Learning to compress air inside your body is a subject that is discussed by many of the world’s greatest high-note players and teachers. Among these elite it is common knowledge, but to the majority of players breathing is a hugely misunderstood topic. Many teachers in the world today encourage players to use vast amounts of air and dedicate much of their practise routine to attempting (fruitlessly) to increase the capacity of their lungs (seriously… good luck with that!). The truth is that increasing the amount of air you can fit inside your body does not make any difference to how much power you can generate with the air. The number of people who recommend that you push outwards against your belt when you breathe in that have also had ruptured hernias is staggering and yet they continue to perpetuate this physically damaging ‘technique’ to any innocent person that wants to improve their playing.
Thankfully with the advent of tools such as YouTube, the dissemination of good information is much greater than it was in the past. Previous members of the Maynard Ferguson Band such as Lynn Nicholson make videos explaining how they can perform very physically demanding music for long shows without doing themselves physical harm and this information is freely available to anyone with a fast enough internet connection.
The basic mechanics of creating air compression is simple. Breathe in, not too deeply, and then pull your belly button up and inwards. This makes the space that the air is in smaller, and thrusts it out of the body. Bobby Shew has published a good description of how muscles of the whole torso are used for forceful expulsion of air and it is well worth a read. There is no need to focus on any particular muscle set that you cannot wilfully control – please just make sure that you move it all in the right direction!
Squeezing a plastic bottle from the bottom with the cap off will not expel the contents of that bottle with any force. That is because there is nothing to resist the flow and no compression is created. In order for us to generate compression there needs to be a small aperture that resists the flow of air. In other words, in order to make compression you need something to hold the air in. This may sound backwards, but so far there has been nothing discussed that is outside the realms of understanding traditional playing technique. Under normal circumstances the only thing that resists the flow of air is the lips. This is why they need to build up strength for a player to have any stamina or ability in the high tessitura of the instrument. However this is the point where the TCE is different.
Players who play with their tongue through their teeth resist the flow of air and generate compression with their tongue. A small aperture is formed between the top of the tongue and the cutting edge of the top teeth. The tongue is a much stronger muscle than the lips, and this is why the TCE is so effective. It also means that with practise players who use the TCE will only need around 1/3 of the air that most use to play a phrase. The physical effort that goes into playing is vastly reduced and they can focus of playing music rather than mere survival.