On Saturday, April 16th, I attended a workshop presented by Patrick Sheridan — co-author (along with Sam Pilafian) of the famous Breathing Gym (more on this later). This was hosted by the Hannaford Street Silver Band’s Festival of Brass, which they hold every year. Mr. Sheridan was a soloist this year for the festival (unfortunately I didn’t get to hear him in concert because of the logistics involved and because his major concert conflicted with mine with Orchestra Toronto).
So, I sat in the second row, centre — I was at first a little higher up, but someone came in and encouraged people to sit closer. The Jane Mallett Theatre is an intimate venue and sitting closer was fantastic. People should sit closer more often – don’t be shy. Mr. Sheridan — I think he’d just prefer “Patrick”, he was so easy going and friendly (and funny as hell), so I’m going to stick with that from now on — focused his talk and workshop, no surprise, on breathing and on making obvious the not-so-obvious concepts of the mechanics of breathing.
In workshops and classes I’ve taken before, I’ve been introduced to elements of the Breathing Gym and so this started as a refresher for me, albeit from the co-author of the book. But Patrick went a little deeper than other instructors I’ve had. I don’t think I’ve ever taken in so much air in my life.
He covered a lot of material in just an hour and a half, so here are some major points to Patrick’s talk:
A body in balance is a relaxed body
this was so fundamental to every warm up and breathing exercise he did with us. If your body is in balance, then muscles are doing the absolute minimum to keep you upright. If you lean forward, your back tenses to bring you back. If you lean back, your stomach (the 6-pack) tenses. And this applies to both standing and sitting positions – since a large majority of a tubist’s playing is done sitting down. For sitting, you want to be forward on the seat and ideally have a chair that’s high enough so that your knees are a little below your waist. This provides the balance to keep your upright with the least effort.
We breath a lot more when we sleep compared to when we’re awake
When we sleep, our bodies go into a regeneration mode. Healing happens when we sleep. And so the body needs lots of oxygen to do this work. As wind musicians, we want to encourage this level of breathing when we’re awake. On a percentile scale, 0 to 10% would be considered extreme empty and 90 to 100%, extreme full. Breathing required for speech and low activity sits not far above 10, so outside of athletic or laborious activity, we’re not using our potential.
Practice in your tux (or other concert attire) now and then, or a lot, even
We know that theatre troupes do dress rehearsal – in costume. They have to – it brings more realism to the rehearsal and sometimes costumes are elaborate and movement-restricting, so you need to know how they will work. Same when you perform in a tux/uniform/gown/etc … me for one, have slippery suit pants. I keep having to re-adjust my tuba’s position. I’ve kinda gotten used to it now, which is bad because it’s become a factor in my playing. My body is conscious of the effort required to keep the tuba upright and this distracts from breathing. I probably contort and tense up in a counter-position to keep the tuba from sliding. None of this is good for breathing. My suit jacket too, used to make me hold the tuba differently. All this is different from playing in jeans and a t-shirt.
Most tubists need a tuba stand
This one surprised me. Patrick says that most tubists should have one. Unless you’re in a position to design your own tuba, or have your lead pipe altered or customized, then it’s likely that your tuba doesn’t perfectly meet your face (mouthpiece-to-lips) and so you contort and adjust your position in order to make it work. Something Patrick said stuck with me: never go to your tuba, make it come to you. This obviously doesn’t affect other brass because the instrument is free-floating, though not that there aren’t position problems possible there too. In a lesson with Sasha Johnson, he demonstrated to me the difference in playing with and without a tuba stand. With the stand, the tuba resonated so much more – bigger sound. Without the stand, the sound is dampened. The tuba and lap/legs contact allows your body to steal and absorb vibrations.
Sing [and buzz] what you play
I’ve been taught this all along, but it’s always good to mention — sing. And in tune at that! Buzzing (sans instrument) in tune is essential too. If you’re not in tune when you sing or buzz, then how can you be sure you’re in tune when you play? Just pressing valves isn’t good enough — it took me years to realize that. Buzzing familiar tunes on your mouthpiece is great for your ear — Happy Birthday, Jingle Bells, O Canada — anything. Singing and buzzing your orchestra or band part is good too — even if you don’t have the melody. Then again, especially when you don’t have the melody. I spend around 15 minutes buzzing as part of my warm up. In the car, on the way to rehearsal, is a great opportunity to buzz (I do drive alone to rehearsal normally though, so maybe this just works well for me). I remember when I was at UofO with Nick Atkinson and he said buzz everywhere — walking to school, on the bus, etc. Who cares if people stare. Buzz, buzz, buzz.
There were a few “eureka” moments for me, but the biggest one was the “scoop” breathing exercise. You freely and deeply breath in for a count (first 4, then 5, and 6 seconds). Once you reach the count, you “scoop” in more air. Little scoops until you can’t takes it no more. In the past, I’ve not been able to take in much more air. I got tenser and tenser trying to scoop in – my lungs had nowhere to expand. But after all the relaxation exercises with Patrick, I discovered (eureka) that I can take in lots more air by relaxing – shoulders down, kinda floppy-like. SCOOP! wow. That’s how you do it!
I would love to do a longer workshop with Patrick — so much to learn. And I’m sure I will in the future. For now, I’m going to invest in a copy of the Breathing Gym – and you should too!