Breath support, register breaks, and resistance

A few months ago I wrote this about the clarinet:

If breath support, embouchure, and voicing are correctly established, then Crossing the Dreaded Break ceases to be a Thing. It’s just another note: a moment ago you were playing B-flat, and now you are playing B-natural. As long as your fingers get where they are supposed to go, then that’s all there is to it. Personally, I don’t even use the word “break” with a beginning student—there’s no need to get them all uptight about what really is a non-event.

My point was that crossing a register break is merely a fingering issue, and shouldn’t be turned into a big to-do about embouchures and equipment purchases and so forth. And I stand by that, but there is something I glossed over a bit that perhaps ought to be revisited in more detail, and that applies to register break crossings on all woodwind instruments.

The point that I want to return to is that of breath support. If it, and some other basic tone-production matters, are “correctly established,” then break-crossing is indeed nothing more than a new fingering or two. But assuming that breath support is 100% correct with a student just reaching the break-crossing stage is often a mistake.

Each note on the clarinet (and on any woodwind) has a certain level of resistance—that is to say, it requires a certain amount of air pressure to get the air column vibrating. Some notes are more resistant, and some are less resistant. As a sort of general oversimplification, we might assume that a long-tube note (with more toneholes closed) is more resistant than a short-tube note (with more toneholes open). Other factors do apply, of course: the size of the toneholes, whether the fingering is a “forked” fingering, and more, but let’s isolate tube length for the moment. So for the clarinet, having a break between A-sharp and B, we would expect to see this kind of resistance change while crossing the break:

Taller grey bar = higher resistance
Taller grey bar = higher resistance

(Note that the bar graphs here are strictly illustrative and not based on any real measurements.)

A beginner who is accustomed to the lower resistance of a few chalumeau-register notes might have intuitively developed just enough breath support to make those notes respond. When he or she attempts to cross the break, the breath support isn’t enough to overcome the increased resistance:


The breath support needs to be high enough to power the most resistant notes, and the less-resistant ones certainly do not suffer from it; on the contrary, their tone and pitch stability are improved by the additional support:


My college-level clarinet students have mostly mastered this, though sometimes they slip a bit. More of them still struggle a little with the transition across the higher break into the clarinet’s altissimo register, especially if they are timid about squeaking and tend to reduce airflow as they approach the high notes. My other reed-playing students sometimes have similar problems: oboists’ and saxophonists’ fourth-line D is sluggish (D-flat too, for oboists). With the bassoon, resistance throughout the instrument’s “beginner” range is generally fairly low and response isn’t as much of an issue, but lazy breath support manifests itself in a big way as pitch instability.

So crossing the break is not specifically a breath support issue; breath support needs to be powerful enough and constantly applied, to improve response across the break but also to improve virtually every aspect of woodwind tone production.


5 responses to “Breath support, register breaks, and resistance”

  1. Another concept excellently explained Bret!

    I hate to be a “One-note-Johnny” (puns intended), but as I opined a while back on your post about scales, I’m gonna add that I think the EAR plays a role in successful break-crossing. Somehow, just building up the right air-pressure and pushing the right keys like an automaton ain’t gonna do the trick on a clarinet. I’ve found that if the player has trained the ear to expect a given note, it sure helps — sometimes to the almost magical point of making the right tone pop out in a quick passage even if the fingering isn’t exact! That’s probably a difficult concept to teach, but I think it’s in there somewhere….

    1. Jack, I sort of agree. I’m not a fan of “magic” as a playing technique, but certainly our mental “ears” can help us, sometimes completely intuitively, to create the right situations for the desired audible vibrations to occur. However, if the air pressure and keys are in place, then the notes will be there! Cue the automaton…

  2. John Mings Avatar
    John Mings

    I can’t remember if Bret plays an EWI, but if so do you have the same break when using an EWI with, for instance WIVI Winds. They claim to emulate everything an acoustic Wind instr.does and I have trouble sometimes getting some notes to have the full bodied sound for the same reason you discuss here,and the weak notes on Bassoon seem to also be emulated in WIVI. I would appreciate very much tour expert opinion on this.

    1. I do play the EWI, but I have not used WIVI.

      As the EWI is an electronic instrument, the actual blowing resistance does not change at all regardless of what note you are playing. It is possible that you are using a softsynth that does imitate the characteristics of individual notes on a traditional woodwind, but it is an artificial construction and unrelated to breath support.

      However, I do find good breath support to be helpful for fine control of dynamics on the EWI.

  3. I have noticed that there is a combination of factors that affect the tone and resistance in breath support in playing the clarinet. One of the important factors is the reed. When reeds come from the factory, they are somewhat unfinished and need some adjustment. Making adjustments may allow the reed to vibrate easily. Of course, the correct positioning of the mouth on the reed and mouthpiece are important considerations also. Transitions are easier when all factors come together.

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