Six weeks ago, I took an audition for a summer orchestra.

I didn’t win.

You know who else didn’t win?

My “inner critic.” The source of that stigma I discussed two months ago.

And damn, that felt good.

I know not everyone who reads this blog makes music (directly) with his/her respiratory system. But it seems I sparked some interest in the subject of managing the Valsalva Maneuver, regardless of the instrument the reader plays. Or whether s/he is a performer at all.

So I thought I’d follow up on what I did to rise above this often-debilitating nuisance.

I can’t claim this is as a be-all, end-all solution. As anyone who deals with this problem will tell you, there are ups and downs. But I strongly believe the absence of the Valsalva Maneuver in my audition was dependent on these four things.

(Yes, you can have success at an audition even if you don’t win the job.)

A black labradoodle jumps over a white and green pole, like a track and field jump. On the left, you see a vertical, green beam it rests on. Green grass and a brick wall are underneath and behind the dog.

Embrace My Vulnerability

In that article two months ago, I committed to going forward with unaccompanied solo performance situations, even though historically, that’s where the Valsalva Maneuver has reared its ugly head. This audition was my first opportunity to follow through.

In the weeks leading up to the audition, the “inner critic” tried to make me worried. That I would “lock up” before the first notes of my excerpts. And when this happened, somehow that would deem me a failure. And everybody on the audition committee would think I’m a failure, too.

These thoughts, irrational as they were, wouldn’t just strike me when I was practicing. They hit me at the most random times. When I was driving. Watching TV. Spending time with friends.

I knew the best way to overcome these thoughts was to accept and be at peace with the fact that the Valsalva Maneuver could very well happen at the audition. And if it did, I wouldn’t be failure. There is so much more to music than the beginning of a first note. Moreover, if anyone in the audition room were to “look down on me”, that is someone whose energy I don’t need in my life anyway.

This was liberating.

What to Think/Do before Playing

One of the more consistent gems of audition preparation wisdom that I’ve come across is deciding exactly what will happen in the moments leading up to the first note of every piece. Not only what will be going through one’s mind, but also one’s body.

About a month before the audition, I took some time to make the below process a habit and answer certain questions about each piece.

  1. Breathe.
  2. Actively relax the muscle groups that tend to tense up.
  3. Breathe.
  4. What style will I be playing?
    • Light and buoyant Rossini.
    • Noble and energetic Wagner.
    • Smooth and suave Ravel.
  5. What music will I hear in my head immediately before playing? How many measures of it?
    • Rossini’s Overture to “La Gazza Ladra”: The rest of the orchestra, four measures that precede the passage.
    • Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”: The rest of the orchestra and the singing Valkyries, four bars that precede the passage. (Hojotoho!)
    • Ravel’s “Bolero”: The rest of the orchestra, two measures that precede the passage.
  6. For how many beats will I breathe in before playing the first note?
    • “La Gazza Ladra”: Three quarter notes.
    • “Ride of the Valkyries”: One full beat and two eighth notes preceding the first note.
    •  “Bolero”: Three eighth notes.

For the weeks preceding the audition, every time I picked up my instrument–or imagined picking up my instrument–to play the audition repertoire, I went through these steps.

Those of you who are into Performance Psychology may be familiar with this type of approach from the methods of Dr. Don Greene and/or Dr. Noa Kageyama. Two incredibly brilliant people who have empowered so many musicians. Check out their stuff!

Mock Auditions

In the month leading up to the audition, I organized three mock auditions.

I think most readers have heard of this, but essentially, you ask your friends to come listen to you play through your audition repertoire. Best efforts are made to simulate the audition experience. Everything from how the room is configured to how the performance proceeds. Almost always, there is a postmortem in which you get feedback about what went well and what didn’t from your friends’ perspectives.

Almost always, I get much more nervous playing for people I know and love than people I’ve never met before. So these mock auditions, while having no consequence on my professional life, help me get used to playing under pressure. They make the audition room feel more familiar. And specific to the Valsalva Maneuver, the mock auditions enable me to commit to the first two items on this list.

I am very grateful to generous friends who have given me their time and expertise.


The last thing the Internet needs is someone dishing up more unsolicited advice about exercise. And even though I’m a five-time decathlon winner*, I’m not a qualified resource for anything related to this topic.

That said, I feel it’s important to say that I strongly believe sessions with a personal trainer twice a week helped me fend off the Valsalva Maneuver. As with most kinds of training (I assume), we do a variety of exercises, which includes lifting things that feel heavy.

Pertinent to my breathing, I have found that when done properly, these lifting exercises accustom my body to inhaling exclusively with muscles designed for breathing in, and exhaling exclusively with muscles designed for breathing out. I have to breathe the way the body was designed to function in order to properly execute the exercises, and I’ve subconsciously carried this over into anything that directly requires breathing.

Including trombone.

While the Valsalva Maneuver manifests itself physiologically, it’s a psychological phenomenon. Therefore, I wonder if exercising hasn’t only made me stronger, but if it has also improved my nervous system.

The good kind of “nervous”, of course.


*I’m not a five-time decathlon winner.

About Doug Rosenthal

No one told Douglas Rosenthal to give up playing music. Not even his patient siblings, who endured many early-morning practice sessions; even they encouraged their brother to follow his passion. As the years passed, that passion evolved from simply playing music to advocating for music, musicians, and music-lovers. Douglas is based in Washington, DC. He is the Assistant Principal Trombonist of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra/Washington National Opera Orchestra. He currently makes his home on Capitol Hill in DC with a pug named Jake, who serves as a constant reminder to relax, eat well, and sleep plentifully.

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