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The Valsalva Maneuver in Brass Playing

Brad Howland

Brad Howland

In 1999 I wrote an article about breathing that gave a brief description of the Valsalva Maneuver and its impact on brass playing. The article was reproduced on Doug Yeo's website and received a lot of attention. It's now 2008 and I'd like to update what I wrote then with what I know now.

The Valsalva Maneuver is an automated response by the body to certain stimuli. The brass player takes a breath, but before playing can commence 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 pressure triggers a tightening of the stomach muscles and contraction of the diaphragm: a situation where opposing sets of muscles are working against each other.

The trouble with the Valsalva Maneuver is that it can't be fixed consciously. Once the pressure starts to build in the mouth the situation is out of control: the player is going to lock up. There is also a psychological component in that the act of trying not to trigger the Valsalva Maneuver actually causes it to occur.

The Valsalva Maneuver seems to affect brass players in two different ways. One type of player has difficulty starting to play. The brass player will begin notes with an explosion of air or stutter, if he/she can start at all. It occurs most often while performing solo, such as during an audition where there is no rhythmic context from an ensemble or conductor. The response can be limited to certain notes or ranges of notes that the player is particularly worried about.

The other type of brass player has trouble once he/she has gotten going. In a piece with longer phrases that requires the ability to replenish air quickly, the player will begin to lock up after breathing. Trombone players might find their legato starting to break down, while brass players in general might see their articulation deteriorate.

I was the first type of brass player. I've been Valsalva Maneuver-free for over 10 years, but for most of the 25 years of playing before that I had lots of trouble with it. I now feel that players of this type should ignore most of the advice I gave in 1999, and instead do one thing: practice Carmine Caruso's "Six Notes" exercise. It worked very well for me, and might do the same for others.

The Six Notes is a good warm-up exercise to do first thing every day. Read the article by Sam Burtis on the Online Trombone Journal's website and follow the instructions carefully. You might need to do this exercise for several months. Your friends and colleagues will probably think that you have the most boring warm-up in the world, but the end results could be worth it!

For the second type of brass player, I suggest visiting TubeNet and downloading the complete Arnold Jacobs 1973 masterclass mp3 files. You will find a description of this type of response in the second lecture (but listen to the whole masterclass!). Mr. Jacobs' solution: reduce tension by breathing more often and playing on the upper portion of your lung capacity.

Finally, have realistic expectations, and 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!

About Brad

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

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