HBM – Breathing

The third part of the warm-up is re-learning the size of your lung capacity. After every time you sleep, you need to remind yourself of how much air you can take in. Most people inhale to 75% when they take a big breath, but great brass players inhale to 90%. More on this later.

FYI, brass instruments are played basically the same way, other than the way the length of the instrument is changed (slides vs. valves). This includes breathing, especially inhalation; flow rates during exhalation, however, vary considerably. More on this later.

The top three breathing gurus for teaching correct breathing for brass players are:

Notice anything in common? They’re ALL tuba players! Because if you don’t breathe properly playing tuba, you will die…plain and simple. You can breathe badly and sort of play trumpet, but not the tuba!

I was fortunate to attend two weeks of Arnold Jacobs masterclasses and take several private lessons with him. The vast majority of what I’m about to share comes from him. Mr. Jacobs had an encyclopedic knowledge of breathing as applied to wind instruments and spent over six decades teaching the finest musicians in the world. I have utilized his principles in my own teaching and playing for 43 years…because they work. Here we go!

Other than a concept of great tone quality, breathing is the most important aspect of brass playing. After all, they’re wind instruments! Breathing affects ALL aspects of brass playing because breathing correctly enhances relaxation which includes:

  1. Keeping the throat more open, producing a better tone.
  2. Since you are not working too hard, more strength is available, opening the possibility of increased range.
  3. Increased endurance.
  4. Better muscle coordination, which results in better technique/articulation (fingers/tongue). [Tension in the core of the body radiates out to the extremities, slowing your fingers and tongue.]
  5. Bonus:  deep breathing encourages calmness, helping with nerves.

We’re going to borrow two definitions from Edward Kleinhammer in The Art of Trombone Playing:

  • Squeezing – the inhaling and exhaling muscles fight each other
  • Blowing – inhaling muscles stop functioning as soon as you begin blowing and vice versa

Squeezing is like stepping on the gas and the brake at the same time, producing unneeded tension which results in:

  1. Reduced endurance
  2. Reduced range
  3. Reduced coordination
  4. Distortion of tone
  5. Brighter tone
  6. Smaller sound
  7. Sharper pitch (Students may compensate by pulling the tuning slide out too, creating a vicious circle. More below.)
  8. Attacks sizzle or crackle in the upper part of the middle range (around the top of the staff for trumpeters)

Here are facts that you should know:

  • We breath to exhale carbon dioxide (CO2), not to inhale oxygen (O2)
  • Breath capacity increases up to the age of 18; from that point forward, there is a gradual decrease in capacity.
  • By the time someone reaches their 40’s, the decrease is significant that playing trumpet is much more difficult. Without a change in their approach to breathing, many trumpeters quit playing.
  • Capacity is also influenced by gender, weight, genetics, smoking:
    Males tend to be larger, so they tend to have larger capacities.
    Being overweight reduces body motion, reducing lung capacity by as much as 10%.
    Some body types have longer torsos with larger lung capacities.
    Smoking reduces lung function and lung capacity.
  • The motion of the ribs accounts for 55-60% of vital capacity (from completely full to completely empty).
  • The motion of the diaphragm provides 40-45% of vital capacity.
  • The range in adult lung capacity varies from 1.5 to 7+ liters. (How is that fair??!!)

    Note:  the only advantage to large lung capacity is the ability to play longer phrases. A person with a smaller capacity simply needs to breathe more often — it will NOT hurt the music! I have heard GREAT tuba players, who use air four times faster than trumpeters. Not once was I “offended” by their need to breath more often.

    To be efficient, a person needs to use their full lung capacity, whether it’s large or small. Not doing this results in a lower level of performance.

Next, we’re going to talk about how to inhale. Actually, you must already be quite good at inhaling…or you’d be dead! But breathing to stay alive is not the same as breathing to play a brass instrument. Brass playing requires large breaths, often during a quarter rest or even an eighth rest. To move a lot of air quickly requires a quiet breath. Any noise during inhalation comes from a restriction in your air passages, slowing down the airflow, and reducing how much air you can take in during a short amount of time.

You’ve probably heard a lot of things about breathing from the diaphragm, etc., etc. While the instruction is well intended, it’s actually unnecessary and frequently makes breathing harder. Remember, always choose the simple way of doing things! All you have to do is breath in as quietly as possible until you reach the stretch point. As you near the resting point, you take another breath; this is done at a musically appropriate time. The idea is to stay between 40% and 90%, or “the top half of the breath.”

Let’s look at our breathing “gas gauge” –

This represents our total vital capacity, from completely full to completely empty. (FYI, air in the lungs is like water in a sponge – you can never get all of it out, unless you have a punctured lung, which is VERY painful!)

The resting point is 40% of vital capacity and is where your body is as you read this. The body takes in a little air and then exhales it; there is very little motion because it doesn’t take much air to simply stay alive.

As you take air in, you will reach the 75% mark. Athletes normally breathe to this point — a large amount of air can be taken in rapid succession, which is very helpful when you’re working hard! But, it’s not enough for brass playing. We need to go to the 90% mark.


— In Progress —

As you keep inhaling

I______ increasing difficult to play

3. How to Teach

Not dead!  Size of the breath is what’s different, esp. from sitting in class

Who takes the bigger breath?  Tuba or trumpet?

Who uses the most air?  Tuba or trumpet?

Who uses the most air pressure?  Tuba or trumpet?

Goals:  silent inhalation (= no friction); kids equate noise with size

       Stay in the top half of the breath

        Open throat = lips close, not mouth wide open

Test:  3 in a row = beginning of hyperventilation – Warmup Part 2

Efficiency is only achieved by staying in the top “half” of the breath – inhale to stretch point; stop blowing near resting point; all the work is done on the inhalation

“Top half” breathing is uncomfortable for a brief time, but it creates greater efficiency and allows the player to spend air without holding back (little person inside holds back)

Story – “not breathing often enough”

Playing is a privilege, not a right.  INSIST on getting your way.

4. Myth – shoulders do not move during correct breathing

5. Dangers

Setting (define) allows tension which can cause bad attacks, silence, etc.

Cures – air turns around and does not stop; slight ritard; “Oh, tu”

Forget to breath and play with a good sound when the music gets hard, which makes it even harder

Breath too often creates suffocation in oboe, piccolo trumpet, and high trumpet; cure exhale old, stale air

Note:  most bad days are caused by poor breathing.  Poor breathing creates the illusion of tiredness.  Fix the air, end of problems.Note:  bad rhythm is the other most likely culprit

Sharper pitch (Students may compensate by pulling the tuning slide out too, creating a vicious circle. More below.) – use pitch bends to find center of the pitch

larger lung capacity on a smaller instrument can allow bad habits to prosper

6. Aids – hand, piece of paper, pinwheel, PVC pipe – ¾” diameter by 4” long, rebreather bag, medical “toys,” Windmaster

More information: Breathing

Be sure you read “Arnold Jacobs Breathing Exercises.” They are great!