“Use your diaphragm!”

…said a brass or vocal teacher, somewhere, always.

The response from the student; nearly always puzzled, if not nodding quietly to mask confusion and/or risk of suggested ignorance.

This well used phrase may be yielding results from some students. Yet, I don’t know of anyone that I have met who can knowingly control their diaphragm. I have never seen one in action, heard of anyone demonstrating it or personally experienced the benefit of knowingly controlling this mythological muscle.

Yet, it exists in folklore; the magic breathing muscle. Struggling for a top C?… Use the diagphram! Running out of air before the end of the phrase?… Use the diaphragm! Master it, and all of your worries will dissipate into thin air; and lots of it.

So, the quest begins. We must find a diaphragm and use it. Fortunately, we all have one. Allegedly it sits at the bottom of our rib cage somewhere. I know this because I’ve been watching some videos:

There are many videos explaining this on the Internet. From my understanding, this guy explains the breathing mechanism fairly well. His use of felt tipped pens also appeals to my architecturally-trained mind and I like the fact he had two goes at spelling ‘cavity’. Warts and all, there are some important lessons here:

1. We can control the use of our diaphragm.
2. The diaphragm works in tandem with the intercostal muscles to expand the chest.
3. Creating the difference in pressure is what enables our lungs to fill with a ‘good breath’ of air.
4. We can control the release of air, either by trapping it to ‘hold our breath’ or by forcing it out rapidly.

So the myth is busted. We CAN ‘use our diaphragm’. However, that phrase doesn’t really correspond to explaining the sensation of taking a full breath of air. Controlling the release of air is also undoubtably more important, in which the diaphragm is not involved so much. Using that to fuel the vibration of the lips/reed/vocal cords is how we make our music. There are also other contributors to the process, mainly the two sets of intercostal muscles. The internal set of intercostals play more of a part in forced exhalation. So in the instance of using lots of air rapidly to play loudly the diaphragm won’t help you!

The main problem is, ‘using the diaphragm’ is something we are not really capable of thinking about anyway. It is not quite an involuntary muscle, just one we can’t see like when we move an arm or a leg. The fact that we are using it all the time without thinking about it also doesn’t help when someone asks us to do exactly that!

How then do we as teachers find another way to explain breathing technique, other than that famous phrase?

Another video that I like focuses on training the breathing muscles in a pseudo-gym workout. This pair of American tuba-playing lunatics take it all to the next level, and aim to help you feel fully in control of your lungs:

This is a very extensive set of exercises, but they are broken down into useful sets each focused towards different playing applications. For example, there are different exercises focused on quick inhalation as well as some focused on slow controlled release for quiet playing. Of course, you could just practice playing quietly. However, many students forget that air is the essential fuel; working on that alone is the basis for improving almost all other technique.

So in summary, I think the best way to explain better breathing is by teaching students about how their lungs work. i.e. controlled release of air through a vibration from a vessel under pressure. The best probable analogy for this is the stretchy balloon-neck noise. If Birtwistle wrote a balloon duet it might go something like this, and this pair I think would have it nailed:

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