Before going any further, I would point out that everything I have written below is the result of reflection and experience of a "lambda" human being possessing no specific scientific knowledge. Based only on the simple observation of my own body, something that everyone can do.
The manner of playing recommended to succeed and to be fully "in tune" with one's sensitivity, is based on relaxation. Unfortunately, this single word does not provide the essential keys needed to achieve that. This relaxation which we shall explain further, is only possible in a way of playing where there is laissez-faire.
For that, three major learning stages may be distinguished:
• The stage of seeking and discovery (listening to and observing one's body)
• The stage of memorising and conditioning (listening to and observing one's body)
• The stage of forgetting (necessary for the laissez-faire and not carelessness. The manner of playing evolves in a technical subconscious relying only on sensations).
In order to understand and follow this schema, we need only quote the example of grammar in language. Indeed, in a verbal exchange we never consciously reproduce the grammatical schemas learnt and analysed at school. If this were the case, we would be in great difficulty, hesitant and listening to our own words, which would be chopped, repeated... we would become quite simply tedious to hear. This clear example is valid for all learning processes in our lives.
It raises an interesting point: one cannot, at one and the same time prepare one's language and listen to it. The resulting discourse could not be continued. (Watch people who listen to themselves speaking). The same is true for instrumental musicians, although it is easier for them to make a sound and listen to it. Unfortunately, in this case the musician's thoughts are no longer in anticipation of the music to be produced. Edgar Willems, great teacher of music said: "The good musician is the one who hears the music he is going to play, the bad musician is the one who listens to the music he has just produced." Certainly it is too late; once produced, the sound can be neither improved nor corrected.
The first element to be considered for a manner of playing based on relaxation, is breathing. It is the major act of the human being.
Air is the first, imperative basic element, with varying possibilities as to quality.
The second element to take into account is the body mechanics necessary for the respiratory action. We shall examine this action.
It is only right to specify that this wonderful breathing mechanism works without our consciousness. Thankfully, otherwise at night or during a short loss of consciousness, we would stop breathing. These moments allow obvious relaxation, called rest.
The risk of problems occurs when we are in a state of awakening, our conscience is activated. It might try, at any moment to take charge of something its not supposed to. It has not the means to understand the true value of our breathing needs.
This comment is based on incontestable observations Speaking in front of a public, sometimes large and imposing in number.. .often provokes intakes of air which are too big. Muscle contraction appears around the stomach, the throat, there's too much air, or not enough, we run out of breath, legs and hands shake... Of course that is called stage fright and it can be different for each person. However, that same speech delivered amongst friends, over a drink, does not call for the voluntary breathing reflex and enables us to remain relaxed. In the first case, the connection with our consciousness is clear. It triggers a feeling of panic which in turn forces us to take deliberate breaths. These are injurious and run counter to the state of relaxation sought-after.
The act of breathing is divided into two parts : breathing in and breathing out.
In relaxed and unpremeditated breathing that we call natural, breathing in is passive and breathing out is active.
For example, let us compare our lungs, inert mass, to a plastic bottle with no lid, filled with water and submerged in a container already full of water. Compress the bottle; the liquid flow moves outwards. Release the pressure on the bottle and the mass of liquid moves back into the bottle ; the mass of water is sucked in. This mass of water corresponds exactly to the initial volume of the bottle.
If we wish to fill the bottle even more, we would need to use force and the sides of the bottle would swell but without a lid we would not be able to maintain this excess capacity. The same holds true for our lungs.
Experiment for yourself and try to fill your lungs to their maximum capacity in a voluntary manner, actively. The outcome will be a desire to block your throat to keep the air in and the compression obtained will support the quantity. (The throat acting as a stopper).
We are far from playing based on relaxation! Here, the breathing in, or inspiration, is active. Many players believe that it is quantity which gives pressure, strength or fortissimo. This is a fundamental error. Who hasn't ever hit their finger when hammering in a nail and instantly cried out, frightening or rousing those around them? Clearly, the lungs were not voluntarily filled at this precise moment. So now, consciously, fill your lungs completely and try to shout out immediately; your cry will most probably stick in your throat!
The most natural act is to consider our breathing apparatus like a pump that we empty voluntarily with a certain dosage which will be discussed later.
Once at the end of this breathing out, or expiration, we must relax everything, the dorsal and intercostal muscles, the diaphragm drops and just like sponges which have been squashed, our lungs recover their initial volume by taking in air from the outside.
At this point, a diagram is necessary:
This drawing represents the ideal functioning of the breathing mechanism for natural speaking or playing of an instrument, (without stress). The following paragraphs will help to explain this schema.
So, to continue, we shall talk about the active act of breathing out, that is to say a voluntary act. For the instrumentalist it is called "breath". At this stage it is useful to consider the nature of this "breath".
In etymological terms, the dictionary says that "breath" is a displacement of air. If we observe ourselves in certain situations of day to day life, we can see that there are several ways to use it and that it can have different incidences.
At a meal, if the soup is too hot we cool it down by blowing on it. This breath is created by a varying degree of displacement of matter. Babies understand this game, using their breath to shower you with baby food.
