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Breathing

John Robert Brown

"I wouldn't have enough puff to play one of those." That's the sort of remark frequently made when non-players talk about wind instruments. Why do people think that saxophones and clarinets take a lot of air, or lots of energy, to blow? Perhaps it is the age-old cliche image of players with puffed-out cheeks. All those statues and paintings of angels, or putti, that are always depicted playing their trumpets with distended cheeks, looking as though they are straining hard. It is most misleading. Nearly as misleading as the idea that trumpeters are angelic enough to qualify for such a prominent role in church imagery...

What matters for a wind player is not force but control of the breath. Blowing up a balloon requires far more force that that required to play any reed instrument. Most people have enough puff to inflate a balloon.

Playing a wind instrument interferes with normal breathing, but perhaps less than you think. The average resting breath rate for a normal person is twelve to fourteen times a minute, though it can be as low as eight. In the May 1998 issue of The Lancet, Italian researchers reported an optimum rate of six breaths per minute. Imagine playing a piece of music at forty-eight bars per minute. At twelve breaths a minute this means breathing every four bars. At six breaths per minute this is a breath every eight bars. You can manage this. Try it. It is surprisingly easy. Of course, there are variables. If you play a percussive, low, baritone saxophone part in a loud band, you could be breathing every bar. Play a slow sustained and quiet clarinet melody, and the problem is not one of getting fresh breaths. Instead, it is the difficulty of getting rid of stale air.

So it is not the lung capacity, or quantity or force of air that is important. It is the control of that air.

The one important idea that all wind players need to explore is that of breathing from the diaphragm. The diaphragm is the membrane separating the chest from the abdomen. Full diaphragm breathing is a combination of belly breathing and chest breathing. For my own performance, I get better results when I lead with the belly (push against my waistband). I fill up below my ribs, at the back above the kidneys, feeling the back expand, and then follow with the chest. You may find that a different action works best for you.

As an exercise, breath deeply into your belly and hold the air as though you are visibly pregnant. Hold your breath, and contract your muscles to push the sphere of air up into your chest, as though squeezing a balloon. Now attempt to move this ball of air from belly to chest and back. Making the transition smoothly is the goal. Notice some of the factors that can affect our breathing. Most obvious is the purely mechanical matter of allowing room for your diaphragm to move. Tight clothing, such as tight belt or waistband, can limit breath capacity. So can a large meal eaten just before a performance. A full bladder can also induce tension, which in turn impairs breath control. Being overweight is bad for your playing. This can limit diaphragm movement, cause clothes to be tight and constricting, and will increase fatigue. This in turn adds to tension.

Sitting with your body twisted, which may be necessary to cope with the restricted space of a theatre pit or to allow access to your baritone saxophone on its stand, will also limit your breath capacity. Crossing your legs to play not only looks slack and uncommitted but also subtly affects breathing. Feet placed flat on the floor not only look better, but help your body to work better.

There are other aspects of posture to consider. Notice that if you bend slightly at the waist, breathing is not so easy. Standing helps breathing. Unlock you knees. That usually helps the depth of your breathing.

This has implications for players of heavy instruments. A baritone saxophone can be an uncomfortable instrument to play. If you have to stand or dance while playing, time and money spent sorting out the most comfortable sling is a good investment. On the matter of dancing (moving) when playing, observe how breathing becomes more difficult with the tension created by raising one leg.

Sitting is less fatiguing than standing, but not so good for breathing. Sit up straight. Push your buttocks into the seat corner, against the upright back. It helps noticeably. Visual concentration can lessen the movement of the diaphragm. We tense our face muscles, our eyes lock onto something, and our breathing becomes shallower. Help your breathing by relaxing your face muscles and by letting your eyes roam.

To turn to less obvious connections, have you noticed that straining to see can restrict your breathing? Squint your eyes and take a deep breath. Relax your eyes and do the same. What happens? You restrict your breathing when you squint. This is a strong argument for having good lighting when you are playing, and for keeping up with your visits to the opticians to avoid straining to see the music or the conductor.

Emotions affect our breathing. Hold your breath and get extremely happy. You cannot. Tension not only makes us anxious and irritable, but is interconnected with hyperventilating-fast, shallow breathing. Breathe for relaxation by imitating a sigh. Make sure that your exhalation is longer than you inhalation. This is simple to do, and can help with concert nerves.

Sound travels faster in fresh air than in stale air. I have seen it suggested that to avoid sounding the opening notes of a phrase a touch sharp, retain the air for a moment for it to become stale enough to be in tune. This was, to me, a novel idea. I confess that I have never noticed the phenomenon, but pass it on to you for consideration.

Getting rid of stale air can be difficult.

Best to edit your music, or mark in extra breath marks for exhaling. Do not join those players who resort to leaking excess air from their embouchure by slackening their muscles, making hissing or fizzing sounds. Beware! The hissing of escaping air that goes unnoticed in the noisy surroundings of a club or bar is catastrophic on a recital, or during that quiet Radio Three broadcast.

Overlooking the role of the throat is easily done. Many teachers speak of the importance of an open throat. Of course, your throat must be open. Saying "Open your throat!" does not explain much. What is meant is to aim for the feeling of a dilated throat, the sensation you feel when you are yawning. This is so difficult to put into words that the best advice I can give is to try it. Again, experiment. As with the diaphragm, holding you chin low can constrict the throat, or by playing With your head leaning to one side or twist out of line with your trunk. Such posture problems may need the help of an expert.

