Principals of Breathing


It is the ultimate goal of any instrumentalist to have your instrument become an extension of your body. In order to achieve this, you need to be as relaxed as possible. Playing the saxophone isn’t much different from speaking or singing. In both cases, you are controlling the shape and intensity of the air stream by using your vocal chords. Just as you impart nuance when you speak, you will also do so automatically when you play your horn, so that the saxophone is truly an extension of your voice. In order for that to happen you need to let the vocal chords do what comes naturally. You don’t want to impose any tension on them that will interfere with their ability to function.

It’s also important for the technical aspects of playing to occur naturally with as little conscious effort as possible. This will facilitate musical expression since the player will be less preoccupied with what goes into producing a sound and be concerned with the actual music and expression itself. One key to unencumbered expression on the horn is establishing proper breath support. Breath support is necessary for not only enabling you to play a long phrase, but more importantly to support the sound, particularly in the higher register where the notes are much more sensitive to shrillness and pitch discrepancies. In order to achieve the highest levels of instrumental mastery, one’s breathing technique needs to be well established so that plenty of support is always available whether you’re thinking about it or not. Proper breathing involves three separate areas: the abdomen, the lungs (attached to the rib cage and described as the thoracic area), and upper lungs or shoulders (known as the clavicles). These areas work in one continuous flow, but while learning to use them it’s best to develop an awareness of each individual part. Following is a description of the movements involved.

The inhalation: As you breathe, imagine the air descending the same way water drains from a sink. The air enters your wind pipe and goes all the way down to your abdomen, which then expands. This expansion occurs in all directions … forward, sideways and even toward the back. Then as the lungs fill up with air, you’ll feel the rib cage rising slightly, followed by a slight feeling of the raising of the shoulders and upper part of the lungs. This shouldn’t be overt, but it’s something that you should feel. When you take this one breath, you’re engaging all three parts of the breathing mechanism – the abdomen, the mid and upper lungs.

The exhalation: When you blow, you’re essentially reversing the inhalation process by relaxing your shoulders and lungs which occurs without any conscious effort. Basically it is like pricking a balloon. But for the sake of the exercise exaggerate the last step by pulling the stomach area in to expel all the contents(air). The complete breath is an expansion and contraction, in a smooth, graduated three-part motion. Visualizing the movement of the air can be an aid to the exercise. Sometimes it helps to imagine that the air is a color, like blue or red. Visualize it entering your wind pipe, going down into the abdomen and expanding like a balloon. Visualize this process in reverse as you exhale. Take five to ten breaths like this twice a day. Try to reach a point where you are breathing deeply and smoothly.

After a couple weeks, add some resistance to this exercise, through one of the following methods:

Method 1: Lay on the floor face down. First push your abdomen downward for the inhale and then pull it up for the exhale so that you create space between yourself and the floor.

Method 2: While standing in front of a door or small wall area, put your hands on either side and pull the upper torso into the door using it as resistance for the inhalation. On exhale, a space should be created between your abdomen and the surface used.

Method 3: Lie on your back and have pressure applied to your abdomen, either by placing books or weights on your stomach or by having someone press downward with their bodyweight. When you take a breath while applying external resistance, the abdomen not only expands, but expands against a force which increases its strength. When you take the force away, that increased strength remains.

In actual plying you may not always need to take a deep breath. When playing pianissimo, you might take a shallow breath using only the lung and clavicle areas. However, in order to play a longer or louder passage, you may suddenly need to breathe from the abdomen. It’s something you should always be ready for because you never know when it will be useful. That is the purpose of doing breathing exercises vigilantly, at least for a certain amount of time until it becomes natural and intuitive. The truth is that as babies and children we all naturally breathe abdominally, but without specific use it is forgotten as a useful body function. We need to reawaken this natural gift. The side benefits of deep and natural breathing are well known to anyone who has practiced meditation. In general correct breathing is beneficial for overall general health.