Up Against the Wall

by David Fetter
Conservatory Trombone Faculty
Peabody Institute

Introductory Notes

Conventional Wisdom
-When standing, seen from the side, your ear, shoulder and hip should be in vertical alignment.

-Standing with your back against the wall can be a good guide to erect posture. Keep in mind that there is a natural curve in the spine that will typically leave a space between the wall and your lower back.

-The shoulders should not be lifted up or rolled back or forward. They should rest comfortably, with one no higher than the other. (This is often impossible for trombonists, whose left shoulder is often higher, as a result of holding up the trombone for years, often having begun when the body was still growing.)

-Stand with your feet a shoulder length apart and your knees slightly bent.

-Imagine that you are a weightless puppet on a string that lifts you up from the center of the top of your head.

-When seated, your knees should be level with or a little higher than the hips with the feet flat on the floor. A block can be used if the feet do not reach the floor.

You may note below that my discussion contradicts some of the above. For example, I like the heels together and the knees straight when standing against the wall.

Also, while I advocate Ah as the vowel for inhalation and Tah for attacks and Dah for legato when playing the trombone, I acknowledge that there is a large successful group which adheres to Oh as the basic internal vowel. If you are an Oh believer, then replace Ah with Oh in the discussion below.

These exercises are subject to adjustment to suit your unique body and personal circumstances. If something is painful, donÂ’t do it. If there is resistance, it may help to break a task into more-tolerable segments. Also, stand near something you can grab on to, should deep or heavy breathing make you dizzy.

Ideally you will have access to a full-length mirror. Also very useful would be a side view. This may be achieved in a dance studio, or with a video camera.

Up Against the Wall Posture and Breathing Exercises

Posture and Breath
Stand heels together with your back against a flat wall. Carefully move your head up and back until the back of it touches the wall. Position your jaw horizontal to the floor, with your chin pointed neither up nor down. Ideally you are now looking straight ahead. Ideally this will allow the freest passage of the column of air up from the lungs.

Head Touching the Wall
If your neck resists moving your head up and back toward the wall, proceed carefully. Some of us are naturally bent forward. Head position can also have been affected over time by the trombone pulling us down to it. Also, in modern society, style favors a bent body with lowered head. To slouch is to be cool, man. In any case, your everyday posture may resist allowing your head to touch the wall. Progress toward correcting this may be incremental over a period of days or months. Good posture straightens the pipe into your head from below and, thus lowering internal resistance.

If your shoulder blades are not in contact with the wall, draw them back so that they touch it. Again, do this carefully if there is resistance. Roll your shoulders forward and back to sense their most comfortable central position. Your shoulder blades may have started out against the wall, or they may have risen to it as you brought your head up. The central placement of the shoulders as seen from the side is more important than having the shoulder blades touch the wall.

Your shoulders should remain centered and calm as you breathe in and out. They should not rise with tension between neck and shoulders as you breathe in. If they do, they can reduce capacity in the lungs and tighten the throat.

When standing against the wall, your lower back should not be flat against it, nor should your tummy be pushed out. Your back will ideally have some curve in it, so that you can probably insert your hand behind it above your beltline between you and the wall.

Position your side-view hip line vertical to the floor. Move your tummy forward and back to seek the best hip position. If your hips are not vertical, aligning them will make you a little taller. Ideally the tummy, butt and hips will find a position that suits the three of them, with the tummy and butt neither pushed out nor held in.

Your points of contact with the wall are most likely the back of your heels, butt, shoulder blades, and head. The area between your shoulder blades may also be in contact. For me, standing tall with the wall as a guide makes more room in my upper chest and makes me taller, compared with my everyday posture.

Breathe In
Breathing exercises can be done with the mouth open or closed, while standing, sitting or lying flat. The eyes can be open or closed.

Begin here by standing against the wall and breathing through your nose only. (Of course, if your nasal passages is blocked due to allergies, or whatever, breathe with the mouth open. If the blockage is partial, the passage may clear some with gentle deep breaths.)

Standing tall, ideally with the back of the head against the wall, breathe in and out slowly. Maintain a calm, quiet stream of air. Your arms and hands are at ease at your sides. For me, the body finds this relaxing and is happy to take progressively longer, deeper breaths.

While in this position, let the entire middle section of your body move the air in and out with an even flow. The movement in and out is at the same speed. Sense the quiet vertical passage of the air up into your nose and down through your vocal cords at the back of your closed mouth. There are no hitches inside, no narrowing that makes a hum or a hiss. The reversal of air direction is free and immediate. There is no hesitation. It is as simple and effortless as possible. The passage of the air through the pathway from your nose to your lungs is as free and as quiet as it can be in both directions.

