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Take a Breath


Breathing while playing a wind instrument is an unnatural act that’s only tangentially related to “normal” breathing. Understanding how they’re different can put us in a position to become better musicians

Different breath types

Normal breathing is thankfully taken care of by our autonomic nervous system. The rate and depth of breaths is dictated by a feedback mechanism that responds to demands for more power coming from various body systems, such as, muscles, digestive system and the brain itself.  It all works without our conscious intervention. Breathing while playing an instrument (“playing breathing”) adds a new action that deviates from the body’s normal rhythmic air flow.  Unlike the gradual rise and fall of normal breathing, steady outgoing air pressure is needed to act on whatever is being vibrated to produce sound.  In addition, a greater than normal volume of air is beneficial so the tone being produced can be maintained longer.

Deep Breaths

A greater volume of air is usually handled by taking a deep breath, right? But this doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. Rising shoulders while inhaling signals a misunderstanding of the body’s breathing mechanism. Lifting the ribcage may help the lungs to have more room to expand, but it increases muscular tension where it’s not needed. The shoulders should remain relaxed as the muscle below the lungs, the diaphragm, is activated. When it pulls down, the area under the lungs is expanded, allowing maximum room for lung expansion. To check this, just put a small paperback book under your belt at your abdomen and take a deep breath by lifting your shoulders and then with relaxed shoulders. The pressure you feel between the book and your body with relaxed shoulders is the pressure that needs to be maintained while playing. It’s not a natural action, so it’s a skill to be developed.  Practice from time to time with a book in your belt as a reminder. Constantly taking deep breaths while playing is not usually possible because of the varying demands of the music, so learning how to take “maintenance breaths” is a valuable skill that is easy to execute, but is usually accomplished as a gasp. As we all know, this will sometimes cause an instantaneous choke as a drop of mouth moisture is aspirated. The is a result of excess inspiration pressure caused by a spastic pull of the diaphragm.  That is, the explosive force of the diaphragm causes a sharp increase in the velocity of incoming air which can dislodge saliva.

Quick Breaths

The first step in taking a more efficient and non-disruptive quick breath, and, for that matter, any breath while playing, is getting in touch with how you open your mouth. Yes, how you open your mouth can make a significant difference in how the air gets in. It’s easy to feel the difference in your throat and mouth when you take in a breath with an open mouth and relaxed jaw compared to breathing through the sides of your mouth while you hold your embouchure position.  By releasing the muscles involved in the embouchure, including your jaw muscle, air can flow freely. The muscles of the embouchure get a break, even if just for a moment, thus avoiding early onset fatigue.  It doesn’t take much time to get used to quickly releasing and returning to your embouchure position. The second element of taking a quick breath can be accomplished much more easily by getting in touch with the physics of air pressure.  It’s really very simple when you realize that air is pressing on us all the time, even though we aren’t aware of it. A very quick breath can be taken by letting atmospheric pressure do the work.  Say you’re running out of air and all you see coming up is an unbroken string of eighth notes.  What to do? Easy, feel your abdomen compressing as the air in your lungs is depleted, and then just open your mouth – don’t try to breathe, just open.  As soon as your mouth opens, 14.7 lbs. of atmospheric pressure will instantly re-inflate your lungs.  The pressure gradient in your lungs was below 14.7 lbs., but has now been equalized and you have more air to work with. It’s not as much as a deep breath, but it will certainly suffice until you take your next quick breath. If you doubt how this works, all you have to do is just exhale until you feel your lungs are completely empty and then just open your mouth.  Don’t breathe in — you’ll feel your abdomen pop out.  Just opening your mouth will provide the opening that will allow air pressure to equalize.

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