Posture and Breathing Exercises for the Wind Player from a Trombonist’s Point of View
by David Fetter
These exercises represent a revision of a series first seen on the web trombone bulletin board Trombone-L. Given the persistence often required to improve posture and breathing, there is considerable repetition of certain fundamentals. These exercises will best be taken on not all at once, but by steps, in which the reader will, one hopes, find the repetition refreshing.
- Stand Tall
- Relaxed Windpipe
- Tilt Your Head
- Quiet Air
- Playing a Slur Pattern
- Standing and Sitting
- Sit Tall
- Reminder Moves – Trombone Posture
- While Driving
- Posture – Seated with Trombone and Music Stand
- At the Computer
- Points of Passage
- You’re a Bicycle
- Slightly Silly Walks
- Mechanical Man/Woman
- Reaching High Hand in Hand
- Native American Chief
1. Stand Tall
Stand tall and breathe easily and deeply. Breathe only through your mouth. Extend your hands above your head with your head high, chin level, eyes straight ahead, arms straight up above, hands reaching high. Hook your thumbs or hands together above, if you like, to help you reach up easily. No straining.
As you bring your arms down to your side, leave your upper body and head where they were. Hopefully you will notice more vertical space in your lungs and mid- section and find yourself standing straighter and taller. (For me, I feel more space in my upper chest.) Breathe in and out easily without losing your poise or elevation.
Yawning is OK, if you remain tall and enjoy the way this relaxes your throat.
If you can glance sideways at your image in a full-length mirror, you can get an idea of your posture. Also stand facing the mirror when holding your hands high, to see if your arms are straight.
2. Relaxed Windpipe
Without the trombone, stand tall, breathe comfortably and deeply into your mouth through an open “ah” or “oh” and a relaxed windpipe into the center of your upper body. Extend your arms high overhead breathing comfortably and deeply. Move your arms smoothly out and down, remaining tall, breathing comfortably.
Ask someone to hand you your horn while you’re standing tall. Remain so as you play. Take an easy tall breath and play a long tone. Although you must typically breathe more quickly to play, try to take the quicker breath in the same easy manner.
3. Tilt Your Head
Stand tall without the horn, as above. There is a straight line up the center of you to your highest point.
Tilt only your head to the right gently and return to the vertical. Tilt your head likewise to the left and return. This subtle leverage may make you a bit taller. Remain so as you breath through a relaxed open “ah” or “oh” down into the center of your upper body.
Extend the right arm high directly above your head, palm facing down. Your hand above confirms the central vertical line coming up from within you through the top of your head. Reach high without straining. Move your arm smoothly back to its rest position by your side. Extend your left arm high in the same manner.
Stand comfortably tall and sense your inhalation in the center of your upper body – expanding easily in all directions. Your internal central vertical line is undisturbed, whether seen from the front or the side. Look in a mirror. Again, ask someone to hand you your instrument. Breathe in freely and play. With or without the horn, playing or not, keep your poise as you exhale.
Stand tall, as before, with your arms relaxed at your sides. Look directly ahead at eye level. Roll your head up and down and return to the horizontal, facing directly ahead.
Use moves from before that worked for you to refocus your posture and breath. One of the best for me is tilting the head gently to the left and right. Or extend a hand over the head palm down (a bit more lift can be added by facing the palm up).
Something new – move your arms smoothly up from rest position, palms down, to extend in front of you parallel to the floor and your sight line. In this sleepwalker position, sense your breath at the center of your upper body, traveling from above through the open vowel of your choice – usually “ah” or “oh”.
Return your arms to rest position and take a couple of breaths. Then walk a few simple steps, your arms swinging easily as they wish, while maintaining your poise and the sense of your breath at your center. The work of walking demands some additional air. Remain tall, breathing freely while moving. Take this back later to the trombone.
Stand at rest again, breathing freely into the center of your upper body.
As suggested on Trombone-L, try some of the above with your eyes closed. Sense internally the purity of your “oh” or “ah”. Sense the center of your breath in your upper body. The sleepwalker position will be handy, if your want to walk a little with your eyes closed.
5. Quiet Air
Stand tall, as before.
Lean your head to the right slowly and return, again high, and to the left. With your head high, breathe deeply through your mouth into the center of your upper body. Repeat your favorite from previous moves to confirm your good poise. Occasionally breathe only through your nose.
Breathe in and out through your open mouth with a quiet round “ah” or “oh”, so quiet that the column of air passes with the least resistance.
At the top of the breath – at the turnaround from in to out – there is no H added to the vowel sound, no internal “hah” or “hoh”. A free turnaround from in to out allows greater expansion at the fullest moment in the center of your upper body.
6. Playing a Slur Pattern
Apply the easy deep breath to this exercise designed for the advanced tenor trombonist.
Have the passage for the breath open before you breathe – mouth open, jaw relaxed.
