Body, Center, Breathe, and Flow
by William Stowman
- a mantra to build consistency in brass performance -
In an effort to create a repeatable set of reminders for consistent brass playing, I developed a simple mantra that has proven effective in my own playing as well as in the performance of my students. Body, Center, Breathe, and Flow has become part of the pedagogical lexicon here in the brass studios at Messiah University and anywhere else I have visited, taught, conducted, or presented a clinic. I find this simple four-word phrase helpful in addressing the most fundamental issues associated with great brass (and wind) playing.
As teachers, we often provide corrections to specific problems. We warn of things not to do and sometimes use “don’t do this” or “be sure to not do that” in our instructions. The fact is that even a mention of a negative habit or action creates focus on that very thing. I have found that it is much more effective and productive to state things in the positive. Asking someone to “try this” or “do that” always yields a better result.
To that end, I settled on the words Body, Center, Breathe, and Flow to capture the four areas I feel are crucial to strong fundamental playing. The terms are introduced in this very specific order to ensure an additive process, one during which we build on positive repetitions of good habits. The following information is used to evoke certain specific responses:
Stand tall with your feet at shoulder width
Be sure hips are aligned over heels and shoulders are over hips
Shoulders should be relaxed
Chest can feel high and full
Collar bones should feel open and relaxed
Head should be in a comfortable position
Eyes looking straight ahead
With the body in the ideal position described above:
Bring the instrument to the center of the face
Consider the X, Y, and Z axes when envisioning the position of the instrument
Be sure to keep the body still and bring the instrument to the body
Practice bringing the instrument into position several times
Stay mindful to add the horn to a perfectly placed body
With the body in position, and horn at center:
Use your favorite instructions to encourage a full, relaxed, breath
…or try one of these:
- Breathe in through the letter “O” and listen to the sound of the breath
- Breathe in across the bottom of your mouth
- Get taller, now breathe in and get wider
- Acquire a target across the room, pull the air from the target, then exhale and put it right back on the target
The word flow indicates movement, action, direction
It creates an image of air flowing forward, in constant motion
Combined with the breathing methods above, encourage relaxed exhalation
Use the term “sigh” to indicate a relaxed flow of air through the horn
It can be helpful to motion with the hand starting at the mouth and moving away
It is worthwhile to mention that when spoken in time, the phrase Body, Center, Breathe, and Flow fits nicely into a four-beat preparatory statement (1&-2&-3&-4) to remind players as they set up to play or start a passage. All great musical playing relies on sound and consistent fundamentals. Making sure the body, instrument, and breath are all working in a collaborative way allows for a strong fundamental platform on which players can work toward informed musicianship characterized by ease and fluency.
Through the years of teaching this, Body, Center, Breathe, and Flow has helped countless students achieve a much stronger point of departure for excellent music making. Its use to introduce fundamentals to younger players is quite effective; they can quickly memorize the list of words and easily recall it. Likewise, older more established players respond well to the process as it provides a new way to look at the most basic elements of their playing and create a new level of focus on those aspects.
Dr. William Stowman is Professor of Trumpet at Messiah University where he is also Chair of the Department of Music. He is an author and composer, and he is in high demand as a conductor, clinician, and adjudicator. His recordings have garnered acclaim for his deeply expressive lyrical playing. Dr. Stowman is a member of Tromba Mundi, and he is host of the podcast, The Open Bell (available on Apple Music and other streaming platforms). His excellent and innovative new etude book, 26 Contemplative Studies, works very well on horn; it is available at www.williamstowman.com.