Pip Eastop, Horn player, Photographer, Trumpet player

Horn player, Photographer, Trumpet player

Pip Eastop Hornplayer Photographer Trumpetplayer

Posts tagged “Alexander Technique

Play much more simply

I’ve been trying to think about what I want to achieve by learning jazz.
I think it’s that I want to be able to analyse what I’m doing, as I do it, so that I’m always aware of what I’m doing. That is it, I think.
I don’t want to plan everything I play, consciously – that would be dull, contrived and too slow a process to come up with anything but safe material.
On the other hand I don’t want to let my unconscious autopilot do just anything it chooses, as I have always done in the past with my improvising. It’s fine for free improvising but not much use for particular chord sequence.
It has to be a question of the balance between the automatic trawling for “licks”, learned patterns and inventing brand new material or recombining patterns in new ways.
This is why I think Ken Bartels is right when he tells me that I should try to learn to play much more simply, using limited ranges of notes, for example only the blues scale (that’s my first load of homework), and try to keep track of where I am all both harmonically and within the musical sequence.
What has always happened, whenever I launch into some blues for example, is that I would race around not knowing what notes I am playing – I suppose trying to go straight for the finished product without any considerations for the means-whereby. Where have I heard that story before? Read some stuff I wrote for the Horn Magazine about the Alexander Technique. Click.


Teaching self-teaching

Reproduced here by kind permission of the Open University (go there) is my chapter from the book “Knowledge, Power and Learning”. Edited by Paechter, C. Preedy, M. Scott, D + Soler, J. (2001) ISBN 0 7619 6936 3

The book is associated with an Open University second-level course: E211 – Learning matters: challenges of the information age (visit the course website)


Click on the this to go to the publisher’s website

Teaching self-teaching

In this chapter I will discuss my approach to the teaching of horn students within the context of music conservatoires which prepare students for the musical profession. After describing the conservatoire learning context I will explain some of the specific training needs of performing musicians and outline aspects of my approach to teaching them.

Music conservatoires differ from other establishments of higher education in that they exist as places of practical, rather than academic, learning for performing musicians. Although their courses have some academic elements, which form compulsory parts of the students’ degrees, the main emphasis is on the students developing their performance skills to the highest possible professional level. For this reason, in the conservatoire context, instrumental teaching is done on a one-to-one basis by established performing musicians of the highest calibre.

Entrance to the music conservatoires is by audition and the standard is extremely high. Only a very small number of school leavers who play musical instruments are proficient enough to consider auditioning for a conservatoire place and, out of those who make the attempt, only very few actually gain entrance. Once accepted, their training focuses on improving their technical and musical performance abilities to such a standard that they are professionally employable when they leave. The reality is, however, that in proportion to the numbers of hopeful college leavers there are relatively few vacant jobs for performing musicians so, again, a filtering takes place and only the best of them make it into the profession.

I teach undergraduate level horn (1) students at two of London’s music conservatoires. Their courses last four years and towards the end of each academic year they have examinations in which they are expected to demonstrate their performing achievements. At the end of their course they have to perform a “final recital”, to a high degree of technical and musical excellence as a major part of their B.Mus degree qualification.

On leaving college the newly graduated professional must have the resources to continue improving their playing because due to fierce competition the acceptable standard is not only high but keeps on rising, a fact which poses a continual challenge to all musicians, even established ones, who wish to have long careers.

Typically, after the conservatoire years, a horn player will want to make a living in the employment of an orchestra. Unfortunately, although the standard of playing reached by this stage is often very high it is quite rare for newly graduated horn players to find such work immediately upon leaving. Some, in anticipation of the difficulties ahead, opt for a postgraduate year or two to develop their playing expertise while still under the shelter of the college. Some realise that they will not make the grade and switch to alternative careers. Most, however, will try to set themselves up as freelance players and begin developing networks of employment contacts in the hope of gradually building up their work to the extent that they can earn a living by their playing. Many fall by the wayside by failing to keep up a high enough standard.

During the years of a horn player’s career many aspects of their working materials and environment can change. In particular the teeth can move leading to a need for subtle changes in lip technique. Also, the instrument and mouthpiece may be altered, or perhaps the kind of repertoire played, the place of practice, the amount of practice time available and its regularity. Thus, what works today might not be so effective in several years time. Indeed it is often the case that horn players who have played beautifully for decades begin to feel their ability to play coming slowly unravelled. This can be a dangerous time for a horn player, particularly if they have no investigative resources and are thus unable to overhaul and rebuild their technique.

Although the study of a musical instrument is never complete, when a student leaves the conservatoire, ideally, they should not need the help of a teacher again. Thus, an essential element in a student’s preparation for a professional working life is their acquisition of flexible, self-analytical tools for problem-finding, problem-solving and sustaining continuous personal development of their own technique and musicianship. The skills needed for this “self-teaching” are among the most valuable a performing musician can have but also the most difficult to acquire. It is because of this difficulty that I believe “self-teaching”, as a discipline in itself, should be instilled in the student as deeply as possible during their conservatoire training.

Horn playing is very technique-intensive, by which I mean that a lot of technical work must be done before its output will be recognised as musical sound rather than grotesque noise. Once painstakingly acquired, the collection of discrete skills which in combination make up a full working technique must all be maintained in as stable and reliable a way as possible to minimise future breakdowns in ability, disasters in performance and to keep the playing generally on top form. In contrast to, for example, the piano where production of its individual notes is taken care of by the keyboard and hammer mechanism, the horn demands that each note must be formed using the lips and the breath in a way which does not come naturally at all to most people. In fact, the instrument itself is of little help to the player. Anyone who can coax music from a horn can generally get a similar result from a few metres of garden hosepipe or even a teapot. The horn, being topologically equivalent to a length of drainpipe, acts only as resonator with the potential to assist the player in making exceedingly beautiful tones. The same is true for all of the brass “family” of wind instruments.