Take in a quarter-note count non-accented breath through your quiet “ah” or “oh” and play the standard Remington triad slur above middle B-flat. That’s B-flat, D, F, D in sixteenths on each of three counts, ending with a quarter note B-flat on four. Repeat in second position, third position, and out to seventh position. Tongue only the first note in each bar. For this practice, play at 92 to the quarter note or slower. After the fourth count, take your breath as needed in time, without delaying the next count. Let the slurs float on the easy outgoing breath, which mirrors the breath going in.
Other patterns of notes can be adopted.
For example, in the middle register, F A C A F is played 1 2 3 2 1. Move the slide quickly and easily with a relaxed right wrist that mirrors the easy breath.
Seventh chords or triads can be used to float higher. Play from middle A up through C# E G A and down moderato. A high B can be added above, and a C# above that, once the lower slurs are flowing freely, like the breath. Proceed with limited amounts of this each day. Too much will make the learning muscles overtight – the opposite of what is desired. Between the slurs, check posture, poise, and the flow of air into and out of the relaxed center of your upper body.
7. Standing and Sitting
Stand tall as before, but now in front of an orchestra chair, or something similar.
While standing, repeat moves from above that work for you. Sense your breath flowing down into the center of your upper body. Stand tall. Sense the straight line up through your body from the soles of your feet to the crown of your head. Your gaze is directly forward at eye level.
While maintaining the easy breath, tip your upper body forward and bend your hips and knees so that you sit softly in the chair behind you. Your upper body is still tall. Sense the difference in the breath while seated. Posture, poise, and relaxation are every bit as important while seated as while standing.
If your chair seat tips down toward the back, its angle will reduce some of the potential expansion for breath in the lower torso. In the best seated posture, the hips will remain true to the rising vertical line in your upper body, as seen from the side. Ideally, the seat of the chair will be parallel to the floor at a height that allows your upper legs also to be parallel to the floor. This will help your hips remain true to the vertical line.
Also while seated, breathe simply down into the center of your expanding upper body.
8. Sit Tall
Under consideration was good posture while standing or sitting.
Repeat moves that helped you stand tall and breathe to the center of your upper body – reach high, or lean your head slightly to each side, or repeat your favorite.
Be tall while you bring air through your open mouth down inside – thus, breathe high to the top of your head and freely in and down into your center at the same time – always with your relaxed “oh” or “ah”. Keep your poise as the air flows out as freely as it flows in.
When seated, your body is less ready to think tall. There’s some added resistance at the bottom of the breath. Also, your body feels more at rest when seated, thus less primed for action. Simply do what you can while seated to breathe with the same freedom and elevation as when standing.
Holding an instrument also adds some resistance to the breath compared with standing or sitting with your hands empty and free.
Return to the standing breath to remind the body of how it would like to feel while seated. Do some of the standing reminder moves, as above, while seated.
You will probably have to sit forward from the back of the chair to sit tall. If your back begins to tire, rest by leaning back against the chair. There are some small muscles involved. Your back will tire more if the seat of the chair rises toward the front and/or if the chair is low for you, in which case it will bunch your legs up uncomfortably. The proper chair is often a matter of individual fit.
9. Reminder Moves – Trombone Posture
Stand tall, as before, using reminder moves from above to influence your breathing, such as tilting the head to the left and right or extending one hand and then the other above your head. Note the passage of the air through your relaxed “oh” or “ah”.
The breath expands in all directions from the center of the body. For me, the center is behind the base of the breastbone or sternum, more or less midway between back and front and between the neck and hips.
If your feet are apart, as you do this, repeat with your heels together. If your heels are together, move them apart and repeat, to sense the difference.
For me, if my heels are apart when I want to stand tall and free, the center of my breath feels lower. While the abdomen should give way – directly down inside, not forward – for the air coming down from above, it should not restrain the easy multidirectional expansion in all directions at the inside center above it .
The trombone complicates this, because it tends to pull the upper body and head forward, down, and to the right, especially when you are playing in sixth and seventh positions. Just bringing the arms up and out in front crowds a bit the expansion of the upper body.
As much as you can, bring the trombone to you rather than leaning down toward it.
Note the effect of all this on playing while seated. It seems best to have the upper legs straight forward while sitting. For me, the knees are then about 6 inches or 15 centimeters apart.
Stand tall and breathe easy into your center.
Again, tip your head a bit slowly and smoothly to the right and to the left. Sense the elevation as your head returns to its vertical line. Look in the mirror and imagine a horizontal line drawn across between your shoulders. Let it remain parallel to the floor as you tilt your head. Arms relaxed and down.
- Hold one hand a little above the very top of your head, palm up and move it up slightly while breathing freely in – move it down while breathing out. Change sides.Stand tall, breathing freely.
