Brass Advantage with Wayne Downey
Issue 23

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Welcome back to the land of “All Things Brass.” This installment of Brass Advantage delves into an all-important physical action that will determine the performance success or failure of any musician.

“Breathing & Breath Control Techniques for the Symphonic & Marching Wind Musician”

Breathing in a relaxed efficient manner is actually a very simple task that we do all day long without consciously thinking about it. Breathing is defined as the process of taking air into and out of the lungs. This process is an involuntary (subconscious) muscle action of the diaphragm and lower abdominals and is aided by muscles in the chest. For now, there’s no need for you to understand the names or functions of the different muscle groups or get wrapped up in the scientific mumbo jumbo of it all, we’ll discuss that later in the article so for now just remember your body breathes all day long without YOU thinking about it. From this point on let’s refer to this involuntary muscle action as our “Natural Breath”.

Simply put, your subconscious mind regulates your bodies breathing in an efficient and relaxed manner. Your goal as it relates to breathing, must be to learn how to exaggerate the “Natural Breath” so it becomes a voluntary or conscious process without sacrificing the relaxed physical condition it creates.

For the most part, beginning and intermediate brass players over exaggerate this natural process causing themselves a host of problems. First off, exaggerating the “Natural Breath” will result in restriction and tightness in the lower abdominals, diaphragm and chest as well as constriction of the throat cavity.

Constriction of the throat during inhalation will limit the amount of air flowing into the lungs thus adversely affecting your breath capacity and breath control. The tell tale signs of throat constriction are guttural sounds that can be heard while air is passing through the throat into the lungs. To relax the throat so no constriction occurs I suggest you try this simple exercise. First off, put one hand in front of your face and blow air onto the palm of your hand. The physical sensation you will feel will be a cool air column hitting the hand. Next try dropping your jaw and opening your mouth as wide as you can while blowing air onto your hand. The temperature of the air you feel now should be warm. The physical result of this part of the exercise is a throat cavity that is open and relaxed. This physical state should closely resemble the condition of the throat while yawning. Yawning is an involuntary reflex that brings oxygen into the body and is the most efficient breath we can take. Although it is not practical to play with warm air in all registers it is the physical sensation of a relaxed open throat that you must learn to bring to your playing at all times.

Tightness or rigidity in the lower abdominals (muscles in the lower abdomen) will impede the natural process of breathing by limiting the amount of air (oxygen) that you take into your lungs. Without the ability to completely relax the diaphragm you will never be able to take a full breath. Constriction of the lower abdominals will also negatively affect the control of air speed and pressure. This is detrimental not only to your breath control but to your pitch control and range. With only a limited ability to change your air speed and air pressure, changing the speed of the vibration of the tissue of the aperture will be greatly hindered. Thus, limiting your range extension and ability to alter pitch when necessary.

While discussing breath capacity and constriction I would be remiss in not talking about the condition of the upper body. Although your shoulders and rib cage will naturally rise while taking a breath it’s wise to make sure that they both are relaxed. The shoulders should be naturally rounded, not pulled back to far or slumping forward before taking a breath. The upper body should be in a position that promotes expansion of the rib cage allowing the rib cage to expand and contract freely. If there is tension or constriction in the chest cavity or shoulders that tightness will limit the expansion of the lungs thus limiting the amount of oxygen you can take into your body.

For those of you who love the scientific mumbo jumbo of it all, here’s information concerning the actual physical action that occurs when we breathe.

When we inhale, the Intercostal muscles connected to the ribcage contract to pull it outwards, causing the lungs, which are attached to the ribs, to expand. At the same time the diaphragm contracts.

In its relaxed state, the diaphragm muscle sits above the abdominal region attached to the bottom of the lungs and the sternum, in a shape somewhat like a high-hat cymbal. As the muscle tenses, it flattens out, pulling the lungs downward.

The combined expansion of the lungs out and down causes the air pressure inside the lungs to drop, and air rushes in from the outside to equalize the difference.

The tension of the intercostals and diaphragm muscles causes visible expansion of the ribcage and also the abdominal region because the diaphragm pushes down against the stomach, intestines, and other contents of the gut and these in turn push the abdominal wall outward. However, most of the expansion should take place in the chest, as this is the area where most of the air will go.

As I had mentioned earlier tightness or rigidity in the chest and lower abdominals will impede the natural process of breathing by limiting the amount of air (oxygen) that you take into your lungs.With that in mind it is important to remember that breathing in a relaxed manner without constricted aids in your ability to take a full breath.  Taking a full breath as we have learned earlier in this article helps create a beautiful tone because “air” is the fuel of a great sound.

For more information on breathing and other performance techniques for wind and percussion players as well as brass and percussion technique books and accessories go to my website

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Percussionists don’t miss checking out Shawn Glyde’s new technique book titled “Role Model” at

Readers should send your questions or topics to: askwaynedowney [at] drumcorpsplanet [dot] com.

“Don’t Let The Chance Pass You By”.  See Ya Soon…



About the Author:
Wayne Downey was the first of Drum Corps Planet’s panel of subject-matter expert columnists – providing our readers with expert information and insight from the best teachers and leaders in the drum and bugle corps activity. In addition to his long-term role as Music Director of the 14-time DCI World Champion Blue Devils drum and bugle corps – where he’s won 21 Jim Ott awards for “Excellence in Brass Performance”, Wayne is distinguished as one of the finest brass teachers/clinicians and arrangers in the world. His work has been featured by some of the world’s most-respected drum corps, high school and collegiate bands – as well as the Tony and Emmy award winning show “Blast” and in feature films. In 1991 Wayne was inducted into the Drum Corps International Hall of Fame for his contributions to the Drum & Bugle Corps activity as the musical director for the Blue Devils. Wayne’s latest venture – provides brass players of all ages and skill-levels, as well as educators, personalized lessons and access to his championship-winning techniques and methods.

Posted by on Thursday, June 16th, 2011. Filed under Brass Advantage.