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Breathing and the Valsalva Maneuver

Brad Howland

Brad Howland

It is possible to play trombone well without any knowledge of the breathing process. Efficient, relaxed breathing is best done without thinking about it too much, and the best teachers are those who reduce it to simple concepts. For example, Emory Remington referred to the "conversational breath," and that was all. However, for those musicians who are having certain problems, an understanding of the breathing process can help a great deal.

Contents

Introduction
The Valsalva Maneuver
More Breathing Exercises
Some Common Traps

Introduction

It is possible to play trombone well, without any knowledge of the breathing process. Efficient, relaxed breathing is best done without thinking about it too much, and the best teachers are those who reduce it to simple concepts. For example, Emory Remington referred to the "conversational breath," and that was all. However, for those musicians who like to analyze, or for those having certain problems, some explanation is required. Also, there is a lot of wrong information out there, and a good understanding of the process can keep one out of trouble.

The first thing to realize is that muscle tissue is either on or off, tense or relaxed – there is nothing in between. When we inhale, the muscles go on. Intercostal muscles connected to the ribcage contract to pull it outward, causing the lungs, which are attached to the ribs, to expand.

At the same time the diaphragm contracts. In its relaxed state, the diaphragm muscle sits above the abdominal region attached to the bottom of the lungs and the sternum, in a shape like a high-hat cymbal. As the muscle tenses, it flattens out, pulling the lungs downward.

The combined expansion of the lungs out and down causes the air pressure inside the lungs to drop, and air rushes in from the outside. The tension of the intercostal and diaphragm muscles causes visible expansion of the ribcage, and also the abdominal region, where the diaphragm pushes down against the stomach and intestines, which in turn push the abdominal wall outward. However, most of the expansion takes place in the chest, where most of the air goes.

Breathing in, then, is work, and breathing out is primarily relaxation. We take in air, and our sensory nerves let us know when the lungs are full. We can hold it in, as long as we do it with the muscles. Holding the air in by closing the throat is unhealthy and can trigger the Valsalva Maneuver (see below). With an open, relaxed throat we can exhale at any time, or begin a note on the instrument with a light stroke of the tongue. To exhale, simply relax the muscles. The natural elasticity of the lungs causes them to collapse and the air rushes out.

Exhalation is a "letting go" of the air, but of course if we just blew it out all at once we wouldn't get far on trombone! What is needed is a very fine control of the intercostal muscles. We don't let them go all at once, but maintain some tissue in the "on" position to control the collapse of the ribcage. We cannot consciously do this, but must rely on our musical goals to decide the release of the air. The tendency is towards over-control and constriction of the air flow at the throat or with the tongue. Remember that exhalation is mostly relaxation, and you can just let it happen.

Valsalva Maneuver

I know all about the Valsalva Maneuver (VSM), because I suffered from it for many years. I used to think that it only bothered five to ten percent of brass players, but now that I understand it better and have fixed it for myself, I know that it affects all brass players! In solving my VSM problem I have discovered some universal truths about brass playing.

There is almost no literature written about VSM, so I am going to share with you my interpretation of it. I hope it will help your playing. However, everyone must find his/her own solutions, and a serious case of VSM is usually not possible to fix alone. Expert help is required from a teacher who understands it well.

There is a description of VSM by Arnold Jacobs in Arnold Jacobs: The Legacy of a Master, and another by Richard Erb in the same book. Basically, the brass player takes a breath, but before playing begins there is a momentary hesitation while the tongue moves up and locks in an upper position, causing a build up of air pressure in the mouth. The sensation of air pressure triggers a response, which involves tightening of the stomach muscles at the same time the diaphragm contracts. Now there are two sets of opposing muscles working against each other—definitely not a good thing.

If the musician can start the note at all, it will be with an explosion or stuttering effect. This most often occurs when performing solo, such as during an audition, where there is no rhythmic context from an ensemble or conductor. VSM can be limited to certain notes or ranges of notes that the player is worried about.

