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Air Support in Woodwind Playing

Dr. Pamela Shuler • July 2023Wind Talkers • July 16, 2023

By Dr. Pamela Shuler, Assistant Professor of Music, Eastern New Mexico University

It is difficult to over-sensationalize the role air support plays in creating a quality tone on woodwind instruments. While the focus of air support is often on the quantity and quality of air that moves into and out of the lungs, there are other items to consider when working with a student on effective and impactful air support, including: engagement of muscles, how the student approaches the instrument, revisiting the familiar act of breathing, the role aperture size plays in moving air through the instrument, and the condition of the instrument.

Importance of Maintaining a Supported, but Not Tense State

Breathing is largely impacted by the state of one’s muscles. For some young musicians, an effort to pull in a full breath can lead to tension in the neck, shoulders, and abdomen.  Muscle tension can produce an effect counter to what we are trying to achieve. While muscles need to be engaged to hold and support the weight of an instrument, it is important to evaluate the degree of muscle engagement, so a student is not playing with too much tension. Muscles, especially in the neck and torso, can impact the efficiency of air flow. Taking time to stretch before playing and evaluate the state of tension in muscles can make a big impact on breath support. Building in a moment to release muscle tension before playing and during longer practice sessions can lead to getting the most out of your air flow.

Too much rigidity can constrict airflow but too much muscle relaxation can lead to improper posture and muscle habits that may close off the air column and restrict lung expansion. If a student is having an issue with finding a good playing posture while sitting in an ensemble or during individual practice, try having the student stand. Watching a student’s posture and having a student use a mirror or a recording device during at home practice sessions can aid in diagnosing and correcting overly tense or relaxed postures that can prohibit proper breathing technique.

Bringing the Instrument to You

Have a student sit or stand in a playing position without holding the instrument. Hand the instrument to the student, and make sure there is no torso, shoulders, neck, or head movement as the student brings the instrument up to their mouth. The weight of an instrument can sometimes cause students to alter the natural body carriage. Working to bring a woodwind instrument up to the mouth can greatly aid in maintaining an open air column and proper muscle engagement.

Relearning Something Students Already Know

There are several new elements to be mastered to play a woodwind instrument. Forming an embouchure and learning which fingers to depress and lift for various pitches are likely new. For a novice, there is one element everyone will already have prior experience with: breathing! Since breathing is an inherent part of living, it is easy to overlook this. Using inhalation/exhalation exercises at the beginning of practice sessions, without the instrument in hand, is a good reminder that while we all breathe, not all breathing and air flow styles work to produce the best tone.

Importance of Aperture Size and Its Role in Air Support

In the woodwind family, embouchures are specific to each instrument. One goal of creating an embouchure is formation of muscles that create an aperture, or opening in the lips, that is best suited to move air to produce a quality tone. Depending on the specific instrument, if an aperture is too small, it can create a tense, constricted sound and prevent the correct amount of air from moving through the instrument. If an aperture is too large, it can allow too much air to move into the instrument and create a tone that lacks focus and vibrance. Checking a student’s aperture apart from the instrument can help discern if the aperture size and formation is beneficial in using the correct amount of focused air.

Condition of the Instrument

Over time, instruments can fall out of alignment. Pads and corks can become damaged. Initially, air and tone issues can be diagnosed as something else, including not using air efficiently. One small damaged or misaligned pad can have a large impact. It is important to teach students to check the seal on their instrument and maintain regular check-ups with a qualified repair technician. Often, students will not realize there is something wrong, and become used to overblowing or using too much force on the keys to create a seal. For a student who has worked on air support techniques, damaged or poor-quality equipment can lead the student to feel frustrated, without realizing there is an equipment issue. The best air support can’t overcome bad equipment. 

Hopefully, consideration of engagement of muscles, how the student approaches the instrument, revisiting the familiar act of breathing, the role aperture size plays in moving air through the instrument, and the condition of the instrument can help you find new approaches to air support discussions with your students.

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