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It's About Breathing: Playing Trombone with Asthma

Murray Polson

Murray Polson

Asthma and the trombone both depend on air flow: asthma constricts that flow while the trombone needs a smooth and plentiful supply. A life-long asthmatic, Murray shares some personal thoughts on breathing and playing trombone.

I've had asthma all my life. Recently, well, three years ago, I started to play the trombone. I would never have been able to even try to fill this desire if asthma medications had not been vastly improved; the drug companies have finally realized the profits in asthma.

AAAAAAAhhhhh!!!!! What a delight; Making music!! For me, a painter, it is like mixing colours; taking one colour or sound, adding another and seeing, hearing the miraculous shift from what was to what is and might be; a fine cooperation!

I chose the trombone because I liked its smooth, round and shiny sound. I liked the look of the trombone too. I could have chosen the vibraphone with its sparkling oriental sound, but I went for the trombone. Perhaps, it is a strange choice for a fellow who has trouble breathing.

I need to point out that I don't know anything about "normal" breathing, or breathing that is unconscious and easy; since the age of one, asthma has placed breathing firmly in my conscious mind.

Asthma and the trombone both depend on air flow; asthma constricts that flow while the trombone needs a smooth and plentiful supply. Some of the things that I have noticed that are similar to breathing with asthma and breathing for the trombone are: the concept of breathing, the physical sensation of breathing, breathing well, quick breaths in, belly breathing, shallow breathing, and opening the chest.

Asthma, for me, has made the sensation of breathing conscious; I imagine the air around me as a tangible (not taken for granted) substance, as I breath in I imagine the fluid flow coming into my body, feeling the air come into my lungs (cooling my nostrils), the air dropping down to the deepest crannies of my lungs as my belly swells out, pulling my diaphragm down, my lungs fill the upper part of my chest, under my rib cage, pressing up and out, I push my shoulders back to fill the top; then I am full.

I am full of the air that has been outside me; I reconnect to the outside world as I exhale seeing in my minds eye what has been inside me gush out; firmly linking my inside with my outside.

I learned to control my breathing and think about my breathing in this way because of asthma. When I am feeling wheezy or my asthma is demanding complete attention, I use this step by step understanding to control my breathing.

Asthma makes itself felt by making the process of exhaling difficult. An allergen will aggravate my bronchi and cause bronchial spasm (constriction), making it hard to get air out; the back pressure from the trombone mouthpiece is a very, very mild version of this sensation. Getting the air in doesn't seem to be a problem; there is lots of air pressure around to push air in.

When my trombone teacher said "Let the air flow smoothly and easily from the depths of your lungs all the way through the horn to every ear hole and brain in the audience" (or words to that effect), I knew what he meant, conceptually and physically; asthma had forced the notion of connecting my inside with the outside into reality. I wonder if unconscious breathers know about letting air in and pushing air out?

Mr. Jacobs would suggest that "thinking about breathing" is a distraction from making good sound; he may be right, but at present I'm still playing through a sequence of single activities all joined together: seeing the note on the page, thinking of the sound that spot represents (am I imagining the right sound?), taking a breath, fitting the trombone to my lips, thinking about my embouchure, thinking about the correct slide position, sounding the note, adjusting the sound, running out of air. I look forward to all these activities becoming a single action. The life long learning of asthmatic breathing may as yet be turned to my benefit. I feel my strength lies in imaging air moving through the horn; I am practised at knowing the connection between the bottom of my lungs and the outside world.

The medical community measures the breathing capability of asthmatics by a "Peak Flow Meter." This is an instrument that has a mouthpiece that you put your lips around and a short tube with a scale and indicator in the top of the tube. You are asked to take a deep breath and blow as hard and as quickly as you can into the tube. The instrument responds to the amount of force and flow you are able to produce, indicating your breaths peak flow. If the bronchi are open the peak flow is high, if the are constricted the peak flow is low. The trombone has become my 'peak flow meter'. It is very easy from me to tell by the quality of my tone how my lungs are doing. The other day I was coming home from a community band rehearsal, wondering why I hadn't played very well. As I walked down the driveway a breeze nudged its way through the birch trees knocking down a cloud of yellow pollen all around me. I sneezed in defence, and in my mind put together pollen producing constriction as a contributor to my poor playing. (Of course it wasn't poor technique or inability; No no no no no!) That night my tone sounded squeezed, as if I was pushing air up to the horn rather than blowing air through the trombone. My "flow" of air had been choked off by my bronchi, not enough air was getting through the horn. It was spring, and lots of pollen was being produced and flung about; not a good time of year for an asthmatic.

I find it difficult to take quick, short, deep breaths. This kind of breath reminds me of an asthma attack and is against all the breathing that I have learned. During an asthma attack the bronchi go into spasm, making the airways very small, keeping the air inside the lungs. Initially exhalation is the big concern, the breathing muscles push very hard to force the air out, sometimes this is accompanied by a curling forward of the upper body trying to force more air out. Slowly, stale air fills my lungs. Each breath of fresh air has less room to occupy, the amount of oxygen I have available for use becomes less, the amount of carbon dioxide becomes more, breathing becomes more and more shallow (in the upper chest), breath becomes shorter and shorter until an inhalation is nothing more than a gasp. Too much carbon dioxide begins to create panic; my only concern is getting oxygen in but there is no room.

To counteract this progression I must recognize what is happening early! I must stop what I am doing and concentrate on my breathing; taking breathing out of the control of asthma and into my control where I mentally and physically do nothing but breath. "Taking control" is a process of changing a short gasping breath to a long, smooth and oxygenating breath.

When the music I am playing asks that I take short, quick breaths, I find that I either take a shallow breath, like an asthmatic gasp (upper chest) or an inhalation that takes much too long and switches my attention from sound to breathing. Consequently, I either run out of air for the following passage or fall immediately behind, or lose my place in the music (Where was I! Why does the music all look the same!).

I haven't found a way around this panic and shallow breathing yet; practice and the reassurance of experience will help and eventually conquer it. But practice what? Sure, I need to have strength and flexibility in my breathing, but I also need to have my breathing be below my focus of filling all those ear holes with emotion. Can I separate the physical from the emotional; practice each on its own and still have them together?

I am round shouldered, typical of asthmatics, closing my chest. If my breathing is hard I will sit with my hands on my knees with my elbows pushed forward closing my chest. In an effort to open my chest and create some flexibility in my rib cage I use door frames to stretch my chest. Whenever I go into or out of the bathroom I put my hands on the door frame and lean forward. The stretch feels good as well as opens and loosens my chest. I can move my shoulders much farther back now than I could before. I play (practice) my trombone standing up. I find that standing keeps my back straighter, makes it easier to belly breath; and by holding my head up I open my airways. Since chest stretching has begun I am able to grab more air. Quick belly breaths (fast relaxation) are still not quick enough. My instinct is to make an inhalation long and slow; overriding my instinct breaks my concentration.

I wonder if this is asthma and me or whether these conflicts are typical of learning how to play the trombone. I sense that as my music playing experience and ability becomes greater, all will come together to a place where the phrase determines the breath and the breath blows sound images and ideas. I wonder if I'm young enough for that to happen.

About Murray

Murray Polson is learning to play the trombone, sings in a community choir, and is rejuvenating his golf game. He holds an MFA in studio art and a B.Sc. in Art and Architecture. His website lives at

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