Fight or Flight - How Evolution Can Get In The Way Of Our Breathing

January 29, 2016

Faculty Author:




As humans, we owe a lot to evolution. Whether it's our brain power, opposable thumbs, or our innate ability to tread water. . . it could've gone worse.


However, that's not to say that each of these gifts is helpful all the time. In fact, when it comes to brass/ wind playing, some of these gifts can make what would have been an amazing performance into one you would sooner forget. While there are a few culprits, the one I am going to focus on is the gasp breath.


What is it and why should I care?


To gasp is defined as the sudden intake of air when startled or frightened, and is part of our body's fight or flight response. While this is useful if you're pushed into a pool or happen upon a bear, our body doesn't understand that what we are worrying about (the high note in the middle of that next phrase) isn't putting us in mortal danger. Have you ever felt yourself freeze right before an intimidating section? What you are experiencing is this subconscious gasp that interrupts your air right when you need it most.


My current professor, Peter Ellefson explained the problem by saying: it is the air you give right before the note that determines our success, not the air we put in as we play the note. So if we "gasp" or stop the air right before the note because we are nervous, it is that weak air that comes out instead of the note.


As an experiment you could try at home take your horn and hook it up to a faucet. (Water moves the same way as air when placed within the confines of a pipe.) Make sure that the seal is water tight and that the water is cool. Then, turn the water on full blast, then half, then full. You will find the water comes out in exactly that order: Full, Weak, Full, meaning that the water also travels through the pipe in that order. Putting the water faucet back on full blast doesn't make up for the weak blast preceding It, just like a full exhale doesn't make up for the weak "gasp" exhale preceding it.


NOTE: this experiment is for BRASS PLAYERS ONLY!!! Doing it with a wood wind instrument would cause damage


A Breath of Fresh Air!


In a lesson I had with trumpet player Rodney Marsalis, he explained his solution is to add a very slight crescendo going into the high note. Not enough to be heard but enough to keep your airstream moving.


Another solution is given to us by Edward Kleinhammer in his book, The Art of Trombone Playing. His idea is to take in a deep breath, hold it, relax your body, and slowly exhale. This exercise helps show us how to relax when we have taken in a large quantity of air, allowing us to release at a more steady and relaxed rate.


A third solution was introduced to me by my teachers at West Virginia University, Dr. Keith Jackson and Dr. Brian Plitnik. Add flutter tongue to whatever you're playing, and if your flutter tonguing stops, you know your air has as well.


While I've listed three solutions this is hardly a comprehensive list. There is a limitless number of great exercises you could find or create for your own use. Even thinking of certain phrases or images can be helpful. Imagine you are blowing a pinwheel, or think of blowing through the note, both are useful tools. If you've come up with one you want to share let us know in the comments below or connect with us on Twitter (@Fred_Brass) or on Facebook!


Happy Breathing!

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