It has become a traditionally held belief that the horn is one of the most difficult instruments to play. Indeed, there is some truth in this as it usually takes years before the beginner can play even one note proficiently, let alone sequence them into an effective musical phrase. The horn player’s lips must be trained to vibrate like the vocal cords of a singer, which is problematic enough but there is yet a further difficulty: whereas a singer’s mouth will resonate and thus amplify any frequency at which the vocal cords vibrate, the horn will only do the same for the lips at a few precise frequencies, which are known as harmonics. It is only possible to make the horn ring out beautifully if the pitch at which the lips choose to “sing” exactly matches that of one of the harmonics the horn allows. The particular array of these harmonics is entirely dependent on the length of the instrument, from its mouthpiece to the its final bell flare, which can be varied in the modern horn by the use of its four valves. These are simple devices, operated by the left hand, which in various combinations enable the length of the instrument to be changed instantly. The tension of the lips, and several other physical variables of breath and mouth which are too complex to describe here, must be set exactly right to blow any particular harmonic or there will be a disagreement between the intention of the player and what the horn “wants” to do. The player must know exactly where, in “pitch space”, the required harmonics lie in order to have any chance of finding them quickly. The dreadful sound resulting from inaccuracy in this respect is commonly known as a “split note” and a player who does this regularly will not last long in any of the better orchestras. Pitching horn notes accurately, then, is somewhat analogous to archery – any single good note being the equivalent of a hitting bulls-eye from several fields away in thick fog and high winds. The livelihood of the modern horn player depends on a very high degree of accuracy.

Apart from being notoriously difficult, horn technique is also a very hidden discipline. It is impossible to see what is going on from the outside. The mouthpiece (2) completely obscures that part of the mouth which a horn teacher would like to observe in order to “see” evidence of poor technique. There are a variety of subtle ways in which the lips can be doing things badly but, generally speaking, these can only be spotted if the teacher has had some past experience of working through the same, or similar, problem and thus can somehow sense from a range of clues, intuition and guesswork what is going wrong. Once such a problem has been discovered it is often quite easy to find a fix for it, the diagnosis being the most difficult part.

When investigating such subtle problems I try to involve the student as much as possible in the processes of analysis and subsequent experimentation to find solutions. My first step is to get them to see, hear and feel the problem – a process which can be surprisingly difficult. Fixed habits of seeing, hearing and feeling can be very strong; often to the point of self delusion. Who has not been surprised, or appalled, at the sound of their own recorded voice? What we self-observe as we actually carry out a complex task such as walking, speaking or playing an instrument is usually very different to what we see if we observe the same thing retrospectively (3). An obvious solution, then, would seem to lie in the students using recordings or videos of themselves playing. However, while this can be helpful occasionally, it is not something that ought often to be relied upon because not only does it slow down valuable practise time but, more significantly, it discourages development of one of the most important skills in horn playing, namely, accurate self-observation in real time. It is of course much better to learn to hear the truth precisely, as it is happening, with one’s own finely tuned perception. Acquisition of this skill can be a painful process because the truth sometimes hurts.

In order for the student to gain an accurate impression of how they are playing they need to have as much accurate feedback as possible, both aural and visual. The visual aspect here is quite important because, as is the case with musical performers of all descriptions, poor habits of posture if left unnoticed can exert a deleterious influence on the final musical result. To this end I may, for example, set up a mirror so that the student can see, at least superficially, what some of their visible playing musculature is doing, or indeed how some of what ought to be their non-playing musculature may be interfering. I might then give them a very simple exercise to work on, perhaps in the form of one single note, so they can hear without too much complication, and encourage them to listen with an intense focus of awareness.

If this kind of feedback is not developed a horn player’s imagination tends to fill in any obvious gaps in understanding by creating mental pictures of what they think they do when they play. Such fantasies can be quite inaccurate and when used as a basis for further exercise, or even in the teaching of others, can be quite disastrous. An example of this is the commonly held belief among many brass players that the action of the tongue in contact with the roof of the mouth for the purpose of making notes start firmly is comparable to the action of a hammer striking a percussion instrument, whereas, in actual fact, the tongue in this context functions more like a valve which opens to let the breath flow or closes to stop it. It is easy to see that designing exercises to develop tongue co-ordination based on such misunderstandings of underlying physical functions will not be the most efficient way to train. Given better feedback, it is possible to avoid this and other forms of self-deception.

Deceptions of fantasy and imagination are not confined only to the realm of how a player perceives the mechanical “doing” of their technique, but extend also to how they perceive the results of their playing – how they listen. There seem to be two forms of this – the first concerning the musical building blocks, individual notes, while the second concerns musical phrases. These compare well to the pronunciation of individual words and the meaning of sentences in spoken languages. The quality of individual notes, as heard in the practice room, should be, but is often not, studied through a cultivated awareness of comparisons between the carefully monitored input to the instrument and the exact resulting sound output. Having good acoustics in the practice room is very helpful here, but the specific requirement is quite the reverse of the rich resonant reverberation so desirable in a concert hall. I deliberately make my teaching room acoustically “dry” because in such a room it is possible to hear details of sound analytically. This is the kind of acoustic most horn players would describe as “unflattering”, because a dry acoustic reveals even the tiniest of imperfections whereas a reverberant one tends to hide them. The abundant sound reflections found in reverberant rooms, although very satisfying for the player because of the complexity and richness they add to the sound, divert the ear from a true picture of what is emerging from the instrument. Without clear aural feedback it is very difficult to develop the production of really fine individual notes.

With musical phrases, there is a tendency to hear one’s musical intention rather than the actuality. This is not surprising; if a beginner were able only to hear an objective version of their music, un-enhanced by their imagination, they would probably give up before long (this might have something to do with why it is that instruments seem easier to learn when young – while one’s imagination is still believable!) To break free from dependence on teachers, in this respect, the student must work on refining their objectivity of listening.

Instrumental teachers preparing those at school level for entrance to a conservatoire are often excellent in many respects. They may inspire a love of music and enthusiasm for the instrument while nurturing the growth of good basic playing abilities. However, not generally being performers of an exceptionally high playing ability, they will most likely not have passed on an understanding of the intense level of self-awareness which is needed to refine horn technique up to a modern professional standard. Later, when the horn student begins study at the conservatoire the deepening of introspective self-awareness needed to take horn technique up to a higher level can come as something of a surprise.

