Breath support

October 12, 2008

Quick: define “breath support.”

I fear that to many woodwind players (or wind players in general, and maybe singers too) breath support is something mysterious. I have often had teachers stress to me the importance of breath support, but I can’t remember ever having one explain clearly what it is.

I’m teaching a woodwind methods class this semester and trying hard to make large and complex aspects of woodwind playing accessible to non-woodwind players, enough that they can effectively teach beginning students in a school band setting. I’m stressing breath support in the class because it cures so many ills—more on this momentarily.

So the working definition that I have been using with the class is this:

Breath support is the engagement of the abdominal muscles (including the sides and lower back) during exhalation.

On their recent test, I asked the class to define breath support, to explain a simple way of teaching it to beginners, and to tell why it is so important. Needless to say, I had made all of these things explicitly clear in class, in lecture and in a pre-test review session.

Many of the non-wind-players in the class did very well on this question—they had taken good notes in class, and were able to regurgitate my definition without any trouble.

Some of my wind players, however, apparently didn’t feel the need to pay attention in class when discussing something so simple as breath support, and then weren’t able to give a clear definition. Many of them discussed inhalation, used vague terms like “good air,” or rambled on about posture. I had more than one student stress the absolutely vital importance of keeping the feet shoulder-width apart, a concept that they didn’t get from me and with which I don’t necessarily agree.

Another very common error among the low-scoring wind players was the idea that breath support comes from the diaphragm. The diaphragm is, of course, the star of the show when it comes to inhalation—it is the contraction of this muscle that stretches the lungs, allowing air to rush in. But the diaphragm only flexes in that one direction. Exhalation (in normal breathing) is the result of that muscle relaxing. Of course, for wind playing, the simple relaxation of a muscle can’t provide the kind of air control that we need. Thus, the abdominal (and perhaps intercostal) muscles are also engaged to control exhalation.

Doubtless these vague or erroneous ideas come from my students’ private teachers. Don’t get me wrong: these are good concepts, and even arguably somewhat related to breath support, but they are not breath support per se. I think it’s a shame that there is so little clarity in wind pedagogy.

The example I had given in class for teaching beginners about breath support is to have them tense their stomach muscles, as though bracing for a punch to the gut. This allows them to feel the sensation of engaging those muscles; beyond that it’s a simple matter of reminding students to use their muscles to squeeze the air out of their lungs.

My students mostly also did well at indicating the importance of breath support. I was looking for them to prescribe increased breath support to solve saggy tone and poor intonation. Some also pointed out that it can improve inconsistent response, and even sluggish articulation. In my own playing, I can sometimes solve even more remote problems, like fingering issues, by focusing on breath. (This is likely entirely in my head, but if it works…) One student pointed out that a lack of good breath support will cause students to “fail miserably.” Too true.

How would you have done on my test?

Comments

  1. Helen

    Bret, this is without a doubt, the best article I have read on breath support in wind instruments.

    Thank you for writing something that is so clear, and straight forward.

    You are right, it is a shame that there is so little clarity in wind pedagogy.

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  2. […] day I was reading Bret Pimentel’s blog, and I came across a post of his simply titled, Breath Support. As I mentioned in my comment to him, it is without a doubt, the best article I have read on breath […]

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  3. Colin Brien

    This article is excellent. The point about the abdominal muscles is so simple, but obvious. I also feel like I have never had breath support explained clearly. Thank you!

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  4. Doug Owens

    Bret, thanks for this article. This will go great in my woodwind methods class this semester!!! Thanks for putting into clear wording what I have taken for granted for too many years.

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  5. Jeremy Griffith

    Great article! I played the saxophone through middle and high school and never had a clear concept of what was meant by breath support. Now I’m starting to play again after a 10 year break and I’m trying to start from scratch to keep from re-forming my old bad habits. This article is the first to give me an actionable idea of what breath support is and how to improve it. Thanks!

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  6. Cornelius Boots

    Very good points and good distinction re: the physiological functions of the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles. Your approach is not a full-proof, practical solution to this important topic, however, due to the fact that if the player is NOT filling the lower part of the lungs, then the “stomach” muscles have nothing to support. In other words, some of your wind students were justified in re-focusing the issue on the inhalation.
    Until a player can at least somewhat correctly “breathe low” i.e. diaphragmatically, all the abdominal force in the universe will have nothing to connect with. It is my mission as a woodwind pedagogue and human being to get people breathing lower: exclusively chest-breathing is VERY predominant in modern industrial culture, bad posture IS a contributing factor to shallow breathing, and awareness of the movement of the diaphragm IS at the core of wind performance breath support.

    All that being said, most players (who have some tiny bit of ability to breathe fully i.e. fill the lungs from bottom to top and not just top) DO need to hear about breath support exactly as you describe it in this post: ultimately, you are absolutely correct in terms of this is where the “support” aspect of the equation happens, and more players and teachers should have awareness of this. I’m just pointing out that a finely tuned and lubed engine will take you nowhere with no gas, or with gas in the tank and a broken fuel pump.

    Recent blog post: There’s no such thing as an unpaid gig (September 6, 2012)

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  7. kees hein woldendorp

    Dear Bret,

    Thank you for your efforts to try to focus on breath support. It is indeed very difficult to find scientific information; for example at Pub Med you won’t find any information about the function of the diaphragm.

    I don’t agree (totally) with your definition. At IEPE (see http://www.revalidatie-friesland.nl/IEPE) an unique international Educational Project about embouchure, breath support and singing (2-11-2013 beetsterzwaag, the Netherlands) a state of the art artistic and scientific overview will be given with the participation of European Professors/top speakers in the field of music medicin and topartist to combine theory with practical work for musicians and practioners (doctors and therapists). I can’t attach the brochure of IEPE, sorry..

    with kind regards

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