How to do long tones (and why)

Long tones are at the core of most woodwind warmup routines. The most simple and obvious version is this:

Long tone whole note with a fermata.

Simple sustained notes are good for developing consistent breath support, which is required to keep the long tone steady in pitch, volume, and tone color. (Some teachers also suggest them for developing “embouchure strength,” one of the harmful and pervasive myths of woodwind playing.)

Many players and teachers recommend a version more like this:

Long tone whole note with a fermata, and with a crescendo and decrescendo.

This is a worthwhile improvement, as dynamic change requires a flexible and relatively relaxed embouchure on top of steady breath support. Exercises like the Herzberg long tones use this concept.

But I like this even better:

Long tone with three tied whole notes. The first crescendos from niente to fortississimo. The third decrescendos to niente. There is a tempo marking of quarter note = 60.

The first thing to notice is the addition of extreme dynamic markings, from niente (“nothing,” essentially zero volume) to fff (which should be understood here as maximum controlled volume). Achieving a note that starts from 0%, crescendos smoothly and evenly to 100%, and then back to 0%, is much more specific and demanding than just a general “get louder, then softer.” It requires powerful breath support that starts before the note sounds and continues until after it ends, as well as a tuned-in voicing and well-functioning equipment. (And it can serve as a diagnostic to find issues in these areas.) Exercises like the David Weber chromatic exercises use this approach. (At the link, scroll down to “Longtone 1.”

Less-advanced players should start and end as softly as possible and work toward a true niente. Players at all levels should take the opportunity to discover and then improve their loudest dynamic level.

The second thing to notice is the addition of a tempo marking. This demands that the dynamic changes happen within a specific timeline, as of course they do in real-world music. Faster or slower tempos than the one marked here may be used; each presents its own challenges.

A very thorough long tone warmup might involve playing these on every note within the instrument’s range. Each will have slightly (or severely!) different demands. For a more practical approach, consider a rotation: on day one, do these on the instrument’s lowest note, and the note a fifth above that (or some other interval), a fifth above that, and so forth. The next day, start on the second-lowest note, and the next day the note above that, and so forth.

Happy practicing!

Switching between clarinets: tone production

Switching to bass clarinet

Switching between any two instruments, even two closely-related ones, is a challenging prospect. You must practice for many hours to do it well. But often people switching between clarinets (such as between B-flat clarinet and bass clarinet) are making larger changes than necessary. The fundamental concepts in clarinet tone production are breath support, voicing, and … Read more

“More air”

When I use the term “breath support,” students and colleagues often echo back something like “oh, right, more air.” But is breath support the same thing as “more air?” Measuring quantities of air isn’t completely straightforward—when we say “more air,” we might rightfully wonder whether that means a greater volume filled with air, or a … Read more

Woodwind doubling and oboe problems

There’s an increasing expectation that woodwind doublers be competent and confident oboists. It can be a challenging double, but a worthwhile one. Many of my doubling gigs have come to me because of my ability and/or willingness to play the oboe. And even though it’s not my strongest instrument, there are considerable spans of my … Read more

Decrescendo to zero

Woodwind players often struggle with decrescendos that quit too soon. (“Decrescendi” if you prefer.) It’s pretty disappointing to play a graceful phrase and have the last note end abruptly instead of fading down smoothly to zero. There’s not a special technique to deploy in order to make successful decrescendos to niente. This delicate dynamic effect … Read more

Saxophone low notes

The saxophone’s lowest notes can be notoriously unresponsive. For the best chance at successful low notes, here’s what you will need.

Endurance and breath support

Physical endurance can be an issue for woodwind players, most often manifesting as fatigue in the muscles of the embouchure. But in most cases I think tired facial muscles are a symptom of a more fundamental problem.

Confidence and air

When I ask my students to play more confidently, they don’t always seem ready to rise to the challenge. But I’ve worked out a useful equation that helps them get on the right track.

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:

Read more

The magical properties of air

Good breath support, besides helping tone production in obvious ways, can have a surprising (and positive) impact on other aspects of woodwind playing.