How A Soda Straw Can Improve Your Playing

In our last post we talked about the use of a modified, plastic, water bottle to improve your air intake and today we will be using another simple and readily available gadget to improve the air flow out of your body and through your instrument.

Many have pondered exactly how we produce the correct air stream when playing a brass/wind instrument and in most cases, the concept has been grossly misunderstood.

Here are just a few of the comments I have heard-

1. Tighten your stomach- WRONG!

2. Tighten your diaphragm- WRONG!

3. Firm up your stomach- WRONG

4. Blow from the bottom of your lungs- WRONG!

5. Support from your diaphragm- WRONG!

6. Fill your diaphragm with air- WRONG

7. Fill your stomach with air- WRONG!

….and the list goes on and on.

Taking air in and blowing air out is very simple and to save time at this point let me be very brief.

Undeniable fact #1- “MUSCLES CAN ONLY CONTRACT”.

Undeniable fact #2- “Every set of muscles has an opposite or “apposing set of muscles”.

Here is an illustration for those who are not yet up to speed.

1. Hold a heavy object in your right hand, straight out from your body.

2. Slowly raise your right hand from the elbow and with the other hand feel your bicep of your right arm. It should be firm for it is being used to lift the object. Also notice that your tricep in your right arm is relaxed.

3. Now sit, place your right hand on your right knee and firmly push down. Notice that your tricep is firm and your bicep is relaxed.

This exercise illustrates the function of opposing sets of muscles. Both work together but not at the same time. If they both contracted at the same time you would have isometric tension, which is not what we want when playing a wind instrument. Isometric tension occurs when opposing muscles are contracting at the same time and energy is spent without any work being done.

For those who still feel that you must have tension in your diaphragm to expel air, let me further illustrate your error.

The muscles of the diaphragm can only contract and when they contract, it lowers the diaphragm and consequently enlarges the area below the lungs which draws them downward and in turn sucks the air in. The diaphragm can be compared to your bicep as it moves the weight upward.

The muscles of your abdominal wall can be compared to your tricep muscles as you push your hand down on your knee and in the case of your abdominal wall muscles, forces the air out of your lungs by compressing the material in your visceral (guts) area upward against your diaphragm and consequently the bottom of your lungs.

Now, if you still feel that you must have firmness in your diaphragm and the firmness in your abdominal wall at the same time, what you are doing is implementing an isometric tension between the two sets of muscles which generates tension and accomplishes nothing.

If you still feel that you must do this muscle against muscle action in order to play trumpet, please contact me for I would love to hear your justification for this misguided thinking.

Now that we have defined what muscles are, how they work and work efficiently, we can now move on to our trick with the soda straw.

The soda straw exercise-
• Stand erect and place one hand on your abdominal wall (your belly).
• Breathe normally for a couple seconds and try to visualize the air entering your nose or mouth; whichever you are most comfortable with. This action is called tidal breathing which is how we breathe throughout the day and at night when we are asleep. Tidal breathing is the action of sustaining enough oxygen in our blood stream. The action we use when playing a wind instrument is called forced inhalation and forced exhalation and both are an extension of our tidal breathing practice.
• Take a deep breath and open your mouth as wide as you can and exhale. Notice that there is no resistance to the exhaled air stream. Now take a deep breath in and exhale through your lips as if you were blowing out candles on a birthday cake. Notice the increase in resistance to the air stream. You should be able to feel an increase in firmness in your abdominal wall muscles. Breathe in deeply again and this time place the straw between your lips and blow your air out through the straw. You should again be able to feel even more resistance to the air column and more firmness in your abdominal wall.

As you do this exercise, be careful not to become hyperventilated by exchanging too much oxygen; actually you become hyperventilated by not having enough carbon dioxide.

During this exercise, try to visualize the organs of your body as you bring air in and expel it through the straw. The air goes in when you contract the muscles on the outer ring of your diaphragm and the air goes out when you start to tighten the muscles of your abdominal wall. If both your diaphragm and abdominal wall muscles are contracting at the same time, your respiratory system is not performing in the most efficient way and you are wasting energy and getting little work done. By blowing out through the straw you are using more abdominal wall contraction and in doing so more easily understanding where your muscles are and how they work.


In a following post I will address this breathing thing in more detail but for now, try this simple exercise with the straw and visualize how you can breathe more efficiently when playing your horn.

Bruce was a member of the faculty at the University of Northern Iowa, School of Music in Cedar Falls from 1969 until his retirement in 1999. He has performed with many well-known entertainers such as Bob Hope, Jim Nabors, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Anita Bryant, Carman Cavalara, Victor Borgie, the Four Freshman, Blackstone the Magician, Bobby Vinton and John Davidson.