This month's blog post comes out of a conversation I had with the parent of one of my 7th grade oboe students. "Can she train her lungs to play longer?"
It doesn't matter what instrument your child is learning to play, they all need to train their lungs to play for longer periods. In the beginning, kids are out of breath, and they may even feel dizzy, but this doesn't last forever.
No one skips out their door and runs a marathon on a whim. You have to train. One mile at a time. It's the same for playing an instrument: we have to train our lungs to go the distance.
Every instrument is different, and I obviously can't go into extreme detail for each, so I'll touch on the important points. If you want more specific practice techniques, we will talk more extensively in your lesson.
Please note: I have had many students through the decades who have asthma. It is not a detriment to playing a woodwind instrument. It can be done! In fact, playing an instrument can help them gain control over their respiratory system, and make them feel powerful instead of helpless. If they have an asthma attack while playing their instrument, please talk to me. I'm not a medical professional, but I can help tailor their breathing technique to their personal needs.
Glossary of terms:
Embouchure: the unique way the lips are used to hold the mouthpiece (clarinet, saxophone) or reed (oboe), or shaped to blow across the lip plate (flute)
Endurance: the length of time one can play an instrument before fatigue sets in. Also, in this article, refers to how long they can play in one breath
Resistance: how hard it is to blow into an instrument, measured in back pressure
Double Reed: refers to the oboe "reed" which is actually two reeds tied together to form a small mouthpiece. The opening is about 1mm wide. Out of the oboe, the reed alone plays the note C
Single Reed: refers to the flat reed that clarinets and saxophones use. These flat reeds are secured to a hard plastic mouthpiece with a ligature (metal brace). Alone, the reed plays notes about as well as a piece of cardboard
The "easiest" blowing instrument, with the least resistance, is actually the most difficult to play long phrases. Without the resistance of a reed, most of the flutist's air will be wasted. When trying to give kids perspective, I compare breathing on the flute to breath control while singing.
Fun fact: it takes as much air to play 4 beats on the flute as it does to play 4 beats on the tuba
Because so much air is wasted when blowing across the lip plate (1/2 of the air the flutist blows doesn't even go into the flute!), it is very difficult to play long phrases. In the first few weeks, beginner students will breathe after every single note. We begin work immediately on extending the number of beats they can play on one breath.
How to Practice:
In the very first lesson, we learn 4-8 new notes. We begin with playing 4 beats on one breath; resting for 4 beats; playing another note for 4 beats; resting 4 beats... repeat 8 times on each new note. Their practice assignment for the first week is to practice this same exercise daily. Most kids do not practice this (it's boring), so we end up having to do this for at least 2 weeks. It's an early lesson in why it's important to follow the directions I write in their assignment pad - the longer you don't practice something, the longer the whole process takes.
We work to increase the length of the played note and to decrease the length of each resting break until they close up the gap and can play 8 beats on one breath. For some kids, I can assign the following exercises, which they can move through on their own. In which case, this process can take as little as one week! If they don't practice? I've seen it take a couple of months before they can play 8 beats in one breath.
Day 1: 5 beats play - 3 beats rest - 5 beats play
Day 2: 6 beats play - 2 beats rest - 6 beats play
Day 3: 7 beats play - 1 beat rest - 7 beats play
Day 4: 8 beats play - breath - 8 beats play
Day 5: hold each note as long as possible, trying to pass 10 beats
After they can play 8 beats on one note, they are able to tackle "real" music. From that point, they hardly notice they are slowly extending their endurance toward 3 or 4 measures at a time.
As they progress in their first year, we will talk more about breathing techniques to maximize how much air they are taking in to their lungs. One of my favorite exercises is best demonstrated in person but can be described as follows:
1. Set your metronome to 60. Lift your flute in preparation to play. As you do this, gently exhale all the air out of your lungs. Important step: when you think you've exhaled everything, give one last push and really empty your lungs. This will feel very uncomfortable.
2. Rest your flute against your chin in preparation to play. As you do this, begin inhaling slowly and deeply, imagining your are filling your lungs from the deepest bottom (where that uncomfortable feeling originated in step 1). When you think you've inhaled as much as you can, take in a little more. This will feel very uncomfortable.
3. With a "small" air stream, begin playing an easy note on your flute. Use as little air as you can, and count how many beats you can hold that note. Repeat this exercise once daily, trying to hold the note for one or two more beats than the day before.
It can take years for any flutist to be able to play 4 measures (16 beats) in one breath. But if they work hard at this goal, they might actually find they can play 6-8 measures at a time by the time they reach high school!
Oboe has the most resistance of any of the woodwinds (the most of all the wind & brass instruments). I describe blowing into an oboe as feeling like trying to inflate your hand by blowing into your pinky.
Because we use so little air, it's less like blowing into an instrument and more like holding your breath for extended periods of time. Unlike the flute, the beginning oboist can play long phrases in their very first lesson without a breath. The important thing young oboists have to learn is that the stale air that remains in your lungs needs to be exhaled before you can inhale for the next phrase. We practice "in-out" breathing between beats.
