Breathing Exercises by Ben van Dijk

The goal of these exercises is to assure that your breathing is occurring in arelaxed manner before you actually start playing.


Try to achieve a natural method of breathing.
Examples of moments when your breathing is most relaxed might be:
a) Breathing in fresh air through your nose during a refreshing walk along the beach or in the woods.
b) Breathing in through your mouth during a deep sigh of relief.

c) The most relaxed way of breathing, though, occurs while one is asleep. When breathing in this manner, the stomach muscles are completely relaxed. The relaxation of the stomach while breathing is one of the greatest problems for many of us. Try to conjure up this feeling of relaxed breathing repeatedly while playing your instrument.

Explaining the Breathing Mechanics

I don't want to go into full detail on the organs and muscles connected with breathing. I think, however, it is important to explain some facts concerning breathing. Your chest in considerably larger at the bottom than at the top. The lower ribs are not fastened to the breastbone; their forward ends are free. Obviously the greatest expansion is possible at the lower part of the chest! Certain muscles play an active role in breathing. A very important one is the diaphragm, a strong, flat, sheet-like muscle stretched across the base of the chest. Attached to the lower ribs, the backbone, and the breastbone, it separates the chest from the abdomen; it might be regarded as the floor of the chest and the roof of the abdomen.

Now the diaphragm comes in action. During the first part of the inhalation it automatically flattens from its normal relaxed position. You can cause it to descend even lower than normal. This, pushing forward the front walls of the abdomen, will result in a pressure being felt against the belt buckle. Try it! This action of the diaphragm causes the lower part of the lungs to be filled; this is step number one!!!

The intercostal muscles come into play next, pushing out the lower ribs, breastbone, and chest. Since the diaphragm is attached to the lower ribs and the breastbone, it will be drawn down to an extent by this side-to-side and front-to- back expansion. The action of these muscles fills the middle part of the lungs. This is step number two!!!

The third and final step is to fill the higher portion of the lungs. The upper chest is expanded, thus lifting the rib cage. In this final movement, the lower abdomen will be slightly drawn in, giving the lungs a support and helping to fill the highest parts.

A complete breath consists of these three steps combined in one fluent order. Let us review the actions. The diaphragm, in contacting, enlarges the lung capacity in a downwards sense. The lower chest is expanded outwards (side-to-side and front-to-back ). The upper chest is protruded, expanding the chest upwards. The lower abdomen is drawn in slightly to give support. The chest is fully expanded in all directions, filling the lungs to a maximum capacity.

2 Methods of Breathing

Breathing through the mouth is certainly the most widely used manner of breathing while playing a wind instrument, but it is often advisable to breathe through the nose during breathing exercises. If you hold your throat by your larynx with your fingers while breathing through your mouth, you will notice anobvious movement here which can cause your throat to cramp. This cramping can cause great problems later while playing your instrument. If you breathe through your nose in the correct manner, you won't notice any movement in your throat at all and you will see that you can take very relaxed, extremely deep and low breaths. It is very important, however, to make sure that breathing in through the nose occurs as quietly as possible. Too much sniffing can cause an irritation of the mucous membranes. By this I'm not saying that we can't breathe through the mouth. The object is to transfer the relaxed feeling while breathing through the nose to breathing through the mouth. I myself use breathing through my nose in combination with breathing through my mouth regularly during concerts or other stress-sensitive moments to make sure my breathing stays relaxed. Are sure you don't breathe exclusively through your nose though, or a cold could cause you some big problems.



This is an exercise you don't have to do every day, but you should use it regularly to make sure your breathing has that relaxed feeling about it. I also recommend this exercise for removing that cramped feeling you sometimes get while practicing. Lay down flat on the floor and breathe in slowly through your nose for four counts. Concentrate carefully on step one of the breathing, pushing downwards the diaphragm! Listen carefully to your breathing to make sure it's completely even. Hold the breath for four counts.

As certain that you can talk, without any tension in your voice. It's important that you get this under control, because this situation is exactly like playing.

Form your embouchure into playing position but make the gap between your upper and lower lips big enough that there is no buzz. Now, blow out slowly for four seconds. This also has to sound very uniform, so listen to yourself carefully. Keep repeating this until you're absolutely sure of the relaxed feeling. Now try to repeat this exercise several times breathing in through the mouth with the same relaxed feeling. Get up slowly and continue with the next exercise.


