Air: Fuel for your brass instrument

When it comes to brass playing and teaching, I believe concepts of air usage are underrated. I’ve noticed this with new private students, clinic situations, state solo/ensemble contests, and observation of various student and amateur ensembles. Many music teachers are unable to address every playing issue that their students may have. I feel if one issue can be addressed, it should be proper breathing habits.

The number one culprit is shallow breathing. Many brass players simply inhale (and exhale) far less than necessary. These players often breathe with their upper chest rather than breathing “low”, using the entire abdomen. A shallow breath simply exchanges a small volume of air, which presents many potential issues, including: low level of oxygen/CO2 exchange for fueling the body’s cells, weak or poor trumpet sound due to lower than required amount of air flow for efficient lip vibration, and introduction of tension into the body from having to push or force “negative” air out of the lungs to complete a line or phrase. Playing a wind instrument requires a large amount of body resources (organ functions, clear thinking, muscle usage, etc.), using large amounts of oxygen. A deep, full breath supplies the necessary oxygen and provides the amount of air required to produce an easy, resonant sound. There must be a smooth, even, uninterrupted flow of air moving past the lips to create a rich tone that is easily malleable. “Smooth” or “even” air comes from a relaxed (natural) exhale, not a forced or “pushed” exhale. Experiencing this is simple:

Take a deep breath and exhale slowly until you are comfortably out of air, back to your normal resting point. Take another breath (inhale) and exhale to the same point. Now “push” out the remaining air in your lungs. Notice the tension that builds in your body as you force out the air. You simply cannot remove this air in your lungs without using muscles of the abdomen, chest, or back. That air is what I refer to as “negative air”, and should not be used to play a wind instrument.

Having the lips (chops) in a placement for maximum air efficiency is also important. Brass players used to shallow breathing rely on the embouchure more than necessary. They will often have tension residing in the lips from trying to play outside of their comfort range. Mouthpiece pressure and/or clamping down of the lips will often temporarily result in a higher range, but this comes with discomfort in the lips, chest, and abdomen. You will often see excess swelling of the lips and strain or tension in their body language while playing. Working on better breathing (first) and relaxing the embouchure (if the better breathing doesn’t fix this automatically) frequently results in quick and substantial improvement. There isn’t a textbook embouchure placement for efficiency-don’t go looking for one or have your students place the lips and mouthpiece in a certain “correct” position (every player is different). Let correct breathing be your guide. If the mouthpiece (size and position) and lips are in the “ballpark”, great breathing habits will improve a player’s performance every time.

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