Uniform Fill
Let the body gently fill uniformly with progressively longer deeper breaths. Make them as long as possible without strain. Have the air passage open before, during and after the breath. The pace of all this is much slower than when you play. Use a steady count to compare the length of breaths.

High, Middle and Low
While standing against the wall maintaining a steady free flow of air through your nose, take care that the air inflates the upper lungs, middle torso and tummy areas uniformly so that one area does not dominate. Take some breaths limited to each area – high, middle and low – to sense each area individually. While the middle area is the most difficult to expand on its own, the sense of it is valuable in overall uniform breathing. Note how maximizing the tummy area pulls down the lungs at the top and that exaggerating the top pulls the middle up and thus limits capacity below. A global balance among all areas, including the sides and back, gives you the best overall potential.

The diaphragm, a body-wide horizontal partition of muscle fibers below the lungs, relaxes to allow air to enter and contracts to push it out. When you inhale into the tummy area, you can feel the diaphragm moving down inside. Of the three breathing areas the lower is the most dynamic and it yields the most dramatic results when done alone.

While this can be fun, the tummy area must still cooperate with the other areas in to allow the greatest overall capacity.

Greater Expansion
Visualize your mid-section as a large round balloon that expands uniformly in all directions. In your progressively deeper nose breaths, let the body show you where it may expand more. Try not to guess where this will be. If you find new space, keep in mind that this must not reduce capacity elsewhere, so that the combined total will be greater.

Pause near the top of some breaths and breathe slightly in and out, gently and freely, to sense your maximum capacity and perhaps increase it.

To me, the most room for expansion is along the front of the body, with additional space in the sides and back. To sense the latter, touch the sides and back while you breathe in and out. Some of our bodies seem to allow more room for expansion in the sides and back. Others offer greater potential in front.

It may help to think of a vertical arc in front of the body from the base of your neck to the base of your tummy. Try to expand equally all along the arc. Your breastplate, or sternum, is the center of the arc and, thus, of your great expanding balloon. Expand into the arc uniformly. Allow the big pillow inside you to expand in all directions in harmony with the arc.

As you move a little air in and out while fully inflated, permit the balloon to expand in all directions. Let the air find its way.

Away from the Wall
Try the above standing away from the wall. Retain your poise as you step forward. Remember not to raise your shoulders as you breathe in.

Against the Wall with Mouth Open
With the mouth open in a relaxed Ah vowel, perform a sequence of free, progressively larger breaths while standing against the wall. Refer back to the nose-only approach as you wish, as it may have felt more secure. In open-mouthed breaths, allow the same universal expansion of the big balloon below. Let the sternum float forward. Take progressively longer and deeper breaths with steady relaxed air flow with equal time in and out. For me, nose-only breathing somehow invites greater expansion, so I alternate between nose and mouth.

When breathing with the mouth open, maintain a consistent free open Ah. Open your mouth and sense the open Ah. Have the Ah open before you breathe in through it. Check for any unwanted hitch or tightness at the beginning and end of the breath.

Avoid partial nose breaths in open-mouthed breathing. Do not breathe in through the nose and mouth simultaneously. To me, the best trombone breath is through the mouth only, the same as when you play.

If some air should also travel in and/or out through your nose during the Ah, the vowel shape in your mouth will then resemble that of the French word tant. When sustained, the sound is a long NNNN. Rather than think about the complications of this, it is better to focus simply on achieving a pure open Ah. In the open Ah, the uvula, the flap at the opening to the nose above your throat that allows the NNNN, is closed.

Flat on the Floor
While I believe that standing against the wall is beneficial for good posture and breath, I find that lying on a flat surface is even better. Without gravity to contend with, the body aligns more easily.

This may cause discomfort for those who have difficulty reaching the wall with the back of the head while standing. Have flexible support handy, like a couple of small pillows to prop up the head if there is pain.

While lying on your back on an absolutely flat surface, with a mat or some other cushioning if the surface is uncomfortably hard, perform an expanding breath sequence through your nose only. Then do the same with an open-mouthed Ah. Rest your arms by your sides as you do when standing. For me, the middle body seems to expand more deeply on the floor. For me, the breath is more meditative and relaxing on the flat surface, and even more so with the mouth closed.

