The magical properties of air

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

“Tip of the tongue” mythology and the flute

As woodwind players we are often taught that articulation requires the use of the tip of the tongue and no more—to use more than the tip would just be wrong!

For reed instruments, I think this is essentially true, but I don’t think it works that way on the flute. Try this:

  1. Using a reed instrument mouthpiece, or substituting a (clean) finger, simulate “tip of the tongue” articulation. Find the very tip of the tongue and touch it lightly to the tip of the reed (real or imaginary). With the tongue frozen in this position, apply some air pressure. If you allow the lips to “unseal” from around the mouthpiece at this point, air escapes.
  2. Now try it with nothing inside your mouth, in the manner of a flutist. Touch just the very tip of the tongue to your favorite articulation spot (palate, teeth, or maybe lip, depending on your pedagogical pedigree) as though about to tongue a note, and apply air pressure. Notice all the air leaking out? Me neither.

Are you really holding back  all that air with just the very tip of your tongue? While I think “tip of the tongue” is still a useful fiction for flute playing, it seems to me that I must actually use a surprising amount of tongue to seal off the air from escaping—the sides of my tongue contact my molars to help contain the air until I am ready to release it.

Photo, drurydrama
Photo, drurydrama

(The tip of the tongue is effective for reed instruments because it is only necessary to prevent the reed from vibrating as the air pressure is applied—a very small amount of tongue is quite effective for this.)

The “tip of the tongue” is a good concept for helping flutists to keep their articulation light, crisp, and relaxed, and I don’t particularly recommend teaching the sides-of-the-tongue thing to students as it can easily be misunderstood or taken too far. But I do think a clearer understanding of the invisible parts of woodwind playing can help advanced students and their teachers diagnose and solve subtler problems.