It Ain’t Necessarily So

Incorrect Semantics & Alternative Woodwind Concepts

Throughout my 60 years of studying music and playing woodwinds, I have heard many thoughts on the Fundamentals of Woodwind Playing. Some have proven to be valuable truths while others were just “pie in the sky.” However, after recently reading a book on woodwind performance that had been a recommended source by an esteemed woodwind performer and teacher, I recognized numerous misconceptions that I have heard uttered repeatedly. This has inspired me to write this article in the hope of offering alternative views to many fundamental areas of woodwind playing and performance. I have tried to base my concepts on anatomical facts, science, the laws of nature, and common sense. Whether any one performer does or does not adhere to certain principles is not the purpose of this article. Talented individuals who relentlessly pursue their craft can overcome less than ideal approaches to instrumental performance and still sound wonderful. I am more concerned with understanding what are the forces involved when playing a single-reed woodwind; the use of correct terminology to impart the sensations one experiences when playing; and employing the ergonomically most efficient ways to create an artistic expression on our instruments.

Misconception #1: The Diaphragm’s True Role in Breathing

Some common phrases used to describe the sensation of breathing when playing a wind instrument are “Support from your diaphragm;” “Pulsate your diaphragm;” “Engage your diaphragm;” and “Breathe from your diaphragm.” Although the diaphragm is the key muscle involved during inhalation, it is one of several anatomical structures employed in the total breathing process. The diaphragm is an autonomous muscle of inspiration that functions beyond our level of conscious feeling. We cannot literally feel it or touch it. Yet, most teachers continually misuse the phrase leading one to believe that we can directly sense this organ. Most students therefore push or bear down on their abdominal region believing that they are engaging the diaphragm that way. However, they are actually creating tension and stress-–the exact opposite of the sensation we are trying to establish. Here is an excerpt from a 1983 article entitled The Dynamics of Breathing by one of the top pulmonary surgeons in the U.S., Dr. David W. Cugell. (Esteemed Bazley Professor of Pulmonary Diseases at the Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago and former head of the Pulmonary Function Laboratory at Northwestern Memorial Hospital) He describes the exact function of the diaphragm:

The diaphragm is a muscle of inspiration. Located around and above the abdomen, it is unique among the muscles of the body in that it contracts not just from one end to the other, as the muscles in your arm, leg, or back would, but in a circular fashion, so that a contraction of the diaphragm will reduce its size while flattening it out. The diaphragm is connected to the lower ribs in such a manner that when it contracts it moves downward. . . It’s the other muscles, particularly in the chest area and the abdomen, that we use to exhale and that collectively develop the air pressure you need to play…. This information has been transferred in the lingo of singers and wind instrument players to assume that this exhaling is accomplished with the diaphragm, when in fact it is done by contracting other muscles.”

What physiological actions are important for the wind player to understand to improve one’s breathing process? When breathing deeply during inhalation, as is required in playing a wind instrument, the medulla section of the brain sends a signal to the diaphragm by way of the right and left phrenic nerves—motor neurons located in the neck region which are directly attached to the diaphragm. When attempting to begin inhalation, these nerves help to activate the contraction of the diaphragm, lowering and flattening this muscle as it then pushes against the thoracic cavity. This results in the simultaneous expansion of the chest, lungs, and ribs. The increased size of the chest cavity results in a decreased amount of air pressure in the lungs. Since air always follows the path of least resistance, it will naturally flow into the lungs.

During exhalation, the abdominal muscles begin to contract and then the diaphragm relaxes and moves upwards to its original dome-like shape. Together, they raise the abdominal pressure forcing air out of the lungs. The thoracic cavity and then the rib cage follow suit and contract as well. 

The best way to improve one’s ability to take a deeper breath and make more efficient use of that air is to learn to concentrate on activating the muscles and organs that allow us to directly sense movement—the chest, lungs, ribs, and the lower abdomen. Practicing activities designed to increase lung capacity and efficiency such as stretching, yoga, meditation, and swimming will aid in this process. Observing the results of our breathing process via tools like a breathing bag, Voldyne, Inspiron, Breath Builder, etc. will help provide a more tangible realization of this process. 

