Where is the air?

One thing I’ve been experimenting with lately is where I feel the air on the inhale.  As brass players we often hear the words “breath deeply,” and “fill up all the way to your toes.” For the most part, these are great teaching tools, because many students simply do not take in enough air to make the horn resonate fully.  However, in my experience I have found that trying to feel the air too low can create the dreaded delayed attack syndrome.  Essentially this happens when air is inhaled and then held – sometimes for several seconds – before exhaling, resulting in hesitant, tension-filled, and often inaccurate attacks.  There are a number of excellent resources out there for dealing with this problem, including methods by Milan Yancich and Richard Deane.  Both of the aforementioned methods approach the solution through exercises designed to eliminate the “hitch” at the peak of the inhale, creating instead a smooth, seamless transition between inhale and exhale. In addition to those exercises, you can also try shifting your perception of where the air is when you inhale.  Instead of thinking of the air in the back of your throat or lower, imagine the air in the front of your mouth, vibrant, present, and ready to spring into action.  Continue to take the deep, relaxed breaths that horn playing requires, but try to feel the air a bit more forward in the mouth.  Over the past few days I’ve found that this technique is especially helpful for soft, high register attacks.  Physically, the air probably isn’t really doing anything that different, but as anyone who has experienced delayed attacks knows, the issue is often not physical but mental in nature.  By conceptualizing air as being in the front of the mouth (while still inhaling fully), it is easier to eliminate the tendency to hesitate before an attack.

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As always, I look forward to reading your daily blog posts and found todays post about air, very interesting. I thought I would mention 2 different ways I approach air and attacks. Take it or leave it … But it has worked for me and for my students.

First, the common way, more like what you wrote about, a smooth transition from the intake to the release or ‘attack’. Using the Farkas random attack study in the Art of Horn Playing (with a quarter note on beat one followed by 3 beats of rest). I teach the mental cadence of ‘play-off(mouthpiece off lips)-set(mouthpiece back on lips)-breath-play-off-set-breath’. And actually there is a mental ‘set’, firming the corners and pulling the chin down on the back-end of beat 4, to avoid the pitch sagging just after the attack. A lot of students and professionals have the issue of first attacking the note, then firming the corners and you can hear the note take a slight amount of time to ‘bend’ into the proper intonation and resonance.

The second way I teach and practice is less common but very effective. Using the same study, I teach the mental cadence of play-off-breath-set-play-off-breath-set. With this method you are actually ‘holding’ the air on beat 4 while you set the mouthpiece on the lips and firm up the corners and chin. I say holding the air but actually I teach that the air is ‘front loaded’, ready to explode but being held back by the tongue, not the throat.

The first method is used when the music is in ‘motion’ and a sense of timing is established. For example, an entrance in a solo or symphony, where a beat or rhythm is easily felt and where the horn player is feeling comfortable. The second method is used to convince the student (or myself) that a smooth transition, from intake to release, is not always necessary or always available. Examples included the dreaded first note of a piece (or after a ‘pause’), where the conductor may not always give the horn player a good prep before the attack. In broadway shows, there are always several times during the show where the horn has what I call the ‘test note’ or the ‘singers-pitch-identifier’. Basically what is happening … you’re done playing a song, dialog happens on stage, horn player is stressing because we have the ‘test note’, conductor is waiting for their cue, all of a sudden … Bam, down beat, no prep, and it’s just a solo horn playing a single note. Hope you were ready for it! 🙂

I practice and teach method 2 to prepare for these situations. By having both techniques under my belt, I no longer stress weather a conductor is going to give me a good prep where I can establish a sense of time. If I question what the conductor is going to do, I breath, front load my air, set my embouchure and wait for my moment. The delay between the intake and the release is practiced to make it comfortable and free of tension. While it is rarely used, it’s a beautiful weapon to have in your technique arsenal.


Great comments Tom! I agree that the second technique you mention is quite useful, but it is in my opinion an advanced technique that players should only consider once they have mastered the “smooth transition.”


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