If you play a wind instrument of any kind then you probably understand that air support is important. I have played trombone for over twenty years and am still searching for better ways to improve my breathing. It is a vital element of developing a great sound on your instrument.
Breathing, air support, air flow are all related to allow your breath to give the vibrations needed to make your instrument speak. Improving your air flow will improve your tone, timing, musicality, and your tonguing. Without that support your playing will always sound mediocre at best.
Tip 1: Breathing Excercises
Before jumping straight into playing your trumpet or tuba it is a good idea to warm up your lungs. Warming up your body for breathing is a lot like stretching or light calisthenics before working out. It gets your blood moving and your lungs open. Don't just do a little warm-up, give yourself some time to really get your air support ready.
One warm up idea is simple and it is normally the one I start with. I stand up straight and swoop my arms up above my head. At the same time I am taking long slow breathes in; trying to keep the back of my throat open. When my hands are up I begin to lower them in the same motion and slowly exhale. I do this five times before I move to my next exercise. The motion of your arms is the same as if you are making snow angels; only you are standing up and there is no snow. This helps stretch your abs and open your chest cavity.
Another warm up idea is to suck in as much air as you can as quickly as possible. Hold it for 30 secs and then release it. Do this three times, however, each time you release you do it with a different intensity. So the first time you let go of the air with a high intensity like you are superman trying to blow out a raging fire. The second time, decrease your intensity at a rate that is more natural like as if you were trying to cool your food by blowing on it. The last time you release your air do so at a low intensity. This exhale should take the longest to finish because it is such a small stream of air. Be sure to release all your air with each exhale. This exercise will not only help build your lung capacity but it will also help develop control over your airflow which is important when playing different dynamics in music.
Tip 2: Do Actual Excercises
Now this may seem like a no brainer but it is also something many musicians struggle doing consistently. Working out regularly is not only good for staying in shape and building muscle but it is also good for your air support. Don't worry it is not that hard to stay in shape. Just take baby steps to get started if you don't already have a workout regimen. If you already workout regularly than great, keep it up.
Swimming is probably the best workout for building air support. Nothing like heavy cardio while holding your breath will get those lungs pumping as fast and hard as swimming. Do laps regularly and switch your strokes for variety and for a more rounded workout. Other good exercises for increasing your lung capacity also fall into the cardio category. Running, cycling, and aerobics can help your breathing become stronger and more efficient.
Tip 3: Breathing Technique
You have probably heard the phrase, "breathe with your diaphragm." I heard it a lot while studying to become a trombone player. Some instructors taught me to never breathe from my chest cavity. While I understand the reasons for teaching young players to only breathe from the diaphragm, it really limits musicians in how much air they can take in.
When you stand up and breathe it is easy to see your chest rise and fall. When you lay down you will notice your stomach rising and falling during inhalation and exhalation. Both parts of your body can hold air. Both parts of your body can hold air at the same time. It is crippling your breath support to only inflate a portion of your body.
When you inhale imagine that you are filling up your stomach and your chest. Then imagine the air filling up your sides and your back. Your whole torso should feel like a balloon. Take slow breathes and sip the air in a little at a time until you are about to pop. Then release it. Filling up your body this way gives you maximum air support. Well trained musicians can do this in a single large breath. This is how they can play more than four measures before they take another breath.
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Tip 4: Use A Toy
There are many tools, toys, or apparatuses that can either help increase your lung strength or measure your current capacity. Some of these are really innovative devices. Some are expensive and some are made at home. A cheap toy I like is the whoopee cushion. Just buy one at a gag shop and then practice trying to fill the cushion with a single breath.
The tool I use the most is a small piece of pvc piping. Just go to a hardware store and find some piping that has a diameter between a silver dollar and a quarter. It doesn't have to be very long; about the length of your index finger.
I used this piping in my warm-ups. It helped me to learn to keep the back of my throat open. This helps keep your throat from inhibiting your air flow. The piping also makes you exhale a lot of air at once. With constant practice I was able make my exhale last four beats longer than when I had started using the pipe.
Other tools are found on various websites and music stores. If you have an instructor ask what devices they would recommend. Switching up devices can also be a good way to mix up your practicing regimen, making it exciting and fun.
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Tip 5: Drive Through Your Notes
Musicians know that there is more to air than just breathing. It is a tool we use to guide the music that we hear or create. One of the best instructions I received while studying in school was to drive through my notes.
What this means is to let the air move through your scales, 16th note runs, or other phrases. Before I understood this concept I would stop breathing between each note. It slowed me down and made my phrases choppy. My melodies lacked continuity. When I began driving the air through my phrases the notes connected better, my speed increased and the melodies became richer.
I picture this idea like a water hose. Lets say I was watering several plants. I want to water each one separately without letting water come between them. I could turn off the water every time I finished one plant and move to another but this would be time-consuming and long. On the other hand if I kink the hose, the water is still running but I just stopped it for the times I desired. I can water the plants quickly without a lot of restart.
If we stop our breath every time we change notes our playing will suffer. If we keep our breath flowing but plug it with our tongue than it is always ready for us when we want. This common sense concept changed my playing a lot. Give it a try to see what you think.