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.

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.

Allan McPherson

I am not myself a brass player, but I am both a clarinetist and a singer. I’ve never encountered wedge breathing before, but some of the principles sound similar to the “belly” breathing that is very popular amongst less informed singers.

I am personally not in favour of belly breathing for a couple reasons. The first is that, as Vining points out, abdominal distention creates tension, actually reducing the amount of air that can be taken in. Secondly, it is possible to distend the belly without taking in any air. Thirdly, it focusses solely on one area of expansion to the exclusion of all others. Based on my experience, I advocate an approach of expanding the abdominal area out to either side. A simple exercise to encourage this motion is to place the hands on the waist (not the hips) and push the hands out to either side by breathing in. It is impossible to create this expansion by any other means than inhaling, and unless it is actively inhibited, the desirable expansion from front to back will occur on its own.

I would be interested to hear how this compares with your experience as a brass player.

Dave

Hi, Allan.

Thanks for the comments.

I would be interested to hear how this compares with your experience as a brass player.

Your thoughts pretty much hit the nail on the head from what I know. I want to keep an open mind about things like wedge breathing, but I really think its value is limited (although I think there may be some things that we can learn by trying it out in practice).

I haven’t thought about expansion from the waist in a while, thanks for bringing that idea up.

Dave

Dave

Oh, also I don’t think the wedge breathing is quite like the belly breathing as I understand it. In wedge breathing after the initial pushing out of the abdomen the player will actually contract the stomach, bringing it in while inhaling. As Vining points out, this works against the natural expansion of the belly, but it does create a degree of internal pressure that does seem to be conducive to the upper register (which requires a little less air but more air pressure on a brass instrument).

N.C.

I’m enjoying your archived content lately and I believe I have fixed my embouchure leak problem I’ve had all my playing career watching your videos on yt.
The David Irving links link to something else. I believe his website is ‘.com’ website now instead of ‘.net’.

Paul T.

Excellent article, Dave. I am in full agreement on all points.

However:

I wonder how important the “distended belly” is to the wedge breathing technique?

It seems to me that someone looking for a little extra pressure or control when playing in the upper register (and high resistance) could benefit from experimenting with wedge breathing even without distending their abdominal region.

I am one of those people who, like Mr. Vining, experienced dramatic improvement when I stopped trying to “breathe low” and “fill from the bottom up”, as many pedagogues advise. (I know what they’re trying to encourage when they say those things, in retrospect, but it’s very easy to “overdo” a process that the body performs very adequately on its own. I teach my own students to simply concentrate on the intake of air and not to worry about what their body needs to do to accomplish that.)

Dave

Thanks, Paul.

I wonder how important the “distended belly” is to the wedge breathing technique?

I didn’t really describe the different parts of wedge breathing here, but the distended belly is only the beginning of the process, I think Ingram describes it as 5% of the breath. Once you start actually inhaling you actually bring the belly back in – as you’re inhaling. Your shoulders will raise on their own, similar to how they will if you just take a very deep breath without the wedge breathing. Because you’re physically pulling your stomach in while you’re inhaling, it’s doesn’t allow your visceral organs to back out of the way, resulting in a shallower breath, but one that is under more pressure. Good for high register, I think, but maybe best as a practice method to get the sensation of playing in the upper register to transfer to a more tradition method of breathing. At least, that’s my thought for now.

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