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Diaphragm & Breathing Exercises

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Taming The Saxophone vol 1 - tone without tears
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Step 1: Learn about diaphragm breathing exercises

You often hear the phrase diaphragm breathing but what is a diaphragm, where it is and how can you control it? The good news is you don’t actually need to worry about it.

People tend to use various analogies rather than a pure physiological analysis of what happens. You may have heard people referring to “breathing from the stomach” or using “warm air” or “cold air”, fast air or slow air. Alll of which can be mean the same thing. It is confusing to tell people to push with their diaphragm, a part of their body that most people can’t identify let alone have any idea about how to control it. So we just think of breathing from the abdomen, which in turn makes the diaphragm move, so you are breathing from the diaphragm, not necessarily with it. Before we get on the the saxophone breathing exercises we need to first understand about the diaphragm. The importance of breathing from the  diaphragm becomes very apparent in two situations:

  1. Playing Quietly
  2. Needing to hold a long note

Understanding the lungs and diaphragm

If you imagine your lungs as a balloon filled up with air, you can understand that unless you constrict it at the neck, the air will rush out very quickly. In the case of saxophone playing this results in a loud note. So for quiet notes we need to stop the air just rushing out past the reed and causing a loud note when we want a quiet one. There are three ways I can think of to achieve this:

  1. Constrict the throat
  2. Arch the tongue to constrict the air in your mouth
  3. Stop the air coming out of the lungs so fast using muscles

However we usually assume it’s best to keep a constant air pressure, so we think of constricting the throat as “not good” (aka “bad”) Using the tongue position works to a certain extent, but not for everyone. People with large tongues relative to the size of their mouth, or people who need an embouchure in which the mouthpiece protrudes a long way into the mouth, find that this does not give as much control as they would like. So by far the best method (in my opinion) is to work on the muscles that control the lungs. In everyday life people don’t use these muscles, even if they have to hold their breath, you can do this by closing your mouth.

Suddenly our balloon analogy makes no sense as a balloon has no “muscles” that can control the airflow. Unless you tie the end, it has a profound desire to return to its initial state of being empty of air as quickly as possible. So I prefer the analogy of a pair of old fashioned bellows. We have to re-educate our body to behave in a way it has not had to do before.

The handles of the bellows (muscles) cause the bellows to fill with air. As you move the handles apart air rushes in, otherwise there would be a vacuum. Once the bellows are full, you squeeze the handles to release the air. To a certain extent there is a bit of “balloon behaviour” causing the bellows to exhale with no control, but you can override this with the handles. Squeezing hard causes the air to come out fast, squeezing slowly causes the air to come out slowly, but there is no difference at the nozzle, no blockage or constriction. 

But why the diaphragm?

Most people breathe just using the top of the lungs. This is a shallow form of breathing that is fine for most normal living purposes, but for playing a wind instrument we need much more breath, so it’s a good idea to learn to expand your lung capacity.

Instead of breathing in and so expand your chest, try breathing in and expanding your abdomen. What happens is that your stomach pushes out (sorry, not always very flattering) the diaphragm (underneath your lungs) goes down and air rushes in to fill what would otherwise be a vacuum in the large lower part of your lungs (which most people don’t normally use). To stop this air then rushing out in a balloon like fashion, we need to make those muscles lower down act as slow but steady bellows handles. This takes a lot of working on as they are muscles that we have not really used much before What happens is the diapghragm gradually moves up allowing the air to travel through the mouth slowly but in a controlled way without constricting the throat or mouth cavity.

Good breathing and breath control is one of the most important factors in getting a good sound. Playing the saxophone not only needs more breath than people usually require just for going about their normal daily activities, but it is important that the flow of breath is constant. This is rather like a stream of water when you turn a tap on. It is not a natural process for most people. In order to achieve this you need to control the flow from the diaphragm (a muscle underneath the lungs) while maintaining a constant air column from the lungs, through the throat and into the mouth. More about this later, let’s start with the throat and mouth.

But how do I control my diaphragm?

using the diaphragm for breath control

A good question, especially as it is a muscle most people are not even aware of, let alone know how to control it. Instead of trying to, it’s much easier and more effective to visualise it as your abdomen. It isn’t, but It isn’t but there is a connection. 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 exercises. 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.

Closed Throat and Open Throat

First let’s look at how not to control your breath. People often do this by closing off the throat. Try saying “ah ah ah”. To do this you need to almost close the throat and open it again to start the sound, almost like a light cough. On the other hand, and open throat is what happens when you blow your nose, yawn, pant or mist up a window “hah hah hah”

Starting a Note Cleanly using Tongue and Diaphragm

When the throat is closed, the only air pressure is inside your lungs up to your throat, there is no longer any pressure in your mouth so the note is started by the throat. Many beginners use this method to start and stop a note, but as we mention in the page on articulation and tonguing, the note will sound much better if started and stopped cleanly by using your tongue. There should be a constant air pressure in the mouth ready to start the sound when you release your tongue away from the mouthpiece.

This is like a turning on a tap (faucet). There is always constant water pressure up to the tap, and it flows as soon as the valve of the tap is opened. You need to imagine a large reservoir of pressurised air from the bottom of your lungs, right up through your throat and into your mouth, so your  throat should be open at all times (Imagine you are yawning to understand the concept of open throat). The air is kept under pressure by the steady and constant contraction of your ribcage working in conjunction with your diaphragm, which is underneath your lungs.

