The magical properties of air

May 8, 2013

Often, when I discuss with my students issues in their playing technique, I follow up by asking them, “How can you solve this problem?” They learn quickly that “breath support” (or a rough synonym like “more air”) is generally a safe answer.

And with good reason. Breath support is absolutely key to tone production—it is crucial to reliable response, consistent tone quality, and stable intonation. If I can get a student to improve their breath support, I can generally count on each of those things improving immediately and noticeably.

But I think there are other things that are improved, perhaps indirectly, with air:

  • Finger and tongue movement. I am lumping these together because I have a theory that air helps them in the same couple of ways. The first is that focusing on breathing—a movement so natural that we literally do it for our whole lives and barely think about it—diverts attention away from the finger and tongue movements that woodwind players get so stressed and tense about. This lets the autopilot (or Gallwey’s “Self 2″) take over and execute in a relaxed, natural way. The second way air helps here is that good breath support requires good breathing, and good breathing gets more oxygen to the finger and tongue muscles.
  • Expression. Expressive playing often involves things like dynamic contrasts, vibrato, and nuances of tone color (to name only a few). Each of those things functions better when well-supported: dynamic range expands, and vibrato is smoother and more controlled (again a result of better-oxygenated muscles?). Tone color, I think, actually gets less flexible, in the sense that it becomes more consistent note-to-note despite quirks of the instrument; this means that tone color changes may be applied in a more deliberate way.
  • Confidence and relaxation. Deep breaths are a common and effective insecticide for pre-recital butterflies. The breathing should remain centered and Zen even after the music starts.
Pictured: air. Photo, Matt Peoples
Pictured: air. Photo, Matt Peoples

Comments

  1. Syd Polk

    Good air also helps if your instrument has minor leaks. I know that I grew up playing large woodwinds, and they were always in need of repair, and to make the notes speak, I had to have a LOT of air.

    Reply

  2. Jack Malmstrom

    Yes, yes, and yes.
    Proper breathing gets the player using their whole body as the instrument which helps a lot.
    Perhaps even more than supplying additional oxygen to tongue, fingers and so on, optimal breathing sends more O2 to the brain!

    Recent blog post: Notes from a Grateful Clarinet Player (May 7, 2013)

    Reply

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