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6. How do you develop good breath control?

Playing any kind of wind instrument requires that the artist develop good breath control. Composers are often unforgiving in their demands they make on brass players, and students always want to know how they can develop the ability to play longer and longer phrases on a breath, or how to hold out notes longer at both soft and loud volumes. Here are a few ideas from my experience.

The most important thing in music is the phrase and the phrase is the thing that gets compromised when we have trouble having enough air. We therefore need to simply have more air at our disposal and also use it more efficiently.

When we play the trombone, suddenly we take a very natural body function (breathing) and turn it into something unnatural. If it's true (and I believe it is) that all natural body functions are pleasurable, then why does breathing with a trombone in our hand become difficult and uncomfortable? Because we often think too much.

Watch yourself breathe while lying on your back in bed. You can visually see the perfect movement of the diaphram, and how the lungs fill from the bottom, like filling a glass with water from a pitcher. This should be our model.

When you have a phrase you can't make, whether it be an excerpt (Rhenish Symphony, Tannhauser Overture or whatever) or an etude (like a Rochut) or a piece in big band, I suggest the following:

Assume the passage you need to play is four bars long, marked forte and clocks at about quarter note= 60. You can make three measures on one breath but not four. Set your metronome to a tempo where you easily CAN play the passage, which might be, say, quarter note=140. Practice it for a couple of days at this tempo with the proper dynamics, style, etc. Then two days later, reduce your metronome speed by one click, down to 138. Do the same thing for a couple of days, practicing it many times, then again, after two days, down one click to 136. You should be able to see where I'm going with this. You get the satisfaction of playing the passage (excerpt, piece) in a musically satisfying way except for tempo. By gradually slowing down the tempo, you are unaware that it is getting slower - you trick your brain. After time, you are where you belong with the tempo and you have gradually increased your lung capacity to perform the passage. This works. But it requires patience which is in short supply among many players.

But keep this in mind - when I think of all my most successful students, ones who today have jobs doing what I do, they all have a common feature - they were all willing to be patient, and to work hard over time, not looking for instant gratification but instead taking the time needed to master something.

I've recently come across an excellent home page by Brad Howland who has written a very useful article on breathing. With his permission, I have reproduced his article here. His description of the Valsalva Maneuver and ways to deal with this common difficulty is clear and very helpful. Please take the time to visit the Brad Howland Homepage which is an ever growing resource of good information for the trombonist.


Brad Howland

It is possible to play trombone well without any knowledge of the breathing process. Efficient, relaxed breathing is best done without over- intellectualizing, and the best teachers are those who reduce it to simple concepts. For example, Emory Remington referred to the "conversational breath," and that was it. However, for musicians prone to analysis or those having certain problems, some explanation is in order. There is also a lot of misinformation promulgated about breathing, and an understanding of the physiological processes involved can help us avoid the associated pitfalls.

The first thing to understand is that muscle tissue is either on or off, tense or relaxed; there is nothing in between. When we inhale, the muscles go on. Intercostal muscles connected to the ribcage contract to pull it outwards, causing the lungs, which are attached to the ribs, to expand. At the same time the diaphragm contracts. In its relaxed state, the diaphragm muscle sits above the abdominal region attached to the bottom of the lungs and the sternum, in a shape somewhat like a high-hat cymbal. As the muscle tenses, it flattens out, pulling the lungs downward. The combined expansion of the lungs out and down causes the air pressure inside the lungs to drop, and air rushes in from the outside to equalize the difference. The tension of the intercostal and diaphragm muscles causes visible expansion of the ribcage and also the abdominal region (so-called "stomach breathing"), because the diaphragm pushes down against the stomach, intestines, and other contents of the gut and these in turn push the abdominal wall outward. However, most of the expansion should take place in the chest, as this is the area where most of the air will go.

Breathing in, then, is work, and breathing out is essentially relaxation. As we take in air, there comes a time where our sensory nerves inform us that the lungs are fully expanded. At this point we can hold it for a certain length of time, and indeed it is quite healthy to do so, as long as we continue to work the muscles. Closing the throat to retain the air is unhealthy and can trigger the Valsalva Maneuver (explained below). By maintaining an open, relaxed throat we can begin exhalation at any time, or begin a note on the instrument with a light stroke of the tongue. To exhale, simply relax the muscle; the natural elasticity of the lungs cause them to collapse and the air rushes out.

