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Airflow and the mechanics of sound

Gandalfe

Admin and all around good guy.
Staff member
Administrator
#1
One of my very talented teachers has been working on me for three weeks to improve my sound by the use of a more forceful airflow or supported as he calls it. To me it just sounds like he really likes it when I play louder and not so much when I play softer. He notes a surging of sound as I play at any volume and stops me almost every time I play.

It's gotten to be such a thing with him that he wants me to quit playing any instrument for 45 days and just do breathing exercises. If I understood or could hear what he's talking about I'd consider it, but I can't hear what he's talking about and after more than three hours of us talking I still can't get my head around the concept.

Here is a sample of my playing where I'm on soprano sax so you can actually hear me apart from my quartet: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=udy4n8ggWys

Now I understand more than a little about airflow as that is in my opinion the number one problem for over 90% of beginner to intermediate musicians. But I was never singled out as one of those folks before.

I also know that as you blow softer, you tend to naturally blow a little more sharp than when you are playing loudly. I also followed with interest a recent discussion (can't remember where it was) on the sine waves associated with the saxophone which was IIRC even at soft and uneven at loud. There was also talk about loud playing creating more overtones which can be pleasing.

My other teachers don't hear what this one instructor hears. I am getting so frustrated that I'm going to give it another week and then ask this instructor to concentrate on my other shortcomings like rhythm and sight reading. I'd be interested in any observations from this group.
 
#2
I disagree with the 45 days thing.

You'll hear folks talk about diaphragmatic breathing. Well, all breathing involves the diaphragm--if you didn't use it, you couldn't breathe--but what they mean is pulling down with the diaphragm rather than pulling back with it. Get a belly-full of air for all sounds, loud and soft.

If, when you breathe, your chest expands more than your belly, you are doing it wrong because you aren't using the full capacity of your lungs. Putting a huge reservoir of aid under even the quietest of sounds strengthens the tone.
 
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Gandalfe

Admin and all around good guy.
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#3
I cannot believe, however, that he would want you to stop playing for 45 days.
Well the discussion went along the lines of how to break a bad habit and he did say in the best of conditions, this is what we'd do. I hate putting a name to an instructor because I'm in effect just portraying my understanding of what he is trying to tell me and I don't always get it right.

I have spent time understanding the 'diaphragmatic breathing' thang. In some circles it's known as playing with 'warm air' but there isn't agreement out there about using warm air. I tend to slump (compared to my military posture) to force myself to use the diaphram correctly. Now this isn't a sloppy slump but just a movement in that direction which always me to take full use of the diaphram.
 
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#4
I've always instinctively done what Al describes. Your lungs are a tank and the more air you can hold in there (and longer) the better your sound will be IMHO. Any aerobic exercise will be extremely helpful. When I was in PDX I was doing a fair amount of running, and I found I could play longer phrases more consistently and with better control without having to breathe so often. That of course will be less relevant on smaller horns, but still valid, I think. I was lucky in that I started playing contrabass clarinet when I was 14, and I think it helped me build up my lung capacity during my formative years. I also used to play (just for the hell of it) sometimes in a moderate slouching position with my left leg up on my right knee - now and again you will find me donig that if I'm bored or don't like the chart :). You're right in that forces the diaphragm to do the work, and it doesn't really affect my playing that much. But it drives Neil nuts :). I know Jeff Miller does this sometimes too.
 

Steve

Clarinet CE/Moderator
Staff member
CE/Moderator
#5
Gandalfe

one this page, half way down I talk about Hot versus Cold air
http://clarinetperfection.com/Embouchure.htm

do a <control> F and search for Hot vs Cold Air when you are on the page

taking a break is sometimes good .. but 45 days ? you'll loose fingering speed, tonguing/articulation ... music reading ... embouchure .. you might even forget what a saxophone is !!

with the airflow with the proper diaphragm techniques you should be able to "instantly" bring the air flow to the speed needed. many will start slow and bring it up to speed. BUT the setup of the instrument can have a profound impact on this too .. a tiny leak somewhere and you actually have a response issue which can have this symptom.

on sax, tenor more spefically I used my air support to support palying hard reeds on large tip openings. My tone really gets more full and powerful versus softer reeds. But this really requires good air support which I get from practicing 4 reeds on clarinet too.

I'd ask your instructor to give you a list of your shortcomings in order of highest impact. Then go from there. Maybe shelve this one issue until your understanding of it can improve. Because if you really don't understand it it is very hard to correct and leads to frustration.


