By Marcie Frewin, Saxophone, Flute, Piano Instructor
For some musicians it is not just about learning their instrument or the notes on the page, it is also absolutely essential for us to learn how to properly breathe to be successful on our instruments. Learning to do that does not come overnight and takes dedication. But I guarantee you that if you put focus into learning proper breathing techniques from the beginning, you will go far in your musical experiences!
Good breathing and breath control when playing the saxophone (or any wind instrument) is important for two reasons:
- Playing extended phrases without running out of breath
- Having good breath support from your lung
The second of these reasons being the most important as it can actually help you improve your tone. It is a well-established technique to keep your throat open while playing (an open throat is what happens when you yawn, as opposed to a closed throat which happens when you cough). This is important for singers as well as wind players as a large part of what shapes the sound is the physical dimensions of the inside of your mouth, throat and possibly lungs and nasal cavities. But being able to control the pressure of air in your lungs, while keeping your throat open, is not something people do naturally. Normally the air just rushes out unless you close your throat to stop that happening. The trick is to use a muscle underneath your lungs to control that natural tendency for the lungs to contract and expel the air all at once. This is the diaphragm.
When you breathe in make sure you take a controlled breath, the air should fill the lower reaches of the lungs first. Breathing into your stomach is a good way to think of it. You should be able to feel your abdomen swelling up as you breathe in. Think about your diaphragm behind it filling with air as well. Most importantly – do not let your shoulders rise as you breathe. The only thing that should be moving is your abdomen. Hold your breath in for a few seconds without letting your throat close.
The main thing to learn about breathing out is being able to control the speed at which the air is exhaled. To play a long note at a consistent volume, you need to exhale at a consistent level and speed. Your exhaled air must be a steady constant stream (i.e. not all your air should be exhaled fast right away). Loud and soft dynamics on wind instruments is controlled by the speed of the air.
If you use your wind to create sound on your instrument try out some breathing techniques! If you want to improve your tone and be able to hold a long note better, practice your proper breathing! We can hold our breath longer than we know!