Exhalation is a "letting go" of the air, but of course if we just blew it out all at once we wouldn't get far on trombone! What is needed is a very fine control of the intercostal muscles. We don't let them go all at once, but maintain some tissue in the “on” position to control the collapse of the ribcage. We cannot consciously do this, but must rely on our musical goals to decide the release of the air. The tendency is towards over-control and constriction of the air flow at the throat or with the tongue. It should be remembered that exhalation is mostly relaxation, and we can just let it happen.

Some Common Traps


Brass players should avoid going over the point of feeling comfortably full. Trying to cram air into the lungs causes all sorts of tension problems that can manifest themselves as neck, shoulder, or arm repetitive-use injuries.

Air pressure vs. wind

Thinking about air pressure can trigger the Valsalva Maneuver and lead to articulation problems. Brass players are better off imaging the air flow or "blowing through the horn." Arnold Jacobs talks about wind rather than air, which gives the perfect mental image.

Expanding to breathe

It is possible to engage all the respiratory muscles with the throat partially or fully closed so that no air enters, and in fact this does happen to brass players in stressful performance situations. I believe it is related to the "fight or flight response." Unfortunately, evolution neglected to equip us with sensory nerves in the lungs to tell us if air has actually entered. We are oriented towards the outside, and it is best to rely on external signs that we are taking a breath. For example, we can focus on the feel of the air as it passes our lips or the cold sensation of it on the back of our throat. We don't need to tell it where to go; as long as it is going in, the body will put it in the right place. Jacobs admonishes us to "breathe to expand, not expand to breathe." External stimuli are the basis of most of the breathing exercises described later in this chapter.

Excess friction

If you breathe with a tight oral cavity you reduce the flow and work too hard. Friction at the point of entry (the mouth) can translate into too much tension elsewhere in the body. Conversely, an open inhalation seems to relax everything, including the following exhalation. You can feel the difference by pronouncing the vowel "ee" and taking a breath, then pronounce "ah" or "oh" and notice how much freer it feels. We want to think open when we breathe.

Support with the diaphragm

This statement is everywhere. Unfortunately it is based on a misconception about breathing. During exhalation, the diaphragm is in a state of relaxation and can't support anything. It is my feeling that what teachers are asking for is a tightening of the abdominal wall, either to force the air out faster and create higher pressures for high-note playing, or to “control” the rate of exhalation. My own experience has led me to reject this method, for the following reasons: First, it is possible to create far more tension in the abdominal wall than is required to play trombone, and I think there is a great danger of overpressurization. This extra tension is going to carry over into the inhalation, which as we have seen requires a relaxed abdominal wall with the ability to expand. Second, if I did rely on abdominal pressure for support, there is no guarantee that it will continue to support me as I grow older and lose strength, and I want to make it in the music business until retirement. Finally, I've known numerous players who consciously used abdominal support, and they had sound problems. The problems of my own students usually clear up by working on a more relaxed approach.

Having said all that, I must say that some abdominal support is necessary in certain situations. When the lungs are in their resting state they are actually about one third full, and to squeeze out the rest of this air the abdominal muscles must be contracted. For this reason, it is almost always advantageous to play on the top two thirds of the lung capacity, which is why we should always take a full breath. However, if there is a particularly long phrase to play, we will probably get down to the bottom of the lungs and have to push it out. Occasionally, when playing really loud you may need extra abdominal tension, but it must be applied with utmost caution, and without adding tension to other areas of the body, such as the throat. Really, it should not be under conscious control at all. In other words, as you set musical goals for yourself, your body learns by trial and error (without any interference from you) what it needs to do to accomplish them. It produces the required tension and no more, if you simply allow it to happen.

The Valsalva Maneuver

I know all about the Valsalva Maneuver (hereafter referred to as VSM) because I have suffered from it most of my playing career. It is a problem that afflicts roughly five to ten percent of brass players, but there is almost no literature written about it. Everyone must find his/her own solutions, although it is not usually possible to fix it alone. Expert help is required from a teacher who understands it well.

There is an excellent description of VSM by Richard Erb in Arnold Jacobs: The Legacy of a Master, and I refer readers to that source for a complete understanding of the physiological process. Here I will only describe it briefly. The brass player takes a breath, but before the exhalation begins there is a momentary hesitation while the tongue moves up as if to say the word "hut," but after pronouncing the "t" it locks in that upper position, causing a build up of air pressure behind. If the musician can start the note at all, it will be with an explosion or stuttering effect. It most often occurs when playing alone, such as during an audition where there is not the rhythmic context of an ensemble and conductor, and it can be limited to certain notes or ranges of notes that the player is worried about.

The thing to realize about VSM is that you can't consciously fix it. It has a psychological component, the very act of trying not to do it causes it to occur! Picking up the trombone involves you in a cue/response situation; the instrument triggers physical and mental responses that lead to the effect. So you have to work on it away from the horn. Following are some of the exercises that I found helpful in dealing with VSM. I recommend they be practiced in conjunction with the breathing exercises in the next section.

