The title of this article probably sounds downright heretical to most low brass players, but I am increasingly convinced that this is a neglected concept in both our playing and our instruction. Now let me say at the outset that I believe it is important for low brass players be able to move massive quantities of air. Tubists and bass trombonists in particular are called upon to rapidly move liter upon liter of air through the embouchure and instrument, particularly in loud passages in the low register. I think all of our daily fundamentals practice ought to include breathing exercises of some kind, and aerobic exercise further helps to improve the efficiency of the exchange of gases. The low brass player needs to be able to inhale a great deal of air quickly, and then expel it quickly and efficiently.
But not all the time. Not every phrase is long enough, or low enough, or loud enough, to require that every inhalation be a full-capacity affair. I was reminded of this last month when preparing for the “Insanity Brass Duo” concerts with Michael Wilkinson (I shared the videos here a couple of weeks ago). The opening piece, my setting for alto trombones of one of Georg Philipp Telemann’s (1681-1767) canonic sonatas for flutes or violins, is on the smallest instrument I play, in the highest register that I play. We’ve presented this program three times over the past year, and every time I find myself struggling on the alto trombone in the practice room until I realize that taking in too much air creates a certain tension that compromises tone, flexibility, and comfort. Eventually a double-breath of some kind is necessary, as stale air must be expelled from the lungs before inhaling again. Taking in smaller, but still sufficient breaths allows for an efficient exchange of gases, freedom in tone production, and a more relaxed and beautiful sound.
What this realization necessitates is a slight adjustment in the philosophy of breathing. While it is important to be able to take in a huge breath when necessary, the operative paradigm while playing ought not to be “every breath must be huge,” but rather “every breath must be sufficient.” Take in enough air for the instrument, register, and length of phrase being played. If that’s a full-capacity breath, fine, but often it will not be so. Strive for an even exchange of gases, executed at the most musically conducive moments in the piece. The result will be greater comfort, greater efficiency, and better sound and flexibility.