I had intended to use this week’s post to share videos from my February 6 solo recital, but due to an unexpected delay in preparing those recordings I have chosen an alternative topic. These thoughts were prompted by a discussion on a Facebook group consisting largely of college and university trombone teachers. While I don’t think this post will add significantly to the ideas presented in that discussion, since that is a closed group and Facebook comment threads make for clumsy reading anyway, the topic seemed worth covering in a brief blog post. I hope to have the recital recordings ready to post next weekend.
Brass players, and particularly low brass players, are always looking for ways to improve their ability to move air. Our lung capacity remains more or less fixed once we reach physical maturity, but we can improve our employment of that capacity, making our air usage when playing more efficient and effective. While daily practice is the most important element in improving one’s air usage, a number of exercises and tools purporting to give a further “boost” to this process are marketed to brass players. I will confess at the outset to having several of these in one of my desk drawers.
The PowerLung devices were first brought to my attention at a conference seven years ago, and I purchased one some time later. The (USA) website for PowerLung states the following about the product:
PowerLung is an easy to use, hand-held product proven by independent studies to increase lung capacity and improve your breathing so you can race faster, dive deeper, perform longer, exercise easier, and, overall, breathe better.
PowerLung is for anyone who breathes. It does what exercises or other products can not do for the muscles that support your breathing. You won’t believe the difference PowerLung can make for you, regardless of your current breathing condition, until you feel it for yourself!
Essentially, PowerLung uses controlled resistance—for both inhalation and exhalation—as a means to strengthen the muscles utilized when breathing. The advertised result will be increased (vital) lung capacity, thus for the wind musician leading to better playing. Given those claims, few brass players would refuse to at least give it a try (provided that they have the means to purchase the device).
Admittedly, I have used my PowerLung only sporadically, for periods of 2-4 weeks before stopping for reasons I will discuss momentarily. I have used it as directed, and have indeed felt that my ability to move air efficiently increased when I was using it. This was most noticeable when playing the bass trombone, which requires the highest rate of airflow of all of my instruments. Granted, other variables could come into play here, or perhaps I was merely experiencing a “placebo effect” of some kind, but from my experience the claims of PowerLung’s manufacturer do have some validity. This has been enough to lead me to return repeatedly to using the device despite the consistent reappearance of certain negative effects when I use it regularly.
The PowerLung device does indeed increase (or at least seems to increase) my ability to efficiently move air. However, its method of overtraining the muscles of the breathing apparatus can lead to increased (and unwanted) tension in those muscles. While moving lots of air is vitally important for good brass playing, the body must be as relaxed as possible when playing if the best sound is to be achieved. Creating tired and tense muscles in the breathing apparatus does not promote this sense of relaxation. These effects grew as I increased the resistance on the device; admittedly, I might have tried to increase the resistance too quickly.
An additional concern that might be more limited to my personal situation is that I have a cervical disc injury and occasional “issues” with my right temporomandibular joint (TMJ). While I rarely experience discomfort from either of these thanks to excellent medical and dental care and advice, both problems were always aggravated slightly after a few days of using the PowerLung. Given the chronic nature of both of these conditions and the potential for serious detrimental effects upon my playing, I am quick to avoid anything that makes them worse!
I do want to be fair to the PowerLung and its promoters. The device does indeed deliver on its promises of improved breathing. However, the secondary effects of added tension and, in my special case at least, potential for injury have relegated the device to a place in the desk drawer along with several other rarely-used “breathing toys.” I find myself repeatedly returning to simple exercises such as those promoted in The Breathing Gym, with good results for me and for my students. As was repeatedly referenced in the aforementioned Facebook discussion, if one wants to enhance one’s lung function beyond what is achieved through regular practice and simple breathing exercises, aerobic exercise—perhaps swimming in particular—would be the best way to proceed.