- Hold the right hand, palm toward you, a little out in front of your neck. Breathe in as you sweep the hand moderato out to the right, parallel to the floor. Move back as you breathe out. Change sides. Also, try this with the palm out.Stand tall and still, breathing freely.
- Rock the shoulders gently as you stand tall – one goes up as the other goes down – the line across you will rock like a seesaw. The central point, the fulcrum, does not move. During this, ignore the breath. It should simply remain free. Afterward, sense the easy breath.
- Pull your shoulders up moderato as you breathe in and return as you breathe out. Keep the neck and throat relaxed.Stand quietly, arms relaxed. Sense that your shoulders are straight out on each side.
- Move the shoulders gently forward and return to the straight out point. Breathe in as they move forward and out as they return. Move the shoulders backward and return to the outside point, again coordinated with the breath. The hands and arms remain relaxed.
All of this is done without excess tension in the neck and shoulders. Stand tall and still. Sense the breath inside your upper body.
11. While Driving
Try some of the moves above while driving. Please do not drive off the road or change lanes when you tip your head, or whatever. Maybe at first try this while the car is not moving. Since the driver’s space is confined, reduced motion will be necessary. Even a little movement can help. In No. 10-1 above, for example, in the car I push up gently against the ceiling as I breathe in.
I am a taller person (6 feet US), so smaller cars fold me up like a pretzel. In a larger car, I still must bend forward some, but my posture is not as disturbed as it is by a smaller car. I’ll always remember the small car salesman who fanned out his knees in a semi-squat and said to me, “Everyone drives like this.”
Because we drive (and sit at the computer) a lot, our bodies are comfortable with being folded or bent in various ways. These habitual stances can make standing tall feel rather odd – and invigorating.
12. Posture – Seated with Trombone and Music Stand
The subject was sitting tall as well as you stand tall.
Note your position when seated at the computer. It is one of the few things, like practicing, which you do for an extended period each day. How does it relate to your seated and standing positions when playing? Do you bend forward for both?
I think it is easier to improve your seated position at the computer than with the trombone, because of the unbalanced design of the trombone and music stand – together they draw your left shoulder up and your right arm down and to the right.
Since we play a lot and we are very committed to performance, our bodies work hard at accommodating this imbalance. Often our posture becomes permanently altered. Without the trombone, many of us stand with our left shoulder slightly higher than the right. Thus, great concentration can be required to retain the best possible overall posture, while continuing to do what is necessary to play.
13. At the Computer
Sitting Tall while reading from a music stand was discussed, and sitting tall at the computer.
Is your computer screen at ideal eye level? Is it directly in front of your level gaze when you’re sitting tall and typing away? If the screen is low, raise it or find a lower chair. Some office chairs (+- $100 US) available at stores like Ikea offer “cello chair” design with adjustable height, a level seat , and a nearly-vertical straight padded high back with no bulges. Many chairs will produce a slouch and/or bring your knees too high. While seated, the tall upper body position is more important than level upper legs, if your must choose.
A good “cello chair” for computer work should be a good practice chair as well, if you sit while you practice. One can argue that you should practice in the position in which you will play specific repertoire – seated for orchestral music – standing for solo. (Did anyone say “Marching!”?)
The non-trombone activities in the daily routine exert a strong influence. While thinking about writing this, I was suddenly inspired to sit up straight during a routine activity – driving – where I normally sit with my head and upper body hanging forward and down a bit. Although I did not raise my head far, because I didn’t have room in the car to truly sit up straight, the move was such a surprise to my upper body that the sudden breath it induced went in the wrong way and I gagged briefly. Proof of the very strong physical influence of the routine, which feels so right we don’t notice it much of the time.
The only computer monitor stand I could find to raise my screen to eye level was priced at hundreds of dollars, so I made a wooden box that brought it 8 inches higher.
14. Points of Passage
Stand tall with your arms relaxed at the side, breathing easily into the center of your chest. The flow of air is smooth, in and out. Breathe occasionally only through your nose.
Check certain points in the passage of the air.
Through your mouth, listen for a quiet “ah” or “oh”. Your face, lips, and jaw are completely free of the tension required to bring the lips together to make a sound on the instrument. Touch your face. The muscles feel harder when they are tight.
Through your mouth, sense the “ah” or “oh” in the back of the mouth – you may hear “hah” or “awww” or “unnh”. You can learn to hear this without singing. For a test, sing a bit and then breathe again, listening for the vowel sound in the breath when not singing. Listen for a quiet purity.
When breathing through your nose, relax the junction inside above, where the two nostrils become a single pipe. Farther back and down, sense that the flap hanging in the back of your mouth is relaxed. Tightness will produce a hissing sound, like water running through a faucet.
While breathing through your nose or mouth, sense the point where you swallow at the base of the back of the tongue. Say “glug” – the final “g” closes your throat completely. Breathe easily and quietly past that point. There may be some gravel in there from your Louis Armstrong impersonation.
