Buckner, Dr. Jim: Breathing

Although breathing is one of the most natural things we do, when we apply it to trumpet playing we frequently distort certain aspects.  With good breathing habits all aspects of playing improve.  This not only includes tone quality, range, and endurance, but also tonguing, slurring, and even fingering.

[I’d like to take credit for this knowledge, but it all came from the master:  Arnold Jacobs.]

Correct Inhalation

The goal of proper breathing is inhaling and exhaling large amounts of air without friction.  Professional trumpeters use large quantities of air, and this is one of the most important reasons they play so well.  It is vital that younger trumpeters breathe like professionals so that they may begin to develop to their full potential.

Frequently musicians argue whether it is more important to breath from the diaphragm or the chest.  Expansion of the ribs provides about 60 percent of a person’s total lung capacity, and movement of the diaphragm produces about 40 percent.  Obviously, a person doesn’t want to use 40 percent or 60 percent of their potential.  It is necessary to use all 100 percent.

Many methods exist for teaching breathing, and most require a certain degree of conscious control of the breathing process.  Fortunately, it is not necessary to make breathing complicated.  A correct breath may be taken simply by inhaling as quietly as possible.  Any sound results from friction in the airway.  This slows down the inhalation and decreases the amount of air you can inhale quickly.  Imagine a gentle summer breeze blowing through the trees and imitate that sound as you inhale.  Another easy way to breathe correctly is to pretend to yawn through slightly opened lips.  Strangely enough, opening the mouth too far makes a proper breath more difficult.  Practice breathing correctly with every breath you take in practice, rehearsal or performance.  Your playing will show definite improvement.

It is also important to realize that the style of the breath going in sets the style of the breath going out.  If you breathe in with tension, you will tend to blow out with tension.  A relaxed inhalation greatly helps with relaxed blowing and contributes to a good, healthy sound that projects well.  It also helps with intonation and range.

Size of the Breath

The next question is, how much do you inhale? In general, you cannot take too large a breath, but there is a limit.  Inhale quietly as long as you can.  At the very end of the breath, just before you are totally full, you will feel quite uncomfortable.  This is called the stretch point.  I tried for several months to take breaths that were as large as possible.  I found that when you are this full it is difficult to start the air out smoothly.  This makes it difficult to play quietly and to start a phrase without accenting it.

A full breath should go right up to the stretch point, but not into it.  In this way you have taken in your maximum useable capacity.  As a guideline, this is approximately 90 per cent of your total capacity.

Students who have not been breathing properly sometimes confuse the meaning of the stretch point.  With a correct breath there is great expansion in the ribs; however, I have observed students who thought that when their ribs began to move they had reached the stretch point.  This point is not reached until almost the total breath capacity is inhaled and the breath becomes quite uncomfortable.

Students often ask me if they should take such a large breath when they need to play a soft phrase.  In general, I would say that a good breath should be taken, probably about 70 per cent of your total.  A breath this size has momentum, but not so much that you have to hold it back.  Holding back leads to tension, and this makes soft playing more difficult.

When you need to play loudly however, you should inhale the full 90 percent.  This makes it easy to produce the needed volume.  Full breaths also help with the upper range.  Think of a full breath as helping your playing the same way a baseball batter uses a full swing to knock the ball out of the park.  Speed and momentum accomplish what brute muscle strength cannot.  The same holds true for loud or high trumpet playing.

There is an easy way to determine if you are taking full breaths.  Inhale and exhale fully three times, pausing only for about a second between breaths.  If you are breathing properly you will experience the beginnings of hyperventilation: slight dizziness and the lights seeming to dim.  If you don’t hyperventilate, don’t pat yourself on the back for being in such great physical shape.  It simply means that you didn’t take big enough breaths.  Try it again, but inhale much more fully.  These are the size breaths you need to play your best.

The Importance of a Full Breath

A big, full breath wants to come out.  All you have to do is control it.  A small breath often means you have to force.  Take a big breath and hold it — what does the air want to do? It wants to go out.  Now, let the air out and allow your body to reach its normal state, or resting point.  From this resting point begin to blow — as long as you can.  What does the body want to do? Inhale.  The more you blow out from the resting point, the more effort it takes.  Blow until you are almost totally out of air.  Notice how hard it is to inhale; the body almost locks up.