While it is obviously the case that horn players need skilled tuition to accomplish the basic technical and musical skills which comprise horn playing at beginner or intermediate levels, there comes a time when in order to progress the horn player must go it alone to a large extent. One of the reasons it is so important for a conservatoire-level horn student to develop self-teaching, particularly of refined technical details at a high level, is because of the near-impossibility of such refinements being taught to them by anyone else. Indeed, many of the established horn players with whom I have discussed this issue feel themselves to have been largely self-taught, particularly at the higher level, despite having spent many years studying at a conservatoire. No teacher, apart from oneself, has the sensory feedback available to make really clear and accurate judgements about precisely what is happening during the process of playing the instrument. Thus, any teaching of the finer points of breath and lip control, apart from self-teaching, can be based on little more than intuitive guesswork.

Interestingly, most of the subtle skills of listening needed for effective horn teaching are exactly the same as those learned directly from the experience of monitoring oneself in learning to play. Indeed, I would argue that a teacher without the experience of successful self-teaching would find it virtually impossible to pass on anything of real technical value to high level students.

I have talked mainly about technique in this chapter and have said that horn playing is very technique intensive. While this is true, I must now redress the balance by saying that from the point of view of the listening audience, whose primary requirement is for a musical experience, the intricacies of horn technique are of no interest whatever. Naturally, there is a need for excellent technique in performance, but one of the dangers in emphasising the importance of technique is the possibility of ignoring the development of a “feel” for music, so-called “musicality”, or of neglecting aspects of style and phrasing. Music is a language which, like any other, can only be learned by immersing oneself in it and by nurturing a love of it.

It should be borne in mind by those who study technically demanding instruments that the musical notations we are trained to read and to translate into delightfully complex vibrations of the air are merely bare sketches – the bone structures of composed music. Composers have always written for musicians knowing that they will flesh out this basic notated structure and add musical meaning to it, add life to it, interpret it, in the same way a reciter of poetry will not simply say the words in a dull, mechanical monotone but animate and phrase them into a meaningfully expressive vocal line. Sadly, it is not as uncommon among horn players as one might expect to hear performances devoid of any communicative musical qualities. It can seem as though the performer is too busy “doing” the playing to take much notice of the results, leaving the audience with nothing more to listen to than the technique of the player. This is a very bad situation because if the technique is perfect, and thus invisible, there will be nothing of interest to listen to, whereas if the technique is gritty with imperfections the attention of the audience will fall hungrily upon it and tear it apart.

For students of music, then, instrumental technique, however awesomely difficult, is only the beginning. Technique should never be an end in itself but a means to an end, the ultimate “end” being a communicative performance of music charged with magic to move the listener.

___________________________________________

Footnotes:

1) The “horn” in this essay is the modern French Horn. It is simply a long tube, looped several times, with a narrow end through which it is blown and a flared end from which a variety of sounds emerge. It commonly has four valves which are used to vary its length so that it is capable of playing every note within a range of at least four octaves.

2) This is a little metal funnel which is placed over the central part of the lips and channels the outflowing breath into the narrow entrance of the instrument. Where the mouthpiece covers the lips it obscures a circle approximately one inch in diameter. A glass mouthpiece would seem a sensible solution to this problem were it not for the distorting refraction of the glass in addition to a tendency for it to steam up whenever blown rendering the lip aperture once again invisible.

3) Along with many other musicians, I am indebted here to the work of F. M. Alexander, a pioneer, and teacher of, this form of self observation. He became famous for developing his sophisticated “Alexander Technique” , a method which teaches the recognition, and subsequent re-training of , habitually inaccurate self observation, neural motivation and physical execution of complex physical actions.


Life, the Horn and Everything.

Knotted Horn, by Emily

KNOTTED HORN, BY EMILY

Life, the Horn and Everything.

(First published in The Horn Magazine, Vol.3 No.1 Winter 1995.)

Who says rehearsals are boring? I discovered a wonderful thing the other day, during some bars rest. If I cover my right nostril with one finger, put the mouthpiece of my horn to my left nostril and inhale vigorously a note sounds, as if by magic, from the bell – and my musician colleagues tell me it sounds better than when I play in the more traditional manner. I am a freelance horn player, which essentially means that I haven’t got a job or, if you prefer, that I am self-employed. I play with many different orchestras, chamber orchestras, brass groups, wind quintets, contemporary music ensembles, in concerts, shows, and recording sessions. It’s a very mixed diet, and I love it.

The lifestyle which such a varied work schedule entails is essentially chaotic and probably not to every horn player’s taste but I have been doing it for some sixteen years now and have no intention of changing to an easier job such as brain surgeon or astrophysicist.

Lately, as a dep. I have been performing some contemporary music with those specialists, the London Sinfonietta, an orchestra once described by a critic as the musical equivalent of the S.A.S. In a couple of works – one by Schnittke, another by Rostakov – there were parts for two horns and I had, paradoxically, by my side, the esteemed Raul Diaz – a very fine and versatile horn-player of Venezuelan origin. I say “paradoxically” and “versatile” because he is best known as a dazzling exponent of the hand-horn, and must be one of the few hornists in the world brave enough to attempt playing the lead part of Schumann’s Concertstuck on a genuine piston fox-frightener in F; yet there he was with me, still sane, in a warehouse somewhere near Waterloo Station navigating those horn-parts-from-hell with consummate skill, and apparently having no trouble pushing the new-fangled levers up and down in time with the music.

I am humbled by the obvious fact that his modern horn is much shinier, and more modern, than mine, and it doesn’t rattle when you shake it. It is one of those nice Holton/Tuckwell machines on which you get a choice of lead-pipes which can be swapped over in seconds by means of some exciting little hand-operated screws (I would suggest Velcro for an even quicker release). I had a go on it, tried out both the lead-pipes and was flabbergasted at the difference between them – not having expected to be able to detect any. I couldn’t actually see any difference, but in feel they were poles apart: one was great, the other was crap. Not for me, I’m afraid; choices like that scare me.

Most of the regular players in the London Sinfonietta are basically freelancers, who are lucky in that they have the assurance that they will get first call from the Sinfonietta’s fixer for any work requiring their particular instrument; they also qualify for the title of “principal ondes-martenot” or whatever it is they play – although “principal” is a somewhat redundant term in a band having basically only one of each instrument (apart from having two fiddles)- although it does effectively give the regulars a sense of belonging. Naturally, this almost-guarantee of regular work adds an element of security to what can be a precarious life for the freelancer. I know about this because I was the principal horn in the Sinfonietta from 1977 until 1986. I left and gave up playing altogether, suffering from “chronic squeaky gate syndrome”, a technical term for the dissipation and personality-disorder associated with a surfeit of contemporary music (which, to save ink, I shall from now on refer to as “schnitzel” – a word made up from the names Schnittke and Birtwistle, both famous living composers).

