Breathing Exercises for the brass player

Jacobs: Wind=Song for breathing!There are a number of articles on the internet providing some useful exercises for breathing.  In this article I am going to explain some of the breathing exercises that have been most useful for me.

I have studied the work of Arnold Jacobs and fully agree with his thinking and teaching regarding wind=song.  Breathing technique is important for all brass players and can allow for musical phrasing, tonal control and greater confidence with expression.

Breathing TechniqueWhen breathing in it is important to breathe noiselessly, quickly and use warm air.  Breathe in using the sound ‘WHO’, keeping your shoulders down and allowing space for your rib cage and stomach to expand.  Keeping your shoulders down is important as it allows your diaphragm to move without restriction.  Do remember that the diaphragm is an involuntary muscle and cannot be controlled.  It is possible to control the way in which you use the air that you breathe and the way in which you breathe, and it is better to focus on the use and control of air than a particular muscle.

Here are some exercises that I have used to develop my breathing technique:

1)    Start with relaxation. Stress, muscle tension and restriction cause issues when breathing properly.

  1. Lift both shoulders up towards your ears and hold for 5 seconds and then allow them to drop gently.
  2. Roll shoulders forward slowly and fully 5 times.
  3. Roll shoulders backwards slowly and fully 5 times.

2)    Do two big yawns, allowing the jaw to move freely but not overstretching.

3)    Set a metronome to 60 bpm and follow these steps:

i.     Breathe in for 4 full beats, hold for 4 beats and exhale for 8 beats.

ii.     Breathe in for 3 full beats and exhale for 12 beats.

iii.     Breathe in for 2 full beats and exhale for 24 beats.

iv.     Breathe in for 1 full beat and exhale for 32 beats.

v.     Breathe in for ½ a beat and exhale for 48 beats.

4)    Take a full deep breath, and then take in 6 additional sips of air.

5)    Hold a book at arms length and try to blow apart the pages.

6)    Light a candle and try to blow the air in a controlled way so that the flame bends in one direction but does not blow out.

7)    Hold a lit match at arms length, and blow it out.

8)    Long note practice.  Set a metronome to 60bpm and work on long notes in the middle register at a comfortable volume and focus on tonal quality at the beginning and end of the note as well as the middle.

Breathing TechniqueTo improve breathing technique it is important to continue to work on them regularly.  If possible it is good to aim to try these exercises on a daily basis.  With regular work it will be possible to notice a big difference in breath control within a relatively short space of time. As Joe Alessi points out, it is important to “blow through the notes, not at them”. (Attributed to his father Joe Alessi Snr)

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Breathing Exercises for the brass player — 2 Comments

  1. Hi Shaun – thanks for reminding me of some exercises which I have long neglected and should probably immediately take up again.

    May I add another one which my teacher Jim Beck (formerly principal horn of the WNO) got direct from the Vakyries? I think it was Ann Jones the great Wagnerian soprano who used to do this.

    Sit in a chair with a good wooden back. Breathe in (as you describe above in para 3). Be particularly aware of your intercostal muscles – those are the ones that hold your ribs together. They too should expand so that your back touches the back of the chair. Now blow the air out in a steady ‘piano’ stream using the diaphragm, keeping the back in contact with chair-back – i.e., by holding your intercostal muscles open and maintaining an inflated ribcage. only deflate your back once you really need to.

    I gather this is how the Valkyries manage the ‘hoyotoho’ bits without actually dying. It’s also extremely useful for e.g. Sibelius and Strauss where the horn player has to sustain immensely long notes. It gives you both extra control and extra space to put your breath – sort of like having hollow legs!

    • Hi Catherine.

      Thank you for your comment.

      This sounds like a really good exercise and one that would be very useful for all brass players!

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