Rediscovering and Reapplying the “Conversational Breath”

In last week’s post as well as several others I have freely discussed areas in which I have abandoned previous approaches to playing my instruments and have embraced ideas found in newer publications. While readers might conclude that I have rejected the teachings of my own professors wholesale, that conclusion would be in error. Players who have taken lessons with me and with one of my former teachers still report that I sound like the teacher that they know, and in most areas of my playing and teaching I remain an amalgamation of my own instructors. Indeed much of my playing development these days comes not from learning new information but from rediscovering and sometimes reapplying ideas that have been forgotten. This is certainly true of the topic that I have chosen for today.

Emory Remington (1892-1971)

Emory Remington (1892-1971)

Emory Remington (1892-1971) was the legendary trombone teacher at the Eastman School of Music for nearly fifty years. He practically invented the modern trombone choir, and his teaching on the use of a “balanced daily routine” for fundamental playing work remains the basis of my own approach to the same topic. Indeed, most of the exercises in my own routines are based upon (if not copied directly from) those used by “The Chief.” My trombone teachers at the university level included one of Remington’s students and a student of one of his students, so his teaching had a formative, if indirect, influence on my own work.

Nevertheless, one idea espoused by Remington that I abandoned for a long time was his preference for using a “conversational breath” when playing. He rejected what he called “overbreathing” as used by many players because he believed this led to unnecessary tension when playing. While I agreed that unnecessary tension was to be avoided, I did not agree with the “conversational breath” concept because I believed it left the player with an insufficient amount of air to meet his playing demands, particularly when playing bass trombone and tuba. When incorrectly understood, I still believe this to be the case. Certainly more air than is used in normal speech is needed at least at times when playing, particularly for loud and extended passages in the lower register.

Last week I mentioned that over time I had unintentionally allowed an unhelpful abdominal tension to creep into my playing, a situation that was ultimately resolved through regular use of The Breathing Book. While I have long admonished students that unnecessarily laborious breathing can add tension, and that not every breath needs to be a “full capacity” breath, I had been less successful in applying these ideas to my own playing. The harder I worked, and the bigger breaths I tried to take, the more tense I became. This was a recipe for disaster, and I am thankful both that only a couple of bad performances rather than a wholesale “crashing” of my playing led me to reevaluate this, and that I discovered teachings and materials that helped me to resolve the issues.

In light of these new discoveries, and particularly after hearing the term used for the first time in a long while in a couple of lectures earlier this year, I have been giving the “conversational breath” a second thought. I find myself more and more wondering if I misunderstood all along what Remington was after. Perhaps he meant a conversational breath not in volume, but in quality. What if one could learn to take in the amount of air needed for a passage, however large that amount might be, with the same feeling of ease and relaxation that one has in casual conversation? If so, while it would be inaccurate to view the newer teachings of David Vining in The Breathing Book as a fleshing out and application of Remington’s idea, rightly understood perhaps the two concepts could live together. One would then learn from Vining how to properly use the breathing apparatus, and then when playing focus largely on maintaining the relaxing breathing of a casual conversation when playing.

I suspect that I am reinterpreting Remington too much to remain absolutely true to his original concept, as the big breaths I often use, particularly when playing loudly on the bass trombone, can hardly be described as “conversational.” Still, I can’t help but think that the concept of a “conversational breath in quality but not in volume” might be a way to take this idea and successfully apply it to modern playing demands, promoting a relaxed, “conversational” feel even in the most intense playing situations.

About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Interim Music Director at College Hill Presbyterian Church, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released two solo recordings, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOLS. 1 and 2, on the Potenza Music label in 2015 and 2022, respectively. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.
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