Regular readers might have noticed that I have not published here with the usual frequency in the past few months. Part of the reason for this is having a much larger teaching studio this year than has normally been the case. This is a great blessing for sure, and I enjoy my work, but teaching for over 30 hours per week leaves little time for practicing, performing, necessary administrative work, and trying to maintain some semblance of an active family and church life. Writing—both here and in the print venues where my articles and reviews sometimes appear—has sadly taken a back seat, especially with my recent addition of a regular exercise regimen.
Weight and fitness have never been strengths of mine. Except during a couple of periods of serious illness I was generally an overweight child and young adult but managed to lose about 75 pounds during graduate school, and then kept that weight off for nearly seven years. “Life happened,” as they say, around that time, and after becoming a parent and developing some back problems the weight slowly returned, until by a year or two ago I had regained about 60 of the 75 pounds I had lost. Predictably, “bad numbers” in my yearly physicals, with cholesterol, triglycerides, liver enzymes, blood pressure, and pulse rate all “out of whack,” accompanied this weight gain. Having gotten my back issues largely under control (something about which I hope to write in the future, but for now will simply recommend this book), I resolved to set about trying to become healthier. I reduced the portion sizes in my meals and eliminated soda entirely, and began exercising daily, swimming laps four days per week (currently one mile per day) and doing strength training and stationary bike riding on the remaining days. At the time I am writing this I have lost over 50 pounds, so I have nearly returned to the weight I maintained throughout my mid and late twenties. I will readily admit that losing weight was easier at “twentyish” than it is at “fortyish!”
While massive weight loss would seem to be a boon to the physical aspects of brass playing, the first time I lost this much weight that was not the case, at least not initially. Instead, the weight loss was accompanied by a marked decline in my playing ability, particularly with regard to breathing and with a corresponding decline in tone quality. After I had struggled for months trying to understand why my playing was suffering, my teacher (I was still a full time student and taking weekly trombone lessons then) theorized that the problem might be that the muscles throughout my torso and elsewhere in the body had become accustomed to having to work harder to support all of that weight. With those muscles always somewhat activated to keep me upright and mobile, engaging them in the task of moving large volumes of air was relatively easy. But with the weight gone, those muscles became more relaxed, and breathing in the way that had felt right previously no longer resulted in efficient air movement. I had to become more mindful about how I was breathing and moving air, and after a few months I had regained my previous playing skill. Since then I have shepherded a few of my own students through similar playing difficulties after their own weight loss efforts. Counterintuitively, losing weight seems to make brass playing worse before it makes it better.
The potential for playing disruptions due to weight loss was one of the reasons that I chose swimming as the primary exercise for my current weight loss efforts. I hoped that the need for regular and efficient breathing while swimming would prevent me from having the same breathing issues as I had experienced fifteen years earlier. (And, given my history of back problems, the low-impact but high-energy nature of swimming was appealing.) Happily, this time around I have experienced none of the breathing and tone quality difficulties that I had during my previous weight loss. That’s probably partly due to my anticipating problems and addressing them in advance, at least unconsciously, but the breathing requirements for lap swimming undoubtedly played a role. Not only has my breath management while playing not suffered; it is better than it has ever been.
I have long been an advocate of breathing exercises such as those found in The Breathing Gym. I still do them daily and encourage my students to do the same. Still, after all of this swimming I look better, feel better, and am breathing better than ever. Lap swimming is the best breathing exercise in the world!