The trouble with VSM is you can't consciously fix it. Once that pressure starts to build in the mouth, the situation is out of control. You are going to lock up. There is a psychological component. The very act of trying not to do it causes it to occur! Picking up the trombone involves you in a cue/response situation; the instrument triggers physical and mental responses that lead to the effect. So you have to work on it away from the horn.

Remember, it begins with the build up of pressure in the mouth. How can we prevent this from happening? Keep our lips open! Try these exercises:

Congratulations, you just took the first steps to VSM freedom! However, don't do a lot of this as it will mess up your embouchure. There is another way to go about it.

When you form an embouchure, you don't put your lips into some static position. The embouchure can not exist without air going through it. Let me say that another way because it is crucial: there is no such thing as an embouchure independent of the air blowing through it.

Many people have the impression that when the lips buzz, there is a little hole that opens and closes very quickly. This is wrong! The lips do not close. Rather, the lips vibrate in and out, or back and forth. This was proved by Ellis Wein, Principal Tuba of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, by recording the motion of the lips in a transparent mouthpiece.

If you pick up your instrument and put the mouthpiece on your face without blowing air, you don't have an embouchure, you have two closed lips forming a wall. Try to blow and the air hits the wall, pressure builds, and you go into VSM. My solution is not to allow that wall to get set up in the first place, by not allowing any time between breathing in and breathing out. I breathe in, and without any hesitation whatsoever, blow out.

If you want to get rid of the VSM, train yourself not to hesitate. Take a breath and play. There is no time in between. At first, you will probably feel uncomfortable. You won't feel "ready" to play. The "chops" will feel weird. You won't feel "set" in the high range. Ignore everything. If you persist in this practice the results will speak for themselves.

Here are some other exercises that I found helpful in dealing with VSM over the years.

I recommend doing the above exercises for 10-15 minutes per day, then forget about it. Reduce the psychological component by allowing VSM to happen if it wants to! That's right, you might as well let it happen. Try to fill your head with musical thoughts and goals, such as the sound or shape of the note you want to play. If you are hearing the note with your inner ear at the moment you play it, your body will do what it must to produce that sound. Give yourself a rhythmic context by foot tapping a bar for nothing, or counting in your head, and tell yourself you are going to play on time regardless of the result. In this way you will get away from your perfectionism about attacks, and paradoxically, the attacks will get better!

Finally, have realistic expectations. If you have a bad case of VSM, don't expect to solve the problem overnight. It could take up to a year of work for new grooves to replace the old habits. However, I believe that, with perseverance, you will do it.

More Breathing Exercises

I really believe in breathing exercises done away from the horn. They establish good habits while avoiding the bad habits associated with picking up an instrument. As with the exercises for the Valsalva Maneuver, the student should do these 10-15 minutes each day, then forget about them. Think musical thoughts as much as possible.

Some Common Traps

There are other traps besides the Valsalva Maneuver. Study this list to see if you are caught in one.

My own experience has led me to reject this method, for the following reasons:

First, it is possible to create far more tension in the abdominal wall than is required to play, and there is a danger of overpressurization. This extra tension is going to carry over into the inhalation, which requires a relaxed abdominal wall with the ability to expand.

Second, if I rely on abdominal pressure for support, there is no guarantee that it will continue to support me as I grow older and lose strength, and I want to make it in the music business until retirement.

Finally, I've known numerous players who consciously used abdominal support, and they had sound problems. The problems of my own students usually clear up after working on a more relaxed approach.

Having said all that, I must say that some abdominal support is necessary in certain situations. The lungs in their resting state are actually about one third full, and to squeeze out the rest of this air the abdominal muscles must be contracted. Of course, it is a good idea to play on the top two thirds of the lung capacity, and always take a full breath. However, if there is a particularly long phrase to play, we will probably get down to the bottom of the lungs and have to push. Occasionally, when playing really loud you may need extra abdominal tension, but it must be applied with utmost caution, and without adding tension to other areas of the body, such as the throat. Actually, it should not be under conscious control at all. As you set musical goals for yourself, your "automatic pilot" learns by trial and error what it needs to do to accomplish them. It then produces the required tension when you need it.

About Brad

Brad Howland is the Principal Trombonist of the Victoria Symphony Orchestra.

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