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  • Writer's pictureJason Bergman

Jump on the train!

Quite often starting a piece of music can be difficult. One solution that has helped my students and me is employing a musical breath.

On a fundamental level, a musical breath is more or less breathing in time.

As teachers, we frequently address breathing by saying something like, “take a deeper breath,” or “you are breathing too shallow.” Some students might find it an overwhelming mental challenge to merely start the note. Many times those comments are accurate and the student experiences are real, but I find that a possible cause of the problems teachers and students observe is a breath that is out of time, lazy, uncoordinated, or not musically related to what is about to come out of the trumpet.

In a previous post, I mention that in my opinion our sound is one of the top two primary aspects of playing the trumpet. The twin aspect to sound is musical expression. We need to always be focused on sound quality and phrasing, timbre and expression, and resonance and lyricism. They are intertwined and related on a fundamental level. A musical breath indicates that a performer is already engaged in the musical expression of a work before the first note begins. We are frequently encouraged to think, imagine, and hear the music flowing in our minds before we play. Musical breathing reinforces this positive approach.

It is as if the music represents a train in motion. The performer that is preparing to enter is like a horse-riding cowboy who is trying to jump onto the moving train. The cowboy needs to be traveling at the same speed so that he can "safely" board the train. If he isn't ready, he'll miss... It can be viewed in a similar way when starting or entering a piece of music. We don't want to be left behind.

I conceive of a musical breath like this. Depending on the tempo, fully inhale one or two beats in tempo before you play. The length/duration of the breath should be intentional and thought out. I often subdivide the tempo of that breath, especially in slower passages. In a fast tempo, one might find it more useful to breath over two or three beats. It’s important that the breath be fluid and natural. Do not hold the breath before releasing the note. It should be in-and-out in a smooth motion, much like a pendulum swinging back and forth on a large clock. There should be no hitch in the breath.

A musical breath reinforces good time. It is essential to play in time, especially when preparing orchestral excerpts. Breathing in time is one more way to reinforce the rock-solid time one needs to have.

I have found that musical breathing assists us in overcoming difficulty starting a note, tension, anxiety, and insufficient airflow. It improves sound quality, time, entrances, articulation, and musical expression.

I find this type of approach especially helpful with passages that don’t begin on a downbeat. For example, consider this passage above from Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben.

I frequently observe students initially trying to get their full breath on the 8th rest of beat two before the trumpet enters. Incorporating a musical breath, I find it much more helpful to begin by hearing the snare drum part in my mind (while subdividing eighth notes) and then initiating my inhalation on beat 3 of the measure before the trumpet entrance. I then get two full beats to get a full breath, and am much more comfortable with the entrance on the upbeat of 2. One can also get a similar benefit by breathing on the downbeat of 1. Avoid trying to breath in the 8th rest on two regardless. That type of breath will likely be shallow, weak, and will foster increased tension.

Again, this solution it may seem very obvious. But it works and sometimes thinking about this can make the difference. Often, this method is my solution for most offbeat entrances, especially those that have a 16thnote rest on the downbeat.

Try making a breathing plan next time you have an entrance that isn't secure or is awkward. I'm hopeful you'll find that considering this approach on a regular basis will provide you with a more secure entrance, an improved sound, and an increased focus on musical expression at all times. Don't miss the train!

For more on breathing, please read the invaluable research provided by Dr. Will Kimball, professor of trombone at Brigham Young University. His research is available at his website:

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