1. Take a full breath for one count, hold the air in for four counts, blow out over two counts, repeat several times. When holding the air in, do not close the throat! Instead use the muscles of the ribcage and diaphragm to hold the lungs in their expanded position. You should be able to talk easily at any time, without having to unlock the tongue or throat first.

2. Take a full breath and hold it in the manner of exercise 1, look out the window. When a car drives by, “play” a note as if on trombone, that is, blow out the air with a “tu” or “du” articulation. Repeat using other random events.

3. Hold the three middle fingers of your right hand on the back of your left, lightly push against it and allow the right hand to spring away. The left hand also moves slightly as it accepts the energy of the right. This is a good model for starting a note. Now take a breath and blow with the “tu” articulation. Synchronize the actions of your tongue with those of your model.

4. Take up the trombone. Can you take a breath and hold it in the manner of exercise 1 or 2, then begin a note? Now, can you inhale and at the point of being comfortably full, start to play without a pause? Think of a wave; you are always inhaling or exhaling, and there is no point where you are holding static air.

5. Play a random series of notes, alternating between breath attacks (Ho) and normal attacks.

6. I recommend doing the above exercises for 10-15 minutes per day, after that you should forget about it. Reduce the psychological component by allowing it to happen if it wants to! That's right, trying to fix it with instrument in hand only makes it worse, so you might as well let it happen. Try to fill your head with musical thoughts and goals, such as the sound or shape of the note you want to play. If you are hearing the note with your inner ear at the moment you play it, your body will do what it has to produce that sound. Give yourself a rhythmic context by foot tapping a bar for nothing, or counting in your head, and tell yourself you are going to play on time regardless of the result. In this way you will get away from your perfectionism about attacks, and paradoxically, the attacks will get better!

I hope these suggestions will help those blighted with this syndrome. If you have it bad, don't expect to solve the problem overnight. It could take up to a year of work for the new groove to replace the old habits. However, I do believe that with perseverance, you can do it!

Breathing Exercises

As with the exercises for the Valsalva Maneuver, the student should do these 10-15 minutes each day, then forget about them. When we pick up the instrument we want to think musical thoughts as much as possible (see the section on mental attitudes).

1. Breathe in evenly over a count of four, then out for four, repeat three or four times. Use hand motions to simulate the air flow. Imagine there is a connection between your hand and mouth, as you inhale your hand is sucked up to your lips, as you exhale it is blown away. Vary the flow speed of the air, inhale and exhale over counts of three, two, one, five, etc.

2. To more closely approximate actual trombone playing, in 4/4 time, breathe in for one beat and out for three, repeat three or four times. Breathe in for an eighth note, out for 3 beats; in for a quarter note, out for eight beats.

3. Become aware of the sensation of air moving past your lips, or the cold feeling of air on the back of your throat.

4. Buy a piece of plumbing pipe from a hardware store, 1 inch in diameter. Insert between the teeth and breathe using the patterns in exercise 1 or 2. Using a tube intensifies the feeling of air on the throat and tends to open things up. To reduce hyperventilation, tape a bag over the end and rebreathe the same air. The bag can also serve as a visual cue that air is going in and out.

5. Practice buzzing with a piece of paper dangling in front of the mouthpiece, try to blow steady air onto it. Notice how the flow drops away in the low range.

6. Place the index finger vertically against the lips, and suck air past it. Try to get a low, open sound.

7. Pick up a straw, and take several breaths through it. Concentrate on sucking against the resistance of the straw. Add a straw and take a few more breaths. Keep adding straws until you get up to six or seven, at which time you are getting close to an open throat. Finally, go back to the original straw. Does it feel any easier than the first time?

8. Try to blow out a candle at 10 paces.

9. There are several inexpensive breathing devises that show you rising and falling ping-pong balls as you breathe, for example the incentive spirometer. These are hospital tools adapted by Arnold Jacobs for wind playing, and they work great. They are available from WindSong Press Limited , P.O. Box 146 - Gurnee, Illinois 60031 U.S.A. Phone 847 223-4586 - Fax 847 223-4580 - Email Wind Song Press at:

For a more complete discussion of the subject of breathing and breath control, see the new book by Edward Kleinhammer and me, Mastering the Trombone. I also recommend a book called Mastering the Tuba, Volume 1 by Roger Bobo, published by BIM. It has some excellent breath control exercises in it and also has some extremely useful text about warming up and approaching the horn.

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