The oboist's lips will hurt. Their endurance has less to do with lung capacity and more to do with lip pain. And this pain has nothing to do with teeth against their lip, but everything to do with the exertion of the small muscles of the lips and chin holding the reed in a "floating" position between the upper & lower lips. I will discuss building lip strength at a later time. The length of time the young oboist can play actually has more to do with the brain. The student must believe they can play a long phrase, because their body is already capable of doing it.
How to Practice:
The student oboist will have to learn that they can play a long phrase without a breath. Often, they begin by trying to breath after every note. They quickly discover, on their own, this doesn't work (for various and obvious reasons), so they move on to experimenting with breathing at the end of every measure. A bad habit, to be sure, they mostly do this because they see their flute colleagues breathing after every measure.
They must learn, on their own, how long they are capable of playing on one breath. What they don't realize is that by 1 year of playing, they can already play an entire scale up and down in one breath. They need to see this for themselves! So the weekly assignment for an oboist moving in to their 2nd year of playing looks like this:
Day 1: take a good breath; play an F scale up on one breath, breathe at the top, then play down the scale on one breath
Day 2: take a good breath; play an F scale -- go up and as far down as you can on one breath. Make a mental note of where you had to breathe in order to finish the scale
Day 3: take a good breath; play an F scale -- go up the scale and down, trying to make it one note past where you had to breathe yesterday. Continue past that note as far as you can. You've probably just played the whole scale (up and down) in one breath. Congratulations.
Day 4: take a good breath; play the scale up and down in one breath, and continue back up the scale. See how far you can go.
Day 5: take a good breath; play the scale up, down, up, and down again.
Ultimately, professional oboists are capable of playing at least 16 measures of 4/4 time in one breath. This is not the exception, it is the rule. But kids have to believe that it is possible!
These two instruments are basically the same in their resistance, with the saxophone being slightly easier owing to the size (larger) of the mouthpiece. Like the oboe, the real endurance problem comes with the lip pain.
The lower lip is curled over the teeth (upper teeth are on the mouthpiece) and will hurt more from the teeth cutting in to it than from the exertion of playing. Young students will have to not only build up lung capacity to play longer phrases, but build up lower lip muscle strength and a "callus" on the inside of their lower lip where their teeth cut in. Kids are afraid of this pain, probably rightly so, but they will have to move beyond it in order to progress.
How to Practice:
breathe: with upper teeth on the mouthpiece, take a breath "below" the mouthpiece
set: close your jaw and seal your lips around the mouthpiece
play: release your tongue "taaah" and play!
Unlike the oboe, the teeth really do cut in to the clarinettist/saxophonist's lips. The first few weeks will hurt your child, they may actually "chew" their lip a bit, but it will get better. After a while, their lip will toughen up, but if at the beginning it's too painful for them, Vandoren does sell "lip saver" pads which cover the lower teeth. You can make a homemade version with masking tape folded so that there is no sticky surface exposed, but thick enough to "cap" their lower incisors. But remember: the longer they play with "protection" the longer it will take to move past the pain of breaking in their lip.
Because of the moderate resistance of the single reed instruments, the kids are capable of playing at least 4 beats at a time in their first lesson. Extending their endurance is similar to the oboe except they will not be able to play quite as long at the end of the scale exercise.
One way for the kids to practice to extend their endurance is as follows:
Day 1: 1 octave scale. Beginning on note 1, breath-set-play and hold for 8 beats, rest for 2 beats, then play same note again for 6 beats. Rest for 4 beats before moving on to note 2.
Day 2: 1 octave scale. Play note 1 for 8 beats, breathe, continue to note 2 for 8 beats, breathe, note 3 for 8 beats, etc. up the entire scale. Play down the scale the same way
Day 3: 1 octave scale. Play note 1 for 12 beats, beginning very soft pp with a crescendo to ff on beat 8 and a faster decrescendo back to pp on beat 12. Rest for 4 beats before moving on to the next note. Repeat for all the notes of the scale up and down
Day 4: 1 octave scale. Beginning on note 1, repeat Day 3 exercise except each note (with crescendo/decrescendo) should last for 8 beats. Take 1-2 beats rest before moving on to the next note.
Day 5: 1 octave scale. Play each note 4 beats with a quick crescendo/decrescendo on each note before moving on without a breath to the next. See how many notes you can play in a row, with this dynamic change, before taking a breath. After this day, see if you can extend your endurance to be able to play the entire scale up and possibly down before taking a breath!
It's more important that the range is extended rather than the speed at which the student accomplishes it. I spend a lot of times reminding the kids that there is no deadline. They have their whole lives to achieve these goals. Don't rush through it, and definitely don't skip these important sessions early on in their training.
As the parent, you can encourage them to tackle these boring early practice sessions. You may have fun being their "partner" who counts beats out loud. Download a metronome app on your phone or buy an inexpensive metronome from Amazon and just count for them!
Kids are amazing -- they learn and achieve so quickly. They just need to believe they can do it and to feel they have a whole set of adults supporting them.