One benefit of being a wind player and improving one's breathing technique is that it helps general health. Fast shallow breathing from the top of the chest (hyperventilating) reduces the carbon dioxide in our blood, which in turn causes the arteries to constrict. This reduces the flow of blood. Paradoxically, lungs, brain and body experience a shortage of oxygen. This state is associated with anxieties and fears. We become tense, anxious, irritable. There is some research to suggest that the slow deep diaphragmatic breathing that is essential for good wind playing helps the heart, and slowed-down breathing can help heart-attack patients to avoid a second attack. Researchers say that low blood-oxygen is common in cardiac patients. By this reckoning we wind players should be a healthy lot. Unfortunately, for those of us who have spent the recent decades playing in clubs and dance halls, any such benefits are surely counterbalanced by the passive cigarette smoking smokers have obliged us to do. Anyone who thinks that the idea of passive smoking is stretching a point should come and experience the smell that emanates from my saxophone case when I open it the day after playing a smoky room.

I must mention circular breathing, if only to warn you that it can be dangerous. Yes, dangerous. The lack of a feeling of security, when aiming for a continuous flow of sound, can easily lead you to breathe very quickly and with shallow breaths. Thus you hyperventilate, and become dizzy. There have been instances where people have fainted. I once heard of an extreme instance where someone once died of hyperventilating when circular breathing! This is why, before mentioning circular breathing, I was careful to write about the benefits of slow breathing from the diaphragm. The other disadvantage of circular breathing is that it enables you to play continuously, with no phrase ending or space in your music. This is an occupational hazard for non-wind players, particularly guitarists. The music has no full stops or commas. It has no punctuation, for what is punctuation in speech? It is only a place to breathe. Music needs these breaks. Why spend hours perfecting a skill which enables you to spoil the music?! Circular breathing is an ancient technique-and much more common than most people imagine. Glassblowers have used it for centuries - as have cats.

A cat uses a form of circular breathing while he is purring. The purr of a cat is fascinating. Put you ear close to a cat's body and you will discover that he hardly ever stops purring. The purr just becomes louder, and therefore audible, when he is particularly pleased or contented or, more frequently, when he wants something! He does it effortlessly by his own type of circular breathing - the membrane that produces the cat's purr vibrates both when he is inhaling and exhaling. Unfortunately, unlike the cat, our voice boxes do not function very well when we are breathing in. Check this by trying to make vocal sounds while you are inhaling. I have just tried that, and from the next room my wife called "Are you all right?" The best I can manage is an awful noise, as unpleasant to listen to as it is uncomfortable to make.

Making these small experiments for yourself is important. Then you will not commit the kind of gaffe made recently by a BBC Radio presenter in a broadcast tribute to Frank Sinatra. He stated that Sinatra used circular breathing to sing. I don't think so.

What the radio presenter should have said was that Sinatra is supposed to have learned about diaphragmatic breathing when sitting on the bandstand. He carefully observed the body movements of his boss, the great trombonist Tommy Dorsey. Unlike cats, human beings achieve circular breathing for playing by using their puffed-out cheeks as an air reservoir. That way you squeeze air out from your cheeks and through the mouthpiece while you breathe in through your nose, and can pump out a continuous stream of air. That is how glassblowers do it - hence the distended cheeks. The simplest way to learn circular breathing is to begin away from you instrument. Use a drinking straw, and blow a stream of bubbles into a tumbler of water. Keep the stream of bubbles going while you breathe in and out, using your cheeks as a reservoir and your cheek muscles as a pump. Breathe in through your nose, and do not worry about looking elegant. It is a technique you can learn in an evening. The hard part is transferring it to your instrument. What is difficult is keeping a good firm embouchure and a smooth uninterrupted tone when you change from breathing in to breathing out. Practice is the answer-and maybe a conversation with the next glassblower you meet. And breathe slowly! If you are seriously concerned that you have a problem with breathing, maybe you would like to investigate a technique available to help efficient use of our bodies, to improve co-ordination and movement?

The Alexander Technique helps many musicians. Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955) made his career in the theatre, giving recitations, but severe vocal and respiratory problems almost forced him to abandon his profession. Not only did he manage to solve his own problems by careful observation and adjustment of his own posture, but he soon found that he could help others. The teachings of Alexander have been of particular help to musicians. Problems that arise with repeated muscular movements are well suited to the Alexander Technique. There are now qualified Alexander teachers in several major music conservatories. Finding an Alexander teacher in any large city is not difficult. Information and contact details are on the Internet.

The Feldenkrais Method is named after Moshe Feldenkrais (1904-1984). After injuring his knee in a football match they told him that he would not be able to walk. Despite this he recovered. In the process he developed a way of helping others to improve. As with the Alexander Technique, many musicians have found great help in by working with a Feldenkreis teacher. Breath, movement and posture are also central to other disciplines and movements. Mention must be made of the pranayama (breathing) and asana (body postures) of yoga and, the breath and movement system of Chinese medicine's Tai Chi.

Rolfing is the manipulation of the body's soft tissue, and is said to: "help people align their bodies vertically for more efficient use". Again, find out more from local colleges, your local library, or on the Internet.

First published in Crescendo magazine, January 1999. Reproduction forbidden.
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