After I left, in a state of physical and moral corruption, the Sinfonietta upgraded its horn section to the solid and unwavering Michael Thompson, whom I predict will be there for a good while yet as he has a much healthier attitude to his schnitzel than I ever did, taking plenty of time off to pursue less damaging forms of self-expression. Like Raul’s horn, his also seems much shinier than mine.

When you play a lot of schnitzel you get called upon to make some pretty freaky noises. For example, there was one bit, in the Rostakov, where Raul and I each had to double-stop, that is simultaneously to play and sing, in low fifths, though not the same fifths and not quite at the same time; good fun to attempt, we found, but quite difficult to judge for ourselves the effectiveness of our efforts because of severe in-head vibration and in-throat turbulence. This turbulence is caused by interference patterns between the sung and the played notes and immediately turns one’s brain to slush. However, judging by the peals of laughter from our colleagues, the effect does convey some emotional nuance, which is, after all, what music is all about, even schnitzel. I have two concerns about this:
1. I wonder what the M.U. think about the two horn-player’s fees saved by this economical composing device.
2. that it is politically incorrect for composers to write horn-parts which cannot be played/sung by female horn players due to the lowness of the written vocal range.

As I was saying, I turned my back on schnitzel, gave up the horn, and the Sinfonietta, and decided to complete my training as a teacher of the Alexander Technique, with the intention of teaching it for a living. This I did and thereby managed not to play the horn for one whole liberating year. Then one day something in me cracked and I found myself under the bed, hurriedly dragging out the dust-covered horn-case. With trembling hands I undid the catches, took out my corroding old appliance, kissed it and blew a few notes. Whether it was due to a momentary madness or a combination of distorted sensory appreciation then and false-memory syndrome now, or some other trick the mind can play upon itself, I do not know, but those few notes were the sweetest I ever heard me play – a sweetness lasting approximately one and a half minutes. Then, as we say, my chops went. After that memorable day, when my spirits soared then crashed, it took six months of hard work to get my sound, stamina and confidence back. I can recommend it to anyone. From now I was playing the horn because I had decided to; in effect I had taken over total possession of my career. This claim requires some explanation: from the age of nine, when I started playing the horn, my parents, to whom I am infinitely grateful, had given me every possible encouragement; from sitting with me year after year helping me practice to living a life of frugality and self-denial in order to afford expensive instruments for me – first a Calison compensator, then a Hans Hoyer double, then my treasured Alexander 103 in gold-brass which I have used exclusively for twenty years. I would not wish to change anything about these early years but it did mean that to some extent I played the horn to please Mum and Dad, even later on as a professional. It was not until I gave up playing that I realised what a large emotional investment they must have had in my continuing career as a horn-player, and what a terrible wrench it must have been for them when, in essence, I threw the whole thing back in their faces, like a belated adolescent rebellion. They didn’t criticise me at the time, for which I am retrospectively grateful, but they can only have been very upset and hurt by what must have seemed to them examples of perfect stupidity and ingratitude in the throwing away of something of great value.

Of course to me, it didn’t and still doesn’t look like that. I had had enough of the horn, I was free to stop it if I wanted – so I did. And when I say that it enabled me to take over total possession of my horn-playing, and that I would recommend it to anyone, I mean that from when I started up again it was all mine and I really felt that quite deeply. It was a fresh start, a clean slate, without which I would not now, seven years on, be feeling so enthusiastic, delighted and smug about being a horn player. The reason I write here about the minutiae of this distant part of my life is not simply to encourage professional suicide among my colleagues, but also to open up some debate on the subject of what, apart from money, motivates us in our struggle with the instrument, what encourages us, the various effects of parental involvement, emotional or financial.

©1997 Pip Eastop

 


Some Ins and Outs of Breathing

Opening up the can of worms.

Many wind players do very well with no thoughts at all about breathing, and there are plenty of others who do rather well despite adhering to completely absurd theories. There is much argument and confusion about the best way of using our internal bellows equipment for the purpose of powering the vibration of air within a resonant tube in musically effective ways. With this article I aim to add yet more confusion with the perhaps unusual idea of explaining some facts, rather than handed-down opinions, about how our breathing apparatus actually works.

This article can be approached in two ways, either just out of interest, or in order to work on breathing in a serious analytical way, in which latter case it should be said that one’s habitually used breathing pattern is extremely difficult to change and perhaps should not be undertaken lightly. What is written here may provoke a careful rethinking of breathing method and care must be taken that whatever changes made must bring about a genuine improvement or be abandoned.

I should stress that this article is mainly intended for those who are knowingly confused about breathing. Anyone not so confused, or who believes that it might be somehow interfering, dangerous and damaging to think too much about the bodily mechanics of something so “natural” might be better off not reading it. After all, why mess about with something which has not yet started causing problems? On the other hand, an exploratory foray into new ways of looking at breathing cannot do too much harm and may even unlock some extra potential, as it has done in my case.

Challenging the Standard Model.

In my experience, nearly all wind players and teachers say something like, “blowing from the diaphragm”, whenever they talk about breath control. Given the fact that the diaphragm can only draw air into the body this makes about as much sense as, for example “singing from the ears”. To add to the confusion, while saying it, they will happily pat their bellies revealing a mistaken belief that this is the area of the body in which the diaphragm can be found. This is quite wrong. As you will see, the diaphragm is much higher up than we easily missled wind-players have been happy to believe.

There are some established anatomical and physiological facts which we could make use of if we were not so entrenched in traditional, imprecise ideas about breathing method. Those of us with incorrect or unhelpful ideas were usually handed them by our teachers, who got their ideas from their teachers in the previous generation, and so on back into history. One of the reasons why these, what might be called folk-theories, persist so strongly is that in practice they often work, simply in terms of getting oneself or a student to play something a bit better. However, because they are mostly based on incorrect physiology (the study of how the body works), they are often not useful outside the specific context for which they were thought up and can cause difficulties and confusion when applied to other things. The “if it works, use it” theory is fine up to a point, but the problem with sticking to what works rather than seeking an understanding of why and how it works, is that on occasions when it doesn’t work, one has no deeper understanding to turn to for solving problems. One is then left with the, “if it doesn’t work use it anyway” approach, with which most of us are probably familiar.

