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What Every Musician Needs to Know About the Body

David Nesmith

This article first appeared in The Horn Call, The Journal of the International Horn Society (Volume XXIX, No. 4, August 1999) It is based on a presentation that was given at the Celebration ’99 IHS Symposium at Athens, Georgia. The co-presenter was Barbara Conable. The presentation relied on many visual aids (slides, video and anatomy models). It is suggested that the reader have at hand a detailed anatomy book for reference. (See Resources at the end.)

Sound is Movement​

For every sound we can conceive, there is only one coordination of movements that creates it. If movement in our bodies is pinched or tense, our sounds will be pinched or tense. Conversely, if the movement is free and easy, our sounds will be free and easy. Much traditional training is learning technique, musicianship, and, more recently, the psychology of performing. If the movement of playing is taught at all it often comes across intuitively, sometimes with physical misuse built in. This needs to change. The movement of playing needs to be taught directly as movement, and freedom of movement needs to be taught directly.How can we learn to free the movement of our bodies while playing? In other words, how can we learn to blend, along with our musical conceptions, corresponding kinesthetic(1) conceptions that are actually responsible for governing the movements that vibrate the horn and produce our “sound”? There are two primary steps. AttentionThe first step is to train a person’s attention by cultivating kinesthetic sensitivity, discernment, and responsiveness. This means we learn to actually feel the movement of our playing, for this movement is just as important as that of a dancer or athlete, though more subtle and refined. Along with sensitivity, discernment is needed to differentiate between various qualities of movement. And finally, we can cultivate responsiveness to the information observed in the body and choose a quality of movement that suits the music. Sometimes simple attention is enough to solve problems. At other times, however, movement must be retrained. 

Body Mapping

One effective way to retrain movement is Body Mapping, as taught by Barbara Conable and other Andover Educators, including myself. The Body Map is one’s self-representation in one’s own brain.(2) If the Body Map is accurate, movement is generally good. If the Body Map is inaccurate or inadequate, movement is inefficient and even injury producing. Our Body Maps contain information about our structure, function, and size, and they simply govern our movement. In other words, we move according to how we think we are structured rather than according to how we are actually structured.(3)For example, if a horn player has his jaw “mapped” as joining the skull at a point forward of the actual joint (which is just in front of the ear), the brain will attempt to create movement in the wrong place. This creates stress on the true joint and limits the full range of movement. Learning the truth about the actual location of the joint of the jaw with the skull will free its movement.Body Maps need not be conscious, however. Many performers, often seen as “naturals,” exhibit fine, free body use. By experience and effective modeling during their development, they have managed to maintain complete and accurate maps unconsciously. Musicians who do not move efficiently may benefit from correcting or enhancing their Body Maps by observing and imitating the natural movers whose Body Maps are good. They may use an anatomy book to correct and refine their Maps. Seeing the truth of the structure is helpful. The remainder of this article is aimed at helping you become aware of your own Body Map, and providing opportunities for you to check it for inaccuracies or inadequacies that directly effect free breathing. If you already breathe freely, then this information may help you identify and correct common mapping problems in your students.

The Core of the Body and Places of Balance

Our freest movement and consequently our freest breathing will only be available to the degree that we are balanced. Our bodies can be “postured” (shoulders back, chest out, tummy tucked, etc.), “collapsed” (slumped) or “balanced.” A “balanced” body utilizes our bony structure and postural reflexes for support of voluntary movement. It is that place from which movement in any direction is easiest. We experience balance when we make full use of mechanical advantage: bone in right relationship to bone.

Look at the illustration below. Notice the line that divides the body in half lengthwise-this is the “Core” of the body. Our bodies are organized around the spine. Notice some things about the spine’s structure: it is long, from right up between the ears down to between the pelvic bones; it is curvy not rod-like; it is segmented. Two functions of the spine are to bear weight on the front half and protect the spinal cord in the back half. Many musicians have these functions confused and throw weight on the back half, which is one of the primary causes of lower back pain. The reality is that we are organized around our core support, the anterior, weight-bearing portion of the spine.

Where the head rests on top of the spine is the first, and most important place of balance. Refer to an anatomy book and notice that this joint is right between the ears. The distance from this joint to either the front of the skull or the back is nearly equal. If we believed incorrectly that the top of the spine was lower that this, for example, in line with the bottom of the jaw, then free movement of the upper cervical vertebrae would be restricted. The power of the Body Map would override reality with regard to movement. Correctly mapping this joint as up between the ears and freeing it liberates the structures of breathing, increases blood flow to and from the brain, and allows more communication within the nervous system. If the neck muscles are tense, pulling the head off-balance on top of the spine, there is pressure on vital nerves. Pressure on nerves reduces sensation. Reliable sensation is what we want to recover.

