MUS 215

Breathing

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  1. Breathing devices can be helpful for any wind instrumentalist.  Many companies now carry a variety of breathing devices that are capable of measuring lung capacity, etc.  Below are drawings of some of these devices.

The following information was taken from Dr. Burnette's dissertation, Saxophone Performance Problems:  Causes and Solutions (1985) (pp. 109-116).  References are cited in the dissertation, but are not cited here.

Causes of Problems Interfering with Efficient Air Control

It is not the purpose of this section to describe in technical detail the physiology of breathing as a corrective formula for breathing problems encountered in musical performance.  Rather, it is to isolate the most common solutions for their correction.  For technical and other information on the physiology of breathing, refer to the following sources:  Human Physiology:  The Mechanisms of Body Function by Arthur Vander, J. Sherman, and D. Luciano (2nd ed., New York:  McGraw-Hill); The Physiology of Breathing by Arend Bouhuys (New York:  Grune and Stratton); The Art of Brass Playing by Philip Farkas (Rochester, N.Y.:  Wind Music); Flute Technique by F. B. Chapman (4th ed., London:  Oxford University Press); Foundations in Singing by Van A. Christy (Dubuque, Iowa:  Wm. C. Brown).

Poor Posture

Probably the most common hindrance to proper breathing and expression of sound is poor posture.  Considering that the bodily breathing apparatus operates as a series of segmented bellows and not just one bellows (e.g., the lungs alone), it is understandable how the upper segments of the breathing system (upper chest and neck) in particular can be constricted by slumped posture.

SOLUTION:  The body is structured such that maximum use of  air is realized in the standing position.  In the seated position, maximum function of the respiratory system is achieved when the torso remains fully upright.  In order to allow optimum functioning of the respiratory system for wind performance, the player must maintain a decidedly vertical posture (standing or sitting) in order to avoid restricting either the muscles of the chest or abdomen, both of which are used in combination in wind performance.  Proper posture is even more critical for a player with a small build and lung capacity.

To illustrate the ineffectiveness of breathing using only the muscles of the chest or of the abdomen alone, one may experiment with the following exercises which exaggerate the individual deficiencies of each method:  (1) By lying down with one's back to the floor, there is little ability to use the chest muscles in breathing.  Use of the abdominal muscles is excellent, but provides a small breath.  (2) By bending forward while seated, the abdominal region under the diaphragm is compressed, allowing use of the chest muscles but severely limiting the abdominal muscles.  Poor posture can have the same adverse effects on breathing by diminishing the expansion of the abdomen or chest, or by restricting the flow of air through the throat.

Throat Constriction

Whereas the diaphragm is controlled indirectly by the abdominal and chest muscles, muscles of the larynx can be directly controlled.  Because of this, some players sacrifice quality of sound when playing softly in that they reduce air speed primarily by constricting the throat passageway in order to reduce volume.  This produces a noticeably choked tonal quality.  To play softly successfully requires the proper amount of abdominal/chest-muscle "braking" in combination with the correct closing of the larynx.  The "braking" action is accomplished by the muscles of inspiration working against those of expiration.

SOLUTION:  Although the opening of the larynx does fluctuate in saxophone playing as previously described, constant or excessive constriction of this area has adverse effects on air flow and tone quality.  The player must keep the throat relaxed in general by learning to control the throat muscles.  Gaining control of the muscles of the throat is not always instantaneously accomplished; however, control is not difficult once the player recognizes which muscles are involved.

A good approach to learning to relax constricted throat muscles is to begin by exaggerating the tension in the throat area.  Whereas relaxation of the throat muscles may initially be difficult to do, tightening these muscles is a simple matter.  It also indicates to the player which muscles are involved in the tightening/relaxing process.  While sustaining a long tone in a comfortable register, the player should tighten the throat as much as possible, exaggerating the already choked tone quality.  Then, the same muscles which were made to tighten in the throat should be relaxed, allowing the tone quality to improve as much as possible.  During this reverse process, the focus should be on the sound, without undue attention on the muscles.

A teaching concept used by Eugene Rousseau (described to the writer by George Wolfe) to open and relax the throat is to simulate fogging a window glass with a warm breath.  The warm air can be felt on the open hand if done properly using a "haw" syllable.

Inefficient Use of the Breathing System

In addition to constriction problems which interfere with the expiration of air in wind instrument performance, breathing problems may exist relating to the fundamental process of inspiration and expiration.  If, due to the method of inspiration, the player does not inhale a sufficient quantity of air, phrasing can be severely limited.  If the method of expiration is incorrect, maximum air pressure and air flow are restricted, affecting tone quality, control, and even intonation.  Although the player should not dwell continuously on the physiology of breathing, but rather on the resultant quality of the tone which insures proper blowing, a knowledge of the fundamental aspects of proper breathing techniques is essential for successful wind performance.

SOLUTION:  In his book, Circular Breathing for the Wind Performer, Trent Kynaston outlines the four basic types of breaths:  (1) high (shoulder lift), (2) middle (chest expands), (3) low (abdomen expands), and, (4) total (combination of low, middle and high in sequence).  The wind performer primarily uses low and middle breathing.  Following is a summary of these two breathing techniques which should be helpful to the player in making maximum use of the breathing system for wind performance:

Inspiration.  The first step toward proper inspiration begins with the low breath.  Low breathing, which primarily involves the abdominal muscles, allows maximum intake of air in the quickest manner.  This type of breath is characterized by a noticeable outward expansion of the abdominal region, which is caused by the abdominal muscles pulling the diaphragm downward, creating a vacuum which causes air to rush into the lungs.  The second step involves the chest expansion of the middle breath.  After the abdomen has expanded during the first portion of inspiration, the inspiration should continue smoothly as the chest expands, allowing more room in the chest cavity for the lungs to expand.  At the end of the breath, the abdomen may pull in slightly.

As the exercises under Poor Posture demonstrate, relying on the use of either abdominal or chest muscles alone to fill the lungs with air is insufficient for wind performance.  Both are required in combination for maximum breathing capabilities.

Expiration.  After the air is inspired, maximum expirational air pressure/support is created by pushing inwardly with the same abdominal muscles which were expanded during inspiration.  The abdominal muscles should be the primary force expelling the air.  After the abdomen has contracted, the chest may then contract to expel the remaining air.  The result is that the air is pushed upward from the bottom in the direction that it is traveling.  If the chest muscles are allowed to contract prematurely, air flow is constricted.  

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