Earlier this week a very prominent (and much better than me!) brass player asked in an online forum if the Valsalva maneuver was still a problem seen with brass players, as he had not heard much about it recently. As I and several others replied, it is still very much a “thing,” one that can be rather challenging to address with students. The Valsalva maneuver is a bodily function in which the airway is closed and a forced exhalation against that closed airway is attempted, often as a means of gathering strength for heavy lifting, defecation, or childbirth. While this is not necessarily harmful in those instances, performing this action during brass playing has a deleterious effect upon one’s music making, causing delayed attacks, a telltale “grunt” upon articulation and sometimes even when slurring, and an overall tense approach to the instrument. In extreme cases, use of the Valsalva maneuver while playing can contribute to the development of disorders such as focal dystonia.
Happily, the process of eliminating use of the Valsalva maneuver is simple to describe and, in theory, to execute. The challenge lies in the difficulty of changing one’s fundamental approach to the instrument, the necessity of unwinding sometimes a great deal of unnecessary tension, and the long-term repetition of these steps required to make the new approach the one which the player employs instinctively. The steps I will describe below can be undertaken immediately, and yet must be performed repeatedly over a long period of time in order to realize lasting success.
- Recognize and acknowledge the problem.
Often students who enter my studio using the Valsalva maneuver when playing are not even aware that they are doing so. They might be vaguely aware of tension or inefficiencies in their playing, but do not hear the “grunt” or feel the tension in their throats—after doing it this way for so long, the sometimes painful feeling of throat tension is perceived as normal by these students. Recording students so that the tension can be observed and the grunt heard (microphone placement is important here) can help, though often it is only after experiencing relaxed playing even briefly that students realize that there is another, better way.
- Understand that using the Valsalva maneuver is a manifestation of a larger timing problem.
I suppose there is a bit of a “chicken or egg” question here. Do students use the Valsalva maneuver because their coordination of breath and attack is ill-timed, or is that coordination ill-timed because of the Valsalva maneuver? I tend to think it is the latter, but in either case defining this as largely—even primarily—a timing issue is an important part of eliminating the problem. Emphasize the importance of inhaling and then buzzing in time, with no hold or pause between the inhalation and the beginning of the note. In other words, the process should be “breathe-play” not “breathe-set-play” and much less “breathe-hold-set-play.” Brass embouchures are relatively simple phenomena, and the formation of the lips should occur simultaneously with the attack and the beginning of the buzz. There should be no need to “set the embouchure.” Simply breathe and play, and use the metronome to ensure steady time. (Note: Students who use the Valsalva maneuver are often averse to practicing with the metronome…because the metronome reveals the timing problem! Metronome practice is absolutely necessary to ensure the correct timing of breath and attack, perhaps especially when playing long tone exercises and other slower materials. In fact, practicing with the metronome 100% of the time for a while is advisable for these students.)
- Practice breathing and blowing without the instrument.
Moving on to more concrete steps, have the students breathe and blow through their exercises and pieces without the instrument. Everything else should be the same: use the metronome, emphasize inhaling and exhaling without pause, and even insist on blowing the amount of air that would be used when playing the passage. Move the valves or slide as would be done with the instrument, and articulate normally, but with no instrument (“air trombone!”). The vast majority of students will not continue to use Valsalva apart from the instrument (I have only had one who did), so this is a good way to help the student become acclimated to the feeling of freedom in the throat and of breathing and blowing without pause.
- Practice breathing and blowing (but not buzzing) with the instrument.
Next, repeat the above step with the instrument, but still without actually buzzing (in other words, “air play”). The object here is to repeat the feeling of good timing and freely blowing achieved in the previous step, but this time while holding and manipulating the instrument normally, sans buzz. Some students might begin to display Valsalva symptoms in this step, but it is much more noticeable to them when there is no sound coming out of the instrument. Starting again and perhaps repeating the previous step is necessary when this occurs.
- Play the passage, maintaining the feeling of the above steps.
Finally, have the student play the exercise or piece, still with the metronome, and trying to maintain the freedom of breathing and blowing achieved in the previous two steps. Chances are this will only last a couple of bars at first before the old habits begin to reassert themselves, but with persistence occurrences of the Valsalva maneuver will become more rare over time.
Again, regular repetition of these steps over an extended period will be necessary in order to eliminate the problem, as well as to address “flare-ups” that might occur throughout a person’s career. Like so many poor playing habits, use of the Valsalva maneuver can recur if one does not mindfully and deliberately take steps each day to reinforce correct playing habits. Use of a thorough daily fundamentals routine is a helpful part of establishing, building, and reinforcing good habits because this provides an opportunity to focus upon playing correctly without devoting mental energy to processing and executing the music in front of you. Those prone to Valsalva and other types of excessively tense playing might find regular use of The Breathing Book by David Vining to be helpful, as well.