Ooo Opening in the Lips
A step between open and close-mouthed breathing is to breathe through an Ooo (as in too) opening in the middle of the lips. Make an open Ooo. It should be quiet – not a whistle. For me, the tip of my little finger is a good guide for the size of the Ooo opening. Because of the Ah space behind it, this is a large Ooo. Check the Ah alone occasionally to hear whether it survives behind the partial obstruction of the Ooo. The embouchure is an obstruction in front of the Ah when you are playing. It is important to preserve the Ah at all times while playing to enhance tone.

Try an extended breathing sequence with the Ooo opening, while maintaining the Ah behind it. Or you may prefer to do this with a nice round Oh.

While Walking
Stand tall against the wall. Take some free nose breaths, in and out. Then step away and walk with coordinated breaths, maybe three steps per inhalation and three steps per exhalation. Then try four steps each, or whatever. Maintain your tall posture and free flow of air as you move. Repeat this with an open-mouthed Ah.

Other Movement
Sometimes expressive arm movements, as in conducting or dance, can inspire better air movement. Sometimes the body is relieved by faster inspiring motion, after a session of static slow controlled breaths. Be wild and creative without breaking anything.

Another idea is to synchronize arm movement and breath. Do this with the open Ah and with the mouth closed. Match the speed of arm movement with the speed of the breath. Make back and forth gestures where one direction matches air in and the opposite, air out. Make changes in arm direction as supple as the reversal in the direction of the breath. Make faster dramatic moves and breaths, and then return to the steady slow tall breaths. In all open-mouthed breathing, maintain the pure open free Ah vowel.

After Testing Articulation, Play
At some point while breathing deeply without the horn, add a T, or your preferred consonant, to the breath as it comes out. First, open the Ah. Then breathe in through it and exhale through it with a smooth turnaround. Do this again with the air speed necessary to play F mf. Add a T at the turnaround point. Listen for clarity and economy in the articulation. Then take another breath and actually play the note on the trombone. Take care to remain calm, tall and open as you raise the instrument. When playing, test articulation and breath from time to time without the horn. Test posture back against the wall. Of course, when you play, the air enters faster than when it exits through the much smaller opening in the vibrating lips.

Of course, you’ll have to make a hole in the wall if you want to play while standing against it.

Heavier Playing
When playing requires heavy breathing, preserve the relaxed open Ah as the path of least resistance for the air going in and out, no matter its quantity and speed. While you want breaths to be as quiet as possible, heavy playing can produce noisy breathing. Also, there is a danger that the body will add unnecessary tension because of the intensity and excitement of the music and the pressure of performance. The tall, uniform breath and the open relaxed Ah are anchors in the storm. They oppose the natural inclination of the body to grab on, to hunker down for the challenge.

We play differently as we tire, tensing up more than we would like in order to meet the demands of the day. Thus, it is valuable to have the tall relaxed open deep breath away from the horn to refer to, to diminish the effect of fatigue as much as possible. On the day after, the tall open breath is there again as the starting point in the restorative warm up.

Working with deep breathing and the open Ah can induce yawning in some individuals. Take advantage of this. Let the yawn happen. Try to keep the Ah at the center of it relaxed. This may be the freest moment of the day. Ignore the natural embarrassment that accompanies a yawn, that makes you want to cover it. Don’t giggle and collapse. Stand proud. Inhale through the yawning Ah. Seek to keep the jaw muscles under your ears relaxed as your mouth opens. Relax the jaw and the back of the mouth as you yawn. Width is not the object. Avoid any catch or huffing in the throat. To me, a relaxed yawn offers the best open Ah, the freest vowel for the air to travel through from the lungs.

Remember to have something to grab on to should you become dizzy from too much oxygen.

The Open Ah and Opposing Forces
To me, the facial tension required to operate and modulate the embouchure, the necessary static grasp and lift required of the left arm for embouchure contact and elevation of the instrument, and the contradictory requirements of energy and flexibility from the right arm can subtly add unintended tension to the free open breath. Also, the partial enclosure made by the arms as they embrace the trombone invites a leaning forward and enclosing that can reduce the air space available in the front of the body.

Good posture and the open pipe need a chance to develop away from these influences, away from the horn. They need a head start in the face of the physical and mental challenge of performance, which is complex, immediate, engrossing, and, with luck, excitng.

Testing the Ah
Testing the Ah without the trombone is a clue as to what is happening to the vowel while you are playing. Unwanted extra tension can affect the Ah, which can affect tone. Also, hitches or catches in the throat can affect the clarity of articulation and the purity of slurs.

