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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.


The Valsalva Maneuver
More Breathing Exercises
Some Common Traps


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:

  • Take the tip of your little finger and insert it loosely between your lips, so it is just touching the teeth. Now take a breath and blow the air out, tonguing as if you were starting an actual note. This gives you the correct sensation.
  • Now pick up your instrument, take a breath, and play. If you lock up, that's OK. Try starting a note, while consciously holding your lips open, as if the little finger was still in there.
  • If you had any success with the above, you are ready to try this: pick up your instrument, take a breath, and deliberately lock up (imagine being hit in the stomach). Can you lock yourself up, then get out of it by opening your lips?

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.

  • First, try the breathing devices available from Wind Song Press. I bought a bunch of them many years ago and still use them regularly. They are great for helping you get the air going through the "chops."
  • Count yourself in a measure before you begin playing. Don't allow any hesitation in the count, even if you lock up.
  • Spend a few minutes each day visualizing yourself coming in with perfect articulation, without any hesitation.
  • Read the article Six Golden Rules for Conquering Performance Anxiety. Print it and carry it with you to all your gigs.
  • Think of blowing "through" the instrument. Make the target of your blowing something out in front of you, like the music on the stand. Practice without the instrument by blowing out onto the back of your hand, onto hanging pieces of paper, etc. This mental shift prevents the "wall" from getting set up.
  • Take a full breath for one count, hold the air in for four counts, blow out over two counts, repeat several times. When holding the air in, do not close the throat! Instead use the muscles of the ribcage and diaphragm to hold the lungs in their expanded position. You should be able to talk easily at any time, without having to unlock the tongue or throat first.
  • Take a full breath and hold it as in the above, and look out the window. When a car drives by, "play" a note as if on trombone, that is, blow out the air with a "tu" or "du" articulation. Repeat using other random events.
  • Hold the three middle fingers of your right hand on the back of your left, lightly push against it and allow the right hand to spring away. The left hand also moves slightly as it accepts the energy of the right. This is a good model for starting a note. Now take a breath and blow with the "tu" articulation. Synchronize the actions of your tongue with those of your model.
  • Now, pick up the instrument. Can you inhale and at the point of being comfortably full, start to play without a pause? Think of a wave; you are always inhaling or exhaling, and there is no point where you are holding static air.
  • Play a random series of notes, alternating between breath attacks (Ho) and normal attacks.

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.

  • Breathe in evenly over a count of four, then out for four, repeat three or four times. Use hand motions to simulate the air flow. Imagine there is a connection between your hand and mouth; as you inhale your hand is sucked up to your lips, as you exhale it is blown away. Vary the flow speed of the air, inhale and exhale over counts of three, two, one, five, etc.
  • To more closely approximate actual playing, in 4/4 time, breathe in for one beat and out for three, repeat three or four times. Breathe in for an eighth note, out for 3½ beats; in for a quarter note, out for eight beats.
  • Become aware of the sensation of air moving past your lips, or the cold feeling of air on the back of your throat.
  • Buy a piece of plumbing pipe from a hardware store, ½ inch in diameter. Insert between the teeth and breathe using the patterns in exercise 1 or 2. Using a tube intensifies the feeling of air on the throat and tends to open things up. To prevent hyperventilation, tape a bag over the end and rebreathe the same air. The bag can also serve as a visual cue that air is going in and out.
  • Practice buzzing with a piece of paper dangling in front of the mouthpiece. Try to blow steady air onto it. Notice how the flow drops away in the low range.
  • Place the index finger vertically against the lips, and suck air past it. Try to get a low, open sound.
  • Pick up a straw, and take several breaths through it. Concentrate on sucking against the resistance of the straw. Add a straw and take a few more breaths. Keep adding straws until you get up to six or seven (close to an open throat). Finally, go back to the original straw. Does it feel any easier than the first time?
  • Try to blow out a candle at 10 paces.
  • There are several inexpensive breathing devises that show you rising and falling ping-pong balls as you breathe, such as the incentive spirometer. These are hospital tools adapted by Arnold Jacobs for wind playing, and they work well. They are available from Wind Song Press.
Some Common Traps

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

  • Overbreathing: Brass players should avoid going over the point of feeling comfortably full. Trying to cram air into the lungs causes all sorts of tension problems that can manifest themselves as neck, shoulder, or arm repetitive-use injuries.
  • Air pressure vs. wind: Thinking about air pressure can trigger the Valsalva Maneuver (see above) and lead to problems starting notes. Brass players are better off imaging the air flow or "blowing through the horn." Jacobs talked about moving wind rather than air, which is a good mental image.
  • Expanding to breathe: It is possible to engage all the respiratory muscles with the throat partially or fully closed so that no air enters, and in fact this does happen to brass players in stressful performance situations. It is related to the "fight or flight" response. Unfortunately, we don't have sensory nerves in the lungs to tell us if air has actually entered. We are oriented towards the outside, and it is best to rely on external signs that we are taking a breath. For example, we can focus on the feel of the air as it passes our lips or the cold sensation of it on the back of our throat. We don't need to tell it where to go; as long as it is going in, the body will put it in the right place. Jacobs put it this way: "breathe to expand, don't expand to breathe."
  • Excess Friction: If you breathe with a tight oral cavity you reduce the flow and work too hard. Friction at the point of entry (the mouth) can translate into too much tension elsewhere in the body. On the other hand, an open inhalation seems to relax everything, including the following exhalation. You can feel the difference by pronouncing the vowel "ee" and taking a breath, then pronounce "ah" or "oh" and notice how much freer it feels. Think "open" when you breathe.
  • Support with the diaphragm: At one time, this statement was common in musical literature. Unfortunately it was based on a misconception about breathing. During exhalation, the diaphragm is in a state of relaxation and can't support anything. Perhaps these teachers wanted a tightening of the abdominal wall, either to force the air out faster and create higher pressures for high-note playing, or to control the rate of exhalation.

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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