A versatile instrument in the music industry that relies heavily on proper breathing is the trumpet. Learning how to breathe when playing the trumpet is a critical first step.
The first thing to realize is that the task of breathing revolves around the proper distribution of tension around the nose, mouth, and torso. The key is learning how to breathe efficiently, so that you can continue blowing on the trumpet even when you are pulling in air to reoxygenate your lungs.
Many trumpet players have developed a number of different exercises to help them develop their breath and the appropriate breathing skills. We will discuss several in this article.
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The First Breathing Goal for Trumpeters: Natural Breathing
It has been said that there is no unnatural way to breathe because the task of breathing is a fundamental aspect of life and living. And yet, there are different ways to breathe. One breathes differently whether one is running or swimming or walking or playing a trumpet.
The key to breathing when playing the trumpet is to be relaxed, but not too relaxed. The goal is to breathe efficiently so that the air you take in can be used to maximum effect with the trumpet.
The premise behind natural breathing is that the body knows how to do this better than you do. So, some trumpet players argue that it is best not to try to micromanage your lungs or your breathing style or your technique.
All breathing is inherently “natural” and the natural knows best when it comes to breathing. So, for the trumpet player, the appropriate thing to do is to explore the different patterns of breathing. Then select and develop the correct pattern to use.
The correct one will help you play trumpet better; the other ones will only hinder that goal. It’s a nonchalant approach to breathing that relies on the notion that nature knows best. Once you’ve done this, it comes down to practice. Practice playing the trumpet and practice the breathing and have faith that you will improve with time.
Still, there are some specific exercises you can do—let’s talk about those next.
Natural Breathing Exercise for Trumpets: The Forget the Breath Technique
According to the Grammy award winning trumpet player James Blackwell the goal of natural breathing is to “forget the breath.” According to Blackwell, “To forget the breath, imagine the sound flowing forward, breathe in that sound, and then let it go.”
To explain more fully, he offers the following practice technique. For lack of a better name, we’ll call it “The Forget the Breath Technique:”
- Select note: Choose an easy-to-play note. Imagine the sound of the note—play it if you have to—and hold it firmly in mind.
- Breathe in the note: Imagine “breathing in” the sound of that note and repeat the process until the breath feels natural. If you get too focused on the breathing, stop and set the practice aside for later.
- Let go of the sound: When you are ready, come back and continue practicing until you can forget the breath and focus only on the sound. Then, when you are ready, “let go” of the sound.
- Practice: Begin by practicing breathing without an instrument. Then, practice using just a mouthpiece. Finally, add in the trumpet and practice with that.
This technique, of course, develops just one aspect of breathing involved with playing the trumpet. There are others.
High Compression Breathing: The Wedge Breath
Another aspect of breathing when playing the trumpet is the actual amount of air you can pull in. The more air you can pull in, the more you can expel over more time. Hence, you should be able to hold a tone for a longer period of time with a greater amount of air at your disposal.
A technique that has developed to deal with issue is called “High Compression Breathing.” In High Compression Breathing air is drawn up higher into the torso particularly into the chest, and the muscles around it are more involved in compressing it. Compressing air decreases its volume so that the lungs can be filled with more.
More air in the lungs means more air at the trumpet player’s disposal. That, at least, is the theory.
So, the goal of high compression breathing is to increase the lung capacity. A technique developed to further that end is called the “Wedge Breath.”
High Compression Breathing Exercise: The Wedge Breath
The “Wedge Breath” is so named because it creates a wedge shape in the abdomen from the first breath. It originates from the many breathing disciplines found in Yoga, in this case, the Complete Breath. Opinions on the technique vary. Some very reputable trumpet players think it is unnecessary. Others swear by it.
What follows is a description of the Wedge Breath exercise for trumpet players:
- The Initial Breath: Begin with a small intake of air. This creates a slight outward extension of the abdomen near the navel. The chest remains stationary at this juncture while the diaphragm inverts downward. Be careful not to overextend too much.
- The Big Breath: Next, take a large breath of air while lifting your shoulders up towards your ears. Do not release the ‘wedge’ position; maintain it throughout.
- The Play Position: Next, lower your shoulders to the proper playing position of a trombone. Again, keep maintaining the wedge position.
- Exhale: Now, exhale. Blow the air out as if you are blowing out a candle, or, alternatively, as if you are blowing rice out of your mouth. Maintain your grip on your abdomen and adjust the tension. Finally, make sure you maintain the wedge as you change from register to register.
Some believe the Wedge Breath exercise develops a great deal of control over air flow in the lungs and compression. Others are not as enthusiastic about it. The final decision, of course, rests with the particular trumpet player in question.
The last technique we will examine involves a number of difficulties.
The Critical Breathing Skill: Circular Breathing
The goal of the trumpet player is to maintain a continuous outflow of air for long periods of time so that they can continue to play the trumpet while still taking breaths.
Basically, a skilled trumpet player can continuously maintain the same tone without interruption. A novice will likely have to stop and restart as they suck in air to refill their lungs throughout. That difference separates the skilled from the unskilled, the professional from the amateur.
The technique that the trumpet player must develop is called circular breathing. Generally, it involves inhaling air in through the nose and blowing it out through the mouth at the same time. The trick is, of course, that the lungs simply cannot expand to inhale and contract to exhale at the same time: such is impossible.
The solution is to puff out the cheeks by filling them with air. When you do that you can use the mouth cavity as a secondary source of air to keep playing the trumpet while inhaling through the nose. This takes considerable skill.
Over time, of course, trumpet players have come up with a number of exercises to develop this skill.
Exercises for Circular Breathing
Circular Breathing is a critical skill for professional trumpet players. We will cover two exercises that help develop this skill.
Circular breathing, air only:
- Breathing: Breathe through nose and fill your cheeks with air. Maintain breathing in and out of nose for 30 seconds without deflating your cheeks.
- Visualization: picture what happens in your nasal areas and mouth while breathing like that.
- Inhale and Release: Inhale through your nose but let a small amount of air escape through your lips at a slow rate.
- Tighten Embouchure: Repeat but tighten your mouth (the embouchure) to make a buzzing sound through your lips
- Repeat with Force: Do it again, but fill mouth cavity with air by lowering jaw and tongue. Now, force air out through mouth with tongue and make buzzing sound
- Inhale/Exhale: Repeat, but inhale at the same time
Circular Breathing with Water
- Small Sip: Swish a small sip of water around your mouth for approximately 30 seconds.
- Breathe: Breathe in and out through nose and visualize what is going on in the mouth.
- Squirt: Now, keep breathing and squirty the water slowly out of your mouth.
Circular Breathing is a critical skill and it requires practice to develop. So, develop a routine and get to work.
How to Breathe When Playing Trumpet, Conclusion
With practice, these techniques can improve a trumpet player’s breathing skills so he or she can hold a tone for longer of time, produce a cleaner sound, and generally improve overall.