FYI - i recommend jogging for lung capacity improvements. I do this anyways in my spring training for cycling. And I know it really helps my playing and I can tell the difference if I'm out of shape.
 

Gandalfe

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#6
FYI - i recommend jogging for lung capacity improvements. I do this anyways in my spring training for cycling. And I know it really helps my playing and I can tell the difference if I'm out of shape.
Argh, hit backspace twice and you lose your post! My 18 month old/young dawg requires me to run it 3 to 4 times a day from 3/4th of a mile or more or she eliminates in the house. Running hurts my knee but should benefit my cardio and thus playing.
You're right in that forces the diaphragm to do the work, and it doesn't really affect my playing that much. But it drives Neil nuts :). I know Jeff Miller does this sometimes too.
Luv to drive Neil nuts. :emoji_rage:
 

Steve

Clarinet CE/Moderator
Staff member
CE/Moderator
#7
i'm kinda psychotic when it comes to training (and practicing) .. i posted one of my US Olympic Camp badges (for cycling) on my facebook pics from years back. So I tend to train (run, cycle) alot
http://www.facebook.com/#/photo.php?pid=30946842&id=1102942357

but i also get out of shape badly in the winter. just not motivated anymore to do anything in the cold. So I know my playing suffers during the winter months.
 

Helen

Content Expert Saxophones
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Administrator
#8
Just an interesting aside, not sure if it's relevant or not, but I've found nothing improves your breathing better than playing bass saxophone. If you don't have proper breath support on the bass, you won't be able to produce a proper sound. Playing bass really pointed out how sloppy my breathing sometimes was. As my bass playing got better, and I was consistently getting a good, melodic sound, I noticed that my tone on the smaller saxes improved as well (and I always had had a good sound on tenor and bari, but now it was even better).

You've got a couple of basses kicking around Gandalfe. Have you tried working on the breathing/diaphragm exercises on those? You might just give that a try. You might be surprised how the skill acquired will transfer nicely to improvements on your smaller horns.

The one thing that I did notice, that I have to be careful of, is that my lung capacity & breath control improved so much so after playing bass for a while that I forget to breathe when playing soprano and alto. Then suddenly I find myself running out of air in the most inopportune places. :oops:
 

pete

Brassica Oleracea
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#10
I'm told playing stringed instruments are best for building lung capacity. Seriously. Something in the arm movements is supposed to help, I assume.

Jim, I listened to the piece and you sound a little out of control at entrances, particularly if the entrance isn't in about the middle range of the horn. In other words, I think the problem might be overblowing or that you're not consistent in your air support.

Just an opinion, of course. I haven't really heard you on other sax pitches. It might just be soprano that you're havening issues with: remember that I have problems with soprano, alone, in generating good tone (again, for the people that missed it, you can hear a recording of how badly I sound on soprano at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_n-gRS_wdI).

How's about your clarinet life? Flute?
 

Groovekiller

Distinguished Member
Distinguished Member
#11
I'm not sure it's all that complicated. The most important thing is to take an abnormally large breath. If you play loud, you'll need it. If you play soft, remember the pitch thing, which is correct (soft=sharp). You will have to correct pitch with looser chops and a more open throat, and both of these suck the air out of you even though you aren't playing loud.

Just take a huge breath.
 

Helen

Content Expert Saxophones
Staff member
Administrator
#12
except maybe a contrabass tuba .. or a soprano flute :)
Touché my little green frog friend, touché. However, I was referring to instruments that I own, & can actually play. :emoji_relaxed:
 

Gandalfe

Admin and all around good guy.
Staff member
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#13
Jim, I listened to the piece and you sound a little out of control at entrances, particularly if the entrance isn't in about the middle range of the horn. In other words, I think the problem might be overblowing or that you're not consistent in your air support.
Oh, that is so true Pete. I tend to attack too hard under stress (like when sight reading).

It might just be soprano that you're havening issues with: remember that I have problems with soprano, alone, in generating good tone (again, for the people that missed it, you can hear a recording of how badly I sound on soprano at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_n-gRS_wdI)
Too funny. I get a lot of pointers to this vid of Coltrane's. :cool:

How's about your clarinet life? Flute?
I really don't spend enough time for people to get to hear me play solos on those instruments.

I'm not sure it's all that complicated. The most important thing is to take an abnormally large breath. If you play loud, you'll need it. If you play soft, remember the pitch thing, which is correct (soft=sharp). You will have to correct pitch with looser chops and a more open throat, and both of these suck the air out of you even though you aren't playing loud. Just take a huge breath.
My ability to gasp fast enough is not what it used to be.