How do we free the neck and find balance? By intent, just like we sing a pitch. Try pulling your head back and straightening/stiffening your neck in a “postury” sort of way to find one extreme. Now push it forward into a more collapsed posture. This can be compared to going sharp or flat with a pitch. 

Finally, allow your head to float back to a point somewhere in between where there is less effort, like bringing a note in tune. Use a mirror for visual feedback. Be careful not to assume where balance is by placing your head in a certain way. Keep your attention broad and “listen” with your kinesthesia; it’s like listening with your ears, only in your joints!

The next place of balance is at the lumbar region of the spine. Many hornists are pulled back here in a “postury” sort of way. This shortening and narrowing of the muscles puts pressure on the back half of the lumbar vertebrae. The lumbar vertebrae are very large and meant to bear weight down the front half, which is very central in the abdomen. Being off-balance in the lumbar region directly affects free diaphragm movement and vital capacity. Sometimes we can go off-balance if we attempt to move at the mythical “waist.” Waists are talked about in regards to fashion, but are not found at all in anatomy books!

Our bodies divide in half (upper half, lower half) at the next place of balance, where the legs join the pelvis. Our weight is delivered down the front of the large lumbar vertebrae, down and out through the pelvic bones and into the massive joints on the outside of the pelvis. Some folks have these joints mapped up on the pelvic crest or inside the pelvis. When we know for sure where these joints are and don’t tense or “grip” the muscles there we can discern balance. When sitting the only difference is that the legs simply swing up and out of the way while we deliver weight through our sit-bones into the chair.

Our weight is delivered into the knee, which is the joint below, and behind the kneecap. Many people move as if the joint is simply behind the kneecap and this causes pain. We have three options for movement at the knee: bent, locked, and balanced. Locked knees are the body’s compensation for being off-balance in the lumbar region.

If asked to draw your leg and foot, would you draw it “L”-shaped, with the foot sticking out completely in front of the leg? If so, then you may be sending your weight as if down a tight calf and into the heel. This common mis-mapping of the lower leg sends the body off balance backwards. The weight-bearing lower leg bone is at the front of the leg. Our weight is meant to deliver through this bone to the ankle at the apex of the arch. When we allow this to happen our feet support us like tripods, each foot delivering the weight down and back to the heel, and outward to each side of the ball of the foot.

Stand with the horn and deliberately try on the “L”-shaped mis-mapping. Then, being mindful of all the places of balance, ease into a more even weight distribution throughout your feet. When standing balanced the postural reflex that gives a “spring” to our step is available and greatly assists solo performing.

The final place of balance is the arm structure over the torso. As we explore all the other balance points we can allow our arms to naturally hang over the torso, not pulled back nor rolled to the front. Experiment with both extremes (going “sharp” and “flat”), then look for balance and ease (in tune) somewhere in the middle. A freely-balanced arm structure allows the upper ribs more mobility and greater ease holding the horn.

Let’s put it all together. Stand in front of a full-length mirror. Raise your arms above your head and slightly forward. Rise onto the balls of your feet. Find balance, being mindful of all the points. Knees should be balanced and soft. Now, gently lower your heels to the floor, bending at the ankles. Ease your weight into the heels until you feel it equally front and back. Lower your arms. Notice the degree to which you want to continue leaning back, putting more weight into the heels. Doing this observational exercise periodically will increase your awareness of balance. If you are habitually pulled back off balance this may feel like you are leaning forward. Check the mirror. Try this with the horn.

Breathing is Movement

Now let’s explore the territories of breathing. There are three sources of trouble with breathing: a misunderstanding of the structures, a misunderstanding of the movement, and tension in muscles superficial to the breathing muscles. Again, as you follow this discussion, it will be helpful if you have an anatomy book.

Air enters and exits through the nose and mouth, where we begin to be awake to the sensations of breathing. The air moves into the long pharynx. Note the distinction between throat and neck. The neck is the large group of muscles, which move the head, the throat, the smaller structures interior to it which speak, sing and swallow. You can feel the pharynx by swallowing. These muscles have nothing to do with breathing, though their tensing creates a noisy breath. Notice, also, that the cervical curve of the spine is right behind the throat. A tense neck can distort this curve and restrict air flow.

Since we are in the vicinity, let’s consider the embouchure. Find a picture of the face muscles. All of the muscles connected to the lips form the embouchure, not just the lips. We can put lots of stress on the lips if we expect them to do all the work. Expanding your awareness to include all of your face will distribute the effort. Be careful not to anticipate the effort of playing during inhalation. Practice placing the mouthpiece on the lips and noticing any tendency to “wind-up” or get “set.”(4)

Jaws?! No, there is only one jaw and it is an appendage to the skull, just like the arms and legs are appendages. Think of it as an appendage and you will experience more freedom in its movement. Also, map correctly the distance between the two temporomandibular joints (TMJ) and their location just in front of the ears. Tension in the neck is a major source of problems in these joints. Palpate (explore with the fingers) the whole of your jaw including the joints. Horn players need a free jaw to negotiate subtle movements through the wide tonal range of the instrument.

