Pip Eastop, Horn player, Photographer, Trumpet player

Horn player, Photographer, Trumpet player

Pip Eastop, hornplayer, teacher, horn, trumpet, jazz, sessions, London, soloist, orchestral, improvisation etc....

Posts tagged “ribcage

Where is your diaphragm?

I know where mine is – and it’s nowhere near my belly. It goes above my stomach and my liver (they both tuck up under it, where it looks dark in the 2nd drawing) and my heart sits right on top of it, almost in the middle (the dotted line is the heart’s outline).

Surprised?

I’m going to be giving some tips here soon about some good ways to use the diaphragm – to actually get a hold of it and do something precise with it, specifically for playing brass instruments.

I hope you like my drawings!


The Diaphragm (book excerpt)

The following text is extracted from “The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments”

Edited by Trevor Herbert

The Open University, Milton Keynes, 1997

John Wallace

(ISBN-13: 9780521565226 | ISBN-10: 0521565227)

Reproduced here with the permission of Cambridge University Press.

The diaphragm (pages 201-203)

 
The diaphragm is the principal muscle of inspiration – of the drawing in of air, or inhalation. As with all muscles, contraction and relaxation of the diaphragm are controlled by nerves “wired” into it. When stimulated into a contraction, the diaphragm shrinks powerfully in its first phase of action, pulling its centre downwards, stretching the lungs down with it. Besides causing the lungs to expand, this displaces the contents of the abdomen below both downwards and forwards.

It is impossible to feel the diaphragm, but ballooning out the belly (without arching the lower back) is a good way of indirectly demonstrating its working, as there is no other muscle apart from the diaphragm which can cause this to happen. The size of the lungs, and thus the volume of air the contain, directly follows the expansion and contraction of the ribcage. In addition to the effects of the diaphragm acting on the ribcage, there are other muscles – the scalenes and the internal and external intercostal – which contribute to its expansion or contraction. None of these, however, are capable of expanding the lungs downwards; only the diaphragm can do this.

However, when it comes to expelling air, the most powerful and important group of muscles are the abdominal muscles. Unlike the diaphragm it is easy to feel the state of tension of the abdominal muscles with the fingers. Relaxing the belly, gently pushing the fingertips into it and giving a cough (pushing out the breath against the resistance of the glottis, and suddenly opening it) will demonstrate unquestionably that it is the contraction of abdominal muscle which propels the air out of the body.

There are some outwardly visible signs of good breathing technique. When the player takes a deep breath to play, the belly swells out to the front and sides (a little widening of the ribcage here is inevitable and should not be resisted). As the belly nears its maximum size the ribcage then becomes more involved, expanding outwards and upwards. During this, the sternum moves forwards and upwards, while the width of the ribcage, from one armpit to the other, increases. The shoulders lift slightly, pushed up from underneath by the ribcage, not pulled up by the should muscles above. Care must be taken not to raise them any more than the ribcage needs as this causes chronic shoulder tension.

The instinctive way of producing a perfectly co-ordinated, full and deep inspiration, which accomplished everything to do with the in-breath covered in this section and is immune to any interference by our conscious thoughts, is yawning.

It should be held in mind by all brass players, that developing good habits of breathing, or good habits in any aspect of instrumental technique, is a means to an end and not and end in itself.

The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments


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.