In summary, using correct terminology based on scientifically proven anatomical truths while explaining and demonstrating the inhalation/exhalation process for playing a wind instrument is essential for players to develop a sound technique. Instead of “supporting from the diaphragm” try “engaging the chest, ribs, and lower abdomen.” That would be more helpful and accurate once the explanation is understood and the technique demonstrated.

Misconception #2: Clarinet/Saxophone Embouchures

A common phrase that I’ve heard regarding the saxophone and clarinet embouchures is the “Circle of Pressure.” (Also referred to as the “O”, rubber band, or Wheel” embouchure.) Having read about this approach in books, talked with colleagues, and viewed performers who embody this concept, I find the thought that this type of saxophone or clarinet embouchure promotes greater resonance bewildering. While many fine players and educators continue to refer to the lips applying equal pressure around the sides of the clarinet or saxophone reed and mouthpiece as the correct approach for producing a resonant tone, logic and physics stand in opposition.

Looking at the “reed side” of a clarinet or saxophone mouthpiece, one can observe the window, side rails, tip rail, table, baffle, and facing of the mouthpiece. They exist so that the reed can create the maximum vibration on this side. Looking at the top of the mouthpiece or beak, one notices a place where the teeth and lip rest. The “reed side” is where the action occurs; the beak side is stationary. Therefore, the top and bottom of a mouthpiece are not equal and the way the top and bottom lips need to be employed for either a clarinet or saxophone embouchure are not equal!! The circle of pressure embouchure presupposes that both sides are equal as in the embouchures for the oboe and bassoon, where two similar blades of reed are strung together. That is obviously not the case for the single reeds.

Furthermore, doesn’t it make logical sense that anything that inhibits the vibration of the reed along those areas of vibration is a negative factor? The answer again is yes, at least according to Isaac Newton who stated: “A body in motion at a constant velocity will remain in motion in a straight line unless acted upon by an outside force.” In single-reed woodwind terms, a reed set in vibration along its rails and facing will continue to vibrate unless an outside force acts upon it.  So why would anyone advocate for putting the lips around the sides of the reed in a circle of pressure? This would restrict the length of vibration of the reed along the side rails and limit the flexibility of the reed along the tip rail. Then what is the solution? The French single reed players in the first half of the 20th Century brought their concepts of embouchure via the Paris Conservatory to the U.S. which emphasized pulling back the lower and upper lips at the corners of the mouth to remove the lips from enveloping the sides of the reed and avoid pinching the reed. The lower lip would fit around the circumference of the bottom teeth and under the upper lip and teeth at the corners, creating a seal so air would not leak. One could employ a single-lip or double-lip embouchure with this approach. It would allow the minimum amount of material on the reed surface at the reed’s edges and the maximum amount of vibration for the reed.

Another benefit of the French embouchure concept is that it emphasizes the lower teeth instead of the lower lip as the means for holding and stabilizing the reed. The lower lip is not harder than the reed whereas the bottom teeth are and therefore equipped to hold the reed so that it can be vibrated by the air. (In fact, the lower lip is able to be kept quite soft while it covers the entire circumference of the bottom teeth.) The lower teeth supply whatever upwards pressure is necessary to hold the reed and not the lips. The lower lip is passive and merely a way to cushion the lower teeth as the teeth sense the reed.

As for the top lip, keeping it positioned towards the top teeth and pulled back slightly (or over the top teeth as double-lip players do) minimizes the amount of downwards pressure the top teeth can exert on the mouthpiece (Positive). Employing the top lip in this manner also helps enlarge the space in the soft palette as well as the space in the oropharynx–the resonating chamber in the back of the throat. (Positive) Like the lower lip, the top lip is passive in a single lip embouchure, preventing the escape of air through the teeth while resting on the mouthpiece beak. For double lip players, the top lip is merely a cushion for the top teeth and is also not active.

