The quality of your breath is central to every aspect of playing, from tone to rhythm to pitch. Because we form habits that restrict our breath, it is the first thing I look at with a new student. The key is to allow the elasticity of breathing to work for you.
Your lungs have four volumes of air, three of which you use for breathing; each serves a different function.
1. Inspiratory Reserve Volume (IRV) – a large inhalation. 2500 – 3100 ml
2. Tidal Volume (TV) – a normal breath used when resting. 500 ml
3. Expiratory Reserve Volume (ERV) – additional air pushed out through effort. 1200 ml
4. Residual Volume (RV) – the remaining air after exhaling all air. You do not use this part for breathing. 1100 – 1200 ml
The reserve volumes of your lungs extend your resting breath. When we take a large breath, we move into the Inspiratory Reserve Volume. When we let this large breath go, the natural elasticity of our body brings us back to the restful breath of our Tidal Volume. When we squeeze out the air, we go into our Expiratory Reserve Volume. When we stop pushing, our body’s elasticity returns us to our Tidal Volume.
Take a large breath and release it without pushing the air. Then, release a large breath to produce a tone. You do not need to blow the air out. Just let it go. The elasticity of your body will do the work. As you reach the Tidal Volume, the note tapers off because the pressure in your lungs decreases as your body comes to neutral.
A large inhalation, the Inspiratory Reserve Volume, accounts for nearly two-thirds of usable air. Enough to sustain a musical phrase.
Now try pushing all of your air out and notice that your abdominal muscles tighten powerfully. Notice when you let go of pushing, a small amount of air comes in. You come back to the Tidal Volume without intentionally inhaling. But this is not enough air to sustain a note without pushing.
Inhaling and exhaling are opposite actions that, when done at the same time, create tension and restrict your breath. The flexed abdominal muscles must be released before you can take another large breath.
Pushing and tightening your stomach also tightens the rest of your body, from your fingers to your tongue.
Finally, it takes time for your nervous system to let go of pushing and tightening. Time you may not have between phrases.
If we push the air, the tendency is to take a partial breath. Consequently, we do not harness the potential elasticity to expel the air. Your playing becomes forced as you continue to push the air, and your breath stops working for you.
When it comes to efficient movement, less is better. When playing a wind instrument, stay within the Inspiratory Reserve Volume as much as possible. Some air support is needed, but not a lot. Sometimes we need all of our air, but not often.
Your breath works for you when you minimize pushing and let your body’s elasticity move the air. Releasing the breath without pushing reduces effort and tension, improves overall playing, and permits quick, big breaths.
Learn more about how to use your breath from the following videos, articles, and exercises.
Freeing Your Breath
Releasing The Breath To Produce A Tone
A Fully Vibrating Reed
Stacking The Breath