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Inhale Air, Exhale Music

Breathing may be an afterthought to some people, but for wind musicians it is the most important skill in their arsenal.

Students playing wind instruments

We breathe an estimated 17,000 breaths a day, and breathe in about 2,000 gallons of air—enough to almost fill up a normal-sized swimming pool. Most of us don't even think about it as we go about our daily routine. But what if your breathing technique was one of the most important skills to having a successful career?

Wind musicians—performers who blow into an instrument to create a desired sound—rely heavily on training their lungs. Having total breath support and control not only makes playing the instrument easier, but it also helps create the pure round sound that most professional musicians hope for.

Understanding Breathing Exercises

You may have heard about breathing exercises as a technique for managing breath, as they are very helpful for those living with respiratory issues. But supporting your breath from your diaphragm is crucial for musicians as well. Playing an instrument requires musicians to breathe as deeply as possible so they can hold longer notes, and generally get the most out of each breath. This is where breathing exercises can make all the difference.

"Doing even the simplest breathing exercises for just a few minutes can make a difference, and help your body react naturally as you're playing the instrument," Bert Hill, a professional French horn player explained.

For example, one of the first techniques taught to new wind players is to learn to breathe from your diaphragm, instead of from your shoulders and neck – which is the way many people breathe normally. To help students with this, Hill likes to visualize the lungs expanding while taking in a deep and supported breath. "I tend to think of breathing down toward the ground and pulling that air all throughout my body." The exhale is just as important as the inhale. A controlled exhale gives your instrument the power it needs to produce a clear, steady sound, he added.

How the Instrument Determines the Breath

When learning to breathe correctly for an instrument, experts agree size really does matter. "The larger the instrument, the more air that is leaving the body right away," said Dr. Erica J. Neidlinger, Associate Professor and conductor of the Wind Symphony at DePaul University. So, if you compare a trumpet to a tuba, the tuba player will need bigger breaths more often than the trumpet players because of the size of the instrument and the amount of air it takes to travel through the tube to make a sound.

The size of the column and mouthpiece also matter. With an oboe, a tremendous amount of air pressure and speed is needed to get both reeds vibrating, but "the amount of air that's actually going into the instrument—that column—is quite a bit smaller," explained Dr. Neidlinger. "There's not as much volume of air leaving a player's body as there would be with an instrument that allows that air to flow more freely, like a tuba."

This consistent pressure and air speed are essential to creating the desired sound on all wind instruments, but they're not all the same. Woodwinds—clarinet, saxophone, oboe and bassoon—are more resistant to breath because of the reed, while brass instruments—trumpet, trombone, euphonium, horn, and tuba—allow players to move air faster and more freely. And instruments like the flute and piccolo require an enormous amount of air because the musician is blowing over a hole with only a small amount of air actually getting into the instrument.

Playing the Didgeridoo for Lung Health?

One study conducted by the University of Zurich studied the effects of playing the didgeridoo by  patients with moderate obstructive sleep apnea syndrome. The study participants took lessons for four months. While the sleep quality did not improve, those who practiced playing the didgeridoo an average of 5.9 days a week experienced less daytime sleepiness and their partners reported less sleep disturbance. Consider this the motivation you need to start your own didgeridoo duo!

Preventing "Trombone Players' Lung"

If you play any sort of wind instrument, it's important to clean your horn. Though this practice is often neglected, the inside of any instrument can easily develop mold which can lead to a violent cough or other lung health issues. A study of trombonist Scott Bean's trombone was sampled by a doctor from the University of Connecticut, brought this to light when it was discovered that microscopic organisms were living inside his horn and entering his body every time he inhaled.

Nicknamed "trombone players' lung," this condition can affect any musician who uses their breath to play an instrument. Other symptoms include a low-grade fever and sore throat. The best way to prevent mold and bacteria from growing inside your instrument is to swab it after each playing session with a rod and a cloth, found in most instrument cleaning kits. This removes the moisture from the inside, which can help prevent molds from developing. For a deeper clean, Bean recommends dabbing alcohol – either rubbing alcohol or isopropyl alcohol – on the cloth before threading it inside the instrument.

One Band, One Sound

As a band, taking a collective breath at the beginning of a piece is a matter of unifying the group. Though the conductor is not playing an actual instrument themselves, they also take what's called the "empathetic breath." Dr. Neidlinger explained this as "still breathing to engage the ensemble collectively in the way they need to be thinking, breathing, and engaging with the sound that comes next."
Hill also emphasized the unity of breathing in music. "Breathing is not separate. It's not outside. It really is part of the music and when you can find a way to make it natural, free, flexible, and have it be the silence within the music, then you're probably doing it right," Hill explained.

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