I like testing the Ah often without the trombone. Open the jaw as if to say Ah – yawn width would be too much. After it is open, breathe in through the open Ah. Then, with a supple relaxed turnaround of the air without any obstruction, play a pretend note with a Tah. Listen to the Ah without the horn. Is there any Uh or Aw in it? To hear this, you may need a quiet room insulated from the humming and hissing devices around us everywhere. Avoid forcing a whispering noise in your throat to make yourself heard. This is exactly the sort of noise that you want to avoid in the Ah.

While Stuck in Traffic, Think About Your Throat
When caught in traffic or immobilized elsewhere, such as in a line at the DMV, you may have time to look at the Ah more closely. Sit or stand tall, as the situation permits, and breathe quietly. Let the air pass in and out through a pure open-mouth Ah. Picture the opening down in the back of the mouth, where you gargle. Is it in harmony with the pure Ah? It is surprising that this opening can be a little tight sometimes, thus adding some airy noise, or perhaps some Ha or Uh in the Ah. The ideal is a pure Ah from the back to the front of the mouth.

Also consider the main part of the tongue in front. Is the Ah pure everywhere? Do you hear other vowel sounds, like Aw or Ih as in it or A as in bad? These can all affect trombone tone.

Think about the pure internal Ah when you are playing long tones. When you are playing more active or even athletic music, breathe with the open Ah as much as possible.

Unintentional Vocalization
Take care not to unintentionally vocalize while playing. When this happens, the tone can hiss or rattle, or it may be just a little cloudy. Such distortion will likely be subtle compared with the sound of willful singing while playing, as in the multiphonics required in some in newer music. It’s quite natural for your musical personality to be inspired to sing along when you play, but it’s the embouchure and the trombone that do the singing, not your vocal cords.

If you sing as part of trombone study or, for example, in a choir, it can be more difficult to disengage the voice while playing. Unintended vocalization can be surprisingly persistent at a low level. Testing a passage without the horn, complete with right arm movement – air trombone, if you will – can help reveal what is happening to the Ah when you play, but you must listen carefully.

Looking Confident – Projecting Sound and Personality
A side effect of standing tall is that it can create an appearance and an internal sense of command, of poise and pride. Despite its superficiality as a theatrical device, good posture is employed with great effect in oratory, dance, drama, and by concert soloists. For the trombone soloist, good posture may also bring the instrument and the eyes up so that your sound and personality are projected more toward the audience. This can be valuable for the ensemble trombonist as well, who is sometimes trying to be noticed in a crowd.

Posture When Seated
Playing while seated threatens to inhibit the lower breath area. Fortunately, much ensemble seating now encourages good posture, or at least allows it. Ideally, when you are seated, the hips would like to be as vertical as when you are standing. Again, rotate the hips forward and back to find their most desirable central position. Sit upright on a bench against the wall and check shoulder blade and head contact. When you were standing, the only hip area point of contact with the wall was the butt, but now, as you are seated there are two points of contact: first, the underside of the butt with the chair seat beneath you and, second, possible contact between the back of the hips with the lower back of the chair.

I like a flat-seated straight-backed chair. If you sit forward and erect on such a chair, your only contact with it will be beneath your butt. If you sit against the back of the chair, the back of your hips will rest against it and perhaps your shoulder blades as well. In any case, the space seen before above your beltline at the small of your back will remain.

Remember that all of this is subject to your unique construction.

Conduct breathing sequences as above, while sitting tall. Then take up the trombone and play while retaining your form. It is a great challenge to retain good posture and breath while seated during long rehearsals and concerts.

The Music Stand
The music stand can affect breathing and posture. Don’t let the stand force you to bend down and/or to point the instrument down more than necessary. The music stand may prevent the tall player from standing erect and the ensemble performer from sitting up straight. As noted above, with good posture, there is also the prospect of feeling more confident and projecting the sound more up and out. Also, the ensemble player must see the conductor and the recital soloist wants eye contact with the audience.

Posture Checkpoint
The straight flat walls in the elevators in my condo building provide an excellent checkpoint for me. Thus, I often have several opportunities each day to stand briefly against a good posture template. Over time, I find that I am standing taller in general, although almost never quite as tall as possible against the wall. Thus, I value the checkpoint to supply the frequent reminders that turn out to be necessary. Nonetheless, anytime I address posture with premeditation, or by happy accident, I move better and feel better for it.