Good breathing and breath control when playing the saxophone is important for two reasons:
- Playing extended phrases without running out of breath
- Having good breath support from your lungs
The second of these is probably the most important as it can actually help 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.
But how do I control my diaphragm?
A good question, especially as it is a muscle most people are not even aware of, let alone know how to control. Instead of trying to, it’s much easier and more effective to visualise it as your abdomen. It isn’t, but it does seem to be connected and this is the best way I have found to communicate diaphragm control:
Imagine the way you would tense your muscles when somebody is about to punch you in the stomach and aim towards this kind of control as you push your abdomen out while breathing in. This is not something you can learn overnight, especially after a lifetime of shallow breathing into the top of the lungs (which is how most people breathe). Diaphragm breathing forces you to use the lower part of the lungs as well as the upper part so gives you a much bigger lung capacity and control. A great way to practise it is to try yoga breathing.
I have also outlined below 3 daily breathing exercises which were practised by the great saxophonist Sonny Rollins. These will help expand your lungs and your diaphragm control. I have noticed that these exercises will also build up the muscles around the chest and shoulder blades.
3 Daily Breathing Exercises
Each of these will help develop and expand a different part of your lungs and ribcage.
Frontal Expansion (Vertical)
Start this standing up with a straight back, arms by your side
- Keeping the arms straight, raise them smoothly forwards while breathing in, until they are vertically above your head.
- Hold your breath for a second or two without closing your throat
- Lower the arms smoothly while exhaling until they are back by your sides
You can combine this with the yoga breathing exercise, expanding the abdomen, chest and shoulders in that order. More exercises in Taming The Saxophone Vol 1 – Tone Without Tears