My interest in all this was sparked by my surprise on discovering, during my three years of Alexander Technique teacher-training, that the muscle known as the diaphragm is not the one that we use to blow air into a wind instrument. Now, if you remember just one thing from reading this article, please make it the following: THE DIAPHRAGM IS A MUSCLE OF INSPIRATION, i.e. of sucking air in, not blowing it out. This will come as a big surprise to many, and some perhaps will not wish to know – but it is certainly true.

There follows some simple anatomy and physiology and a few drawings to  help in building up a mental picture. Please note that the arrows are to show the direction of movement at the start of the in-breath.

What and where is the diaphragm.

The diaphragm is the principal muscle of inspiration – that is to say, of the drawing in of air, or inhalation. Broadly speaking, it is a thin sheet of domed muscle which when viewed from above (see fig.1) is kidney (or cardiod) shaped in outline and which has the ability to contract between its edges and its centre. Its centre lies horizontally across the body dividing the trunk into two compartments: the thorax (the chest) and the abdomen (the belly) (see fig. 2). The thorax contains the heart and lungs while the abdomen contains all the organs of digestion. The sides and back of the diaphragm, as it curves down to attach to the lower rim of the rib cage, become very steep, almost vertical (see fig. 3), so that the liver and the stomach are more or less contained within the dome and are thus given some protection by protruding some way up inside the bony rib cage.

The heart sits behind the sternum high up on top of the centre of the diaphragm (see dotted outline in figs. 2 and 3) and is surrounded on either side and above by the lungs. Together the heart and lungs fill most of the space within the rib cage.

At the front, the outer edge of the diaphragm is attached to the inside of the sternum in the centre of the chest. From here, all the way around the sides to the spine the lower, outer edge of the diaphragm is attaabched to the inside of the lower rim of the rib cage. At the back some of the muscle fibres of the diaphragm gather into several powerfully contractile bundles, called crura , which reach down and attach onto the front of the chunky vertebral bones in the lower back (see fig.1). This gives the rearmost part of the diaphragm a firm anchorage from which it can pull itself down with great strength.

As with all muscles, contraction and relaxation of the diaphragm is controlled by nerves “wired¨ into it. When enervated into a contraction the diaphragm shrinks powerfully along the direction of its muscle fibres with the effect that, in the first phase of its action, it pulls the centre of itself downwards, stretching the heart and lungs down with it. Besides causing an expansion of the lungs, this makes the contents of the abdomen below move downwards and forwards, a displacement which is accommodated by the yielding abdominal-wall muscles as they relax and bulge out to the front and sides, giving more internal volume.

It is impossible to feel one’s diaphragm but ballooning out the belly (without arching the lower back) is a good way of indirectly showing its effects, as there is no other muscle apart from the diaphragm which can cause this to happen.

The lungs inside the ribcage.

As mentioned, high within the rib cage lie the lungs. It is very important to understand that during inhalation air is drawn into the lungs and only the lungs; i.e. it goes high in the chest and definitely does not pass below the level of the diaphragm.

The lungs are like elastic sponges covered with a thin outer membrane. Between this membrane and the inner surface of the chest cavity (which includes the upper surface of the diaphragm) is a thin film of fluid which ensures an airtight seal, and therefore adhesion, between the two surfaces. The effect of this adhesion is that the size of the lungs directly follows the expansion and contraction of the rib cage. The lungs must be expanded to draw air in, and squeezed smaller to blow it back out again. To achieve this they are made to change their size in two ways: 1. by being stretched downwards with the lowering of the diaphragm and 2. by being drawn outwards and upwards by the expansion of the rib cage. As I will show, the diaphragm alone can do all of this.

The rib cage is a sprung flexible basket-like structure made up of pairs of ribs which, at the back, are attached by articulated joints to each side of the spine and, at the front, to the sternum. Each individual rib (apart from the four lowest “floating” ribs) is exquisitely shaped and curved along its length so that when hinged up or down it contributes to an overall enlargement, in all three dimensions, of the rib cage as a whole which thus expands from front to back, from side to side and from top to bottom. Because of the diaphragm’s ability to lift the ribcage it increases the volume of the lungs not only by stretching them downwards but by expanding them outwards and upwards as well.

In addition to the effects of the diaphragm acting on the rib cage, there are other muscles which contribute to its expansion or contraction. None of these, however, are capable of expanding the lungs downwards; only the diaphragm can do this.

Those muscles whose contractions act to raise the rib cage, thus expanding the lungs, assist in inspiration. Apart from the diaphragm they include the scalenes (six strap-like muscles which from high in the neck pull up on the highest pairs of ribs) and the external intercostals (upward-pulling muscles woven in between the ribs). In forced breathing yet more muscles join in, even some back muscles – any which can exert some upward pull on the ribs. Muscles which act to lower the rib cage, thus contracting the lungs, assist in expiration. They include the internal intercostals (downward-pulling muscles between the ribs) and the several layers of abdominal wall muscle.

From here on I will refer to this layered group simply as the abdominal muscles.

During forced exhalation, i.e. long sustained fortissimo passages, even the latissimus dorsi, muscles of the arms and back, are brought in to help with the squeeze.

Postural considerations.

To permit the rib cage its maximum range of expansion and contraction and so to give those muscles that elevate the ribs an optimum chance of doing their job, there are two postural considerations. First, the spine must be reasonably straight and erect. Second, the head must be high up on top of the spine balanced on a relaxed and free neck. With these two conditions satisfied the ribs are well spaced and the muscles which move them, particularly the previously mentioned scalenes, have a chance, which otherwise they would not, of helping to lift and thus expand the rib cage.

Muscles in opposition – antagonism.

The vast majority of muscles or groups of muscles in the body, are arranged antagonistically, in balanced opposing pairs. To illustrate the principle, a good example is found around the jaw, where one muscle group has the job of pulling the mouth open and another has the job of pulling it shut. Normally, one group will relax to let the other group do its work unhindered, but there are circumstances when both muscle groups will deliberately oppose each other to stabilise or regulate each other’s action. In the case of the jaw, for example, this happens when something fragile, perhaps a small egg, is held lightly but securely between the teeth.