Another virtue of a free neck is a free tongue. A common mis-mapping of the tongue has it beginning in the back of the mouth. In fact, the posterior third of the tongue arises vertically out of the throat from the hyoid bone, a small, horseshoe-shaped bone just above the larynx and just below the base of the tongue. Tension in the neck affects tongue movement, so if you have trouble with articulation on the horn, you might check for tenseness in your neck.

The air moves through the pharynx into the trachea, or windpipe. It’s important to have this mapped as being in front of the esophagus, or food tube. Try breathing as if you believed the opposite and notice the restricted air flow. Freeing your neck, throat, tongue, and jaw, and having the windpipe mapped in front, will allow what is commonly referred to as an “open throat.”

The air moves down the windpipe, which is shorter than the food-tube, into the lungs. These are the most commonly mis-mapped structures of breathing; musicians don’t always really know where their air goes during inhalation. The lungs are located in the upper third of the torso (the thorax) and are responsible for purifying and extracting oxygen from the air nourishing all the cells of the body. From the front, the tops of the lungs are just above the collar bones. The bottom of the lungs in front are level with the bottom of the sternum or breast bone. The widest part of the lungs are at the level of the nipples. The lungs fill the area of the ribs which is continuous all the way around.

From the back, we can locate the lungs by moving our shoulder blades all around. The lungs lie under this entire area. Shoulder blades offer additional protection to the lungs, along with the ribs. If you look down at a cross-section of the body through the lungs, you would see that at least half of the lungs are beside and behind the weight bearing portion of the spine. A common mis-mapping has the lungs totally in front of the spine. Consequences of this error in thinking include reduced air capacity and reduced dynamic support from the spine for breathing.

There are 24 ribs, 12 on each side. On the front, all but the floating ribs are connected to the breast bone by cartilage. Walk your fingers from the breast bone out on a rib and feel the texture difference where cartilage turns to bone. Cartilage is flexible and allows the ribs to move in breathing. The other end of each rib joins a process on the side of the spine at a joint. So there are 24 joints, all providing movement during breathing. Try not to call them a “cage,” which implies rigidity.

Between all the ribs are the intercostal muscles. These muscles account for about 25% of the work of breathing. During inhalation, the ribs move up and out at flexible cartilage in front and at joints in back (like bucket handles). During exhalation, they move down and in (like bucket handles). The breast bone floats along for the ride, rising and falling gently. You can feel the movement of your upper ribs by putting your right hand up under your right arm and your left hand on your chest with the index finger resting along the collar bone. During inhalation, there is also a deepening of the upper thoracic area. This movement is not to be confused with simply thrusting up the breast bone, which is really a spinal movement and has nothing to do with breathing.

The thorax is separated from the rest of the torso by a large, dome-shaped muscle called the diaphragm. This is the second most commonly mis-mapped structure of breathing. It is a horizontal structure that attaches at the base of the ribs all the way around and domes upward. The movement of the diaphragm accounts for 75% of the work of breathing. However, don’t look for a felt perception of this work. Just like the heart, the diaphragm doesn’t contain nerves to sense its own work. During inhalation, the diaphragm contracts and moves downward a short distance. This allows more space in the thorax, creating a vacuum in the lungs which draws in air, and simultaneously pushing down on the organs in the abdominal region just below. During exhalation, the diaphragm relaxes and regains its former shape expelling air from the lungs (along with rib movement by the action of the intercostals) and allowing the abdominal organs (viscera, guts, innards) to find their resting place again. This happens every time we breathe. Sometimes the diaphragm is confused with the front abdominal wall and is mis-mapped as being a vertical structure.

Next, we come to the abdominal cavity. It houses the organs of digestion and is surrounded by a cylindrical muscle group on our front, back, and sides called the abdominal wall. It’s important to know about it because if it is tense it will restrict the free movement of the abdominal organs to the front, back, and sides as the diaphragm descends on inhalation, as you can prove if you try tensing the abdominal muscles and inhale. When these muscles are free they provide an auxiliary support to breathing by springing back naturally. Be aware of the “filling fantasies” created by statements like, “breathe from your belly.” This can serve as a useful visualization, but if a student is naive to where the lungs are they might assume that the air does indeed go in the belly.