As I stated at the beginning of this article, there are many talented players who were not taught these principles and still sound wonderful. But ergonomically speaking, they are not using the most efficient means to play their instruments and that is the point with which I am concerned because students should be given the opportunity to play an instrument with the best ergonomically sound information.

Misconception #3: Flute Embouchure 

How often I have heard the following concerning the creation of the flute embouchure: “Blow a small stream of air as if you were trying to blow through the pinhole on a needle;” “Keep your lips back and together as if smiling and blow a small stream of air to create a space between your lips;” “Press the flute into your lips so the flute is secure and won’t move around when playing;” and “Roll the head joint in so that both lips can feel the edges of the mouth hole to begin to create the embouchure.” These false axioms are tossed out by players and teachers all too often and create a false impression of the flute embouchure and the way one needs to use air to attain a full, resonant tone throughout all registers. Unfortunately, woodwind doublers are often the prime culprits of these flute sins. For the approach most often employed by the greatest flutists and teachers of the 20th Century, I offer the concepts of the legendary William Kincaid and Geoffrey Gilbert as examples.

William Kincaid (1895-1967), longtime principal flute of the Philadelphia Orchestra and perhaps the greatest orchestral flutist America has produced as well as the teacher of many American flute legends (Julius Baker, Harold Bennett, Albert Tipton, Maurice Sharp, Robert Willoughby, Joseph Mariano, etc.) had this to say about the flute embouchure: “The precise placement of the flute in relationship to the lip is crucial. Brush the flute up to the lip and do not crush down on the red portion from above as this positioning inhibits the flexibility of the lower lip ….Since the flutist has no built-in resistance in the form of a reed or mouthpiece, he/she must make their own mouthpiece by building this resistance in the musculature of the lips themselves so as to contain, shape, and aim the column of air that is pressed against them.” 

Geoffrey Gilbert (1914-1989) was an English flutist who helped revolutionize flute playing in England by adapting many of the concepts advocated by Marcel Moyse and the French school of flute playing. He was the longtime principal flute of the London Philharmonic, the BBC Symphony, and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and an esteemed teacher of artists such as James Galway, William Bennett, and Trevor Wye. Regarding the use of the lips in flute playing, he had this to say: “For greater flexibility and refinement of the sound, turn the lips, especially the top lip, outward, as if saying ‘pooh.’ By bringing the lips forward and opening them outward, the player uses more of the inside of the lip. This allows the air stream to be guided by the smooth, inner surface of the upper lip……The worst thing that you can do to the embouchure is to press against the lower lip excessively.

According to these artists and demonstrated by their equally famous students, the flute needs to be anchored under the bottom lip AND both lower and upper lips must be forward of the teeth in order to shape the air column as it leaves the mouth. By initially rolling the flute head joint into both lips, one is essentially negating the essential positioning of the lips away from the teeth and the embouchure hole is more than likely to be placed too high on the lower lip! It then makes it harder to move the lips away to shape the air column. I have found that doublers tend to roll the flute in as an initial setup point. They do this primarily as a security blanket because when switching from a reed instrument, the lips are not as sensitive from having had a reed/mouthpiece engage with their lower lip beforehand. However, if one practices the flute with the approach outlined above by Kincaid and Gilbert, the player can develop the confidence in placing the head joint immediately under the lower lip without rolling in. It makes flute doubling faster and ultimately results in the ability to have more space between the lips, allowing the player to blow more air through. Incidentally, have you ever seen a fine orchestral flute player put the flute up to their lips and roll in prior to creating a tone? I never have!

