Mar 22, 2015

Take your time and BREATHE!, by Kirk Lundbeck

During the past several months I’ve been able to judge young student musicians in solo and ensemble contests. While working with these players I’ve noticed a consistent issue that affects their overall playing ability and causes a myriad of problems with attacks, quality of sound and consistency of phrasing. Air is engine that controls what we do as brass players and many players are in desperate need of an engine tune up. Taking the time to breathe can give a player the opportunity to make a beautiful sound and make their “engine” purr.

Breathing is often taken for granted. As your reading this you’re breathing in and out and not even paying attention to its importance. Often, young players are doing that exact same thing when they are playing their instrument. They are worried about their next entrance and the note they are to play and not how to prepare their air for that entrance. I’ve noticed most players take a quick breath immediately prior to the entrance even when playing at a slow tempo. They wait, maybe counting the rests in their head prior to the entrance and one beat before they are to play they take a quick short breath. There’s not time to prepare the embouchure, set the mouthpiece and relax. You can imagine kind of the attack that follows. It’s abrupt, edgy and ugly. When I play I breathe at the tempo I’m playing. Let’s take the Bordogni Etude #23 for example. Andante Cantabile is the marking. Bordogni Etudes are slow and smooth, legato playing. Your breathing should be also slow and smooth. Long, controlled breaths are needed to play a smooth legato style. Nothing abrupt or quick in needed. Even your catch breaths should be more deliberate. Take your time and prepare to make a wonderful entrance. As musicians, we’re anxious, impatient and in a hurry to make the next sound. The rests and breath marks are there to recharge your engine and give you the ability to make the best sound possible. Use as much time as you possibly can to prepare. This can even be done at faster tempo markings by remembering to breathe at the tempo you’re playing. I witnessed a great example of improper breathing when I was listening to a fine, young trombonist performing the Sonatina by Kazimierz Serocki. The Allegro section started wonderfully. He played through the first two entrances with grace and style. Then he had four measures of rest, where he emptied his spit valve and counted. His next entrance, four bars later, at rehearsal number 2 on the second beat was poorly missed. He didn’t take the time to breathe when he had the opportunity. He took a short, abrupt breath, one beat prior to his entrance into the dolce section and missed the entrance. He had four measures and one beat to prepare his engine and didn’t take the opportunity. From that point in the piece the entire movement became more frantic. His breaths became shorter and he had lost control of his engine. You must take every opportunity to prepare to play and not just put the horn to your face and blow.

The same process and be transferred to slide movement. Only move your slide as fast as necessary for the piece you are performing. A slow legato etude needs a slow and relaxed slide movement. Don’t jerk your slide ever, but especially when attempting a smooth legato. I tell my students to think of pushing the slide out with the air and pull it back in with the feeling that your slide lubricant is molasses. The slow and controlled slide action will create a smooth and controlled legato. . When playing faster passages only move your slide as faster as the tempo requires. Period! No jerking and no out of context slide movement.

One final thought…..As you prepare for an upcoming event like a recital or jury don’t ruin your performance and all the time you’ve spent in preparation by forgetting one very important factor. When we practice we usually dress comfortably, jeans, t-shirts, tennis shoes or sandals, but when we perform we are wearing a tux or a suit and tie with dress shoes. Make sure to take the time to practice once or twice in the clothes you are going to perform in. There is certainly a big difference in the feeling you have between wearing a t-shirt and tennis shoes and a coat and tie and dress shoes. Quite honestly the dress clothes can be more restrictive and inhibit your breathing. Get used to playing while wearing a tie. Your breathing feels different. Outside agencies, including what we wear affect our result. Minimize these at every opportunity to increase the level of your performance.

The number of opportunities we have to play is finite. Please make the most of every opportunity. It’s very rewarding.


This article has been translated into Polish by Lukasz Michalski.

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