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Don't hold your breath...

Updated: Jan 27, 2020

I have my own personal website that has a lot of material on it and hasn't been updated in way too long, and as I was browsing and thinking about how much work I don't have time to do on it, I saw my blog called “The Shed” and remembered that I actually wrote some helpful articles. So I'm going to re-blog some of these :) I hope you enjoy!

Breathing…We all do it, as it’s the fuel to life. It’s also the fuel for our instrument and the key to good sound production. I find that many players don’t truly spend enough time on learning breath control / manipulation and maximizing use of their lung capacity.

Quick story…I have a student that is in his 70’s and, as well as coming to lessons weekly, he see’s the doctor regularly to help monitor some health issues. I showed him these exercises and he immediately noticed that his breathing was inefficient for wind playing. In fact, he had trouble doing them. 2 weeks later he came back and, not only could he do the exercises much better, but he told me he had been to the doctor the previous day and the doctor remarked that his breathing sounded better!!! The doctor asked what he had been doing and he told him about sax lessons and the breathing exercises. The doctor gave it a thumbs up! :)

Anyway…to the exercises! I picked these up over the years through various resources, so I can’t claim them as my own.

1. The Empty Gas Tank

In order to breathe more efficiently, have more air available and gain more control, we first have to learn how to completely empty our lungs of all air. This exercise is designed to show us how much air is left in our lungs after breathing out and what it feels like to take a big breath after completely emptying out our tank!

  1. Breathe a normal breath

  2. Exhale like normal until you feel you are empty

  3. Hold your breath for 2 seconds

  4. Using 3 bursts push more air out, even if you feel empty

  5. Breathe a deep breath to fill back up

Practice this both through the nose and through the mouth. It’s amazing how much air we can still expel after we think we are empty. Notice what the breath feels like in step 5 compared to the initial breath in.

2. The 4:7:8 Breath

This exercise breaks the breath up into 3 distinct parts allowing us to focus on each part. I found this exercise while studying about managing anxiety and got it from Dr. Weil.

1. Clear lungs of air through mouth with a whoosh.

2. Breathe in through nose for 4 counts.

3. Hold for 7 counts.

4. Breathe out through mouth with a whoosh for 8 counts.

These 4 steps make up one breath that can be quite intense. This exercise will help your breath control immensely.

3. The Billows

This exercise came from my good friend Jonathan Kammer and really helps people understand Diaphragmatic breathing and how to make more room for air.

1. Pinch your index finger and thumb together on both hands. Put the right on your belly button and the left on the back of your spine at an equal height.

2. Pretend there is a string going through your abdomen attached at each end (belly button and spine).

3. Take a deep breath in, through your mouth, pulling your right hand away from your body as you do. Remember the string is attached! Belly will expand!

4. Exhale and pull the string back with your left hand. Belly will retract!

Remember the attached string! Your stomach will puff out as you breath in. This makes more room in your abdomen, which allows your diaphragm to drop down and creates more room for your lungs to fill with more air! As you exhale you pull the stomach and right hand back with left hand string. This has the opposite effect and expels the air from your lungs by pushing the diaphragm back up. This is diaphragmatic breathing and it’s quite tricky to do well at first, but with a little practice, you will find you can play phrases twice as long without breathing!

4. IN & OUT

As saxophone players, we tend to focus much more on the OUT part of the breath than the IN. Part of the reason for this, besides the fact that the out breath produces sound, is the resistance created by the reed and the mouthpiece. In this exercise we will create resistance for the IN part of the breath and focus on making both halves equal. This is an exercise I got from a Yoga course.

1. Breathe in for 4 counts (through mouth)

2. Breathe out for 4 counts (through mouth) When 4 counts IN & OUT has been mastered, extend the count to 5. Then to 6, 7, 8 and so on. A count of 60 IN and 60 OUT can be achieved with dedication and practice. It helps to use a metronome on 60 BPM for this exercise. Also, creating resistance on the IN breath can be tricky at first. 2 things you can use to help you in this are:

  • pressing your finger perpendicular to your lips.


  • pressing the tongue into the back of your top front teeth.

This exercise is my favorite of the 4 and will really maximize breath control along with lung capacity. Remember when doing this to utilize the Billows (diaphragmatic breathing) exercise to allow yourself more lung capacity. It will really help you get to the higher numbers!

These are just a few of my favorite breathing exercises that I've learned over the years. Do you have a favorite breathing exercise? Have you been using one or more of these and have noticed changes? Be sure to share with us in the comments!

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