Use of air: Quality not quantity

Use of air: Quality not quantity

A discussion by Richard Colquhoun about correct breathing technique for brass players

There are a number of blog articles that I have tried to write a few times and failed to find the right approach to the topic. There are some points of view I have about trumpet playing that are not conventional and so when writing about these topics I often have to start a number of times until I feel I’ve found the right angle or voice. This is one such topic. My drafts folder has a good few attempts at this subject and this could well end up being another of those attempts. If you’re reading this then I have had some degree of success.

I usually start this topic with a story about how I started out playing the cornet in a certain way and how a journey brought me back to where I started but I’ve found that not to be helpful. Instead I’m going to make a statement and then back up that statement with the research of a respected scientist, some instrument designers and teachers. I will then throw in a simple experiment you can do that proves my point. Resistance to change is something that occurs in many disciplines and I don’t expect people’s beliefs to change overnight, but the understanding of the mechanics of brass playing has changed significantly for those who care to do the research and I hope to share that with anyone willing to listen.

“Fill the instrument” or “Use more air” are examples of the kind of uninformed phrases that one hears pouring out of the mouths of brass teachers the world over. Many of these people are suffering from an “it never did me any harm” attitude or are simply describing what they think they do rather than knowing what they actually do. Unfortunately there are also a fair number of brass method books available that describe technique based upon what people feel rather than what people do.

Here’s my statement: Contrary to popular belief, traditional teaching, and many books on the subject of brass technique the idea of using more air and developing the ability to use more air when playing a brass instrument is always wrong.

This statement is one that I first came across when I began learning about the work of Jerome Callet. On page 8 of his book Superchops (published 1987) he states:

There is a large movement to increase lung capacity and measure each player. This concept, I feel, is completely wrong. […] It is how you use your wind power, not how much air capacity you have.

But it doesn’t stop there. Knowing that there is plenty of criticism of Superchops by people who find these ideas to be too extreme to digest I decided to research further. I found out fairly quickly that Jerome was not the first or only person to be saying this. On an undated paper distributed at clinics by the Schilke Company, Renold Schilke describes an experiment whereby he demonstrates to an audience of brass instructors that it is not in fact air moving through an instrument that makes sound, but instead it is the air that is already inside the instrument that carries the sound.

If, after our lips were vibrated, the air could be disposed of in another way other than going through the instrument, the tone would be at its best. People who have used and understand physics know that this is true. However, there are people who do not understand this point. I put this as a question one time when I was giving a clinic to some bandmasters after listening to various remarks made by them about air having to go through the horn. I asked, “Is it necessary in the production of sound for the air to carry the sound through the horn?” I had hands by people in the affirmative that it was. To prove my point, I had a tuba player come up on the stage and had him blow some smoke into his tuba and begin to play. He played over a minute before some smoke finally began to tickle out the bell of the instrument. So, it is necessary to have air in the instrument so the player can establish the nodal pattern. It is not necessary for that air to move through the instrument any more than an energy impulse created by dropping a stone in water causes the water to actually move.

The paper can be found in its entirety by following this link. Here is a link to a YouTube video in which Roger Ingram, one of the worlds most accomplished lead trumpet players, describes the same idea. In his video titled Got High Notes? Lynn Nicholson also talks about how little air is needed to play, but that is a subscribe-to-view lesson so I cannot post it here.

To further illustrate this point Dr Richard Smith (12 years as chief designer for Boosey and Hawkes, and Smith Watkins Instruments for 30 years since) had an article published in the International Trumpet Guild Journal in May 1999 titled Exciting Your Instrument (available here). In that article he shows, by sealing off a mouthpiece and drilling a hole in the side for the air to escape, that the instrument works perfectly well with no air going into it at all. The article is well worth reading to open your mind to this idea.

Update: Dr Richard Smith has a video on YouTube in which he demonstrates this idea. Click here to view.

So how can we use this information to better understand brass playing and become better brass players? When asking why people believe that deeper breathing and more air is the solution we quickly find that there are a number of technical issues that are trying to be solved:

Playing a long phrase in one breath: I see this as being a matter of efficiency. You are using too much air to produce the sound and so you solve it by using more air…? By learning to play more efficiently (i.e. putting less in and getting more out) you can make your air last much longer. One way this can be done is by prioritising articulation, but that’s the subject of another blog post.

