How Hot Cocoa is Teaching my Students to Breathe

February 1, 2019

For years I have tried every trick in the book to help students who are struggling to produce relaxed tones on trombone and euphonium. Whether infrequent and shallow nose-breaths create an unsupported sound or a strained, pinched embouchure makes it impossible to play in the upper register, it seems to me that the universal enemy of resonance is tension. No matter the struggle, correcting a flawed air stream always yields positive results. Yes, of course, fixing a mistake will make a student better. That is obvious. What is more interesting is the way my students are finally able to correct their mistakes.

For as long as I can remember, the trend in brass teaching has always been “big air,” “more air.” When I first began teaching, I used to tell my superhero-fan students to imagine they were the Incredible Hulk. “Hulk is a huge, crime fighting superhero. Do you think he takes tiny little breaths? No! Imagine you’re the Hulk and get as much air in as he would!” I’ve used the hot air balloon visualization, yawn concept, and explained the respiratory system but even those that seemed to make a difference turned out to be short lived. As soon as students focused on taking a deep breath, they became tense. This tension resulted in numerous performance issues including a strained tone, rigidity in the high register, and decreased flexibility. The tension that caused them to clamp down also permeated the way they articulated and stifled musicality because, without a sense of ease, it was hard for students to relax enough to allow their creative musical intuition to flow.

For this reason (after much research of the anatomy of breathing!), I decided that bigger was not better. Instead of focusing on the inhale, I had to change the way my students thought about the exhale. When they are using their air efficiently, the body naturally makes up for deficiencies. Since what goes out must come in, their focus on relaxed exhalation generated an autonomic inhale that was deep and relaxed. This is where the hot cocoa comes in. Aside from saying “Relax!”, which in reality does the opposite of its intended purpose, finding a way for students to internalize the concept of a relaxed inhalation seemed to be the natural next step. Therefore, I have students imagine themselves on a cold, winter day (which is easy to do since I teach in Rochester, NY) holding a steaming cup of cocoa. I then ask them what would happen if they blew as hard as they could into the cup. Usually, they humorously respond something like “Ouch, the cocoa splattered all over me!” So instead, we demonstrate the gentle, cooling breaths that comes so naturally to students because they have been cooling down food and drink in that manner for their whole life. By then translating a concept so easy for them to grasp to their instrument, the leap from imagination to execution is effortless.

The results have spoken for themselves. Without fail, the students who have tried this visualization concept create a more round and focused air stream. Students who lacked air support changed to a steady stream of air. Those whose tension created issues with tonal clarity and flexibility discovered that the relaxed stream made a noticeable difference. Many high register problems were instantly solved. I always told my students that there was no extra credit in the high range. If you work too hard, the note won’t speak. All of the sudden, they understood what I meant on a physical level and could relax their air stream so that the notes sounded. Over and over, this method has really worked. Now all that is left is to get a cup of cocoa to celebrate!