Every saxophonist can and should have a unique sound, inspired by the great players they love but uniquely personal as well. Having a personal sound is not difficult; it's difficult not to! All we have to do is use our own bodies in a natural way, and since we are all unique, the more naturally we play, the more we will sound like ourselves.
Some of us may have a gift or a knack for simply opening up, filling with breath and pouring out a fully personal sound. Most of us, however, have times when we are a little constricted in our breath and our sounds may not flow naturally or fully. At other times we may find that we've imitated others a bit too much, going past healthy influence, and we have lost our own body's sound. In many cases, we may have tried too hard to breathe well, causing a lack of flow. This exercise, which I call the Looping Breath, is one way among many to help us unlearn bad habits and explore our own individual natural breathing, poised in the healthy middle between using too much effort and not enough.
Although we play the saxophone (and any wind instrument) with our exhalation, the quality of our sound is controlled by the way we inhale. Once the air is inside our bodies, it is too late too drop tensions or increase our resonance. So a good inhalation exercise is important.
Good breathing involves more unlearning than learning. At all levels of playing, we can discover tensions in our breathing, and it's essential to find ways to release these tensions before adding any more effort. Breathing should be natural and unaffected, allowing our sound to flow freely and with personality, fully integrated with time feel, phrasing, intonation and melodic invention.
The Looping Breath is one way to deepen and free our breath without adding the sound of effort to our playing.
Basic Looping Breath
Inhale about half a full breath,
exhale a small amount of air, and
inhale the remainder of a full breath.
The middle exhalation is the Loop. Everything should be round and your breath should never come to a stop.
Exploring the looping breath is a very effective way to improve your sound, as it releases tensions and increases efficiency. At first you should practice slowly; gradually it will be easy to do a quick looping breath without any effort. Eventually, for very quick breaths, you will find that you can attain the feeling of a good looping breath without the loop at all.
Let's look in more detail at the looping breath. Without going stiff, gently adjust your posture so that you are not slouching forward, nor leaning to the left or right. Let your shoulders down and soften your lower back. At first, this is best done standing. Gently take in a medium breath, exhale just a little, then breathe in some more. Have a sense of ease throughout. Sometimes even fine players have a moment in their breathing where there is a stop before the breath changes direction, from in to out or out to in. I call this a corner - it stiffens the flow of air and disconnects the air in your torso from the air in your mouth. Try again and make a round change of air direction; hold in your mind the image of rounding out the corners. Breathe in a half breath, round the corner, breathe out just a little, round the corner, breathe in another half breath or a little more. And of course, round the corner after the completed breath, to begin the exhalation that blows the note.
At this point, ask yourself a question or two. Can you hear air rushing past the back of your tongue? This is a sign of tension and air obstruction, causing 'turbulence.' Just before beginning the breath, try to relax any part of the breath pathway that could cause noise. (You might begin by relaxing the lips and tongue and then continue in and down toward the larynx, ribs, belly and lower back. If you can relax from your embouchure to your heels while playing, then you've really got it!) A second question to explore is whether the muscles between your ribs are stiff. If they are, this will inhibit your breathing, slowing it down and giving it unnecessary resistance. It's like trying to inflate a balloon while someone is holding it tight, trying to prevent it expanding. There used to be a popular exercise fad called isometrics, where bulky muscles were developed by pressing your own arms against each other, but this pressing against your own muscles is a terrible way to breathe! It is very important to release the muscles of your own 'balloon' before the breath begins.
Return to your looping breath. This time, release these 'holding' muscles in your ribs or belly, breathe in the first part, exhale the small loop while releasing any more holding, inhale the second part, all while maintaining rounded breath corners.
Apply this breath to your instrument. Although this exercise is not complicated, it is natural for tension to creep in as our tasks get more layered: breathing, then breathing and playing, then breathing and playing something difficult, then breathing while playing with others or in performance. At each point, mentally return to the effortless function that you have established so easily while practicing the looping breath, dropping any 'holding' tension, and allow your breath to flow in, around, and out as the physical foundation for the flow of your sound. With the image of the loop, the breathing should easily be tension-free and deep, providing a surprisingly strong, colorful and effortless tone.
As you advance with this technique, use your imagination to explore new aspects. For example, imagine that there is a kind of board or plank just below the mid-line of your torso. Imagine it extending from one side of your torso to the other, and from front to back; be very simple with this and call it a rectangular board. Imagine this board to be lying flat beneath your ribs, at the floor of the lungs, like the physical diaphragm, but not as complicated in its movement or anatomical features. As you breathe in, the board sinks down; with the loop it rises slightly while staying basically flat. With the second inhalation it drops down more. As you play a note or phrase the board rises, wide and even.
Gradually expand the sides of the board, so that the breath 'scrubs' the inside walls of your torso. This feeling of wide breathing can be expanded far past the physical limits of your body itself. Explore the results when the 'board' remains truly even side-to-side, and as you imagine it tipping to the back as you inhale (which is what the diaphragm itself does).
Imagining a wide board in the location of your diaphragm can be very helpful in sensing and improving how your belly is working with breath. This is the lower half of good breathing. The upper half is, generally speaking, your ribs, neck and head. To explore this an advanced player may wish to turn the breathing around.
Imagine that the breath loops up your back as you inhale, forward and down as you let go the very small 'loop', and again up your back as you inhale the second 'in'. This will feel as if you are breathing up your spine, looping, and again breathing up the spine to the back of your head, around over the top, and down past your nose. The blowing of the horn feels like the breath descending. As you get comfortable with this, all aspects of the breathing will feel like loops. To feel this more easily, try tracing an image of the breath in front of you. With your hands together in front of your torso, gently move them in and up as you are inhaling the first inhalation; your hands come in slightly toward your shirt buttons and up the center line; as you let go the small loop your hands loop forward just a little and down; as you continue with the second inhalation your hands come back in toward your buttons and loop up toward your nose, where they loop forward and down, which shows the blowing of the notes. Let your ribs and shoulders move with the breath, which causes no trouble as long as they float up and down on top of the breath with no holding. The hand movements should be smooth and circular, with no tension or sharp corners. This can be very helpful in understanding how to breathe without those 'corners', which are really moments when the breathing stops and gets rigid.
Combining these two advanced exercises, you can feel the two aspects simultaneously:
First, something square or rectangular in the lower part of the torso, represented by the 'board', which sinks down with breathing in and rises up as you play or exhale.
Second, something round, represented by your hands, showing the arc of breath ascending up your back, around and up under your nose as it comes forward and down as blowing.
These two aspects of breathing are complementary and truly can happen at once, as a fully integrated way of breathing and playing.
As with the basic looping breath, with experience this comes to feel as natural as it really is, and the benefits are yours whether you take a careful looping breath or just a quick breath with the feeling of loose fullness that you have become accustomed to through the exercises.
Article by Andrew Sterman, reprinted with permission from Practice Like The Pros, edited by Sue Terry, ©2002 Amsco Publications