Opposing and balancing the action of the diaphragm in just this way, is the abdominal wall. Like the diaphragm, it is in the form of a sheet although the abdominal wall is in several layers. Understanding the way the abdominal muscles work in relation to the diaphragm is a key to a clearer picture of the way breathing works for wind players. But please remember: put in the simplest language, the diaphragm sucks and the abdominal muscle blows!

The abdominal muscles.

The very powerful abdominal muscles form the belly by enwrapping the abdomen between the underside of the rib cage and the pelvis. At the front they extend all the way from the sternum down to the pubic bone, and at the sides from the lower extremity of the rib cage to the top edges of the hip bones (upper parts of the pelvis). They extend around to the back as far as each side of the lumbar spine.

Unlike the diaphragm it is easy to feel the state of tension of the abdominal muscles with one’s fingers. Relax your belly, gently push a few fingertips into it and give a little cough. If you try to cough, i.e. to push out the breath against the resistance of the glottis which suddenly opens, you will discover that it is most unquestionably the contraction of abdominal muscle which propel the air out of you.

The interplay between the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles.

The activity of the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles, as an opposed pair, varies reciprocally. Thus, during inhalation the muscle tension of diaphragm increases while that of the abdominal muscles decreases; and vice-versa during exhalation.

During inhalation, by the time the diaphragm has pushed the contents of the abdomen a good way down and out, into the accommodating, bulging but relaxed abdominal muscles, to the point where resistance occurs, the abdominal contents have become firmly enough compressed to make a firm base upon which the diaphragm can begin its second phase of action: it continues to contract and by bracing down against the compressed viscera (held in check by abdominal muscles) begins to elevate and expand the entire rib cage by lifting it upwards.

With one palm spread lightly over your sternum and the other over your belly it should be possible to detect these two distinct, though overlapping, phases – first the expansion of the belly, then the expansion of the chest. It is worth persevering with this kind of self exploration to learn recognition and control of the expansion/contraction of the chest and belly – both independently and separately. When doing this remember the importance of a good, upright, relaxed posture and notice how difficult it is to get a substantial chest expansion without the head balanced high on top of the spine.

Full compression, or distention of the abdominal contents, or the moment during inspiration at which the abdominal muscle begins to resist the diaphragm’s downward pull, marks the point at which the effect of the contracting diaphragm changes from that of further pushing out the belly, thus lengthening the lungs downwards, to that of raising the ribcage and thus expanding the lungs outwards in all other directions.

While drawing air in, in preparation to play, it is best not to oppose the descent of the diaphragm by any contraction of the abdominal wall because if the abdominal muscle does not balloon out enough during inhalation it is likely that it will “power-up”, at the beginning of a note or a phrase, in what may be described as a pre-contracted state. It is actually quite common for the abdominal muscles of individuals confused about breathing to be already half way through their range of movement, and thus a largely spent force, before even starting to supply the power needed to play something. In such a case much unnecessary tension will build up during playing – felt most intensely in the solar plexus area – and a “tremor” in the sound is a likely result.

It is well worth experimenting with this to get the feel of what is happening. Take a full breath, expanding mainly around the chest, without much belly expansion, then play a long loud note, keeping the chest high and relatively expanded throughout. This keeps the lungs in a high position. Towards the end of the note an increase in belly tension will probably be felt as it tries with difficulty to assist in the evacuation of air from the lungs, and a fast irregular tremor might be heard. If this is a familiar feeling then some remedial work is needed.

The elasticity of the rib cage.

The resting size of the chest is roughly half way between its most expanded and its most contracted states. From hereon I will refer to this as the midpoint.

When the chest is stretched open to capacity, with the lungs (which are also elastic) full of air, it will tend to recoil, causing a sigh, back to its midpoint if the diaphragm, along with the other muscles of deep inspiration, suddenly relaxes. Similarly, when the chest is contracted as far as possible, i.e. the lungs emptied, it will tend to spring back to its midpoint, causing a gentle inhalation, or an anti-sigh, when the muscles of expiration finish doing their work and relax. As it is, this elastic recoil is not a great deal of use to the wind player as the air flow it produces is quite weak and rapidly diminishes in power, like a rubber band unwinding, as it goes through its range of movement.

Discovering the synergistic interplay between the diaphragm and the abdominal muscle.

Breathe in deeply, then suddenly release the muscles of inhalation to let, but not push, all the air out very quickly – as in a big sigh – until the chest, powered only by its elasticity, returns to the midpoint. You can also try the opposite of this: from the midpoint begin to exhale deeply until the lungs are empty and no more air can be squeezed out. Then suddenly relax the contractions and let a natural rapid elastic inhalation occur, taking you back to the midpoint.

Next, inhale deeply as before, then start to let it out very slowly. What happens now is that you will naturally “brake” your exhaling using the diaphragm to hold back the chest from contracting too rapidly, as it did in the elastic release/sigh of the previous paragraph. (Please note: to make sure that it is your diaphragm, and not the glottis doing the braking, keep the outflow of air from the mouth absolutely silent. If you use the glottis as your “brake” you will produce the sound of a whispered “ah”).

All wind-players must use the diaphragm as a brake in this way while playing any stable continuous tone. The abdominal muscles need the support and steadying opposition of the diaphragm in order to maintain an unchanging controlled outflow of air.

The outwardly visible signs of good breathing technique.

When taking a deep breath to play, the main thing that should happen at first is that the belly should swell out to the front and sides (a little widening of the rib cage here is inevitable and should not be resisted). As the belly nears its maximum ballooning the rib cage should then become more involved by expanding outwards and upwards. During this the sternum should move forwards and up while the width of the rib cage, from one armpit to the other, increases. The shoulders will lift slightly, pushed up from underneath by the rib cage, not pulled up by the shoulder muscles above. Care must be taken not to raise them any more than the rib cage needs as this will cause chronic shoulder tension.

At the start of playing, for example, a long phrase at a medium volume the belly should be remain ballooned out to the front and sides while the chest comes down, losing its expansion. The lowering of the chest should gradually hand over to a tightening and contracting of the belly until the end of the breath. This trick is to keep the belly ballooned for as long as is comfortable by means of some diaphragm opposition.

Even simpler directions for breathing.

