more room for the visceral organs and would probably result in them dropping down slightly, pulling the diaphragm down a bit with them. Pushing out my stomach like Ingram demonstrates does actually make me take in a little breath.
However, I think I’ll have to side with Vining, at least with regard to playing a low brass instrument. I don’t find that the wedge breathing technique allows me to take as much air in as I want. With the lower air flow required for trumpet (particularly in the upper register of the trumpet, where Ingram is particularly good) this reduced amount of air taken in during the inhalation is probably not such a big deal. The degree of pressure that one will feel at the beginning of the exhalation will be much higher with wedge breathing due to the isometric tension created by drawing in the abdomen while inhaling. Traditionally, you would wait until the beginning of exhalation to begin engaging the abdominal muscles.
The way I normally play, I will try to take in a comfortably full breath that allows me to commence the blowing simply by relaxing and allowing the air pressure itself to do the work. With wedge breathing the exhalation is similar. The difference seems to be that with traditional breathing this air pressure is built up not from the isometric tension of bringing in the abdomen while inhaling, but by taking a larger breath.
The diaphragm usually performs its job involuntarily (good thing – you’d hate to have to think about breathing in the middle of the night!)…but if we need more air to play, we can order more air and our entire breathing mechanism, including the diaphragm, will respond in-kind.
Vining’s point above is, to me, the most important gem in his short article on the diaphragm. In order to breath well while playing a brass instrument all we really need to do is allow our body to breathe naturally. Of course, this is easier said than done as there really isn’t an “unnatural” way to breathe. There are, however, some natural breathing patterns that aren’t so good for playing a brass instrument but perfectly normal for other everyday functions. The trick is to understand which breathing pattern you want to use to play and allowing your body to do this consistently.
My take on breathing is similar to how I approach studying brass embouchures. I feel it’s best to have an accurate understanding of what you’re physically doing while playing. Separating analogy from fact allows us to more completely understand how our playing mechanics interact, the resulting sounds, and what happens when things don’t work well. Having this understanding will help you make a more informed opinion regarding which breathing instructions you personally want to adopt and incorporate into your own playing and teaching.