HOW TO PLAY BETTER WITH LESS EFFORT...EVENTUALLY
What is Posture?
Simply, it is how we hold ourselves
It is an action that is constantly resisting gravity, forces and tendencies that might destabilize or compromise the intention of the task at hand. It is definitely not a static moment. For example; sitting in a neutral position (more on that later) and at the same time playing the trombone. Posture is the dynamic foundation for action. Posture is a prerequisite for movement. Think of how a video sampling can be broken down into thumbnails. Each one of those thumbnails is a 'posture' for that moment.
Posture, regardless of its' shape is a continuous acquisition that requires mindfulness/awareness ... 'internal radar', consistency, adaptation and endurance. For example; the ability to maintain a neutral and vertical spine with a slide moving between 1st and 7th position. That particular challenge might become apparent when observing a section playing a fast passage. Slide technique aside, if one is bobbing about that could be considered a distruptive force. The tail should not wag the dog.
Discussion of the demands of human movement for playing the trombone could take longer than this entire conference is scheduled for. I will illuminate some important anatomical, neurological and functional connections that will hopefully compel trombone owners to be better prepared and consequently better performers.
Rather than just listing some movements and exercises that I think are relevant and leaving it at that I believe that if one understands why these preparations/interventions hold intimate value they will leverage a willing compliance.
It is no coincidence that almost all of body parts that trombone players use that bark back at them are directly or indirectly connected via muscle, fascia and/or nerve supply to the action and function of the respiratory diaphragm.
The diaphragm is a horizontal, circular muscle that attaches to the lower six ribs. It is 2mm -4mm thick. At rest the diaphragm is shaped somewhat like a parachute. The heart and lungs sit on the top of the diaphragm while below are the liver, spleen digestive tract etc. The central tendon is just that. The inner circumference of the diaphragm attaches to the central tendon. The tendon by definition is elastic somewhat but not contractile. Only muscles contract. When the diaphragm contracts it pulls the dome, the top of the parachute, down towards the edges, the ribs. The ribs, ideally expand circumferentially in all directions but not upwards in normal breathing. The diaphragmatic attachments to the bottom of the lungs creates a negative pressure and air is drawn in.
The strongest part of the diaphragm attaches to the spine at the junction of the thoracic spine and the lumbar spine. It is much more meaty than the circular part of the diaphragm. It is called the 'crura' because it is cross shaped. Here in Iowa, where they know a thing or two about beef, a butcher would lable the circular part the skirt steak and the crural part the hanger steak. Jus' sayin'. The strong crural part has different wiring than the circular part. The crural part does the heavy lifting for breathing and the circular part administers the co-ordination with the many and various attachments, wires and functions that have to be co-ordinated with respiration. This is where is gets interesting.
Without going into too much detail here is a list of the other bits that connect to the diaphragm: the heart, the lungs, the liver, the ribs, abdominal muscles, the muscles of the pelvic floor (the 'other' diaphragm), the sternum (the chest bone), the cervical spine, the larynx and the pharynx (yet another 'functional diaphragm', the clavicle/first rib, the floor of the mouth, the back muscle system, the lumbar spine...
The thoracic diaphragm sits at a cross roads of information from all of these structures and our brain/nervous system attempts to co-ordinate the functions of all these systems at once, with every breath, with every swallow, dare a say with every honk.. The diaphragm may be influenced by all these other structures and systems as well. So... respiration, speaking swallowing and chewing, prehension (reaching) the diaphragm contracts before the rotator cuff to stabilize the spine while reaching, sitting, standing ... hence it is a postural muscle that is influenced by postural attitudes and spinal mechanics. This suggests that if there is thoracic diaphragm malfunction, aside from local pathology, the origins may arise elsewhere.
The diaphragm is the great inhaler but it is not primarily responsible for exhalation other than its' own elastic properties.. That is the job of some of the rib muscles, the global abdominal system and many of the back muscles. Some say NOT to use back muscles in breathing but quite honestly I don't see how that is possible or how to selectively choose which muscles do the work. The brain thinks in terms of function not necessarily muscle sequencing for mature tasks.