Looking farther down, sing or speak a bit to sense the vocal chords, and then relax them and let the air flow by as you breathe easily and deeply in and out.
Thus, sense an easy passage of air from outside by mouth to the center of your chest. As you exhale, add articulation with only the tip of the tongue, maintaining the quiet, open vowel behind, in back, and below. Take the horn and play a long tone in this manner.
15. You’re a Bicycle
Stand tall and breathe high and low at the same time – your head is balanced – the crown of your head is high while the air goes down into your center.
Rotate your shoulders in opposition to each other like bicycle pedals – one goes back and up behind while the other goes out and down in front. After a time, reverse directions – move down behind and up in front. As these motions become more fluent, you may feel like you’ve slipped into a Broadway chorus line.
It’s fine to loosen up all over, if you like.
After whatever, stand tall and breathe easily and deeply.
Wave your shoulders like wings, as before. (See No. 10-5.)
Stand tall quietly again, gaze directly ahead.
Raise and lower your shoulders a few times – easily – nothing dramatic.
Stand tall, arms relaxed at your sides, and quietly breathe easily in and out without raising your shoulders. It is good if the upper reaches of your lungs expand inside your upper chest. It is OK if your shoulders rise slightly with this, but many players advise against raising them independently.
16. Slightly Silly Walks
Stand tall and quiet.
Extend your arms high, straight up on each side. Link your thumbs, if you like, and walk in this position.
Stop and stand tall, arms down and relaxed. Sense your breathing.
Hold your arms forward and bent with your elbows out, as if to force your way through a crowd, but with your head high. Walk some in this rigid stance, allowing a menacing elbow to extend forward with each step, if you like.
Stand tall and calm again.
Walk standing tall, with your arms swinging naturally and normally. Notice how your body breathes. Observe your body while you give it only one instruction – to walk tall with ease.
Stand tall and breathe into the middle of your upper body. Remain tall as you breathe out.
17. Mechanical Man/Woman
Walk while tall and relaxed. Swing your arms easily. Sense how they imitate the legs moving in opposition. The left leg and the right arm go forward together, etc. Your arms swing from relaxed shoulders. If you take longer steps, your arms tend to increase their range of movement as well.
Stand tall and make fists (not too tightly) outside your ears, upper arms bent , elbows straight out. Walk some in this position (as if ready for a yawn). Also walk with your fists in front of your shoulders, elbows out, arms parallel to the floor.
Walk also with your fists directly under your extended upper arms (your fists will be outside your rib cage). Continue to walk tall. Check the vertical line up through the middle of your upper body. Your head remains high and your eyes level.
Walk with your arms down, swinging normally. Sense how your breathing finds its own steady pace while you are walking. Sense how your steps either are, or are not in sync with the steady pace of your breathing. Coordinated or not is fine, as long as your gait and breath are even, each in its own cycle.
Stand tall and sense the breath in the upper body.
Try the above routine with your hands open.
Also, With your fists in the higher position outside your ears, bare your teeth and take a menacing breath with a fierce face, like a lion or a Samurai demon. Then inhale through a tall, easy “ah” or “oh”, with your face, jaw, and throat now relaxed. Stand tall, now at peace, arms down, breathing freely.
18. Reaching High Hand in Hand
Stand tall and breathe easily and deeply into the center of your upper body.
Hold the fingers of one hand in the other, palms forward, a few inches in front of your neck. Move your hands up in this position high above your head. Breathe smoothly and easily in and out a few times.
Release your hands and let your arms float out and down to your sides.
Breathe tall and easy into your center.
Hold your hands over your shoulders with lightly balled fists, as if ready to yawn. Move your hands up and hold them high for a bit. Then let them float out to the side and down, as before.
If you should yawn, this will enhance your posture and calm air passage. Allow the yawn make you taller and your breath more open. The yawn is OK. A great thing. Enjoy it. Do not be embarrassed.
(But, do not yawn when conductor is looking, of course).
19. Native American Chief
Stand tall, looking straight ahead, and breathe steadily and freely into the center of your upper body.
Cross your arms together out from your shoulders, parallel to the floor, one hand above an elbow, the other below.
Take a few deep easy breaths – 2 seconds or more going in and the same going out. Change between in and out with as little effort as possible. Think of your lungs expanding in all directions. Let the body reverse the flow on its own.
Stand tall, arms at your sides and breathe deeply. Sense the influence of the crossed arm position.
Cross your arms again, now with the hands reversed, and breathe as above.
Stand tall, hands and arms at your sides. Sense the breath.
Variation – Hold your forearms over your head parallel to each other, hands on elbows, and breathe easily and deeply. If your arms are not long enough for this, loosen the position some so that your head has room – you can link each hand on the opposite forearm.