I try to keep an open mind as I continue my quest for better ways to play and teach tuba. Young students need simple, easy to remember methods that are practical and that allow them to see and hear some results. I began playing a wind instrument (clarinet) at age 11, and my only recollection of breathing is taking a deep breath when the director’s arms went up and blowing when they went down, and breathing where I was told. Many elementary directors do this now to teach togetherness in the ensemble and they also teach everyone to play the same phrase length. While I disagree with same length phrases for all instruments, getting the students early on to be conscious about breathing is very good.
As I advanced to high school and college, my tutoring centered on pushing the stomach out for inhaling and contracting the stomach for exhaling. My lessons in the early Air Force Band years showed me I was getting a lot of tension in my collar bone and neck area, so the word ‘collapse’ was brought into my vocabulary. This development was a spin off of my attempt at understanding Arnold Jacobs teachings. For sure, my sound became warmer and richer. Buzzing helped me consciously isolate where the noise (sound) was coming from. After much thought and practice, I was confident I was at last onto a great method for playing tuba and proceeded to teach collapsing for exhaling and non-tension to my students. Inhaling was not as much of a thought process yet. Triple forte at any range, or high register playing, needs some muscular support. But I tried not to focus on that; tried just to let it happen with my collapsing.
Over the years, my playing developed an inconsistency that I did not understand. In my efforts to teach ‘collapsing’ for exhale, I came up with ‘expansion’ for inhale in four areas—stomach, ribs, collar bone and back (from a voice teacher in undergraduate school). These terms seemed to work for male and female students, allowed them to check themselves (I do not touch my students), and gave me a simple teaching method—expand/collapse. This method worked well for teaching because the students could simplify the breathing process into two words.
About three years ago, I met a former opera singer by the name of Chrissellene G. Petropoulos. She has written a book titled The 10 Commands to Vocal Mastery. In her book, Chrissellene says that she can produce the vocal sound needed “on command” regardless of weather, diet, sleep or warm up. While she recommends techniques that help with the process, she says she can control all of the breathing muscles and all of the muscles around the vocal folds to produce great singing “on command.” That includes breathing. Intrigued, I went to her clinic, then had her at our church for a session with our choir. Next I took lessons with her to develop my processes so that I had a sure-fire method of playing that always worked—including breathing. Through our relationship, she has gotten to know some of the intricacies pertaining to brass playing. One of the questions she asks is, “How do you breathe?” As she has met other brass professionals, it has been surprising how many either do not know or do not think about it.
There are similarities in all breathing methods, but Chrissellene’s methods go a step further than most. She has them backed up by MRI videos showing what is really happening with the diaphragm, inspiratory, and expiratory muscles. As I worked with her, I realized I was adding more tension than ever by contracting my upper abs in an effort to ‘collapse.’ I was also mostly breathing between the upper ribs 1-5 and hardly any between the lower 6-12. In a nutshell, Chrissellene taught me inhalation and exhalation using muscle control, not contraction. The ‘stomach’ term is now ‘abdominals.’ There is no more hoping for good days or feeling food. The breathing movement is intentional and visible. Expanding is now ‘inhale in six areas’—middle and lower front, sides and back—no upper chest, shoulders or neck. Collapsing is ‘exhale’ with conscious movement of abdominal muscles gradually coming in and lumbar and external intercostals staying out. This creates a counter motion which produces optimal air intensity.
When I first tried Chrissellene’s methods, I was sore for a couple of days in my intercostals, for they had never really expanded before, as she showed me. However, my playing developed consistency when I breathed the way she wanted, and I did not feel tension around my lips or in my upper chest, neck, or throat area. This prompted me to check my students’ breathing methods again. I was aghast! Over half of them were bringing their abs in for inhaling and pushing out for exhaling. This was the opposite of what I was being taught by Chrissellene and the opposite of what I had already been teaching them. As soon as we corrected this by having them put their own hand on their own abs, they had a bigger sound and used more air. More importantly, we introduced moving the breathing muscles, not collapsing. This made me realize that breathing for maximum airflow is a constant process of checking and knowing what your air is doing.
Here are some suggestions for students to check themselves. Using their hands on their own body parts, have them:
- inhale/exhale and order the air in/out of the middle back (they may have to bend over to reach it and feel movement); (Ribs 12-9)
- inhale/exhale and order the air in/out of the lower back; (Ribs 8-5)
- inhale/exhale and order the air in/out of the middle sides; (Ribs 8-5)
- inhale/exhale and order the air in/out of the lower sides; (Ribs 12-9)
- inhale/exhale and order the air in/out of lower front; (Ribs 12-9)
- inhale/exhale and order the air in/out of middle front; (Ribs 8-5)
- A little different from what Chrissellene teaches, I leave the front upper ribs as the 7th area because most brass students (and adults) already breathe and expand here. Basically this is the lower chest area where the ribs start. Caution: Do not have students put their hands here to check—too awkward for (especially female) students. Because this area is already where our air goes first, just talk about it and leave it—it will be fine for young students.
Students need simple, easy to remember methods that work, preferably without thinking too much. While the breakdown listed above seems to involve thinking a lot, with a little practice the students will be able to simplify breathing into one motion. Switching our terms from expand/collapse to inhale/exhale could foreseeably bring a lot of tension to the playing area. Using Chrissellene’s methods will keep that tension out of the breathing process and turn it into ‘on command’ muscle movement for maximum air flow. Keep in mind that whether the students feel large differences or not, practicing these methods at least gives them the answer to “How do you breathe?” Be careful that all of this attention on the six areas does not cause them to forget the one thing we are after—breathing. Don’t forget to breathe!