Fact: The speed in which the air is expulsed is important, giving the cold sensation; the air displacement is substantial and the lungs are rapidly emptied.
We are singing full throttle simply using the vowel sounds A or O. We are in the middle of the choir, holding a candle in front of us. The sheet music is also placed in front of us on a music stand.
Fact: The candle doesn't go out and the music doesn't fly away. The air displacement is practically non-existent. Our lungs do not empty as quickly as in the first example.
We are taken unaware by freezing weather, we have forgotten our gloves and must warm our hands, we put them in front of our open mouth and make the most of it.
Fact: Little air escapes and it's hot, around 36°C. The air speed is slowed down to last longer, giving the hot sensation. Our lungs do not empty very quickly.
It is also curious to note that we can manage to hold in our air, with our mouth wide open. However we do not yet possess the control of this sensation, we cannot situate and reproduce this when the instrument is placed before the mouth.
A choice of breath is necessary then to make the lips vibrate te, (vibration resulting from a combination of the passage of air and the position of the lips).
The question is : to emit a sound,
- do we need air to be propelled strongly inside the tube? Or to limit as much as possible its exit?
- Should we pay attention to the quality of the air for the vibration : not or cold?
To help answer this, we must reflect on the nature of a sound. The encyclopedia tells us : sound is the sensation given by the hearing organ. It is evident that a body cannot emit a sound unless it vibrates. Its vibrations are transmitted, via the air, the ear drum etc... Sound is not only transmitted by air but in a general manner by all materials, (solid, liquid or gas). But it is not transmitted in the vacuum.
However, our wind instruments are not empty, ( if it were so, they would explode from within). If we are at the bottom of a swimming pool with a trumpet, a clarinet etc. water would be inside and outside the instrument. The same is true of air.
Let's keep the water image to visualize what happens with air.
1) We throw a stone into perfectly still water and a fold resembling a circular ripple forms then widens, moving away from the centre of impact.
Fact: The wave obtained is clearly visible and fades as it moves away.
2) If we repeat the experiment in water already rippled by a breeze, the impact produces a fold again but the wave produced becomes mixed with the ripples from the breeze. Fact: The wave is much less clear and sharp.
The same is true of the air in an instrument. Its displacement is useful and necessary for the production of sound. This becomes more complicated when an extra current of air adds to the air already existing in the tube of the instrument. The first example of breath with displacement and cold air must be rejected otherwise the sound would be produced of course but too many things would perturb the playing :
- Lungs emptied too fast, so rushing to breathe in
- Voluntary air intake, so contractions with consequent blocking and closing of throat
- Saturated sonority, even breaks in "wind" in the continuity of play
- Difficulties to play the higher or lower notes with consequent fatigue, breathlessness etc.
So, the choice of breath becomes obvious. It is the singing breath or the breath used to warm your fingers, the breath which can be held back naturally by the body. We may then confirm that to obtain playing based on breathing-relaxation, it is necessary simply to compress the air in our lungs, without overloading them. The hot air passing over the vocal cords will make them vibrate if the singer solicits them. The lips or the reeds have the same effect for instrumentalists.
The setting into vibration of air already contained in the instrumental tube, without added air will allow :
- Richness of sonority, possessing all harmonics
- Suppleness of play on the whole range
- Good length of phrasing
- Musical continuity from the start of breathing out, to the end of the breath
- Relaxed breathing permitting long play without excessive tiredness.
Another good example:
Hold an elastic in your left hand and with your right hand gently stretch it. The longer it becomes, the greater the resistance. Let go of it at any moment and it will spring back to the left hand.
Our respiratory system is exactly the same. Speaking or playing requires the compression of the air already contained in our lungs. Whatever the length of the speech, at the end of each sentence, the muscles acting on the rising of the diaphragm relax. The diaphragm is freed and moves down, thus freeing the two lungs which can then breathe in the outside air. The lungs are filled instantly and the second sentence may begin etc.
This is the description of the natural respiratory act used for speaking in every day life, in relaxed moments without stress, among friends. But of course, if there is no letting go at the end of the compression, there will be no automatic refilling and the intellectual need to breathe in, will inevitably appear. End of the so-said natural breathing.
The difficulty lies in the ability to express vehemence, as felt when in anger, in order to sustain the expression of the sound, whilst at the same time holding back the air flow. The air flow must be as non-existent as possible.
To illustrate this, I imagine a vehicle with an oil refinery inside, since the engine works only with the refined product petrol. The tank is filled directly with crude oil.
The system malfunctions letting oil pass directly into the engine and mix with the petrol, this causes :
- engine problems
- rapid emptying of tank
Let us then replace the image of the vehicle with ourselves, the oil with air and the refined product with breath control. The malfunction would be the mixing of basic air and controlled air and the consequences:
- deficient sonority fatigue,
- breathlessness (see above) rapid emptying of lungs.
It is therefore recommended to hold in air as much as possible, in the same way as an opera singer. This can be easily checked by placing the back of our hand at the end of the mouthpiece or the carrel.
In the next page we will discuss the posture of the body, the throat, the tongue, the lips and the vibration for instruments with mouthpieces.
© Alain Faucher 2006