BREATHING FROM THE DIAPHRAGM: TIPS AND PITFALLS OF AIR USAGE
(PLEASE NOTE: The text below is not an exact transcription of the video lecture. To see diagrams and gain further clarification please watch the video above. You can also contact me directly: TubaChavez@gmail.com)
I’m pretty sure at some point, usually in high school or middle school, most wind players were told to, ‘Push from your diaphragm!’ when complaints about air support were addressed in class. While your band director was very well meaning in this moment, they unfortunately sent you on a wild goose chase; or more correctly, they sent you down a rabbit hole. Today I want to explain a little about how the diaphragm and abdominal muscles work to produce efficient breathing for brass players and how this information connects to our day-to-day playing.
EXPLAINING THE DIAPHRAGM
(Okay, so let me preface all of this with a warning: I am not a doctor. What I have learned, I learned from some fantastic teachers, a lot of time spent on the internet, and hours in the practice room trying to synthesize all that information into real world utility. If I get something wrong, please share your knowledge with me! I am always looking to improve my understanding of these things.)
The diaphragm is a large, dome-shaped muscle that is positioned directly underneath the lungs and is connected to the brain by the phrenic nerve. The phrenic nerves job is to make the diaphragm contract and relax to motivate the activity of breathing.
We don’t feel the diaphragm working in the way we feel muscles like our biceps, but we feel the effects of the diaphragm working: when we inhale,the diaphragm contracts (which means that it tenses), causing it flatten out. This creates a pressure imbalance from inside the body to the outside which causes air to rush into the lungs. When we exhale, things work in reverse: the diaphragm relaxes, returning to its original dome shape. This causes the air in the lungs to be pushed out as the pressure imbalance changes direction.
You are probably thinking to yourself at this point: what about the abdominal muscles? I’m getting there; I haven’t mentioned the abs yet because, so far, I’ve been trying to explain the diaphragm and its role in breathing–not necessarily breathing for playing our instruments. There are two sets of “accessory” muscles that we use for playing. The first are the intercostal muscles: these muscles are actually attached to the ribs, and when we engage them they pull the rib cage upward; this assists with inhalation by helping to further increase the space for the lungs to expand. The accessory muscles for exhaling are the abdominal muscles we all know and love. These work by pushing all the organs in our lower torso upward, forcing the diaphragm back into its dome shape faster than it would move normally.
So, the diaphragm contracts to flatten, making space: air comes in. Diaphragm relaxes to dome shape, reducing space: air goes out. Or in simpler terms: we EXPAND for inhalation and we RELAX for exhalation. This tends to go against both how were taught to breathe and also how we react psychologically to breathing under performance stress. We can break it down a little bit on each side of the breath.
BREAKING DOWN THE INHALE
Regardless of what we’re talking about…RELAXATION IS KEY. A lot of us know this logically but don’t apply it in our playing. As we inhale we can encounter several problems. The first is upper torso tension: tightening the shoulders, upper back, or actively disengaging our intercostal muscles. When we tense our upper body, we restrict how much air is able enter the lungs by preventing the rib cage from flexing outwards. Also, holding tension (especially in our shoulders) inhibits the flow of air at the throat and neck. Also, lots of people have been told to “belly breathe,” which is fine in and of itself. But too often I see people purposefully deactivate the intercostal muscles so they feel all the breath happening from the diaphragm pushing downwards. Remember, your lungs are in your chest, not your gut. So if your chest does not relax and expand, you will not be able to take in the maximum amount of air available to you.
The other inhalation issue is lower torso tension: stress in the lower back or abdominal muscles. As we have already talked about, when the diaphragm contracts it pushes down. But when the abs contract they push up. You can see we are working at cross purposes; the action of the diaphragm is counteracted by the abs. Many of us were told by an over-zealous band director to ‘suck in air,’ and then they slap their stomach as they flex their abs. This is all wrong. There is no way to force air into our lungs. But if we relax the lower torso muscles and think of expanding our chest cavity (via the intercostal muscles), we will have efficient and very quick inhales when we prepare to play.
BREAKING DOWN THE EXHALE
Now, on the opposite side of the coin we have exhalation: breathing out. Again, we have several pitfalls to trip us up, mostly taught to us by well-meaning but misinformed teachers. The first is the way we engage our abs. I see lots of teachers demonstrating the use of their abs for exhalation by showing an exaggerated tensing of their six pack towards their spine. This might be perfect for doing sit-ups, but if you’ve ever tried to play your horn while doing sit-ups then you know this is counterproductive! Remember, abs are only ACCESSORY muscles for breathing; the primary muscle for breathing both in and out is the diaphragm. We should allow it to do the bulk of the work first, before we start adding the abdominal muscles into the mix. This point dovetails right into my second issue. We are usually told to use a “steady stream of air.” I even use this phrase all the time. It is a habit. But usually this means we try to feel a constant muscular engagement throughout the whole breath. This is why most of us sound beautiful for about the first two-thirds of what we would call a full breath. Think of playing a long, uninterrupted phrase: we start out good, but by the time we get to the last couple measures our tone is suffering and we’ve stopped thinking about musical goals completely; we’re just trying to make it to the end without falling out of our chair! As we move through the time of an exhale, we should gradually be adding more abdominal engagement. Because of the continually decreasing volume of air left in the lungs, if we push with a steady breath the sound will gradually get weak. But if we think of constantly accelerating the air through the whole breath, we will achieve the steady flow of air we have been told to use.
Lastly on the exhale side of things, we must think about the upper torso again. Just as before, tension in the shoulders and neck will always restrict airflow. But rather than think of forcing your shoulders down or “opening” your throat (since both of the actions require us to tense some set of muscles) we should actively work to stay disengaged, allowing the shoulders to rise or fall naturally and stay focused of the flow of air at the embouchure to avoid activating the neck muscles. Also beware to not collapse the chest cavity. This is similar when we talked about pushing our abs towards the spine; sometimes we actively try to push our sternum towards our spine in an effort to push more air out (or push it out more quickly). A strong, efficient exhale should feel very relaxed, especially in the chest, neck, and shoulders.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF BREATHING FOR PERFORMANCE
In the end, it is the psychological game that gets most of us most of the time. We use words and phrases like ‘TAKE in more air,’ ‘PUSH the air out,’ etc. Usually these phrases are said with good intentions, but they create the wrong physiological response. Sometimes the truth is that performance pressure gets the best of us; in the moment we think that maybe that extra ‘UMPH’ is going to be what makes the performance great; or we just get nervous and twitchy and start to do things out of our normal process.
It may be great to know all the science and mechanical understanding, but at the end of the day we need to have a more intuitive connection to this information, so it becomes our habitual way of performing. At this point we should stop thinking about all the mechanics discussed in this talk and just focus on two simple ideas: EXPAND to breath in, RELAX to breath out. The less muscular engagement we need to use to execute the mechanical aspects of playing our instrument, the more energy we have left to be musical. Remember we don’t make music with our abs, chest, lungs, or embouchure. Becoming less physically involved with playing our instrument gives us the freedom to become more mentally involved.
If you have another phrase or way of thinking about breathing that gets you to this positive place I would love to hear it! Please leave a comment below with your thoughts.