How we as trombonists literally position ourselves has an effect on two major information systems and pathways that use the same body parts. The respiratory system shares gears, levers and connections with the locomotor Movement) system. So when something goes awry there may be local biomechanical effects i.e. poor shoulder mechanics that lead to compromise of reaching, thoracic outlet syndrome, scapula-thoracic dysynergies (shoulder blade stuff) and also adversly feed back into ideal diaphragm function. Slumping in the chair turns off a part (the circular portion) of the diaphragm activity, elicits an imbalance of abdominal muscle activity and can focally load (overload) portions of the spine (thoraco-lumbar) that may effect actions of the back muscle stabilizing system. Slumping may elicit a head forward posture which can change the shape of the airway, alter TMJ function and adversely feed back into the diaphragm. Head forward posture adds an exponential mechanical stress factor to the neck. One inch past the neutral zone can be orthopedic job security.
Apical breathing or breathing from the upper chest to initiate inhalation is a spinal destabilizing strategy...Karel Lewit. It causes the spine to hinge more at the thoraco-lumbar junction than is necessary and can lead to spinal issues of the tissues if that becomes the default respiratory mechanism.
To play at a down facing angle (nose heavy) the pivoting should ideally occur at the hip. The pelvis should roll forward. This requires increased co-contraction between the the back muscles and the global abdominal muscles to maintain the pressurized abdominal cavity and neutral range spine.
Discussing the nature of tectonic plates, 'She was pure as the falling snow, but she drifted...' Mr. Diamond, my high school geology teacher.. Drift-age may be a side effect of fatigue, wonky radar, poor habits, inadequate conditioning to hold the instrument
Slumping is an easy default but is counter productive as demonstrated above. Better posture is demanding, requires more work and training.
Poor posture often leads to compromised rib excursion. More often the 'posture of the ribs' is stuck in partial inhalation. Then we attempt to inhale more and on exhalation we return to the stuck-in-inhale rib stiffness, utilizing only a portion of our potential and missing an opportunity to fill the tank and get more milage with each breath.
If Glen Gould had to blow into the piano he would likely have had a miserable tone.
An accumulation of even small postural and movement faults may lead to compromised performance over time.
Today we will explore a few foundational exercises that are potentially potent enough to either short circuit an impending shoulder/arm storm, neck/back pain or help manage an existing one.
Don't be a 'tight-ass'. The thoracic diaphragm has anatomical and neurological connections to the pelvic floor via the levator ani muscle group. There will not be a quiz, but know that when this section of the pelvic floor contracts it tucks the tail bone (coccyx) under. That predisposes the lumbar spine to round backwards which sets the dominos in motion to slump which compromises ideal respiratory function. Know that this action may also reflect a guarded/emotional environment. Some individuals never 'let go'. I had a patient who had habituated to this action and subsequently it was discovered that when they were able to release their fear of spontaneous evacuation and 'relax' their external sphincter much of their back pain resolved ..Note: there are two anal sphincters; the internal sphincter, comprised of smooth muscle is controlled involuntarily via autonomic mechanisms (thank goodness). It keeps stuff in..most of the time. The external anal sphincter, comprised of striated muscle is allegedly under voluntary control. When one is lifting heavy loads i.e. tossing Volkswagens or playing in a section with Charlie Vernon we close all the windows and doors and bear down. The patency of the sphincters assure that the 'pressurized capsule' of the the abdominal cavity is locked from that end. How much pressure over comes the operation of the sphincters? The question is, 'When, in playin the trombone, is it appropriate to contract the eternal anal sphincter?' Ever? Never? What does Yoga have to say about this? Exercise: Squeeze your butt tightly. Notice if your anus is also squeezing. If it is squeezing can you release the external anal sphincter tension without letting go of the butt squeeze. Notice what happens when you play high+hard+loud...
In summary...No two humans or two trombones are identical. We all need something different for maintenance, sustenance and thrival BUT we and our slippery metallic companions need things to stay vital. Many old horns appear to be beat up but while their history is writ on patina their slides may work well, you should pardon the expression. We wouldn't likely suffer a bumpy and wonky slide for too long. The question is begged, 'What do we strive for and tolerate in our own selves to achieve our musical goals...?' Embouchures don't exist in a bubble but rather are supported by the rest of the human. A hiccup in any part of the chain may ultimately express it self in what comes out of the bell. It is all connected.