In archery, drawing the bow is both more simple, and more difficult, than one might expect at first blush. It requires an incredible amount of focus and relaxation to draw the bow and hold that tension until the arrow is released --that is, if you want to hit anything in particular. Any extra tension beyond what is absolutely necessary will affect (poorly) the release, and therefore the ideal flight of the arrow.
Remarkably, if this relaxation can be achieved in the drawing wrist, that joint will actually elongate while drawing the string (weird but true)! No one does this naturally; the instinct is to protect the wrist (with tension). But as our guide explained, we would not injure our wrists--the joint will stretch naturally and without harm. The extra tension would only be detrimental to our aim. And if one truly lets the wrist stay relaxed through the process, the hand should simply fall limp--like a rag doll--when the arrow is released.
In fact, the bow-arm needs this same, studied relaxation as well. Now obviously, the arm is not completely relaxed--it has to be held vertically, and it has to push the bow in the opposite direction of the string, causing the bow to flex. The trick is, this opposition should be the only tension. The arm should not be fully extended with a "locked" elbow (tense). Instead, when the string is released, the bow-arm should extend forward in response to the release of tension against it, and the bow hand should be relaxed enough that the bow dangles freely in that hand. In fact, our guide told us that most pros use a strap to connect the bow to their wrist in case the bow falls out of their hand on the release. [Mark Warren]
And what on Earth could this have to do with playing a trombone?
Prior to that archery lesson I would have had no clue. But I've thought about it a lot since then. For after standing in a field in the blazing sun for most of a hot day in July, I came home (exhausted) to practice trombone and found myself breathing more deeply, more effortlessly, and more efficiently than I can ever recall. I was astounded and perplexed!
Here are my observations.
Before drawing the bow to make a successful shot, I had to get really focussed and really relaxed. That's an easy enough analogy. I had to use only the muscles that are absolutely necessary to draw the bow. Notice I didn't say "shoot the arrow" because the Archer does not do that--the bow does. Now this last bit is a fundamental difference between archery and brass playing.
When we play a brass instrument, we are constantly blowing--pushing air out of our bodies with our muscles. If we have any residual tension left over in the muscles that we use to inhale, that tension will be detrimental to the ability to blow effortlessly--unimpeded by isometric tension. But more critical in my opinion, is the opposite problem: Any residual tension from blowing (the two processes--inhalation and expiration--utilize completely different sets of muscles) will be detrimental to our ability to take a good, deep, relaxed breath. That's why I think of "drawing the breath", like an archer "drawing" the bow. No tension beyond what the muscles used in the inhalation need.
At this point it might be helpful to keep in mind that a single muscle can do only one of two things--it can either contract or it can relax ("release" might be a more germaine term). To inhale, we contract one set of muscles (mainly our diaphagm). To exhale, the diaphagm is (should be) totally relaxed and we contract a different set of muscles. I don't pretend to know what those are--or care. The focus should be on the end result--the SOUND that we produce. [Arnold Jacobs]
And here is where the analogy with archery breaks down. We do not "release" the air wholesale, like the archer's arrow. To do so would result in a big attack with a corresponding decreascendo. So we obviously have to keep our inhalation muscles engaged to some degree. And there's the rub. It is an incredibly complex undertaking to keep opposing sets of muscles in balance to maintain, for example, a steady dynamic (with an ever-decreasing supply of air) or a very soft dynamic with no resistance in the throat. (In other words, not using the throat as a valve.)
This informs our understanding of the importance of long-tones (beyond the obvious endurance benefits thereof), and of super-soft practice. The latter takes real control and balance between opposing muscle groups.
But a day of archery in July did not teach me that balance. Nothing but years of practice might (I still have hope). So why did I breath/play so much better after the archery lesson?
I believe the key is the importance of letting go of all tension in the muscles involved in the exhalation before taking a breath. This is crucial to allowing the muscles involved in the inhalation to operate unimpeded, and that's where the archery lesson paid off. This brings to mind an observation (about myself) that I made a long time ago: "As the breath goes [the inhalation], so goes the execution." In other words, the better I breath (i.e., inhale) the better I play. That's probably not a profound observation, but worth remembering.
The most important lesson from this, at least for me, is the awareness that the muscles used to exhale must be totally relaxed after the sound stops and before we take our next breath--even when that time-frame is milliseconds, as it often demanded by the music. (Berlioz's Hungarian March comes to mind, along with a million others.)
To this end, I have an exercise I do to practice getting relaxed before each breath. For my students, I call this the "STOP AND DROP" exercise. It goes like this:
Play a scale in long tones (pick a prescribed duration of beats for each note), and add an extra 3 beats between notes. On these 3 beats, do the following:
- BEAT 1: Stop the sound, not subglottally (with the throat) but with the breathing muscles so it has a nice, open release-- ("STOP")
- BEAT 2: Relax the abdomen-- ("DROP")
- BEAT 3: Take a breath (with a totally relaxed breathing apparatus).
Now learn to do this same relaxation instantaneously upon taking a breath--without the measured steps.
Rochut etudes can be a very effective vehicle to work on this. At each breath, take the time to be totally relaxed before you inhale to play the next phrase. I particularly like to do this when I sometimes warm-up with a Rochut etude. (Don't always warm-up with exercises--you'll get stale.)
Another effective way to get a deep, relaxed breath is to--after the "DROP"--take a slow, unmeasured breath through the nose before finishing with a 0ne-beat breath through the mouth to complete the inhalation. (BTW, this is the way you should always start pieces when you have the liberty of doing so.) [Joe Alessi] In fact, I find it impossible to take a poor breath when breathing slowly through my nose.
There is no end to the different ways to approach and understand the execution of the physical activity involved in playing an instrument. I think my next archery lesson should be tax-deductible! [IRS]
Now if I can just discover a fly-fishing analogy.