Correct breathing for saxophone players

Breathing in

...it is indispensable!

While all members of a music society’s, orchestra’s or big band’s saxophone section are struggling with their own sax sound, the section will never sound homogeneous or tight. It is therefore indispensable that each sax player work on their sound.

Breathing challenges

In my workshops and seminars, I keep meeting sax players with a squeezed, tense and somewhat "squeaky" sound. This may be due to a tense neck, too much pressure on the lips or a tense jaw. Take a closer look, however, and it turns out that the problem is due to the player’s breathing technique.

Insufficient air is taken in while breathing in, so that there is not enough pressure for expelling the air (which is often referred to as "support"). Some players try to compensate this lack of power by increasing the pressure on their lips, jaw or neck, but this invariably builds up too much tension.

Correct breathing for saxophone players

When you breathe in, the lungs can expand in various directions: one direction is downward, in which case your belly is pushed out"”this is what we call "abdominal breathing." At the same time, your lungs can move forward, increasing the size of your chest"”and that is called "chest breathing."
Saxophone players need to take in as much air as possible, and therefore apply both chest and abdominal breathing.

Most people have forgotten this "full" breathing technique and only use their chest while breathing. That is a pity, because abdominal breathing allows us to dramatically increase the air intake. Consider a pear: suppose you feel like eating a pear, but decide to cut away the larger lower end"”there will not be much pear left for you to eat.

Breathing exercise 1

This exercise is not only fairly easy"”it also helps you understand and visualize your abdominal breathing. Lie down with your back on a comfy, but not overly soft surface, e.g. a carpet, a blanket or a yoga mat"”your bed would already be too soft. Now breathe in and out several times like you normally do. Then, put several big and heavy books, ring binders, etc., on your chest and watch what happens while you breathe. If your breathing technique is correct, the books move up whenever you breathe in, because your belly fills with air. And when you breath out, the books should move down again, because your belly empties.

Breathing exercise 2

The second exercise is equally easy and allows us to experience how air flows into our body. Breathe in through your nose, then breathe out using your mouth. Repeat this several times. Now close one nostril and notice how the air you breathe in enters your body.

Breathing exercise 3

The third exercise can be performed in the upright position. If you have back issues or invertebral disc problems, or if you tend to become dizzy easily, please ask yourself whether you should perform this exercise.
Place your feet in a parallel position, spread at the same distance as your shoulders, and slightly bend your knees. Athletes call this the "slight straddle position." Slowly move your chest down, taking care to let your head hang loose and to keep your shoulders relaxed. Try to keep breathing normally while moving your chest down"”don’t stop breathing. Move down as far as you can muster without feeling uncomfortable: though it is OK to touch your feet with your hands, not reaching them is fine, too.
Now slowly, calmly and thoroughly breathe in and out. In this position, you should be able to feel how your belly pushes against your pelvis each time you breathe in. Repeat this several times and notice what your breathing does. Slowly move your chest up again, while still breathing normally and remaining perfectly relaxed.

Advice

I advise saxophone players to perform these exercises on a daily basis in order to expand their breathing volume. It would be a good idea to begin your daily training sessions with breathing exercises, because they also help you leave your day-to-day preoccupations behind and concentrate instead on playing the saxophone.

Yours,

Dirko Juchem

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