In spite of the renaissance of knowledge of breathing which has become readily available, breathing has become the single most misunderstood subject of brass players. Over the years I've seen players push and pull, get beet-red faces, epileptically contort their bodies, close their throats, expand their chests like balloons, and even defecate - all in the complete conviction that they are doing what is right in order to blow through the horn. On rare occasions, some of these players have obtained surprisingly good musical results, but certainly not because of their faulty breathing. They were such fine musicians that whatever wrongs they did were compensated by their formidable musicality. The following paragraphs are written with the intent of clarifying the basic breathing functions.

When I was a student, I asked one of my teachers how to breathe. His answer: "In and out." What I initially interpreted as being facetious turned out to be a very wise statement. At its core, correct breathing is nothing more than letting the air flow "in and out". Let's take a look at what happens when a person inhales and exhales.

As in any bodily function, breathing starts in the brain, either on the conscious or subconscious level. The brain sends a command to the diaphragm to inhale and the diaphragm in turn contracts with a descending motion, gently pushing the organs of our abdomen in a downward direction. This creates a negative pressure (partial vacuum) in the thorax resulting in a suction of air into the lungs. One of the most important principals of inhalation - and the one violated most often - is that the muscles of the abdomen must relax so that the diaphragm can descend as far as possible. If the stomach muscles are not relaxed during the inhalation, then the diaphragm cannot displace the organs located under it, hence inhibiting its downward movement and severely limiting the amount of air intake.

A breath using the diaphragm fills our lungs to approximately 70%, which is enough to play most musical phrases. Watching a person breathe correctly using the diaphragm, we will see the abdomen move considerably, relaxing and moving outward on inhalation and contracting inward on exhalation. There will be little or no movement of the thorax. Since some phrases will need more air than this, especially on instruments such as the tuba or the low register of the flute, we have to learn to extend the amount of air intake in order make more efficient use of our vital capacity. This can be achieved by using the intercostal muscles of the thorax, preferably those of the back, after breathing deeply using the diaphragm. It is physically impossible to breathe with the diaphragm after breathing in the chest. When breathing with the thorax it is also possible to use the intercostal muscles of the chest instead of the back; however, they tend to close off our throat, resulting in a pinched sound and faulty attacks.

After filling the lungs with air, the body does not have to blow the air through the instrument because the amount of air in the lungs is more than necessary to start the note - no matter what the dynamic. Even a fortissimo in the low register of the tuba does not need 4 liters of air in the first second of production, which is the amount of air an average person would have in the lungs after a full inhalation. Therefore when the lungs are full, for the first few seconds of exhalation into the instrument, we are letting the air flow, not blowing. As a matter of fact, if the lungs are full and the passage to be played is in a lower dynamic, then we use the muscles of inhalation to hold back the flow of air. That's why a pianissimo is much more strenuous for the respiration than a fortissimo. When we play fortissimo the muscles of inhalation can relax more to allow more air to flow into the horn.

At the end of the inhalation, the pressure in the lungs is higher than the atmospheric pressure in the environment. This pressure is automatically reduced when the exhalation starts, and at a certain moment in the exhalation the pressure in the lungs equals that of the environment. Only when the pressure in the lungs is less than the atmospheric pressure - generally in the second half of the exhalation - do we have to use the muscles of exhalation in order to continue the phrase in the dynamic and intensity that is required to make our musical statement. This is the case when the lungs are emptying and more air is needed to support the intended musical phrase than the natural flow will allow.

Therefore, it is important to understand that inhalation and exhalation are dynamic processes. Although we concentrate on "holding" a note at a certain dynamic over a certain length of time, the pressure in the lungs changes continuously from the initial moment until the breath is finished. The production of a sound is started by a release and only after the pressure in the lungs has been reduced to the point where the flow does not support the intended dynamic do we have to start blowing.