The most efficient part of your breath is the top part of the breath, from nearly full until the resting point.  When you play, start with a full breath.  (Remember, don’t inhale past the stretch point!) Take another breath when you get near the resting point.  Exactly when you do this will be determined by the phrasing of the music.  Occasionally, you will need to play past the resting point and into the bottom part of the breath.  This is okay, but you should only use this part of the breath when absolutely necessary.  In this way you will maximize your endurance.

Concentrate on taking large breaths in all of your playing: band, jazz, solo playing, and especially in your practice sessions.  During every rehearsal you take hundreds of breaths, giving you hundreds of opportunities to develop the art of correct breathing.

It takes time to develop good breathing habits.  A great deal of repetition is necessary to strengthen muscles, build endurance, and establish this as a habit.  Large breaths are somewhat uncomfortable at first because the intercostal muscles (between the ribs) need to develop, and, unless you are a runner, you are not used to expanding your rib cage to its capacity.

In time (six months or more) you will automatically take large, full breaths without even thinking about it.  When you see someone else play who doesn’t take a full breath, you will wonder why they don’t breathe properly — it’s so much easier to play the right way.

The Importance of Correct Breathing

One of the most important parts of trumpet playing is developing a new, correct habit.  In spite of our best intentions, it is easy to let up.  I would like to share with you some of the reasons why taking large breaths are critical to playing extremely well.  Perhaps these reasons will give you additional incentive to learn to breathe properly.

Loud playing, low and high notes, slurs, and large intervals are expensive in that they all take a great deal of air.  The louder you play, the more air you use.  The most costly notes, surprisingly, are the lowest notes.  Play a G below the staff as loud as possible, and see how long you can hold it.  Then try the same thing with the G at the top of the staff.  You can probably hold the higher note at least twice as long as the lower pitch.

Higher pitches require a certain amount of air pressure.  It is easiest to generate the needed compression when the lungs are full because the body is expanded and wants to contract, thereby generating some air pressure and giving you a head start.  By contrast, when you are getting low on air the body wants to expand and take air in, so you need not only the effort to generate the needed air pressure, but also to overcome the body’s natural desire to expand to its relaxed state.

Slurs use more air than articulated notes.  This only makes sense: when you slur the air never stops.  When you articulate the air is momentarily interrupted, either by the tongue or by separation of the breath, depending on the tempo.

Playing wide intervals is much easier when you use a lot of air.  This is particularly true with ascending intervals, and even more true when the notes are slurred.

A person has their greatest lung capacity at about the age of eighteen.  Prior to that time, lung capacity increases, and after that age it decreases little by little.  A young player who takes large, full breaths will not experience many problems as they age.  They will simply breathe a little more often than when they were younger.

A trumpeter who does not take good breaths as a young person may be able to get by for quite some time, but the inevitable decrease in lung capacity will eventually take its toll.  By the time a trumpeter is in his or her forties playing may become quite difficult.  Many excellent trumpeters have had to quit playing once they reached this point.  This is several decades away for most of you, but why do anything to shorten your playing career unnecessarily, especially when you have so much to gain in the meantime by breathing properly?

Many playing problems are caused by a lack of air.  One of the first things to show up is tension in the throat.  This hurts endurance and upper range.  The diaphragm and ribs also stiffen and there is a general decrease in flexibility.  The lips often feel stiff and unresponsive when not enough air is used.  The tongue does not function as well, particularly in double- and triple-tonguing.  Even the fingers perform more poorly with an inadequate air supply.

Many other problems are brought about by a lack of air.  Frequently you can cure what appears to be a totally unrelated problem simply by using more air.  Even if the problem does not go away, it will be greatly minimized.

In teaching my students, I frequently make an analogy comparing large breaths to being rich.  When you are rich, you can do anything you want.  You can fly to Paris for lunch and India for supper.  You can buy an new red Mercedes convertible because the blue one clashes with your outfit.  What do you do if you run out of cash? Just go to the bank and get more.  When you’re rich, there’s always more money!

When you take large breaths, you can play what you want.  You can crescendo as much as you wish or play the length of phrase the composer wants.  You can play large intervals more easily or blow through a tongued passage so that the notes really project.  High notes are easier and have a beautiful sound.  What do you do when you run out? Just take another big breath.  There’s always more air!