Focal Dystonia And First Note Anxiety In Brass Players

This was an article I published on back in 2010. Originally, it was written with the intention of removing tension from the playing system in trumpet, trombone, horn, and other brass players. However, re-reading the article, I can see that already here I was forming the basis for one of my breathing exercises which has proven to be effective in reducing focal dystonia symptoms in all musicians.

Originally published as: “Breathing exercises, the held breath, and fear of the first note”


On the subject of breathing, there must be as many different theories and ideas as there are brass players in the world today:

In with the stomach, out with the stomach, up with the shoulders, down with the shoulders, breathe from the diaphragm, breathe with the back, 4 stage yoga breath, the 1-4-2 ratio, in through the nose, in through the mouth, in through the mouth but then in through the nose when playing, in through the mouth corners, squeeze, release, compress the air…

…and so on.

It’s little wonder then than the eager brass student can become confused about this, the most basic of all human functions.

So how should we breathe when playing a brass instrument?

Rather than dogmatically stating “Thou shalt breathe in this way or that”, this particular article is going to discuss breathing exercises, the held breath or Valsalva Maneuver, and first note anxiety. It will also give suggestions for a natural approach to breathing for brass players.

A breathing exercise incorporating the held breath

Certain breathing exercises advocate the use of the held breath. The first example that comes to mind is Claude Gordon’s Physical Approach To Elementary Brass Playing: For Trumpet and Physical approach to elementary brass playing in bass clef for bass clef readers.

In Lesson 12 of Gordon’s book, he states a breathing exercise which the student is to carry out whilst walking at a brisk pace. The exercise is as follows:

  • Starting empty, with the chest up, inhale over 5 steps.
  • Hold for 5 steps.
  • Exhale over 5 steps.
  • Hold empty (keeping the chest up) for 5 steps.

Once 5 steps is comfortable, the student is to increase to 6 steps, then 7, 8, 9, and finally 10. When the student can carry out the exercise comfortably over a full 10 steps, he/she is to start again, this time jogging 5 steps.

The idea is that this exercise strengthens the muscles involved in exhalation, thereby giving the student increased range and power, and a fuller tone.

Many brass players, myself included, have experienced these benefits from this particular exercise.

However, are there also drawbacks? And do these drawbacks outweigh the benefits?

The drawbacks of practising the held breath

One possible drawback of breathing exercises that require us to hold our breath, is that tension may be created at various points in the body. And although it may sound a little too self-explanatory, a brass instrument is a wind instrument, which means it requires air. So, you might argue that practising holding your breath can have negative effects on our playing, as we are practising preventing air from flowing through the instrument.

So, what is actually physically happening when we hold our breath?

When practising holding our breath, we become adept at using the Valsalva Maneuver. The Valsalva maneuver is when we tighten the muscles of the abdomen and throat to compress air inside us, and prevent it from escaping into the lower pressured air outside of the body.

The Valsalva Maneuver does have a very important function. It is the exact muscular activity that aids in expulsion of solid bodily wastes. In addition, when a woman giving birth is told to “push”, she is in effect being told to do the Valsalva Maneuver.

However, when it comes to brass playing, you might say that by holding our breath, and thereby practising this maneuver, we are indeed practising tension – and this sort of tension is certainly counter-productive to efficient brass playing.


Have you ever heard of a player that cannot start the tone without external stimuli of a conductor or metronome? Perhaps you are one of those players yourself? It can be referred to as the “1…2…3…tense up!” approach!

When a player takes in a big breath, holds it, and either cannot start the tone, or starts the tone with a stutter, it is known as “first note anxiety” or “fear of the first note.”

When this occurs, the body is carrying out the Valsalva Maneuver, sucking in air, compressing it in the body, and preventing any air from escaping. Net result: lots of tension, lots of physical work done, no exhalation, and of course, no sound.

In other words, the handbrake is firmly on whilst the gas pedal is pressed to the floor.

A remedial breathing exercise

There are several ways to avoid the 1, 2, 3… FREEZE phenomenon of breathing, holding the breath, and not being able to start the note.

One suggestion is to do the following, to help change this locking up habit:

Step 1.
Practise this simple breathing exercise.

  • With an upright posture, blow all of the air out of your lungs.
  • When you are empty, allow the air outside of your body to fill your lungs
  • In the same smooth motion, continue to breathe in until you feel comfortably full
  • Once comfortably full, the air pressure in your lungs will be higher that the air pressure outside your body.
  • In one fluid motion, simply release, allow the air to escape from your lungs.
  • In the same motion, once the air pressures have been equalised, blow the remaining air in your lungs out. This creates a lower pressure in your lungs that in the air outside your body.
  • Repeat this process, resting at any time.
  • Keep the breath moving constantly. Air is either going in to your lungs, or going out, in a smooth flow, or wave motion.

Step 2.
Take the same principles of constant air motion from the breathing exercise, but now pick up your instrument. On the out breath, allow the air to flow through your instrument, without you forming an embouchure, or making any lip vibrations.

Step 3.
Once this feels comfortable and free, do the same thing, this time with a formed embouchure. A note may sound on the out breath, or it may not. This is not important. What is most important is that you get used to a feeling of keeping the air constantly moving – either in, or out. Do *not* use the tongue to try to start any notes just yet.

Step 4.
Once you start to produce tones using step 3, introduce the tongue to articulate each note. Keep the tongue relaxed at all times, producing soft ‘dah’ attacks. Remember that air is always moving either in, or out of your lungs.

It is ok if the tones you create during this exercise are not perfect. It is ok if the articulations aren’t 100% clean.

What you are working on is a relaxed approach to breathing, and a relaxed approach to playing.

When you have formed this good habit, you will have much more control over your sound and articulation, and will remain in a relaxed state at the same time, improving quality of tone and endurance.

Do you have any other suggestions for maintaining a relaxed approach to breathing?

Use the comment form below to share your knowledge, ideas and experience.

, ,

Comments are closed.