Combining the tongue and diaphragm

As we said it is your  tongue which starts and stops the sound, not the throat, but in order to do this we need to keep the pressure from your lungs constant. With the tip of the tongue against the tip of the mouthpiece, there will be air pressure in the mouth supported by the column of air in your lungs. The tongue should then be quickly (but not explosively) moved backwards as if saying the sound tu. This is like opening a valve so that the air then flows into the mouthpiece starting the sound. To stop the sound move the tongue back against the reed, but remember, the air pressure should still be in your mouth, throat and lungs.

The diaphragm is a flattish muscle between the lungs and the stomach. A lot of people do not use it much when breathing, even those who do are unaware so find it hard to control in the way that you control other muscles such as those in your legs when you want to walk. To play the saxophone you need to understand how to develop diaphragm breathing, and this often takes years to fully master. The sort of breathing that most people do involves only expanding the upper rib cage so the lungs are also forced to expand outwards.

Diaphragm breathing involves expanding the lungs downwards as well, so the diaphragm needs to move downwards. As it’s a muscle you can’t see, I find it easiest to concentrate on the muscles in front, in other words the muscles in your abdomen that you tense when somebody is about to hit you. The combination of very slightly tensing these muscles and pushing the abdomen outwards as you breathe in is probably the easiest way of training yourself. Diaphragm breathing Be careful, to begin with prolongued tensing of these muscles may result in strain, if you start to feel any pain whatsoever it means you are over exerting. Be patient and remember that you must gradually and gently train yourself to do this or a serious injury might result. If in any doubt get a good teacher to supervise this. After a while (and it may months or years) you will be able to tense these muscles for extended periods of time and this seems to almost subconsciously get the diaphragm to start working. For some reason men find this more natural than women.

Step 2: Basic Breathing Exercises

Breathing exercises  are important when playing the saxophone is important for two reasons:

  1. Playing extended phrases  without running out of breath
  2. Having good breath and air 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.

Introduction to Deep Breathing

Before we look more seriously into the concept of using the diaphragm, a very simple preliminary exercise is to practise deep breathing. You can do this any time, while working, walking, even during meals and other activities. All that is required for deep breathing is that you exhale for longer than you inhale. You can try counting to four while inhaling, and counting for longer (up to double the amount) while exhaling. You will find your own comfortable duration that stretches you slightly without any undue strain. While doing this preliminary exercise, try to be aware which part of the lungs you are using:

  • Are you breathing solely into the top part of your lungs?
  • Are you raising your shoulders while inhaling?

As soon as possible we will address these issues and start to look at using the lower part of the lungs more effectively.

Yoga Breathing Exercise (Complete Yogic Respiration)

Feel your abdomen expand

First of all we’ll think about how you breathe using the lower part of your lungs. Place your hands over your stomach, and without raising you’re shoulders or expanding your chest, breathe in while pushing your stomach out. This will cause your hands to move apart and your fingers to spread. Next we will do the three part breath.This is easiest to do lying down on your back, but you can also do it standing or sitting with your back straight. It consists of three phases in and three phases out, each phase should flow gradually from one to the next

  1. Expand the abdomen while breathing into the lower part of your lungs. While expanding the abdomen, imagine the diaphragm under your lungs expanding downwards into your pelvic regions. Do not worry at this stage about tensing the abdomen muscles too much
  2. Expand the rib cage around your chest, remember to keep the throat as open as possible
  3. Expand the very top part of your ribs and shoulders upwards and outwards.

Hold this for a second or two without closing your throat, it should be your diaphragm, abdomen and rib muscles gently tensed that stop the air rushing out. Next breathe out in the same order, abdomen, chest and shoulders and hold for a second or two without closing your throat. Of course, you are not actually breathing into your abdomen, but it can be useful to think that as your abdomen muscles expand outwards, air is flowing into it. In fact the lower part of your lungs is expanding downwards to fill the place left when your abdomen moves forwards.  

Three Best Breathing Exercises for Breath Control and Air Support

Each of these will help develop and expand a different part of your lungs and ribcage.

1. Frontal Expansion (Vertical)

  1. Stand up with a straight back, arms pointing down by your side
  2. Keeping the arms straight, raise them smoothly forwards while breathing in, until they are vertically above your head.
  3. Hold your breath for a second or two without closing your throat
  4. Still keeping the arms straight, lower them smoothly while exhaling until they are back by your sides

2. Frontal Expansion (Horizontal)

  1. Stand up with a straight back, arms straight out in front of you
  2. Keeping the arms straight, move them smoothly apart while breathing in, until they are fully stretched out sideways
  3. Hold your breath for a second or two without closing your throat
  4. Bring the arms back together and in front of you while exhaling

3. Sideways Expansion

  1. Stand up with a straight back, arms down by your side
  2. Keeping the arms straight, move them smoothly outwards (sideways) and upwards until they are fully stretched out above your head
  3. Hold your breath for a second or two without closing your throat
  4. Lower the arms smoothly sideways and downwards while exhaling until they are back by your sides

More breathingexercises in Taming The Saxophone Vol 1 – Tone Without Tears

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