Essential Concepts in Brass Playing 4: Airflow Is a Means, Not the End

Last week I began the third installment in this series with the following sentence: “Generous, efficient airflow is vital to playing any brass instrument, but it is important that players understand just what the role of the air is, and what it is not.” This week’s post might seem a little bit redundant, as I am going to touch on some of the same ideas as I did last time, but I want to do so today with a little bit different, perhaps more negative focus. Whereas last week I mentioned the subservience of airflow to buzz regarding their relative importance to playing, today I want to highlight some misconceptions that often happen with regard to airflow.

The primary misconception—really the one from which everything else I’ll discuss today is derived—is that taking in lots of air automatically leads to a great sound. Last week I emphasized that great sounds come from lots of vibration being produced by the lips. This requires generous airflow, but one can move lots of air—particularly during the inhalation—without necessarily producing a good sound. Even the biggest breath, taken incorrectly, will not lead to the best sound. Why is this? In a word, tension.

Emory Remington (1891-1971), whose concept of the daily routine I referenced a couple of weeks ago, was an advocate of using a “conversational breath” in trombone playing. He believed that various forms of overbreathing led to tension that compromised tone quality. For a long time I dismissed this element of Remington’s teaching, concluding that this type of breathing could not yield an adequate amount of air to play the lowest registers of the bass trombone and tuba at high volume. However, as I noted in a post a few years ago, I have revisited this concept, wondering if the term “conversational breath” referred not so much to volume as to quality. In other words, what if one were to endeavor to take in a larger than normal amount of air, but still keep the body in the same relaxed disposition that it would have in daily conversation? Would this not yield the relaxation of the “conversational breath” but with the airflow necessary for all playing demands? I am increasingly convinced that this is so.

So what does this “bigger conversational breath” look like? First of all, it has a quiet inhalation. Often when students begin trying to take bigger breaths they unconsciously modify the throat, tongue, and soft palate in such a way that the air rushing in creates a very noticeable sound. While this tricks the player into thinking that he or she is taking in more air, in reality there is the same amount coming in, if not less. Moreover, the changes that create this noise indicate tension in those structures of the body which will have a negative effect upon the player’s tone upon exhalation. A good inhalation is as quiet as possible.

The Breathing Book by David Vining

Secondly, this breath is taken with no effort to manipulate the muscles of the torso in a misguided effort to assist the expansion of the lungs. Many of us (myself included) were admonished as young players to “breathe low,” pushing out with the abdominal muscles in an effort to help the diaphragm to flatten and the chest cavity to expand downward. This is entirely unnecessary and ends up leading to excessive abdominal tension (ask me how I know), an inhibition in the natural expansion of the upper chest, and ultimately less air available for playing. I suspect that this error arose in response to the equal and opposite error of lifting the upper chest and shoulders when breathing. This causes a different but equally deleterious form of tension. Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998), another famous brass teacher that I am fond of quoting here, admonished his students to “suck air at the lips,” and to play with “minimal motors.” He wanted students to take in lots of air, but to give little or no thought or conscious effort to movements in the torso as that air filled the lungs. Those movements should just be allowed to occur naturally, freely, and without tension. “Minimal motors” is an expression meaning that one should play with as little physical effort as possible. Once you stop trying to be a “belly dancing breather,” as David Vining calls it in The Breathing Book (which I highly recommend), moving air and playing becomes a significantly less taxing affair, and as a result becomes more consistent and more enjoyable.

BG_Cover_1024x1024The final breathing error I’ll address here is the habit of many players to focus on the inhalation rather than the exhalation. As I mentioned earlier, many people seem to think that taking a big breath—in other words, a full inhalation—will automatically lead to a great sound. We’ve already seen that this is not the case. If that full inhalation comes with excessive noise and tension in the oral cavity, throat, chest, abdomen—and even shoulders, back, glutes, and legs—the sound will not be full and the tension will render you unable to even use all of the air you have inhaled. Additionally, one must learn not only to inhale in a full and relaxed manner, but to exhale in the same way. After all, the reason we inhale when playing our instruments (well, other than sustaining life) is so that we will have plenty of air to exhale through the instrument! Many of the exercises in The Breathing Book (Vining), The Breathing Gym (Pilafian/Sheridan) and similar resources have as a partial goal the getting the player to both inhale and exhale in the fullest, most efficient, and most relaxed way possible.

So if airflow really is a means and not the end when it comes to tone production, why spend so long talking about it? Because erroneous thinking in this area—whether due to an unbalanced focus on inhalation over exhalation, to poor technique and associated tension, or other factors—leads to so many errors. We must first understand that getting the lips to vibrate freely and vigorously is the path to a great sound, and that generous airflow is only a means to that end. Then we must make sure that we are moving air both in an out in a way that best enables us to achieve that sound, that vibration, and we must eliminate extraneous actions and other errors that ultimately inhibit the free and relaxed movement of air. Once we do this playing becomes easier, better, and more enjoyable both for us and for our listeners.

Airflow is important, even vital, but it is only a means to the end of a full, vibrant sound, produced by a freely vibrating embouchure.


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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