However many brass, woodwind and vocal teachers there are, there are that many theories, philosophies or methods for teaching how to breath; many of them work, however, many of them act in contradiction to nature and the natural flow and beauty that are essential in music. Breathing should be part of the music, but frequently we see it as a contorted fragment of time when the music stops and the performer refills his power supply (air) to restart.
We are an analytical, technically orientated culture; we need to know how things work. While it’s very interesting to know the ins and outs of pulmonary function, sometimes the benefits of that knowledge are dubious; frequently, our preoccupation with how breathing works interferes with our music making. Breathing should be natural and organic to the music and most if the time we find that the music also needs to breathe.
48 years ago in 1957, when I was playing with the Rochester Philharmonic, the orchestra was rehearsing the Strauss Oboe Concerto. Robert Sprenkle, one of my heroes from my conservatory days and the first oboist with the Rochester Philharmonic, was the soloist. There is no tuba in the Strauss Oboe Concerto so I went into the hall of the Eastman Theater and sat down to listen. The very long and lyric opening was wonderful; it was dynamic, beautifully phrased, perfect intonation, profoundly musical and the long, typically Straussian phrase was unbroken because of Mr. Sprinkle’s circular breathing; why was I getting uncomfortable? I was just a nineteen year old boy listening to one of my mentors making beautiful music, who was I to be uncomfortable? I remembered that moment for many years and it wasn’t until much later at another performance of the Strauss Oboe Concerto that I was able to understand what had bothered me. The circular breathing and the unbroken phrase were unnatural, the music itself needed to breath.
Too frequently, we tubists, while trying to continue a phrase when there are no rests written, actually result in distorting the rhythm. In 1968 I got a call from my old student, Mel Culbertsen, who was playing tuba for the Hague Philharmonic Orchestra in The Netherlands. He had just won the position with the Paris Opera Orchestra and needed a replacement in The Hague immediately. He asked if I had any students who might be ready. I told him I had one and he asked that he make a tape and send it immediately, which he did. Ten days later I got another call from Mel and he said, “You’re not going to believe this”, at which time he began playing several of the audition tapes for me over the phone. It was the famous “audition passage” from the Meistersinger Overture. All five versions that he played for me were seriously distorted rhythmically because the players were holding the half note tied to the eighth note all the way through the eighth note, then taking the breath and continuing with the following three eighth notes, which were, of course, late; the whole passage was almost in 9/8 time! Fortunately, my student didn’t do that and consequently won the job.
Think about that: If there is no rest and you play a note it’s full value, then take a breath and start the next note, that note will be late, The time of the breath must always be calculated and taken from the preceding note. If the players that had sent those tapes to The Hague had played the half note, taken the breath on the third beat, those next three eighths would have been on time! The happy surprise here is that the music sounds better with those breaths; the music needs to breath too.
Breathing, is part of the music, it needs to be planned as part of the music and specifically as part of the rhythm. Far more important than our seemingly chronic questions on how to breath, is the question of where to breath; many of the “breathing problems” we encounter simply disappear when we make the decisions where the breath should be. ‘Where to breathe’ is a musical decision and it’s clear the biological function of breathing works much more naturally when it is integrated as part of the music.
There are three simple rules regarding breathing that we need to be conscious of:
1. While performing, just as in just day-to-day living, the movement of the air should be constant; many of the breathing problems players develop come from the habit of taking a breath and holding it before we start a note. For best results both musically and biologically the air should be in motion at all times whether inhaling or exhaling.
2. We need to remember it takes more air to play in the lower register. In fact, at the same dynamic, each octave down takes twice the air as one octave above. If middle C on the piano, the tuba’s high C, takes four liters of air per minute at mf, an octave lower takes eight liters. One octave lower, our low C, takes sixteen liters and pedal C takes thirty-two liters per minute. Although we all know the low register takes more air it’s surprising how many players forget this while playing!
3. Whenever possible we should play within the first 66% of our air capacity; the last third of our air is never as stable as the first two thirds. As tubists we may have to go into that last third occasionally but we should make an effort to minimize it. Taking a deep full breath every time we breath is the best way to be sure we are in the first 66% as much as possible.
A forth rule could possibly be called musical breathing or perhaps rhythmic breathing. It’s not only a question of where to breathe and when to breathe but also the duration of the breath. Depending on the tempo, the breath could be through an eighth note or a quarter note. For example: If an entrance comes on the first beat of a 4/4 measure, the entrance will probably be more beautiful if the breath is taken through the preceding fourth beat. Further, if an entrance comes on the second half of the third beat, taking a breath on the second half of the second beat will set the rhythm; the music actually starts before we hear any sound.
Of course, it’s useful and very interesting to know how breathing works but there is a very real danger when we begin to be preoccupied with its function. When breathing is calculated and organized as part of the music it is amazing how naturally things work.
Tokyo, Japan, May 5, 2006
Revised November 8, 2008
Revised again June 30, 2012, Tokyo