“Ear on the Prize”: Employing External Attentional Focus in Learning Brass Instruments

Part 1: AIR

Last week, I recapped the excellent text of studies related to attentional focus and its affect on motor skill learning by Gabriele Wulf. To review: where we put our attention when learning a new skill is important in the development of efficient and accurate movements and will contribute to longer-lasting results and quicker progress. Even at the very beginning level of a skill, an external focus will allow our bodies’ natural learning processes to take over and solidify our abilities.

In several installments, I’d like to tackle a few of those tricky concepts associated with learning the particular motor skills of brass playing, and offer some practical strategies for natural, effective learning.  I’ll address common methods, fads, and accepted techniques and then offer ‘external’ focus solutions for each.

Let’s start with the thing that makes our brass engine go, shall we?

Is it AIR IN or AIR OUT?

Breath. It’s what makes wind instruments go (well, all instruments, but ya know). Brass players are obsessed with it, whole fads have sprung up around helping people increase efficiency and use, and all sorts of gadgets exist that supposedly measure our lung capacity and output. The first thing we’re usually told as a baby brass player? “Take a deep breath…”

Brands like The Breathing Gym sell many on the concept that breathing in is more important than breathing out; that we should be consciously thinking about the movement of our lungs, abdomen, diaphragm, etc. Breathing exercises might have us hold air in our lung in hopes of increasing our lung capacity, but there’s no evidence that our lungs can get any larger through use (They’re not muscles, after all). Our bodies can learn to get oxygen to the system more efficiently (source), but that has more to do with blood flow that the heart can take to our muscles and less to do with how well we sound on an instrument.

Telling yourself or a student how to take a breath IN is a reversal of the natural process of wind playing. It can even induce in our subconscious a subtle fear response- what’s the first thing you do when you are startled?- which makes the body rigid and tense, ready for battle or flight. I prefer to think of breathing in as a natural reaction to what I want to happen- i.e. sound coming out my bell. If I am focused on where my air needs to go, my body will take a relaxed, natural breath- just right to make the result happen.

This lines up with what Wulf calls “optimal attentional focus” (Wulf 149) and what I call “brain magic”. When we learn a complex skill, the components of the skill line up in a queue of actions, and if we want to be most effective, we will let the highest-level affect lead our focus. All other components will tick off without need for conscious intervention. Humans already know how to breathe in and out. We’ve been doing it since day one. What’s different about playing a brass instrument is where we want our external flow of air to go- and that’s the level that should get our attention.

Internal Focus:

“Breathe into your diaphragm/stomach/bottom quadrant of your lungs”

[Personal pet peeve alert! You have no control over your diaphragm (it’s an involuntary muscle, just comes along for the ride when we take in air)/there are no lungs in your stomach/air is a gas and will go wherever it wants given an empty space.]

External Focus:

“Let your air move down the tube and hear it leave the bell”

“Air wants to move. Let it go!”

Internal Focus: 

“Take a big, rib-snapping breath to make sure you can play this entire phrase in one breath (or at a high volume)”


Alternately, I have heard this described as: “Inhale with the syllable ‘WOH'”, implying that this will get more air into your lungs than a normal inhalation. Probably true. But unnecessary.

External Focus: 

“Where do you want the phrase to go? Where do you want the sound to go?”

[I’ve also advocated for “take a breath wherever you need, and as long as you hear the phrase moving on it will communicate through to the audience and they won’t register your breath.”]

An observation I’ve made is that when my attention is fully outward, on the task of communicating the music, my intakes are no bigger or deeper than a normal conversational breath.

Internal Focus: 

Breath Builder
Breathing Bag

Both of these items claim to increase lung use and capacity, but really make the user focus on how much air they intake rather than what they do with it. I could argue a case for finding external foci for these implements, but…why not spend less of your money on something simpler and more effective?

External Focus: 

drinking straw

Hold a straw in just in front of your airstream (not in your mouth), and move air out the end of it, hearing the resonance of the straw react. This is a great tool for developing range and will make a return cameo in later installments!


“Play” the phrase you are working on on your pinwheel, keeping it spinning as long as you hear the notes connecting. You can really feel the resistance of the pinwheel, which imitates the resistance of the balance point in your instrument.

your instrument

I mean… it’s what you’re learning to use, right? What better tool than that? What do you want it to sound like? Think about the result you want, and activate that brain magic to help you get there.

Please feel free to share your strategies for healthy air flow in the comments, or ask questions or clarifications!

Stay tuned for the next installment of “Ear on the Prize”: Embouchure. Another laden word in the brass community, I will try to break down the myths and misconceptions of creating a healthy brass embouchure and give some of my tactics for doing it efficiently and easily.

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