The “Ins and Outs” of Breathing for Trumpet Playing

breathing for trumpet playing

Breathing for Trumpet Playing

Since the trumpet is a wind instrument, and controlled by the breath, learning to breathe more efficiently will make trumpet playing easier, and help you sound better.

Now while all you have to do is breath in, and then breathe out (through the horn) to produce a tone, the quality of the breath does have a direct effect on your results. The main issue is that at some point during many players’ development (myself included), there can be a tendency to create an inhibiting amount of tension during the inhalation. This directly affects tone production. technique, and ease of playing.

This article is meant to help you improve the breath, and therefore your playing as a whole.

The Problem: You 🙂

As mentioned, the main culprit in a less-than-optimal breath is too much tension in the wrong places. Now, don’t get too down on tension, because it is not the enemy. Muscular tension is a necessary part of trumpet playing, and as such, not something to be abolished. It simply needs to be redirected to more appropriate parts of the body.

Think of physical, or muscular tension, and psychological tension as being two sides of the same coin. They are interrelated, and have a direct affect on one another. If you’re uptight, and concerned about your result, the body tightens up, and vice versa.

So! The big problem facing many trumpet players in the development of an efficient breath is:

Thinking too much about it.

Over-analysis is easy to do considering the importance of a proper breath. Not to mention the fact that there is so much (and seemingly conflicting) information regarding the subject. Should I breathe high? Low? Should or shouldn’t I raise the shoulders? Is there a special way to breathe for high notes? Etc, etc.

The Solution: Forget About It

First off, resign to the fact that you are not going to outsmart your body. Breathing is, in part, an involuntary action, and your brain already knows how to do it way better than you could ever “figure out” for yourself. Since thoughts about breathing are just getting in the way, the obvious solution is to then find a way to stop thinking so much about it.

How do you stop thinking about something?

Well, unless you have an uncommon amount of mental control, it may be difficult to simply “stop thinking about it.” Therefore, a more practical solution is to learn to place your focus elsewhere.

In trumpet playing, that elsewhere is on the sound.

The “Ins and Outs” of Breathing for Trumpet Playing

Select a note that is easy for you. Say a “G” in the staff.

G in the staff. breathing for trumpet

Make sure you’re aware of what that pitch sounds like, either by conjuring up the note in your imagination, or, if you’re not yet able to do this, by playing the G, holding it out for a comfortable length of time, and letting the sound permeate your brain. Again, no need to “think” about it, just play the note and listen, like you would listen to someone during a conversation (that you are actually interested in).

Once the note sounds familiar to you, think of that sound, and visualize it flowing forward from your bell. With that mental imagery going, put your horn to your face to play, and breathe in that sound.

After relaxing for a moment, try it again. Think of the G flowing forward, and breathe in that sound. Keep experimenting with this until the mechanics of the inhalation fall into the background. If you notice yourself trying to achieve something, set the horn down, and come back later, after you’ve had a chance to refresh.

Once you’re able to forget about how you’re breathing, you’ll probably start to notice yourself drawing in more air with less effort. Nice! You are now allowing yourself to breathe more efficiently.

If you find you habitually tighten up to breathe, practice the above exercise without the instrument, then when that feels safe, practice your breathing with just the mouthpiece, and then finally with the trumpet. This will help to reprogram the mind to maintain a more relaxed attitude while playing the horn*.

*I personally made quite a lot of progress with my breathing by keeping a spare mouthpiece in my car, and occasionally placing it up to my lips, while practicing the inhalation in the manner described above. This helped to promote a more (note: not totally) relaxed relationship between the metal and the body.

Added Bonus: Developing this sense of relaxation helps embouchure endurance as well. When the embouchure learns to remain more relaxed while not playing (breathing), you end up conserving energy over time, which leads to greater strength and endurance.

Once you’ve taking a nice breath, just let the sound go. Generally, there is no need to push, or forcefully expel the air to play the trumpet (yes, you will force the air out, as everyone does, but in the practice room, start to enjoy the idea of just “letting go” of the sound). The natural elasticity of the body creates enough compression to create a WIDE variety of sounds on the trumpet.

Ultimately, this leads to the development of a breath that is good for trumpet playing; one that is both open, and supported. As efficient breathing becomes habit, the breath will continue to improve on its own, without you needing to deliberately “practice.”

 A Note About High Compression Breathing

You may have run across the term “high compression breathing” in the trumpet community, especially in relation to developing the upper register. Essentially, a higher-compression breath is one where the breath is drawn higher up in the torso, and the intercostal muscles surrounding the rib cage become more involved in compressing the air column. Breathing in this way works well for playing in the upper register, because of the tremendous amount of compression you can create using these muscles. The additional compression makes it easier to speed up the air column passing through the lips, which creates a faster vibration of the aperture, and a higher note.

*Probably the most well-known method of learning a high-compression breath is Bobby Shew’s “Wedge Breath,” which you can check out here:

Wedge Breath Illustration

How to Practice the Wedge Breath

In my own playing, I like to think of breath compression as being on a sliding scale, and best left to the subconscious mind. By regularly working your range in an expansive manner, and getting some exposure to lead-type playing, the body does a darned good job of learning how to appropriately compress and support the air column.

In other words, sometimes you’ll feel support higher up in the ribs, and sometimes you’ll feel it lower in the abdomen – who cares! With practice, the body learns to do what it needs to do, based on the current playing factors.

 Article Recap

  1. Efficient breathing makes trumpet playing easier.
  2. Often, the main issue with a player’s breath is too much tension in the wrong places.
  3. Unlocking better breathing habits happens naturally by forgetting about the breath.
  4. To forget the breath, imagine the sound flowing forward, breathe in that sound, and then “let it go.”
  5. Practice this without the instrument, using only the mouthpiece, and then with the trumpet to promote a more relaxed relationship with the horn.
  6. The natural elasticity of the body produces enough force to play the trumpet aggressively.
  7. “High compression” breathing can be learned simply by expanding one’s range in a holistic way. However, some players have great success practicing this as a separate skill. See above links for “Wedge Breath.”
  8. Be curious, rest often, and don’t worry about results.

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