Thanks guys. Good feedback. And Helen, I don't play the bass enough either. Maybe practicing once a week on it would help. I played bari sax through the first half of the WCB concert season and that took a lot of air.
 
#14
This may be overly simplistic and if so, please forgive and ignore. I find that many who think they are using appropriate diaphragmatic breathing aren't. I've learned it from three of the best sources around---yoga, LaMaze childbirth ed classes, and relaxation training (which I taught professionally). A couple of tests to see if you are in fact doing it properly---place one hand on your belly button and the other on your sternum and take a deep breath. If your sternum hand moves more than the other, you are probably not taking in as much air as you think you are and as you could. Also, if you get a lot of shoulder movement when you take a deep breath, you are wasting energy and probably not getting a full complement of air.

Now, do the "two hand test" while lying flat on your back and breathing normally. Most people do diaphragmatic breathing quite naturally in this position, i.e. your "belly hand" will be moving up and down and the other hand will be relatively quiet). If you are not using diaphragmatic breathing while playing (or while doing yoga, trying to relax, or having a baby:emoji_astonished:) it is very helpful to begin developing your ability to do it at will by carefully observing your breathing while lying on your back, taking deep breaths in this position, and trying to keep chest and shoulders relatively quiet. As you become more aware of what your various shoulder, chest, belly muscles are doing (or not doing) you should be able to transfer this awareness to a sitting or standing position, and then to how you are breathing while playing (I'm still working on doing this consistently when playing----I find that it's easy to tense up and lapse into chest breathing and lots of shoulder movement).

As an aside, taking long, slow abdominal breaths is central to relaxation training, and is, even alone, an effective tension reliever.

Again, if this is overly simplistic and second nature to you all, I apologize.

Ruth
 

pete

Brassica Oleracea
Staff member
Administrator
#15
#17
Gandalfe,

I listened to your audio link. I think your teacher is trying to get you to play with intensity, and doesn't know how to say it. Intensity has nothing to do with amplitude or volume. It has to do with rhythmic precision of the attack and release, and control of the shape of the note, at any volume, and that will lend itself to consistent sense of time. For you, it's not a matter of breath support or lung capacity, although, they are necessary. It is purely a state of rhythmic awareness, enabled by the development of your embouchure and the response of your setup.

A mouthpiece/reed/horn combination that is not responsive enough and/or an embouchure that is not at your absolute command, can interfere with your control and accuracy of articulation, and then intensity goes out the window. The only time you might get close, is when you are playing loudly.

I think that is where you and your teacher are at. The solution: Start with your reeds. I assume you are playing a cane reed. It sounds water-logged. It's not working right. You need to take the time to select and prepare you reeds so they help you "sing" in your playing. A bad reed will hobble you.

Lance
MM
 

Gandalfe

Admin and all around good guy.
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#18
Lance, I'll run this past my instructor as I tend to agree with what you've said about attack and articularion. The breathing exercises he has been having me do is very interesting and for the first time in my life I can sing without getting a sore throat. The exercise of fogging the mirror from different distances just makes me light-headed.

Timing is my number one problem. Articulation is number two. I'll keep working them. I'm to the point where I know I'm not spending enough time on the instruments. I think that all hobbyists get to that point. I luv this story about wannabe musicians: I want to be a musician. No, no you don't.
 
#19
Timing is my number one problem. Articulation is number two.
There are 2 aspects to time.

1. the inner sense of time
2. technical mastery

The inner sense of time is your ability to feel/think/hear, in your mind, a rhythmic pulse, and to control it, to keep it steady or control it's change in speed. It's totally a mental process.

Technical mastery is your ability to coordinate the fingering, blowing, articualtion, etc., of the instrument with your internal sense of time. Any technical aspect, which has not become a correct and primarily subconsciously controlled process, will cause you to loose track of your sense of time - If you have to think about what you are doing excessively, it will be out of time, and similarly, any horn, mouthpiece, reed combination, that isn't working for you, will insure that timing will be a problem.
 

pete

Brassica Oleracea
Staff member
Administrator
#20
for the first time in my life I can sing without getting a sore throat.
Speaking as a singer this means one of two things (or both):

a. You're now using your diaphragm properly: you're not singing from the throat, you're singing from the chest.
b. What you were singing was in the wrong vocal range and you were straining. You're now in the right range.

Either/or, both. That's good. Keep it up.
 
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