Misconception #4: Articulation

My next beef has to do with the use of the term “Attack” when used to describe how to begin a phrase or articulate a passage. Semantics can establish a strong mental concept. The use of a term like attack, which literally means to “act violently against someone or something” or to “try and hurt, injure or destroy something or someone” when merely trying to describe an interruption in a column of air, creates a wrong impression. Regardless of what type of articulation is called for in a piece of music or is most appropriate for a particular style of music, all the wind player is really doing is separating one pitch from another by interrupting the flow of air for various lengths of time and with different intensities. Although there are some players who treat their woodwinds like instruments of war, I believe most try to embody a more artistic approach to their horns. We are not attacking an enemy; we are playing music. Stop attacking when beginning a phrase and start initiating; stop attacking when articulating a series of notes and start separating. All of that is accomplished by simply releasing the tongue from the reed (sax/clarinet) or the gum line/lips (flute). If the note needs to be shortened, just say “release your tongue a little faster and bring it back to its original position sooner.” If the note needs to be articulated with more emphasis, say “Tongue with slightly more intensity” (more intensity of the tongue off and back to the reed for saxophone/clarinet; more intensity to and from the gum line or lips for flute). Stop Attacking–leave that to the politicians!

Misconception #5: Pointing the Chin

A common phrase that is overused, misused, and just plan ridiculous is “pointing the chin” when referring to creating a proper embouchure for single reed players. This is most often heard with regard to orchestral clarinet playing although saxophonists who play primarily classical music are equally guilty. The whole purpose of creating an embouchure is to allow the player to be able to express themselves through their instrument in the most natural way, as if they were singing. Yet this terminology has permeated the teaching of clarinet and saxophone playing as well as study books forever. These books often start out with pictures of players forcing their chins downwards to thin the lower lip out. However, our natural chin position allows us to function and “sing” just fine. Pointing the chin downwards beyond its natural position affects the larynx negatively by adding stress to that section of the throat. (Suggested Exercise: Bring your bottom lip slightly over your lower teeth and put a finger on top of the lip as if it were the mouthpiece/reed. Close your jaw until the top teeth rest lightly on the finger. Then point your chin downwards and sense the added stress in the laryngeal area.) Why would you want to add stress when playing a wind instrument? Finding a good reed is stressful enough! And you can thin the lip out by simply pulling the corners of the mouth back slightly as explained in Misconception #2 while leaving the chin in its customary position. Leave well enough alone!

Misconception #6: Instrument Positioning

Typically, one will find clarinet and saxophone instruction books talk about creating a 30–45 degree angle playing position of the horn to the body. Flute treatises and/or teachers often talk about keeping the flute at a 180-degree angle to the line of the lips or even parallel to the floor. When authors and teachers dictate these pre-conceived concepts, they fail to account for the individual’s physiognomy. 

Every clarinetist or saxophonist has a different jaw occlusion which affects the way our teeth and lips will interact with the reed and mouthpiece. For some clarinetists, a more overt angle will produce the greatest resonance (Artie Shaw) while others will benefit from a more conservative, straight up-and-down angle (Robert Marcellus). Saxophonists position their mouthpieces and hence their neck straps at different angles based on similar considerations. Also, saxophones are held either directly in front or on the right side of the body according to the size of the horn and whether one is seated or standing when playing. This can also influence the desired angle that the saxophonist choses to employ. Lead alto saxophonists often played their instruments in the middle of the body so that the other members of the sax section on either side of them could hear them equally well (Marshall Royal). Others might hold the horn on their right side when playing solos standing (Jimmy Dorsey). In either case, the angle that the mouthpiece should enter the oral cavity should allow the lower teeth the maximum opportunity to sense the reed. (See Misconception #2)

Flutists may need to move their horns slightly off parallel to the lips and to one side of their mouths if they have a tear drop on the inside of the top lip (Jean-Pierre Rampal). One needs to find an angle with the lips that allows the airstream to be blown across the middle of the mouth hole and against the back wall with the greatest efficiency regardless of the angle of the flute or what part of the lips is parted by the air. (Suggested Exercise: Check the vapor trail at the far end of the mouth hole after playing a whistle-tone to insure that the air stream is dissecting it in the middle.) The head can only be tilted so much to the right when playing in order to see the music and/or conductor so the angle of the flute to the lips may, for certain individuals, be quite different then the “perfect” 180-degree angle so often advocated.

In summary, absolute doctrines concerning the ergonomics of playing an instrument do not apply to all individuals. Each player must be looked at as a unique individual and hopefully given the best information available based on science, anatomical truths, and common sense.


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