Archive for category Breathing and Technique

Don’t forget to breathe…

The student is nervous. It is her first jury – the end of her first semester as a college freshman. She is a music education major.

She loves playing trombone; she has practiced diligently. She has a good accompanist and she is well prepared.

Yet…the student is nervous.

The first couple of phrases go well. She plays with a good, full tone and good technique. Then…a missed note…an out of tune note…a tricky articulation that does not go as planned.

Next, a very strange thing happens. She cannot finish the next phrase in one breath as planned. She must breathe where she never breathed before. This throws her off and the whole cycle starts over: missed note…out of tune note…tricky articulation…and the mistakes seem self-perpetuating.

How does she break the cycle, or better yet – how does she avoid getting sucked into the cycle to begin with?

1. Realize that everybody gets nervous. It is not practical to expect a complete lack of nerves.

2. As well prepared as you might be – prepare even more. Sustained, patient effort over the course of the semester will pay off.

3. Don’t forget to breathe. In any situation, 5 minutes of attention to breathing can change one’s outlook. Before going on stage, lie down and breathe – just observe your breathing…don’t try to change it. you can also try some constructive rest. Here’s a sound file guiding you through a sample session: Constructive Rest.


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I’m back after a bit of a hiatus…I have been working on a new project called Rangesongs.

It occurred to me that many folks like to use the Bordogni Melodious Etudes to build range and endurance by playing them in tenor clef – this puts them up a perfect fifth. This works nicely until you run into one that goes unreasonably high or is too long or maybe doesn’t quite go high enough.

Thus was Rangsongs born. Rangesongs is a set of etudes designed to accomplish the endurance and range building described above, only in a more systematic (and, presumably, effective) way. Each song is one page in length and has a designated target note. The phrasing builds to the target note several times during the song but does not exceed it.

The first half of rangesongs explores the high register and the second half explores the low register. By alternating between high and low songs, you can learn a lot about how to move your air and you can build your range and endurance slowly over time, in a healthy way. Your tool is to use the target notes as goals and to think musically, following the indicated phrasing, as in this example, with the target note of g-flat:

I tried some of these with a student who came back after one week with an extra minor third at the top of his range (!)…I’m sure individual results vary but the early returns look quite promising! Click here for a few samples:

Rangesongs Samples

Click here to order:

Order Rangesongs

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Breathing and dystonia

Now that I have recovered from embouchure dystonia I can look back and reflect on what caused it. I believe that decades of playing with insufficient air flow contributed to the problem. This reduced air flow was caused by a misunderstanding of how breathing works and an insistent adherence to some traditional, yet flawed, breathing mantras.

Mantras such as “breathe low”…meaning that to breathe well, one must push out the abdomen, where the bellybutton is. To be clear: there is most certainly abdominal expansion when we breathe, but the abdominal expansion is not what causes air to come into the body. The abdominal expansion is the natural result of the diaphragm’s descent. As the diaphragm contracts (upon INHALATION), it pushes down on the contents of the abdominal cavity (the internal organs). The contents of the abdominal cavity move out in every direction (and down) as the natural result of the diaphragm’s descent.

The abdominal expansion should be allowed to happen – not made to happen.

Those who try to MAKE abdominal expansion happen create tension in the body and (ironically) reduce the air flow. I did this for many years and I believe the reduced air flow made the muscles of my embouchure work harder, thereby contributing to the development of dystonia.

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Musical ways of improving breathing

Flow Studies are a natural outgrowth of learning about breathing. They are very simple ways of encouraging the generous flow of air through the phrase. This very simple concept actually provides a compelling musical reason to breathe well and support the tone.

It’s pretty simple: If you can’t make the phrase, take a bigger breath.

Flow Studies are also good for learning how to manage your air. If you spend too much air at the beginning of the phrase, you won’t make it all the way to the end. This seemingly simple concept is one of the keys to phrasing. Heighten your awareness of how much is left, how high or low the phrase goes and the shape of the phrase relative to the amount of air you have to work with. Often, we are required to make these very subtle decisions on the fly. We don’t always have time to mark in every breath, though some younger players have yet to learn this skill.

You can use any music that has obvious phrasing to cultivate excellent breathing by working on your phrasing. Flow Studies are intentionally written to be obvious in terms of phrasing; they not only help you apply your breathing knowledge but also encourage excellent breathing with a musical incentive.

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Flow Studies

Flow Studies promote the movement of air thorough the phrases. They help players cultivate the very important skill of connecting the notes through a variety of patterns and keys.

There is a suggested Etude Rotation in the front of the book that I find very useful. If you follow this sequence, you will spend about 10 minutes a day playing flow studies and you will get a very effective bridge between working out of the Breathing Book and transitioning to your solos, etudes and excerpts.

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More ways to use The Breathing Book

I like to “cross-train” when I practice. It’s engaging, fun and effective to mix up your activities in a variety of ways – a sort of stream of consciousness exploration. In this spirit, you can…

Intersperse Breathing Book activities within your daily routine…

Follow the “Etude Rotation” in the Flow Studies book, separating each set with a Breathing Book activity…

Lay on the floor for constructive rest and then play chapter 6: The Truth About the Diaphragm…

Speaking of #6, try lengthening the rests during which you hold empty. Instead of 2 measures, make it 3, then 4…

Try 9a: Breathe All Over, Low Range when you are fatigued late in a practice session…

Here is a link to the Table of Contents and a few sample pages:

Breathing Book Sample


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Embouchure Problems

From: Frederiksen, Brian, edited by John Taylor.  Arnold Jacobs: Song and Wind. Windsong Press, 1996.

A quote from Arnold Jacobs (Page 122):

“The most common problems I have seen over the last 60-odd years I have been teaching are with respiration and the tongue.  Surprisingly enough, I rarely find problems with the embouchure.  That might sound strange because people come to see me because of problems with their embouchure, but frequently it is the embouchure reacting to a bad set of circumstances and failing – it is simply cause and effect.  If we change the cause of the factor, it is easy to clear up the embouchure.  The embouchure is not breaking down, it is trying to work under impossible conditions.  When you are starving the embouchure for air volume, giving it all sorts of air pressure but not quantity, it cannot work.  Very quickly you will be struggling to produce your tone.  Just increase your volume of air not by blowing hard, but by blowing a much thicker quality of air.  Very frequently the air column is just too thin.”

So the air flow is key to a healthy embouchure. The lips and the air should have a symbiotic relationship; they depend upon one another.

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