We can all breathe right? At least I hope we all can, if not, I certainly encourage you to visit your nearest emergency room!
Jesting aside, breathing is perhaps the most important fundamental for every wind player from the submariner deps of the tuba department, right up to the stratospheric heights of the piccolo. Whilst every wind instrument has their unique embouchure requirement and are blown differently from the embouchure, there are basic principles that apply to all.
First and foremost, we need to differentiate between shallow and deep breathing. We need to realise that breathing is not limited to using your lungs, oh no! you can also use your belly to fill up with air too. Taking a deep breath should feel like one big massive yawn. You should imagine filling up the whole of your body with air, right down to the souls of your feet. Alternatively, you may wish to concentrate on using the air to push your belly button out. Focus on your tongue being low in your mouth and your throat open - I often tell my students to imagine they just ate a hot potato and it’s burning their mouth – this tends to do the trick in ensuring the throat is open and the tongue low, as they breathe in. If done correctly, a deep breath will sound ‘dark’ as you inhale, a shallow breath will sound ‘thin’, ‘bright’, and you’ll only see your chest expand, rather than your belly. If your belly ain’t moving, you ain’t breathing!
At every opportunity, we want the tank to be full of air. It’s not always feasible to breathe deeply every time – in fast passages a deep breath will lead to us playing out of time or lose tempo; but a deep breath is essential at the start of any piece to give us a fighting chance of making it to the end. Instead, our goal is to keep the tank full with regular short quick breaths. Just like your car, it’s best practice to not wait until your car is empty to top up.
We need to develop efficient, unimpeded breathing, encompassing both breathing in (inhalation) and breathing out (exhalation). Try setting your metronome to crotchet = 60 bpm, and then inhale over four crotchet beats and then exhale over four crotchet beats and repeat for five sets (just like in a gym). What we want to watch out for here is that we don’t create a pause in our breathing as we switch from inhalation to exhalation and vice versa. This pause is often created when we’ve filled up with air before we’ve reached the end of the fourth beat of inhalation or are empty by the end of the fourth beat of exhalation. Make sure your inhalation and exhalation are measured and steady so that you are only full of air once you’ve made it to the end of the fourth beat or are empty by the end of the fourth beat of exhalation.
Now, let’s jazz it up! Breathe in for four, then out for four. Now in for three, out for five. In for two, out for six. In for one, out for seven, and then reverse it. You still want to follow the above principles, but this will develop your ability to regulate your breathing and expand your awareness and control of your respiratory system.
Around all this technical talk of breathing, the governing factor of it all is music. What do I mean by this? Well, breathing efficiently is all well and good, but completely useless if you can’t do it in time. Pulse is arguably the most important factor in music, and as soon as it is lost the audience can hear and feel that it’s lost. Just imagine that you’re listening to an old vinyl record and it then decides to skip. It’s jarring and uncomfortable on the ear, and instantly noticeable. Compare that with playing wrong notes. An untrained audience member is less likely to notice a wrong note, because music throughout history has relied on notes clashing and creating dissonance. You can get away with a wrong note if it’s confident (I implore you not to play wrong notes and go away and practice. In fact, why are you reading this article? Go practice!). So, if you breathe out of time, it will upset the pulse and people will notice. How do we train this? Set your metronome to crotchet = 80 bpm, and over a 5/4 bar, play four Bb crotchets, followed by a deep breath over the fifth crotchet beat and repeat five times. Make sure you stay strictly in time. Now do it with quavers; play nine quavers, and breathe over the tenth, again ensuring you stay strictly in time. Now triplets. Play fourteen triplets and breath over the fifteenth. Finally, try semiquavers. Play nineteen semiquavers, and breath quick and briskly over the twentieth quaver. It will be hard at first, but as you develop the ability to breathe in quicker over a shorter note length, you will find it more organic, and natural to breathe in time, particularly over quick passages, and longer phrases.
The crux of this longwinded read can be summed up like this:
1) Breath in time.
2) Breath deeply before starting the piece.
3) Breath little and often.
4) Keep the tank as full with air as possible.
Happy practicing musician friends!