The pelvic cavity contains the organs of reproduction and elimination. These organs also respond to the movement of the diaphragm, but only if the pelvic diaphragm (also know as the pelvic floor) is free. This bowl of muscle at the base of the pelvis mirrors the diaphragm. These muscles, when allowed to be free, spring back during exhalation as a further aid to breathing. The resiliency of the abdominal wall and pelvic diaphragm are a tremendous auxiliary support to breathing. Experiment with tightening these muscles and learning to release them. How? By intent.

Another support for breathing comes from the deep pelvic muscles, which go along the spine down through the pelvis and connect to the top of the leg. There are actually fibers from these muscles, which are continuous with the diaphragm near the lumbar vertebrae. During free breathing, these muscles are engaged, creating a wonderful dynamic impression of support. This is another good reason to honor the curves of the spine and be balanced on the lumbar region so one doesn’t interfere with this support.

What is our primary support for breathing? Return to the balance of the head on top of the spine. The integrity of our breathing is directly dependent on this relationship. When our necks are free and the head is balanced, the lengthening and gathering dynamic of the spine is liberated. This is a movement of the spine, which is coordinated with our breathing and is our primary support. Upon inhalation, the two ends of the spine “gather” closer together allowing a deepening of the thoracic curve. This creates more space for lung expansion. Upon exhalation, the spine lengthens. When the neck is tense, pulling the head off-balance, this lengthening and gathering of the spine is proportionally restricted. A common misunderstanding of the movement of breathing exists in the notion that we get taller when we inhale. This is a remnant of teaching rigid “posture.”

Lie down on your right side in front of a mirror. Put your left hand palm down on the floor and rest your right cheek on the back of your hand. Have your knees drawn up slightly, perhaps with a pillow between them. As you breathe, notice the relationship of your face to your hand. The freer your breathing the more you will discern the movement which is the lengthening and gathering dynamic of the spine.

In Review

What BREATHES? The diaphragm and ribs.

What SUPPORTS BREATHING? The floor or chair, our bony structure and postural reflexes, the lengthening/gathering dynamic of the spine (primary aid), the resiliency of the abdominal wall and pelvic floor (auxiliary aid).

As we learn to rely on our core support, recover balance, and correct and enhance our Body Map, we go a long way toward liberating the movement of playing the horn. This will allow a greater range of expression, because we will have available a greater choice of quality movement. This process must necessarily become conscious as we change unconstructive behavior to constructive behavior. After a while, constructive behavior becomes the norm.

It is hoped that this discussion will jump-start your exploration into the movement that creates your sound. Learning to blend a kinesthetic imagination with a musical imagination will enhance the total experience of horn playing. At every breath, it is possible to renew balance, ease, and buoyancy in our bodies. Let your body breathe, and your music will, too.


Andover Educators® is an organization of musicians trained by Barbara Conable to teach the full 6-hour course, “What Every Musician Needs to Know About the Body (C).” More information may be found on the web at

Conable, Barbara and Conable, Benjamin. What Every Musician Needs to Know About the Body. Columbus, Ohio: Andover Press, 1998. ISBN 0-9622595-5-1.

Conable, Barbara and Conable, William. How to Learn the Alexander Technique, 3rd ed. Columbus, Ohio: Andover Press, 1995. ISBN 0-9622595-4-3.

Kapit, Wynn and Elson, Lawrence M., The Anatomy Coloring Book, 2nd ed. HarperCollins, 1993. ISBN 0-06-455016-8.

Netter, Frank H. M.D., Atlas of Human Anatomy. Ciba-Geigy Corporation, 1989. ISBN 0-914168-19-3.


1. We actually have 6 senses, not five. In addition to seeing, tasting, smelling, hearing and touching, we have a kinesthetic sense. Kinesthetic sensors are located in our muscles concentrated at the joints. It tells us about our size, position and movement and the quality of that movement. It’s how we know that our right hand is in the bell even though we can’t see it.

2. Conable, Barbara and Conable, Benjamin, What Every Musician Needs to Know About the Body, n. pag.

3. Conable, Barbara and Conable, William, How to Learn the Alexander Technique, 32.

4. A word of caution needs to be inserted here. Be aware that surgical procedures such as the cryogenic removal of troublesome spots on the skin of the face may damage underlying nerves to the lips. These nerves may or may not regenerate after the damage. Talk to your doctor about options and side-effects. An article in the journal NEURON (May 1999) reports that successful regeneration of severed spinal cords in rats has been accomplished. Lead researcher, Dr. Clifford Woolf, of Massachusetts General Hospital, predicts that it won’t be long before nerve damage in humans, including severed spines, can be successfully corrected as well.

5. The science advisor for Andover Educators® is Dr. T. Richard Nichols of the Emery University School of Medicine.The AuthorDavid Nesmith is an Andover Educator and a teacher of the Alexander Technique.

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