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'Gym' helps musicians breathe

February 11, 2009

When he was 17, Sam Pilafian was privileged to have one lesson with Arnold Jacobs, principal tubist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1944 until 1988, who is known as the “dean of American tuba players.”

What Jacobs told the 5-foot-6-inch-Pilafian was to change his life – and lead to a revolution in the way wind instruments are played.

“He told me I had half the air I needed to be a professional tuba player,” Pilafian recalled.

Pilafian became obsessed with learning how to breathe better. “I studied martial arts, and anything and everything I could about breathing,” he said.

The result of his work over the years is “The Breathing Gym,” a system of stretching and air-flow exercises that promote maximum use of lung capacity.

Actually, Pilafian’s system, which he developed with Patrick Sheridan, a fellow tubist who is a visiting professor at ASU this year, is built on groundwork laid by Jacobs.

According to a Web bio of Jacobs, it was rumored that he had only one lung. But “he did in fact have both of his lungs. Due to childhood illness and adult-onset asthma, his lung capacity was significantly impaired,” the bio notes.

While it would appear that tuba players use much more air than those who play the smallest instruments – flute or piccolo, for example – that is not the case, Sheridan said. “All wind-instrument players need to develop their breathing to use between 25 and 95 percent of their lung capacity,” Sheridan said.

“Most people use 10 to 25 percent of their air for conversation and so forth. Even athletes only use 25 to 65 percent.”

Pilafian and Sheridan, who have known each other for many years, both use The Breathing Gym techniques in their teaching. Their book, “The Breathing Gym,” published in 2002, and 54-minute DVD (a new one came out Feb. 12)  are used by numerous schools, from elementary level to university, around the world.

What difference does Breathing Gym training make for wind players, beyond allowing them to go longer without taking a breath?

Put two tubists on stage together, one with Breathing Gym experience and the other without, and the difference will be apparent from the first notes they play, Pilafian said.

“The notes played by the one with training are smoother, and there is more music coming out of the instrument. There is less huffing and puffing.”

Band teachers and professional musicians all over the world are beginning to incorporate The Breathing Gym into their classrooms and performances, putting ASU in “an enviable place” among universities with music schools, Pilafian said.

Since virtually every wind player who graduates from ASU has gym training, they are hot prospects on the teaching and performance job markets. “Our people are a cut above,” Pilafian said.

Christopher Hulett, who based his doctoral research at ASU on The Breathing Gym, and now is the band director at Scottsdale Community College, said the technique is “accessible event to students at the elementary level. “I’ve seen fourth graders really get into it.”

“A good band director,” he added, already uses breathing exercises, but The Breathing Gym uses imagery to give a feel for what theses exercises are trying to do.”

As music teachers began to learn about Pilafian and Sheridan’s book and DVD, the effects started to ripple out from ASU like a stone dropped in water.

Sports will be the gym’s next frontier. Pilafian said golf and football coaches have also expressed interest in learning more about The Breathing Gym.

“It’s just getting bigger and bigger,” he added.