All Music Begins with a Good Breath (and Dies with a Lack Thereof)

by Kenneth Amis

Ask any brass or woodwind student or band director what the most important aspect of playing a wind instrument is and most will respond that it is the ability to effectively use one’s air. Ask them to estimate how much breathing and air control contribute to good wind playing and most will concede a figure over 70 percent. Ask how many of them practice breathing on a daily basis and you’ll be amazed at how few actually do. This lack of correspondence would almost be humorous if not for the fact that it is so limiting to the development of the performers and, by extension, the music they make.


Ensure that everyone does daily breathing exercises. Provide constant and consistent visual encouragement from the podium for good breathing. Install a sense of responsibility in players to breath as a team. Use metaphors that lead performers to think of airflow and how it relates to timbre, rather than just decibel levels.


All brass and woodwind players.

At a certain level of professional development, all the players in an ensemble will arrive at rehearsals and performances completely warmed up, both aerobically and muscularly.

Unfortunately, this usually does not occur until the collegiate level and, even then, only in the most studious and competitive environments. This situation creates a major problem for a conductor who wishes to tighten rhythms, hone intonation and balance, and create dynamic phrasing. These issues depend on reliable articulation, supported tone production, and flexible tone manipulation. All of these pre-requisites stem from good breathing – both inhalation and exhalation – and the body must be prepared to undertake the act of good breathing as it relates to the instrument in the player’s hand.

Some school schedules will offer a time for wind players to congregate before their daily rehearsals to do breathing exercises. For those of you without this convenience, I highly recommend that you do the following breathing exercise with your students before every rehearsal and performance. Some of you may be reluctant to lose time from your rehearsal for such personal maintenance. However, given the importance of good breathing to everything you are planning to do, this time will be more than made up in productivity. It is of vital importance for larger instruments and for when you have early morning rehearsals or meet in cold environments.

Here is a simple exercise that only takes 21/2 minutes. With all your woodwind and brass players seated, have them inhale for a full 8 seconds, hold their breath for 24 seconds, exhale for a full 8 seconds, and then relax for 10 seconds. Complete this exercise three times, for a total of 150 seconds. Your percussionists can be setting up during this time, and you can make quick announcements during the 10-second relaxation periods. Be sure to count, or have one or your percussionists count, the seconds aloud so that the participants learn to associate breathing with time and rhythm. This exercise will help to stretch out the muscles around the ribs and chest to accommodate deeper breathing and will quietly calm and focus your ensemble in preparation for work.

Provide constant visual encouragement for good breathing. An ensemble that breathes together plays together. This includes the conductor. Be sure to show a good inhalation before every entrance that you cue. The breath should be measured (from one to four beats long, depending on tempo) and always be obvious and musically encouraging. You can usually tell if a group will play its first note together by hearing if it breathes together.

During a performance, not all entrances are cued from the podium. Each section leader should be made aware that it is his or her personal responsibility to bring their section in with a good, metered breath, even when the section is cued by the conductor. The other members of the section should be made aware that their first responsibility is, when technically appropriate, to breath with their section leader, even when they are cued by the conductor. This will develop a strong sense of team, with a clear hierarchy – e.g., the second and third trombones follow the principal trombone player’s lead, who follows the principal trumpet player’s lead, who follows the conductor’s lead. You’ll find that ensemble problems are much more easily solved when each section functions as a unit. The first step to this unity is learning to breathe as a section. During a piece, the section leader should show, at least, the two beats before a section entrance. The first beat is shown with something like a downward motion or soft, short grunt, and the second beat – the one before playing commences – with an obvious, rhythmic breath. This will reassert the tempo to section members and give them the confidence to come in together.

Using simple verbal instructions all the time, such as “louder” or “softer”, can often lead young players to both misunderstand why they are being asked to do so and misconstrue what they need to do to accomplish it. The novice and intermediate player will often correlate “louder” with a misguided sense of muscular forcefulness and “softer” with a lack of presence and breathing. Mix in descriptions that spark the imagination and encourage the movement of air. For instance, instead of saying, “This section should be much louder”, you can say, “We need our biggest and warmest sound to blossom throughout the room”. Or, instead of repeatedly telling them to play softer, you can tell them to “send a whisper to the other end of the auditorium”. Instructions such as these will not only make you more interesting to listen to but will also engage a part of a young player’s brain that is less likely to get trapped in the misconceptions and anxieties of technique.

There are no quick fixes for the idiomatic problems shared by wind groups. However, the process for overcoming these problems, and so many others in life, begins by first taking a deep breath.

This article, used by permission, is an excerpt from a publication entitled The Music Director’s Cookbook: Recipes for a Successful Program which features short articles by 57 of today’s leading music educators, conductors and composers.

Sponsored by Amis Musical Circle