Breathing for Wind Players, Beyond the Basics.

At the risk of stating the screaming obvious, breathing is a massive part of wind playing. Even circular breathing one’s way to the end of the piece is not going to be musically effective because the physicality of breathing does a lot to enhance the performance of a piece.

Breathing is important, not just because the player needs air to get a sound out, but because it adds emotion to a piece. Sounds crazy right, but consider what type of emotion each of the following (non musical) forms of breathing conveys.

  • The controlled, methodical breaths of runner 400m into their 800m.
  • The frantic breaths of some blond girl escaping the masked knife wielder in a slasher flick.
  • The steady breathing of someone in deep sleep
  • The desperate gasps of air as the heroes emerge from the underwater scene in Aliens Resurrection
  • The huge yawn of someone, who, because of the mysteries of human biology, starts everyone else yawning… ( are you yawning yet..? Yeah, you know you are 🙂 )

All these different types of breaths evoke different reactions to those witnessing it. Surely the same can apply to musicians?

  • The performer, after gradually slowing to finish a phrase, takes a long slow breath before slowing accelerating into new phrase.
  • In the frantic speed of a semi-quaver dominant technical piece, the performer takes a fast, hurried breath as they ascend through a crescendoing scale up to a climatic high E to F trill pause, cut!
  • The soloist, standing to the side of their accompanist, takes a stoic breath as he/she queues the start of a fast and heavily accented beginning of Malcolm Arnold’s Clarinet Sonatina Allegro con brio.

Okay, so I’ve cheated a little by using emotive language to describe each scenario, but it adds to the idea that there is emotion by executing a breath in a particular way.

Another example of way breathing carries emotion is to consider how singers do it, especially those of stage shows or operas. Imagine a burly tenor who takes a big quick breath; it’s going to imply that the phrase he is about to sing is going to be fast and powerful. Now imagine the sultry female alto singer taking a slow long breath to imply a slower, smoother potentially dolce phrasing.

Beginner breaths

But before a student can even begin to achieve these things, they first have to be able to breath in the correct places at all.

Students underestimate how long they can go before needing a breath. Often, breathing becomes reactive, as if, just because there is a small gap in the music (such as a rest, or a long note which they cut short), that that is some kind of implied opportunity for breath that must be taken.

I spend quite a bit of my time encouraging my students to play for the full 2, 4, or 8 bar phrase before taking the breath. “Those phrases are musical sentences“, I say to them, “and since when do you breathe… … in the middle of a sentence?”

I try to remind them that there is still air in the lungs even when one has exhaled fully. Even if they think they need a breath, there is still air there. I demonstrate by inhaling, exhaling, then I push all that ‘neutral’ air that is still in my lungs. “See,” I say to my students, “there is still emergency air there if you need it.”

The music needs to ‘breathe’ too

Then there is the complete opposite problem of not breathing when one ought to. Like narrating a poem or singing a song, there are places in the music where the music just needs to breath. That’s one of the reasons lyrics are written with the music in some of the beginner books. Not only is it a means of helping the student recognise a familiar tune, but the punctuation of the lyrics (commas and full stops) show where one is supposed to breathe.

How do pianists breathe?

Although breathing at the end of a phrase is a good rule-of-thumb, it’s not like pianists need to do so, so how do they manage to phrase without feeling like the music is just going and going and going? The answer is dynamics and to a lesser degree, speed changes. This could take up blog post all by itself, but essentially the music has to be ‘put down gently’ with a dynamic that tapers away. The music is then momentarily at a state of rest, then the new phrase starts.

That means that the wind player doesn’t necessarily have to breath at all to make a phrase sound complete. So long as the phrasing tapers the last few notes (or even just the last note) to silence, then starts again, then the music has ‘breathed’.

Naturally, this is now negating the emotion discussed earlier in the post, but this segues perfectly into the next important breathing issue.

Oh My God! I’m running out of air!

I love the physics of the clarinet when it comes to air; it seems perfectly optimised so that the player doesn’t waste it. With flute, most of the air goes over the instrument. With oboe, the mouthpiece is so small the player struggles to even get the air out of their lungs and out the instrument.

The point is, most of the time the wind player is never running out of air, they’re just suffering the accumulative effects of having old air trapped and unused in their lungs. The brain consumes the oxygen from the air in your lungs so over time all you’ve got left is all the left overs that the body doesn’t have much use for.

But hey, deep see divers can train themselves to make the most out of a breath of air, so why not a wind player?

That being said, there are some strategies to avoid having excess unused air trapped in your lungs

  • Play for longer before taking a new breath, e.g. go for 4 bars rather than 2.
  • Don’t take so big a breath in the first place.
  • Play louder! It gets rid of more air, and most of the time students are too quiet anyway
  • Let out small amounts of air during a rest (rather than taking it in).

The last point (letting air out) is an interesting one. Referring back to the underwater action sequence in Aliens Resurrection; as the heroes make their way underwater (to what is ultimately a really really really bad place to be), they’re slowly letting air out of their lungs.

Now, I’m not going to pretend to understand the biology around this but I’m guessing it has something to do with slowly getting rid of the build up carbon dioxide in the lungs. It also release the built up tension.

What I’m getting at, is that sometimes at the end of phrases, or perhaps at a 2 bar point of a 4 bar phrase, it might be applicable to actually let a bit of air out. It almost has the same effect (visually) as a breath in because the body is doing something with air and lungs and there will be a slight gap in the music.

Staccatos

Staccatos are ruthless to wind players because the air is moving, stopping, moving stopping and it’s not so great on the poor lungs. This is a good example of where letting air out is a good idea. Unless you’ve only taken a small breath to start off with, all those staccatos are trapping air in lungs. Between each staccato, try letting air out.

Breathe life into your performance

Despite it being something we take for granted, there’s quite a lot to breathing, especially in the context of playing wind instruments. How much? When to let in, when to let out? What velocity? All these considerations affect musicianship. Perhaps we should all take up swimming, then we might all become better musicians.

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