Stand up straight with your feet slightly apart, don't lock your knees, and make yourself tall. To determine the position of your chest, put your hands on your sides at the level of your chest and take a breath. This expands and raises the chest. This is the correct position of the chest during breathing and playing. Rotate your pelvis slightly forward and relax your stomach muscles.


Try to combine, in a correct order, the three steps of breathing in one fluent movement.

Repeat these exercises inhaling and exhaling in different ways. For example, you could inhale through the mouth in one second or completely empty your lungs in one second of fortissimo. Try to achieve an as natural and relaxed feeling as possible while doing these exercises and concentrate on what you hear and especially on what you feel. Be inventive and try to have fun doing these extremely important exercises.

1) Breathe in calmly through your mouth for 1 count. Think of it as breathing in for a sigh!!!
2) Calmly breathe out for 4 counts.
Again put your embouchure in the blowing position with the hole a little too big. Thus no buzz, but some resistance. Listen carefully to the airflow and
3) Inhale calmly through your mouth for 4 counts.
4) Calmly breathe out for 4 counts.

Listen carefully to the airflow and concentrate on feeling relaxed.

Between these Pre-Warmup exercises it is useful to stimulate your lips using the next exercise. Inhale deeply and calmly through your mouth and let your lips flap around completely loosely for about four seconds (horse sound). This will activate your circulation, and this is very important if you want your muscles to function well.

EXERCISE four - "Five blows"

The point of this exercise, by Jeff Reynolds, is to simulate situations in which we don't have much time to breathe in, so the goal is to execute each inhalation very quickly and very deeply in one relaxed second. Take special care to breathe very low and deep and avoid any cramping up of the throat. Make sure your shoulders hang slackly along your body, and don't come up while breathing. Listen to yourself carefully as cramping up will be accompanied by a rasping noise in your throat. Do this exercise in front of a mirror.

1) Inhale 1 count.   Exhale 1 count. ffff.
2) Inhale 1 count.   Exhale 3 counts. ff.
3) Inhale 1 count.   Exhale 5 counts. f.
4) Inhale 1 count.   Exhale 7 counts. mf.
5) Inhale 1 count.    Exhale 10 counts. pppp

When exhaling the air must be stable and there mustn't be a decrescendo. So exhale blocks of air. At the 5th BLOW, hold your hand in front of your mouth, and make the air as warm as possible. The air can only be warm if the throat is fully relaxed and if the breath is supported from the bottom. Think of having a hot potato in your mouth or of blowing steam onto a window.


Take your mouthpiece and block its end for the most part with your finger. This exercise is very effective in activating your coughing muscle, right under your navel. This is the point from which your breath support must come. As you exhale, your stomach will pull in, but this muscle will contract and it will seem like it's pushing out.

Inhale for 1 second ------- exhale as powerfully as possible, without any decrescendo.

This exercise can also come in handy if you don't have much time to warm up extensively, a situation which can arise, for example, when you're suddenly called to play a gig. This exercise can also come in handy in day to day orchestra life, before a tricky entrance in a Brahms symphony, for instance. 3 movements tacet, no time to warm up, and suddenly you're playing that beautiful, famous but very tense trombone chorale. With this exercise at least you can get your breathing back to where it belongs.

It is certainly not my intention to make an obsession of all these breathing exercises. Some people will use them more than others. Just use them whenever you feel you need to, and believe me, that'll be more often than you think. Try to do everything as naturally as possible. Check this by doing these or other breathing exercises in front of a mirror, and especially by practising in front of a mirror. Don't forget to always use a constant rhythmic pulse. This will have a positive influence on your timing while playing your instrument. Be inventive and come up with your own variations of these exercises. I would also advise reading a lot of books on the subject. Charlie Vernon's book, Daily Routines, for instance, contains very effective exercises and clear, concise text. This also applies to Bart van Lier's new book, Co-ordination in Trombone Playing. All the material published by Arnold Jacobs on this subject could also be of great use to you. The booklet Breathing, Posture and Throat, by Bram Balfoort are, in my opinion, essential for every brass player.