In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, concepts were prevalent in the approach to brass playing that were based heavily in strength factors and underdeveloped views of anatomy and physiology. Mr. Jacobs believed that the practices for respiration in brass playing were the most detrimental. Some of the most common themes were to keep a very tight gut while playing and to intentionally restrict movements of the torso, particularly in the thoracic region. These concepts were counterproductive for several reasons. During his interview in 2013, Richard Erb said that brass teaching long retained these concepts, and it was not until the 1950s that “Jake began to drag it, kicking and screaming, into the 20th century.” (Erb, 2013) In my lessons with Mr. Jacobs, I learned that this “tight-gut” method was not anatomically efficient. It made breathing and playing more difficult, because restricting movement in the thoracic region significantly reduces the amount of air that can be moved in or out of into the lungs.
Mr. Jacobs would often ask his students to show him where they thought their lungs and diaphragm were. Many students would point a little over half way up the sternal region to show where they thought the tops of their lungs were, and somewhere in the mid-abdominal region to show the bottom of their lungs. It was also common for students to point to their navel or even lower to represent their diaphragmatic region. As you can see in Fig. 1, the highest points of the lungs actually reach to the top of the inside of the ribcage all the way up to the clavicles, and the base of the lungs goes from the base of the sternum down around to the back following the lowest floating ribs. (Gottburg, 1998) The diaphragm is located just below the lungs, at the base of the sternum and behind a little bone called the xiphoid process. Mr. Jacobs described the lungs to me as balloons. As air enters the lungs, they inflate, causing expansion; any air leaving the lungs will cause deflation or decrease in size. Since the lungs fill the entire ribcage and thoracic region, if there is to be air moving in and out of the lungs, there must be movement of the area. (Heath, 1995)
Mr. Jacobs cautioned that there should be no movement for the sake of movement, because it is quite possible to raise and lower the shoulders, chest, and abdomen while moving no air whatsoever, and that is detrimental. The concept of blowing from the diaphragm is also a physical impossibility, because it is the chief muscle in the body for achieving low breath pressure, meaning that it is the primary force generating the vacuum required for inhalation. Air leaves the body as a result of the body and lungs becoming smaller. The diaphragm, which acts as a floor to the lungs, contracts vigorously downward, flattening out and pressing down against the internal abdominal organs to bring air into the body, then relaxes in an opposite motion for air to leave the body. The elasticity of the lungs, chest, and intercostal rib muscles cause the lungs to relax into a smaller state. Gravity pulling downward on the ribs and thoracic region also aids in expiration with minimal effort. These factors come into play in a much greater capacity at the fuller points of the inhalation, making it much easier for the air to leave the body. As the lungs empty, increasingly more effort is needed to expel the remainder. (Jacobs, 1984)
The behavior and response of the lower portion of the respiratory system often has an effect on the upper region. If there is significant tension in the lower lungs, that tension will often travel up into the chest and neck, creating more tension in the torso, neck, and head. Steve Chenette was a physically tense player when he went to Mr. Jacobs. The pedagogue tested Steve’s vital capacity, which showed he had more than seven liters of air available to him. Mr. Jacobs wanted to explore why someone with such tremendous physical advantages would be simulating the struggles of people with greatly reduced capacities. After some testing, he realized that Mr. Chenette, as was true for many others, had been schooled in the concepts of minimal function regarding the
lungs—the “tight-gut” method. (Chenette, 1984, 2016)
Figure 1. The Respiratory System. (Gottburg, 1998)