Having worked through all of this in detail we now need a nice simple way of checking if we are doing it right. Luckily there is a reference against which all of us can check and compare our breathing. It is an instinctive way of producing a perfectly co-ordinated, full and deep inspiration, which accomplishes everything to do with the in-breath covered in this writing and is immune to any interference by our conscious thoughts. It is yawning – our own private, marvellous, teacher.

To learn from the yawn it is useful be very sleepy and to stand naked, at least down to the waist, in front of a full-length mirror. Observe the order of events and all the following things that happen during a delicious yawn:

  • Feel the belly balloon forward as the diaphragm heaves itself downwards.
  • Notice how the back is pulled up into a straighter position (mostly by the crura of the diaphragm – refer to part 1 for illustration) and how the head is moved up onto the top of the spine into the ideal position described earlier.
  • Notice how this then allows the chest to be filled and massively expanded – with the sternum coming forwards and upwards (just like we were all taught not to).
  • Notice how good it feels!

This is all very well but…

Having spent all this time wittering on about the mechanics of respiration, I feel strongly moved now to put things clearly into perspective by reminding myself and readers that we are, or should be, in the business of making music; something which is on an altogether different plane from the simple mechanics I have been outlining here. Thus it should be held in mind, by all wind players, that developing good habits of breathing, or good habits in any aspect of instrumental technique, is a means to an end and not an end in itself.

©1997 Pip Eastop


My Small Organ

My Small Organ.

(first published in The Horn Magazine – Vol 3, No. 2 Summer 1995)

 

The way I play the horn has been greatly influenced a by a small organ in my lower back – my right kidney. It first started causing me grief and pain when I was fourteen, on a residential course with the National Youth Orchestra. I woke up at half past three one morning with an awful incapacitating pain in my lower back. I had been sleeping in a draughty dormitory on a canvas camp bed so at first I imagined that the pain was somehow brought on by that. By mid-morning, pale and enfeebled with pain, I was sent to be examined by Sister Body, the medically trained member of staff, who made an immediate diagnosis of Scrofula and gave me three oranges and three small bottles of concentrated orange juice, all for immediate consumption. Despite my scepticism this citrus-deluge-therapy seemed to do the trick and I was back in the horn section within a few hours, jumping through Lutoslavski’s flaming hoops.

Unfortunately, the problem didn’t stop there and a month or two later I suffered another attack of the same pain, which this time lasted for a few days. My G.P., noting that the pain was in the area of my right kidney, took a urine sample and later felt able to tell my parents that nothing was wrong with my kidneys and that I should pull my socks up and get some exercise. >From then on the problem got worse with attacks on average about ten times each year, each lasting typically five or six days. The pain of this backache was intense, to say the least; I could not eat, I could hardly face drinking anything and I could not ignore the pain even enough to watch TV. These intermittent attacks went on for fifteen years, during which time I was confident, because the doctor had said so, that the pain coming from the area of my right kidney was not actually indicating anything wrong with that particular organ.

Why am I telling you all this? Partly, I admit, to generate sympathy for my years of dreadful suffering, but also because it was this pain which led me, indirectly, to some fairly important work on the way I play the horn.

A pain free future.

To continue: eventually, someone had the common-sense to take me to a hospital casualty department where I was given a wonderful shot of Pethedine which sent the pain off down a long corridor to bother someone else. I was examined with an ultrasound scanner and it became apparent that I had a blocked and bulging right kidney. They told me it was a recognised congenital condition and that it could be fixed up by some fairly routine surgery. After having been through fifteen years of perplexity in trying to fathom the cause of all this pain, the relief at being told, and even shown on a screen, exactly what was causing it all was enormous and I felt a surge of joy and excitement at the prospect of a pain-free future. This confused the scanner operator who was used to patients being very upset when told of massive internal malfunctions.

Seven years in a Tibetan Monastery.

In seeking an end to my suffering, during the fifteen years leading up to the Great Kidney Discovery, I did the rounds of all the available alternative therapies: I put myself through years of self denial on a stone-age Japanese ‘Macrobiotic’ diet; I sought initiation into the ascetic secrets of yoga and Tai Chi; I visited several different homeopaths, a chiropractor, at least six different osteopaths (including a cranial one), a Chinese herbalist, several yoga teachers, a couple of acupuncturists, numerous masseurs, a reflexologist, an iridologist, several spiritual healers, a herbalist (and some would have it that I spent seven years in a Tibetan monastery, although I cannot confirm this). This army of willing helpers had three things in common:

1) They all thought they knew what the problem was and gave me several sessions of their appropriate treatment.

2) They all took plenty of money from me.

3) None of their treatments cured, or even made the slightest difference, to my backache. Understandably, such total failure has left me with an extremely low, verging on bitter, opinion of all the so-called holistic, alternative, complimentary health mumbo-jumbo techniques. In future I’ll take my chances with a bottle of brandy and a hacksaw.

At one point somebody suggested I try the Alexander Technique, so I read a couple of books on the subject and proceeded to take some lessons. It is usually taught individually in a one-to-one situation, but I was lucky enough get a place on an introductory residential course taken by Don Burton, a pioneer in group teaching of the Alexander Technique. It seemed as though at last I had found something which had a beneficial effect. Don’s inspired work and its profound effect on my breathing, the way I moved, my posture and inevitably my horn playing, led me to the decision to train as an Alexander teacher myself, this seeming to be the best way to explore the Technique as deeply as possible. Many books are now available on the subject and, for anyone interested, these will provide the best introduction to an understanding of the Alexander Technique. However, a brief outline here may be useful:

The Alexander Technique – a brief outline.

Nearly everyone has muscles or groups of muscles in their body which are habitually clenched or at least held under more tension than is really necessary. There are various causes of this, the most obvious being the mimicking of role models with poor habits of posture and movement parents, pop stars, Rambo, Norman Fowler etc.) and chronic muscle-knotting through fear. Over a long period of time this misuse of one’s muscles leads to a distorted posture, to idiosyncratic styles of walking, and to inefficient breathing. These conditions usually become more entrenched with age and eventually lead towards physical deterioration. Broadly speaking, the Alexander Technique provides a sensible way out of these harmful tensions, and thereby prevents the associated long term ills. A particularly favoured area of focus for the various mental visualisations (known as ‘directions’ in Alexander Technique jargon), is the neck, which is of great importance, posturally, because of its crucial job in carrying the head.

