Woodwind technique and conservation of energy

windmill farm against cloudy blue sky

That people prefer to move in energetically optimal ways has been established for decades and now represents a central principle of movement science. … Energy optimization may also occur over the course of a lifetime, as years of experience could allow people to learn the optimal way to move in familiar situations and allow training to tune physiology to be more economical. An additional hypothesis—one that underpins many modern theories of motor control—is that people can adjust their movements to continuously optimize energetic cost.

Selinger, Jessica C., Shawn M. O’Connor, Jeremy D. Wong, and J. Maxwell Donelan. “Humans can continuously optimize energetic cost during walking.” Current Biology 25, no. 18 (2015): 2452-2456.

I certainly see this phenomenon in my own woodwind playing and teaching. How many times have you encountered these?

  • More resistant notes failing to respond because there’s just enough breath support for the less-resistant ones
  • Embouchures losing their shape, reverting to a neutral/normal mouth position
  • Voicing, such as the high, cold-air voicing needed for clarinet playing, or the low, warm-air one for flutes and double reeds, lapsing into a medium, luke-warm state that negatively affects tone, pitch, and response
  • Pitch sagging at ends of notes as breath support peters out

These are often addressed by teachers as “habits,” which may be true, but they may also be fed by the brain’s capacity—and priority—to micro-optimize our muscle use to conserve energy. No wonder they are difficult to overcome! Patience and persistence are necessary to train our bodies to put the right amount of effort into playing our instruments.

A factor in this is establishing a suitably high bar for success. For a beginner, the only question might be, “did a sound come out?” For a slightly more advanced student, it might become, “did the correct approximate pitch come out?” A more advanced player might examine the precision of the pitch, the quality of the tone, and the immediacy of the response, among many other factors. It takes a relatively low amount of energy to meet the beginner’s threshold of success, but potentially much more for the advanced player’s.

Additionally, this intentional use of greater energy resources must be managed carefully to avoid its misapplication, which can result in excessive tension.

I find that when I am playing at my best balance of efficiency and effort, an hour of playing a woodwind instrument leaves me feeling like I have done some light exercise; I’ll feel the mild and pleasant fatigue of having taken a walk or reorganized a bookshelf. Serious tiredness or soreness are warnings that I’m overusing my body. (Your results may vary depending on your physical capabilities.)

Be in tune with your own body as you play, and teach your students to be in tune with theirs, so that you’re in the sweet spot of working hard enough but not harder.

Preparing for a fatiguing performance

alone bed bedroom blur

If you are practicing and concerned about fatigue during an upcoming performance, here are some (woodwind-centric) things to consider. Embouchure. The embouchure is a frequent site for fatigue, but it shouldn’t be. Embouchure pain or tiredness in a conventional performance situation is usually a sign of incorrect tone production technique. (Not a matter of needing … Read more

Update: COVID-19 wind playing resources

In a recent blog post I offered a few personal thoughts on wind playing and the COVID-19 crisis, and began listing some articles and resources related to the topic. I have now moved those to a separate and freshly-updated page. If you are aware of other resources, feel free to bring them to my attention … Read more

Wind playing and contagious diseases

I’m not a (medical) doctor or disease expert of any kind, but I’ve been thinking a bit about the instruments I play and the risks of catching or spreading disease. (At the time of this writing, Covid-19 is foremost in many people’s minds.) I’m presenting a few thoughts here in hopes that people with real … Read more

Hi, come on in, you’re right on time for your lesson.

I have lots on things on my list for you today: we should double-check your rhythms on that etude, review those melodic minor scales that were giving you trouble last week, and discuss some finer points of vibrato. But something about your sunken eyes when I met you at the door, the way you slouched … Read more

When you’re too sick for a lesson

Sometimes I have students cancel their lessons due to seemingly very minor, manageable health concerns (physical or mental). Other times students drag themselves to lessons when they are clearly miserable and contagious.

The better approach is clearly somewhere in the middle, but my newest college students are usually living away from their parents and the formal rules of high school for the first time and sometimes aren’t used to making those judgment calls on their own.

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10 ideas for more focused practicing

It can be difficult to keep practice sessions focused and productive. Distractions, burnout, boredom, and bad habits get in the way of progress. Try some or all of these, see what works well for you, and make the most of your practice time.

My studio “fresh air” policy

Last year I posted a small sign on my studio door: Fresh air policy If you smell of tobacco, alcohol, or illegal drugs, you will not be permitted to enter my office, whether or not you were the one using those substances. If your grade depends on you being here for a lesson, coaching, or … Read more

Health, wellness, and woodwind doubling

I got an email from a college student taking an Occupational Health and Wellness course. He asked me some questions about health and wellness issues in woodwind doubling, and I tried to answer the best I could.

How do you prepare for the many instrument switches in a musical which require changes of embouchure and hand position/key action adjustments? How do you deal with the physical demands of switches between many instruments?

The best preparation is to develop good, relaxed technique on each instrument independently. I try to practice each instrument carefully and produce the best possible sound on each one.

If I have the luxury of reviewing the part ahead of time, I will often practice the “choreography” for quick instrument switches, and make plenty of pencil marks so that I know ahead of time what switches are coming up. I try to keep a consistent layout of my instrument stands for each show, so that I get used to where each instrument is.

As I am making each switch (even very quick ones) I will try to take a moment to totally relax my facial muscles, hands, etc., and, maybe most importantly, flip a mental switch to oboe mode or clarinet mode or whatever.

Good reliable stands and neckstraps are vital.

Would you say that having to adjust to the action and key pressure of multiple instruments makes you more susceptible to hand/forearm injury than a musician who plays a single instrument?

I’m not an expert, but I would think that playing a single instrument is more dangerous in terms of repetitive motion injuries, etc. If I spend five hours a day practicing (I wish!) then I think I’m better off with more varied physical activities.

Photo, MissTessmacher
Photo, MissTessmacher

Does playing any one instrument create body tension that affects another instrument? (ex. flute might create shoulder tension which affects playing the sax)

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