What we know is that when you are 18-21 years old, your lungs are at their maximum vital capacity, and it's downhill from then on. The lung tissues become less flexible, the cartilage of the rib cage gets harder, and other factors such as asthma can contribute to a gradual loss of ability to move the air. At 21 you may have a 5 litre lung capacity, but by age 50 you may find that reduced to 4 litres.
This is a normal part of aging, and not really a bad thing. What matters is not how much air your lungs will hold, but how well you use the lung capacity you've got. To breathe efficiently, you need to tank up with air and play on the top 3/4's of the lung capacity. At 21, you might play in an inefficient manner and get away with it. At 50, you don't have that luxury.
Anxiety Makes Things Worse!
The real problem begins when the 50 year old, noticing that he/she is having trouble getting to the ends of phrases that used to be a "breeze," starts to get anxious about it. Anxiety leads to tension, which leads to constricted air flow. The muscles of the respiratory system work in three different ways: respiration (moving air in and out), pelvic pressure (childbirth and defecation), and isometric tension (muscle strength). When we are worried and tense it is easy to slip into the second or third pattern, neither of which have anything to do with breathing, so we may not get enough air. What can be done about it?
Here I'll turn the floor over to the late Arnold Jacobs. I don't have a complete understanding of his ideas, but what I think he wants us to do is:
- stop thinking about how to breathe.
- think of air in motion, as "wind."
- use external cues that air is going in and out. For example, the sight of the chest rising and falling in the mirror, or the feel of air blown on the back of the hand.
- breathe more often if necessary, to refrain from playing on the bottom 1/4 of the lung capacity.
- practice breathing away from the horn, then forget about it. When you pick up the horn, focus on the story you want to tell.
That's what I'm working on today!
Brad Howland is the Principal Trombonist of the Victoria Symphony Orchestra.