Having triumphed over his own detrimental habits of posture and movement (known by the noun, ‘use’, in Alexander Technique jargon), saving his career in recitation in the process, Alexander developed a gentle but persuasive way of using his hands to teach better use and found that he could bring about long term improvements in the posture and movement of those who sought his help. His revolutionary style of body work gradually became known as the Alexander Technique.

To put it simply, the idea is that by reminding your body over and over again to lengthen and widen, rather than to shorten and narrow, you will undo existing tensions and not simply replace them with new ones. Given time this can change ingrained habits and improve posture and styles of movement.

It is not a therapy in the sense of it being a treatment given by a therapist. It is learned from a teacher and then used, with occasional ‘top-up’ lessons, from then on to help keep your body structure in good order. The only trouble is that it can work out to be rather expensive.

Teaching the Alexander Technique for four years gave me some interesting insights into how it works better for some people than others. It depends on a particular quality of attention. For example, it was always very clear to me that instrumentalists were able to pick up and apply to themselves the principles of the Technique more effectively than could non-musicians. I think this must be because there are clear parallels between learning the Technique and learning to play an instrument so, in a sense, instrumentalists have a head-start. In playing any instrument, whether wind, string or percussion, the best sounding tone you can get is when your body has learned how to work in co-operation with the instrument, not by oppressing it or forcing it – something that instrumentalists learn naturally as they go along. So it is with the Technique, which in a sense is a series of lessons in how to play one’s body to get the best array of muscle tone – analogous to striving for the best sound tone when playing an instrument.

Other people quick to pick up the subtleties of the Technique were those motivated, as I had been, by pain. It always seemed to me that these people were the most attentive during lessons and the ones who thought about it and worked on themselves the hardest between lessons. To stretch further the parallel with learning an instrument, it should be understood that work on the Alexander Technique is something requiring an enormous amount of concentrated inward-looking physical observation over a long period of time. It has to be so to penetrate and change such deep-rooted habits of basic movements as walking, breathing, speaking etc… The challenge set us by F.M. Alexander is to bring our previously unconscious habits out onto the brightly lit stage of our conscious minds and keep them there permanently while we work on them. This can never be an easy task.

During my three years of training, when I had lessons from at least fifty different Alexander teachers, I discovered that there are as many different interpretations of the Technique and ways of teaching it, as there are teachers of it. If, after you have done some further reading on the subject (in my opinion ‘required reading’ for any instrumentalist) you are tempted to try some lessons, it is a good idea to visit several different teachers before choosing one, as a successful outcome really depends on finding a teacher with whom communication and rapport is good.

After queuing up for my (very unpleasant) kidney operation the job was done and my lower back has since felt wonderfully comfortable. Without the kidney pain, which had provided my motivation for going so deeply into the Technique, I soon began to loose the keen edge of my interest in it and found increasing difficulty in teaching it wholeheartedly. Within a year I had given it all up and found myself again directing my energies at my horn playing – which had been profoundly changed by the foray into my alternative career as a teacher of the Alexander Technique.

The Ins and Outs of Breathing.

As part of the training course, while studying anatomy and physiology, I discovered some very interesting facts about breathing which I had not seen explained in any horn or brass tutor. As I intend in the near future to devote a whole article to explaining the ins and outs of breathing I will not go far into it here; suffice for now to say that the diaphragm is not located where the vast majority of wind players think it is and does not do what they think it does. In teaching the physiology of breathing to the brass students at the Royal Academy of Music I have found universal confusion about the simple mechanics of sucking in air and then blowing it out down a tube. As I say, all will be simply explained in a later article.

I had not been on the Alexander training course for long when I began to realise that, from a physiological point of view, playing the horn in the traditional manner puts some pretty unreasonable demands on the human body. For one thing a degree of flexibility in the rib cage is needed if a large capacity breath has to be taken. Sadly, a very effective way of hampering this is to hold out a heavy weight in front of the body, for example a French horn, so that the shoulder-blades have to be firmly anchored by muscles in the back, reducing the freedom of movement of the ribs. Something which nearly all of us do, leaning against a chair back while seated, although tempting and comfortable in the short term, encourages the lower part of the spine to curve outwards (the opposite way to its natural concavity) which assists in the drooping of the upper chest and the forward drift of the head. Pernicious postural habits acquired while practising in this collapsed posture are generally retained even when playing standing.

In order to breathe well and have easy control over large amounts of air, the rib cage needs some freedom to expand and contract. It can only do this properly if the whole back is kept reasonably straight, but not rigid, with the head balanced up on top of the spine, not stuck out in front. The reason for this is that the muscles which elevate the ribs originate in the skull and cannot do the job of lifting them if they are pulling from a position in front of the chest rather than from directly above it.

Pretty whacky

As a result of my discoveries I set myself the challenge of adapting my horn so that I could play it in a way which would satisfy all of the following criteria:

a) I should not have to support any of the weight of the instrument using my arms – so that I could keep my breathing as free as possible.

b) It should encourage me to sit upright with a straight back and my head balanced on the top of my spine – like a good Alexander person.

c) It should still fit into its case despite the extra attachments.

Now, after twelve years of development from the original design, I feel I have the gadget, the PipStick, more or less perfect. It is a single telescopically extendable leg attached by a couple of small removable brass plates to the centre of the underside of the horn. At the bottom of the leg is a curved bar which transfers comfortably the entire weight of the horn onto my right thigh about four inches from my knee-joint. All my arms have to do is keep the horn balanced on its leg while I play it. The height is simply adjustable by means of a couple of wing nuts and I generally leave it set quite high so that I have to sit with a straight back in order to reach the mouthpiece. In all the time I have been using it I have not once had an aching back or aching shoulders from playing. There is also a major, and totally unexpected benefit: while I am doing my daily practice I never have to put the instrument down to rest my arms and shoulders. Consequently I reckon I can do a whole hour of practice in only half an hour! Of course there are a few minor disadvantages:

a) if I want ever to play standing up (I don’t, but sometimes I am made to) I have to go into training weeks in advance.

b) It does not allow for an embouchure which pivots up and down. Luckily mine doesn’t.

c) I can’t give very good nods and leads in chamber music or musically wing my horn around while I play.

d) It looks pretty whacky (but only to other horn players).

Nowadays, despite these disadvantages I would never want to play without my gizmo – and I just can’t imagine how anyone can, or why they would want to.

© Pip Eastop 1995.