The Importance of Breath Control For Brass Musicians
Maximising Brass Performance Through Breath Control
Breathing. It's important.
If we don't breathe, we die.
But, more importantly, if we don't breathe properly when playing a brass instrument (or any other instrument that requires us to exhale forcefully down it) then we starve it of the vital sustenance that enables a great performance.
Not breathing properly or controlling my breathing efficiently has been the root cause of many problems when I've been analysing mistakes I've made whilst playing. From stamina issues to poor production, tuning and even handling nerves - breathing literally controls every part of our playing, but it is an element that can often get overlooked during practice. I know I'm guilty of trudging headlong into repertoire or exercises and neglecting practicing the very thing that enables me to actually play a brass instrument in the first place!
Does this sound familiar? Good, it's nice to know I'm not alone. So, shall we sort ourselves out and ensure we're putting our 'best breath forward' for crystal clear production, long-lasting stamina and a sound that will make audiences weep for all the right reasons?
Marvellous - well, without further ado, let's find out everything we need to know about breath control for brass performance!
Science-y Bit: The Anatomy of Breathing
First of all, let's don our lab jackets and delve into the ✨science-y bit✨ behind breathing for brass performance. Let me introduce you to Dianne the diaphragm - say hello!
Dianne the diaphragm is an c-shaped structure of muscle and fibrous tissue that is attached to our lower six ribs, under our lungs and separates the organs in our abdomen from our heart and lungs.
When we inhale (breathe in), she contracts, which creates a vacuum that pulls air into the lungs.
When we exhale (breathe out), she relaxes, which forces air out of our lungs.
For basic existence alone, she's a very important part of our anatomy, as she facilitates our breathing - but she is also very important for brass playing.
You see, our diaphragm is integral to breath control when we play our brass instruments. It provides support to help us reach notes in our higher register, hold notes in tune, play loud and soft dynamics with a clear sound and take the pressure off our lip, so we tire less quickly.
However, if we don't breathe properly, Dianne can't do her job of supporting our breath when we play efficiently - we've got to give her something to work with! Let's look at what makes a good breath for Dianne and what makes a bad breath.
Good breath: a deep breath taken with an open mouth and a relaxed throat - imagine you're breathing into your stomach - your stomach should push out when you inhale a good breath.
Bad breath: a shallow breath, taken swiftly into the top of our lungs - our chest tends to move more than our stomach with this type of breath.
When we take (what we're going to call) 'Good Breaths', we can engage our diaphragm to support this air more effectively, as we push it down our instruments for controlled, masterful playing.
The Benefits of Breath Control
When we are in complete control of our breathing, we are in better control of our playing. Good breath control is the foundation of a lot of elements within brass playing.
Tone and Sound
Good breath control allows our sound to be full and sonorous, rather than weedy and wheezy (which sound like two rejected members of the Seven Dwarfs.
Production and Articulation
Good breath control helps our articulation to be crisp and controlled, as it is a streamlined jet of supported air, which means less frequent 'fluffy', clipped or split notes.
If we don't support our playing with our diaphragm, our lips end up taking more of the pressure, which reduces our stamina - resulting in our lip muscles becoming tired quicker. We end up pushing our lip muscles against our mouthpieces, rather than letting our diaphragm do the heavy lifting.
I think it was Professor David King I heard say that Piano is a Forte - just further away. It take the same level of air and support, we're just controlling the air flow in a way that results in a change in volume. Harness your breathing and you'll have majestic, full fortissimos and atmospheric, angelic pianissimos.
So, now we know the benefits, let's look at some common breath control pitfalls and how to avoid them!
Common Breath Control Mistakes
Ok, let's start off by illustrating what good breath control looks like and some common mistakes that can affect its success.
Let's imagine that playing our instrument is like driving a car - stay with me here! Our instrument is the car. The first thing we need to do is to put fuel into the car. Our breath is the fuel. Now, not all fuel is created equal - we're looking for good quality, refined fuel that allows our car (instrument) to perform at its best. Those 'Good Breaths' I was talking about earlier - that's our good quality fuel. Now, breath control can be compared with driving technique. Good driving technique means our fuel (breath) consumption is more economical. To 'drive' economically, we're going to be supporting that air with our diaphragm and using our embouchure and tongue to direct this airflow effectively to achieve the desired performance.
One common mistake is using 'cheap fuel' to power our car - i.e. relying on shallow, inadequate breaths to fuel our sound, production, articulation etc. This usually results in a weak sound, more splits and fluffy articulation. We want good quality breaths to fuel our performance.
Another common mistake is not using our 'fuel' (breath) economically. Pushing lots of air down our instrument without using our diaphragm can lead to tuning issues and overblowing or starving our instruments of air during quieter dynamics, leading to strained sounds, dropping off notes and more tuning issues. No support also means putting more pressure on our lips, so our performance lacks longevity and we start to sound tired and cannot perform optimally.
I will admit that I am equally guilty of both. With so much to think about when you're playing, it can be easy to no longer be conscious of our breathing and slip into bad habits. Constantly making breathing exercises part of our routine can help us to breathe more effectively and control the breath without having to think too much about it. It becomes a natural part of our playing.
Tips for Developing Better Breath Control
Like any other element of our playing, the key to improving breath control is to practice it! Unlike most other elements of brass playing - we can practice breathing exercises absolutely anywhere without drawing too much attention to ourselves. Carrying our instrument around our local supermarket or buzzing on our mouthpieces whilst making a coffee in the office is just a little too conspicuous, don't you think?
My favourite breathing exercise, is one I also use to control symptoms of my anxiety disorder when things get a little too much - it's very helpful and quite versatile. It's called 'square breathing' and, as you can see by the diagram below, it's pretty self-explanatory.
I tend to use periods of 4 seconds for each 'side' of the square, simply because I can relate that to a bar of music in 4/4 - but feel free to choose what works best for you.
A few key things to keep in mind in this exercise. Ensure that your inhales are the 'Good Breaths' we've talked about in this blog, i.e. deep breaths into the depths of our lungs that makes our stomach puff out. When we're holding the breath, we're pushing with our diaphragm and when we're exhaling we're using our diaphragm to support and control the stream of breath - as we would when we blow down our instrument. Don't just let the air go! Keep it in a streamlined jet - you could hold your hand in front of your face and blow against it to gauge how well you're controlling the air. Ensure that your lungs are fully empty by the time you get to the end of the countdown for that 'side' of the square.
Not only is this exercise great for practicing breath control for playing, it's also a really effective way of controlling nerves before a performance.
So, there we have it, a whistle-stop tour through the world of breathing for better brass performance. Who knew something as simple as breathing could be so instrumental (haha!) to all elements of our playing? Well, I'm off to go and put this knowledge to good use with some practice! I hope you found this blog useful! Why not use our FREE InstruMental Practice Journal sheets to ensure you factor in breathing exercises in your practice sessions?
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