The Reflex of Breathing

By Mark Van Cleave
©2015 MVC

Nobody is born with a mouthpiece stuck to their chops. Playing a brass instrument is not a naturally occurring skill. There is no such thing as NATURAL CHOPS. You have to LEARN to play a brass instrument. There are no brass playing reflexes per se.

There is no such thing as NATURAL CHOPS. There are, however, physical attributes that are more conducive than others for playing a brass instrument. If you are lucky enough to start out with a good physical setup for playing a brass instrument (that is a whole other article), you will still have to PRACTICE to develop that setup into a well oiled playing machine. Even players with brass positive physical attributes will make their first sounds sound something like a duck with a bad attitude. Every brass player starts at the same place… at ZERO. I would LOVE to have a recording of great players playing their first notes!   :)

You have probably heard someone say that you should play naturally… well, that is impossible… but you do have naturally occurring reflexes that you can use when playing. Breathing, hearing, basic musculature, etc. You should try to use as many of these reflexes as possible… and try to use them as they were CREATED to be used over millions of years of evolution and not how some trumpet player thinks you should use them.  :)  

I often tell students that there is only ONE WAY to breathe correctly and if you are not dead, you are breathing correctly.

OK… you are probably saying to yourself “well, of course… duh!”… but you have to admit that most brass players end up pursuing a never ending cycle of trying this method or that method (the magic bean as I like to call it) to help them improve their playing over their entire playing career, while never achieving their original goals. Many teachers also hock their method as THE way to improve your playing. All if this usually ends up convoluting the entire playing machine and tying you into knots so badly that you end up worse for your efforts.

After playing with the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra for a few years (playing lead and all of the Maynard and Cat recreations…WHEW!), my second trumpet player (who is one of the BEST trumpet players I have EVER had the pleasure of sitting beside!!!) told me that he had noticed over the past years that I really had the diaphragmatic breathing technique DOWN! I thought about it for a second and then replied…”well, thank you”. I am not sure exactly what he was referring to as I was NEVER using the diaphragmatic breathing technique or any other breathing technique that I know of when playing the trumpet. 

What he later told me was that he could see my diaphragm area moving while I played etc. I told him that it was probably because I was fat. :) Yes, things do move when you play and especially when you breathe… but the DIAPHRAGM???…. When I PLAY the trumpet??? He said that he could see my diaphragm push out when I took a breath and tighten up when I played. Hmmmm

Not that I hadn’t heard this concept before… but it was always from brass players or brass teachers… NEVER from a doctor or someone that was an expert on how your body works.

I would say that almost ALL of the trumpet and brass clinics that I attended over the years included some mention and promotion of the diaphragm breathing method. And as a result, almost ALL of the brass players I know saythat this is how they breathe to play their instrument… and thus, this is how almost ALL band directors I know instruct their students to play.

Unfortunately, when I did some research years ago (in medical journals focused on breathing abnormalities), I found that the diaphragm does NOT move in and out…it moves UP AND DOWN. OK… this could still influence some in and out movement when you breathe… but most of the teachers of this method encourage students to MOVE the lower abdomen (diaphragm area) in and out to play correctly. Have you ever heard anything like this…. I bet you have!

Now for another interesting bit of info that I uncovered…. The diaphragm is a fairly WEAK muscle and is so thin that it is almost translucent… you can almost see through it…. And thus it is not even a PRIMARY muscle in the breathing process. It is a SECONDARY muscle in the breathing process. 

But this diaphragm muscle is the cornerstone of most brass related breathing techniques used and taught throughout the world. Hmmmm This method is how they tell you to PLAY your instrument… “Support from the diaphragm when you play”. Hmmmm

Here is another interesting bit of diaphragm trivia that I also found very interesting when considering using the diaphragm while playing….. it is not used for EXHALE at all!!! It is only used only while INHALING. 

But wait…. playing is done using the EXHALE and NOT the INHALE…. So…. You guessed it… after all of that, it ends up being IMPOSSIBLE to use the diaphragm while PLAYING (exhaling) your instrument. Hmmmmmmmmmm!