Getting out of breath whilst playing for a long time: I frequently have to remind my pupils that after playing a few long phrases the reason they feel out of breath is not because they should have breathed deeper or sooner but because they are biological creatures that need oxygen-rich air to survive. If you hold your breath for 30 seconds then this upsets your natural rhythm and you feel the need to take a few breaths to re-oxygenate your blood. I tell my pupils to breathe so that they stay alive, not because they’re playing an instrument. This idea alone can sometimes instantly solve the problem.

Misunderstanding compression: Compression of air is where all the power comes from in brass playing. To some people the only way you can get more compression is by squeezing more air into the limited confines of your body. This is the sort of approach heralded by people like Claude Gordon, Kristian Steenstrup or the guys behind Breathing Gym (a quick YouTube search will show you what you need to know about that). In learning to play with the Tongue Controlled Embouchure I have learnt that compression is created by resisting the flow of air with the tongue. The reason that it is important for it to be the tongue and not the lips is that the tongue is much stronger. It doesn’t matter how much your try to strengthen your face, your tongue will always be stronger.

Fundamentally the problem I have with a “more air” approach is that it results in a loud, spread and dull sound. Playing efficiently results in a focused, powerful and exciting tone. Loud is not the same as powerful and nor is it exciting to listen to. In the interest of keeping this post relatively concise I will recommend that you read my post titled An analysis of tone (click here).

Here’s the experiment I would like you to try: I am doing this with a normal B-flat trumpet, but any brass instrument will be fine as they all work in the same way (pitches of the notes differ). There is no preference for mouthpiece either.

  1. Remove the tuning slide and play a note on only the leadpipe. (On this length of tube you should be able to produce a pitch approximately concert E-flat above middle C)
  2. Put your hand about 1cm from the end of the pipe and feel the air moving whilst you play.
  3. The next available note in the harmonic series is approximately a major 9th higher. Play this note and observe that at the same dynamic much less air is moving through the tube.
  4. If you can produce the next harmonic (approximately a perfect fifth higher again) then you’ll notice that now there is further reduction in the air flow. You can almost block the end of the tube with your finger and still produce this note.
  5. Think about what this means.

For some people this is a good trick to learn the sensation of playing notes above the stave and to prove how easy it actually is.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. As always please feel free to comment below. Share this article on social media – there are buttons below for that too.

~iii<0

Dear readers,

I have recently started a Patreon account in order to take donations for my writing. You will only see this message at the bottom of posts that have taken me considerable time to research and write. If you have enjoyed reading this post or feel that you have learned from it then please consider using my tip-jar by following this link.

All the best,

Rich

9 thoughts on “Use of air: Quality not quantity

  1. Excellent article Rich, definitely worth keeping up. As an ‘experienced player’ I have learned plenty from this and can’t wait to try the lead pipe experiment. I feel the super range beckoning (no longer will it be ‘solid on a C, sometimes get a D’).. Thanks!

  2. Tried the experiment! What a revelation! Produced a perfect tuned low C and ditto high C. Very interesting indeed. And here I am playing cornet(mostly)/trumpet since late 50-ties. So, easy does it. More compression but less air up in the heavens…

  3. Excellent description! It is an eyeopener. But there is something I am confused with. Mr. Schilkes Experiment with the Tuba:”To prove my point, I had a tuba player come up on the stage and had him blow some smoke into his tuba and begin to play. He played over a minute before some smoke finally began to tickle out the bell of the instrument.” I assume the Tuba player used the “more air” method to play. So my question: what happens with the air the player blows into the Tuba?

    1. Hi Andi, thank you for your question. There are a few things we can gleam from this anecdote. Overall the point is that the sound wave travels at much greater speed than the flow of air through the lips. Although it may feel like the player is blowing a lot of air, they are only blowing as much as they can, which is the same for everybody. The lesson is in recognising that in order to “increase capacity” what you are actually learning is to make the same amount of air last for longer. By knowing what is actually going on when we play we can change habits and improve our playing almost immediately. Air needs to go through the lips to make them vibrate, but that is all.

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