Diaphragm Breathing

Taming The Saxophone vol 1 - tone without tears
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Breathing Exercises Diaphragm Breathing

What is Diaphragm Breathing, and Why?

This question comes up a lot, and it can be quite a difficult one to answer. 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, all of which can be quite confusing. Almost as confusing as telling 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.

The importance of the diaphragm becomes very apparent in two situations:

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

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 constricting the throat is usually thought of 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, it is done by closing of the mouth.

Suddenly our balloon analogy makes no sense as a balloon has no “muscles” that can control the airflow. Unless the end is tied, 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 this can be overridden by 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.

Using your diaphragm

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, rather like a stream of water when a tap is turned on. This 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 controlA 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 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.

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.

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