I like to tell students that if you use the diaphragm (inhaling) while PLAYING (exhaling), you will SUCK! Literally AND figuratively! :)

You may have understood this all along…. But for me, I bought into all of this well-intentioned diaphragmatic propaganda hook line and sinker when I was young and impressionable.  :)     I actually tried to manipulate my abdomen while playing like I was being told… all the while thinking that I was actually squeezing the diaphragmwhile I was playing…..UGH!

In continuing my research, I also found out that the most efficient method of exhale for both volume and velocity of air occurs by using the natural elastic recoil of the chest cavity. This information was not derived by or for trumpet players or well-intentioned music educators, but rather by doctors and other experts to help asthmatics and people with other breathing impairments. This information was derived for when peoples lives depend upon getting a breath of air in and out efficiently and quickly… not for just hitting some note on a trumpet.

In order to make use of this NATURAL elastic recoil of the chest cavity, one must first take a full breath… actually slightly MORE than a full breath. Enough breath to not only fill the lungs, but then to also stretch the chest cavity (ribs and all) enough to produce a bit of extra pressure on the lungs… or elastic recoil. All you need to do at this point to generate an energized airstream is release the air. That’s all! No real technique at all. 

Many of the diaphragm methods also emphasize firming up in the lower abdomen to support the airstream. This area is one of the naturally weakest areas muscularly (is that a word??) in men. Playing in this fashion is very stressful on these naturally weak muscles and increases the probability for developing such things as hernias in my opinion. I think we have all known some trumpet player who has developed a hernia… usually the lead or high note guy.

I was born with a hernia. At the age of 2, I was taken to surgery to have it repaired. I was knocked out and just prior to going under the knife, the surgeon manipulated things back into place and ended up not cutting me. I wore a truss for a year and a half until things healed up on their own. WHEW! So… I have a propensity for hernias… and then what did I decide to do… PLAY THE TRUMPET… and not just trumpet, but LEAD TRUMPET… and not just lead trumpet, but lead trumpet for circuses playing 3 three hour non-stop shows a day around 5 days a week for over a decade…..UGH! BOY… if anyone should have developed a hernia from playing hard, I should have. 

NOT trying to use a technique (in my opinion) is one of the main reasons I never had any hernia type issues with all of that physical playing. I used the breathing method that I was born with….that was naturally a reflex. My mainmethod was just making sure that I was not getting in the way of my natural breathing mechanics. Fill up… plus a little bit… and let ‘er fly!

There is another anomaly that this non-method immediately helped. It is the phenomenon known as random neuron firing (RNF). This is when you hold your index finger straight out at arms length and try to hold it PERFECTLY STILL. It is VERY difficult if not impossible to do. There will always be a bit of a slight twitch or movement that you cannot control. This is because your brain produces random neuron firings that cause this slight movement in your finger. And remember… your finger is one of your BEST and MOST CONTROLLED muscles in your body. Your intercostal muscles that surround your rib cage and other breathing muscles are not as well controlled as your index finger and they too have random neuron firings. When playing a long tone, this RNF results in a slight shakiness in your sound. This happens because you are trying to squeeze large hard to control muscles to produce your exhale. Any time you USE MUSCLES, you will experience RNF.

On the other hand, by using your natural elastic recoil as the primary exhale force, you will eliminate almost ALL of the RNF artifacts from your sound. There will always be some RNF when playing any wind instrument even if it is just in the hands that hold the instrument or the lips that are producing the sound… but the biggest offender in my opinion is when you are actively pushing out the airstream with large poorly controllable muscles instead of just releasing the air with elastic recoil.  My long tones immediately became more steady and smooth!

For me, this was the greatest unexpected side effect from using this non-method breathing method.

I explained all of this to my 2nd trumpet player… about a year later, he told me that after watching/listening to me over that year, he decided to scrap all of the techniques that he had been trying to use for many years. He told me that he was working too hard and that he thought I looked relaxed when I played and that I made it look easy.  :)


© TPO 1992-2015