Woodwind technique and conservation of energy

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.

1 thought on “Woodwind technique and conservation of energy”

  1. Great article!

    People tend to add energy to solve problems. It’s counterintuitive to reduce energy to solve problems…but sometimes necessary.

    People like physical symmetry….balance the force of embouchure with the force of air pressure/flow. I had to practice using a gentle embouchure while increasing air pressure…making a crescendo or playing loud.


Leave a Comment

Comments that take a negative or confrontational tone are subject to email and name verification before being approved. In other words: no anonymous trolls allowed—take responsibility for your words.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.