Tips for Tuba, Vol IIA
David Porter, Editor
Don’t Forget to Breathe!
In the winter issue of theJournal, I promised to get to the root of my slogan, “Don’t forget to breathe!” in this issue. For the professional, this simple statement is part of the total music making extension, hand-in-glove with ba ic playing skills, interpreting styles, and expressing inner musical thoughts. However, for most young students, breathing is probably the furthest thing from the mind when playing a wind instrument. For the young tubist, thinking about breathing can be the best solution to most common challenges of playing. Concentrating on proper breathing automatically takes the student’s mind off of the basic instinct for survival (getting air) and frees the student to focus attention on proper playing skills and how the sound projects, rather than how they sound right at the mouthpiece. The world of breathing is different for a the young student than for an adult.
Although breathing often is one of the first things taught to beginning music students, it sometimes falls by the wayside as (seemingly) more important challenges creep into the teaching process. This is easily remedied through use of constant rehearsal reminders from the teacher to breathe before playing. Do this in conjunction with prepar atory beats, pointing out rests or phrase connections, and possibly by the end of a year, most of the students may be breathing without a reminder. For tubists, this means achievement of a better tone by the end of the year, just from better breathing.
The process of developing a student’s breathing technique typically is geared towards a year- long progression. For quicker progress, the music teacher may want to examine his/her own perspective on breathing. Using a strictly scientific, pedagogical approach with young tudents may (but probably won’t) have the desired effect, i.e. the student instantly I oking upon breathing a a natural playing pr e . Ther are many way t get tudents to think ab ut pr per breathing.
Most students will relate breathing to need-if they don’t need to breath a lot, they won’t. The goal is to help them develop an awareness that proper breathing habitsarenecessary-theyarenotjustan invention of teachers. First, students have to recognize the concept of needing air to make sound on a musical instrument. In the student world, using air to make sound is usually limited to making sounds with their vocal chords (internationally true!). The human vocal chords are very efficient, and it doesn’t take much air to launch them into making sounds (mostly talking, especially on the phone) that can last for quite a few seconds. Indeed, as I learned about breathing mechanics, I began to understand that about one quarter of our air capacity stays in our bodies most of the time. Many students begin their speaking conversation with this quarter, and will push their air out until their body involuntarily takes some air in during a pause. Unfortunately, students also often approach making a sound on their music instrument this way. The music teacher can remind them to breathe, yet many students might sit, silently thinking, “I’ve already got enough air to play, so why bother? My teacher must be talking to someone else.” Then the downbeat comes and the students push their one quarter air capacity into their instrument to play.
Two things happen to tubists. First they shut down their embouchure to make the air last longer (one quarter of an air capacity can disappear very fast when playing with good tone). Second, to support their efforts to make the air last longer, the entire upper torso starts contracting. They basically are playing just as they would talk, except the body can’t involuntarily bring in air, because they have phrases to complete with the ensemble. This makes the sound even smaller, which in turn causes conster nation from the teacher, tension and stress for the student, missed notes, poor intonation, lack of concentration in class, etc., until breathing becomes a foreign word in the music teaching process.
Again, there are many solutions, but here is one that I recommend for the best progress. First, go to the root of the concept. The source of the sound is not the vocal chords. For tubists it is the lips, which are not nearly as efficient as vocal chords.
Therefore, more air is required to make the lips vibrate, much less make a good sound. Second, use very specific terms and designations to describe where to breathe when. Don’t just say, “breathe when out of air.” For example, point out that the students should inhale when they deflate to the “comfortable spot,” which is the comfortable relaxed state their bodies while they are sitting and listening to the lecture about breathing. In this position, their bodies are holding about one quarter of their air capacity. From this position they are capable of speaking without breathing in and not really aware that their bodies are involuntarily helping them breathe. From this state, they will sometimes try to play just as if they would be trying to talk, yielding small, strained sounds. In order to make them aware of their need to breathe, tell them not to push air out past their “comfortable spot.” Visually, students can be shown how their bodies will expand and deflate (not contract!!) with breathing. They should all be able to reference the state of their bodies are when it is a “comfortable” time to inhale. Locked onto the visual, students should begin to see that they “need” to breathe deeply and often in order not to deflate past their “comfortable spot.” As they practice this, they will begin to develop a good breathing habit, maybe without being reminded to breathe.
The thrust of this article has been to bring the issue of breathing to student and teacher minds as something to think about constantly and never forget. The actual mechanics of breathing, from a student’s point of view will be my next topic. Give the “friendly reminder” approach a try. Students and teachers alike might find themselves developing a habit before every musical entrance – quickly thinking or saying: “Don’t forget to breathe!”