Note: this information was originally published in a post to Harp-L in 1996.
Recent posts to the list have requested breathing exercises. Three that have worked well for me are described below.
1) The purpose of this exercise is to give the player a “feel” for proper i.e. diaphragmatic breathing. It’s sometimes difficult for players to recognise and distinguish between chest and diaphragmatic breathing. This exercise will introduce the player to the physical sensation of breathing from the diaphragm.
Stand straight up with arms at sides. Slowly raise yourself on tiptoe, breathing in, and raise your arms over your head. Remain on tiptoe for a moment with arms raised overhead, then slowly lower your arms to your sides while breathing out. Notice the feeling in your gut during this exercise; that feeling is your diaphragm working.
Diaphragmatic breathing is important to sustaining an even tone for the longest possible period of time, and also makes a player’s tone “big” and resonant even at very low volumes. It’s the basic breathing technique for most musical situations.
The next two exercises are designed to give the player control over the tone of sustained notes. They require diaphragmatic breathing.
2) Hold a note any note, inhale or exhale absolutely steady at medium volume for as long as possible. 15 seconds is a good minimum to shoot for.
3) Take any note, inhale or exhale. Start the note at the lowest possible volume. Gradually increase the volume to the highest volume you can manage.
Lower the volume to the starting volume gradually, at the same rate you used to increase the volume, so the overall “curve” of the volume is a gradual ramp from minimum up to maximum and down to minimum again.
The latter two exercises were taught to me by a saxophone teacher over twenty years ago, and have been very useful to me since then. I return to them whenever I find my tone sounding thin or wobbly, and they never fail to fix the problem. I hope others find them as useful.