Breathing Techniques to Take Your Brass Sound to New Heights

It’s pretty easy to make a sound on a brass instrument. You stick your lips on the mouthpiece, blow enough air to make them vibrate, and voila! Noise come out of the other end of the horn. Making a noise that actually resembles music, however, is another matter. Fundamentally you only have to know how to do two things: (1) control the muscles around your mouth; and (2) breathe.

The breathing part sounds simple enough, right? After all, your diaphragm does most of the work involuntarily, so you don’t even have to think about it most of the time. But controlling your breath sufficiently to regulate the flow of air into the instrument is not so easy to master. Moreover, there is no consensus on how to do it properly. Trumpet forums are rife with heated debates over proper breathing technique: Do you suck in as much air as you can, or just enough to get through the next passage? Push your belly out or pull it in? Raise your shoulders or keep them down?

Whole books have been written about this stuff, so it’s impossible to cover every method in one short article. So we’re going to focus on one method, known as “wedge breathing” or the “yoga complete breath,” that is championed by a lot of trumpeters known for their ability to play in the upper register. Why? Because there are a lot more trumpet players than tuba players out there, and most of those trumpet players want to dazzle listeners with their stratospheric range. For information on more conventional breathing techniques for brass players, the teachings of the late tuba great Arnold Jacobs and the late trumpet virtuoso Claude Gordon are good places to start.

Bobby Shew. Photo by: Austin Happel. Used under Creative Commons 2.0.

The term “wedge breathing” was coined by renowned trumpet player and teacher Bobby Shew, and he has been one of the method’s chief evangelists. But he didn’t invent it. Since the early 1960s, he had been hearing rumors that Maynard Ferguson had a secret yoga breathing technique he had learned from some guru that powered his signature soaring range. Years later, in 1974, Shew encountered Ferguson backstage at a jazz festival in Canada and asked him about this rumored magical breathing method.

“So Maynard reaches into his case and hands me a small paperback book called The Science of Breath by a guy named Yogi Ramacharaka,” Shew recalls. “And he tells me I can keep the book because he has more copies at home.” (It turns out that Yogi Ramacharaka was actually one of many pseudonyms used by William Walker Atkinson, a Chicago-based writer and leading figure in the New Thought movement of the early 20th century--not a real yogi, but a serious student of eastern ideas). Shew read the book on the way home and tried out the method right away, but nothing happened.

Several days later, however, he was on a recording session with fellow trumpet player Bud Brisbois, and it just so happened that Brisbois knew the book and the technique. He gave Shew a quickie hands-on lesson in yoga breathing, and ten days of practice later, Shew was popping out his first-ever double high C’s. “It almost frightened me at first,” Shew says, “I was like ‘Holy cow, how is this possible?’” Since then, Shew has taught scads of trumpet players how to wail using yogic breathing. Some of those students, such as Roger Ingram, Wayne Bergeron and Eric Miyashiro, have gone on to establish their own reputations as top players and teachers and helped spread the Gospel of the Wedge themselves.

One of the keys to playing high notes is to get your air moving at high velocity. Wedge breathing offers a highly efficient way to generate velocity by changing how and where you compress air in your body before sending it through your lips and into the horn.

“Most players play in the upper part of their chest and the back of their face,” Shew says. “This method transfers the point of control and compression of the air into the umbilical area, what yoga people call the hara point. You’re supporting from there rather than mashing the mouthpiece into your face and squeezing everything from the face, neck and upper part of your shoulders.”

A complete yogic breath begins with a three-stage inhalation that sequentially fills the lower, middle and upper parts of the lungs. First you take a small breath into your abdomen, allowing it to push your belly out a little. Then you take a big breath into your chest, meanwhile sucking your belly in to form the “wedge” from which the technique gets its name. Finally, you top off your air tank by raising your shoulders a couple of inches while breathing in a little more. Once you’ve taken in all that air, you let your shoulders relax back down, but you keep your abdomen pulled in, and you keep the hara point engaged once you start to play. You must do all of that in a single smooth movement for practical usage, and that takes a fair amount of repetition to master, but the process itself is not terribly difficult to learn.

“All you have to do is pretend somebody is going to punch you in the gut,” Shew says. “That’s how you can find the hara point.”

Several parts of the process fly in the face of what trumpet players have been taught for over a century. Most teachers tell their students to never raise their shoulders. And conventional instructors usually tell students to push their belly out when they blow, not suck it in. That explains in part why so many members of the horn community continue to scoff at wedge breathing in spite of the testimony of so many top lead trumpet players.

While you usually hear about wedge breathing in connection with playing in the upper register, Shew believes it’s the best way to breathe for every type of brass playing.

“A lot of people are using a lot more tension in their face, neck and shoulders than is needed to play, including too much mouthpiece pressure,” Shew says. “When you control compression and get your support from the hara point, it relieves any unnecessary tension in those areas. You use just the amount you need to produce the sound you want.”

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