What is breath support/Air support?
Recently, I had a brief interaction with a young oboist on the IDRS facebook page about feeling discomfort while playing the oboe. The conversation went into the topic of breath support and how to breathe properly into the oboe. I spend a lot of time thinking about this topic since it has been a rather tough lesson for me to learn. I work very hard to find proper breathing and support strategies. I attribute improper breathing and air support to a lot of the challenges I had early on in my playing. it is something that must be felt to understand. It is one of those concepts that a teacher may try to explain for years, but the student will not understand until they find the correct sensation. Perhaps I am projecting my own difficulties onto others, and this is not such a challenge for other oboists. I hope the oboists struggling with support and tension might find my perspective helpful.
The oboe has been described as “the ill winded instrument that no one blows well.” I take this to refer to the somewhat counter-intuitive process of supporting without overblowing. I find it helpful to separate the concept of breath support from the air itself. The support controls the air but it is not the air. The support is the bodily sensations and muscles that pressurize the air within the system. I like to relate breath support and air to an air compressor. The body system is not so different than an air compressor in function. The compressor pressurizes the air to a certain level within the air tank and it is released through a small valve. The oboe player pressurizes the air similarly with their body and the air is released through a small valve, the lips and the oboe reed.
Each system must pressurize the internal environment to a certain level to function optimally. The oboist must use their muscles to pressurize the air to the needed level. The support is the system within the body that creates the pressure. The air is affected by the support, however, I feel the two can, and should be separated conceptually. Another way to say this is “you can still support even if you are not pushing air”. Find the sensation of support and the air will flow better.
A visual and mental representation of breath support I like to use is a hand squeezing a balloon ( courtesy of my mentor Fredric Cohen). Imagine a balloon is inflated but not tied. When the nozzle of the balloon is released the air will move out of it at a certain speed. When the hand is placed on the bottom of the balloon and gently squeezes the air pressure within the balloon increases and causes the air to escape at a faster speed. Supporting can be compared to the hand on the balloon, we use our bodies to created more air pressure within the lungs.
This visual may help you to understand the mental concept, but we must find the sensation to truly understand support. That must be discovered independently for each of us. I will offer my suggestions as to how we can feel proper support later in this article.
Breath Support and volume of air are not the same
I find that when people assume support and air volume are the same thing they are more likely to overblow and try to put too much volume of air through the reed. The reed will only take a small amount of air volume since it is so small. Overblowing often happens when support is assumed to be the same thing as the volume of air being used. “Take a big breath and blow” encourages students to blow a lot of air through the oboe reed and over time associates that large volume to be the same thing as the sensation of support. I don’t necessarily disagree with teaching students to feel support by doing this when first playing, but it is beneficial to separate the two concepts even in the beginning. I write a bit on the topic of air volume in the article “How to play dynamics on the oboe“, I would suggest reading that article if you are new to the oboe.
Overblowing happens when the support is conceptually and sensationally attached to the amount of air being used. The oboe takes a lot of support to play properly (high air pressure), but it does not take much air volume. If the two concepts, Air volume and support, are associated as the same thing you will likely overblow and create tension within the body.
I have converted to the “large breath” school of playing over the past year or so. Even while taking a large breath it is important to know that the reed is only going to take a small amount of air. A large breath can help increase the pressure at the oboist’s disposal, but a reed will only take the amount of air which it is made to take. Anything beyond that is wasted energy. When we take a large breath it is not with the intention of pushing all that air through the oboe reed, it is to create more control over the air pressure moving through the reed.
To summarize and clarify; Support is the system within the body that creates air pressure. When we pressurize the air within the body we are supporting the air. This is the broad definition I would like to give at this point. That is not to say that all support is good support. We can support with our chests, throats, and faces which may create the sound you want, but you will create tension within the body.
Whenever we raise the air pressure within the body system we are essentially supporting. The questions now are, where should we be creating the air support? Where should we feel it? what sensations should be associated with it ? How do I use breath support correctly?
How do I use breath support correctly?
I feel that correct air support has been a tough lesson for me to learn, I am still learning it after 20 years of playing. I suspect I will keep learning proper support for the next 30 years. It is difficult because there is no way to gain a deep understanding of support within the body until it is experienced by the oboist. I have read books on breathing, I spend hours a week meditating with my focus on my breath, and still feel I can improve my support and breathing habits. It is also a topic that I always feel I understand at whatever stage I am at, only to realize years later I could be doing a better, more efficient job. This is an area where we all need to be in tune with our own bodily sensations and work to make a beautiful sound without tension within the body.
I personally feel we must develop a conscious awareness of our breathing and should develop a series of questions to help us become more aware of good and bad practices.
- where are we supporting from
- what sensations are associated with supporting from that place
- How does the sensation relate to the sounds we are trying to create
The diaphragm and breath support
The diaphragm is going to come up anytime anyone talks about air support. I am not going to talk too much about exactly how it works here, mostly because there are other sites with fancy pictures that may make a better introduction. Here is a video about the diaphragm that may be helpful to gain a basic understanding of the breathing and support process.
The area I feel the breath support should happen is in the abdominal area below the rib cage. I personally feel it as an inward and slightly upward push around the diaphragm area shown in the video. I often describe the closest sensation to be a cough right before it is released , though even that is not exactly correct. We use the muscles of the diaphragm to create air pressure to play the oboe. Seems like an easy concept, but it can be more difficult in practice because it is hard to know exactly what is happening inside our bodies. It can be difficult to feel what is happening internally within the body since we have fewer internal nerves than those focused externally.
The breath support should raise the air pressure within the lungs to match the amount of pressure the reed is made to take. The reed should suite the air of the oboist, but the oboist must also work to develop a breath support system that is strong. The reed is going to be slightly different for every oboist due to the human body, instrument, and style of playing, so the case can be made that the support will also change. My goal is not to say everyone should play on the same reeds and same set-up but to find what works best for you, the oboist, to create the music you want to express as effortlessly as possible. Perhaps that is an idealist way of thinking, but I find that to be my number 1 goal in oboe playing and reed making. The oboist needs to develop a strong support that comfortably matches the air pressure needs of the oboe reed.
The wisdom I offer is this; if your body is working too hard and creating tensions anywhere you can benefit from rethinking your air support system and how you are creating the air pressure needed to play the oboe, or rethinking your concepts of oboe playing and reed making. This may require changing your concept of what a great reed feels like, or it may require developing stronger breath support or both. I find the two usually change together slightly. Focusing on proper breath support and ease of tone will take time and focus, but is truly worth the effort if you hope to play expressively and freely with no tension.
An Exercise to help bring awareness to the body and develop proper air support
Here is an exercise I use to demonstrate what I am hinting at above.
- Take a big full breath.
- close your mouth and blow
- feel where the pressure is being created within the body
- Is it in the diaphragm area or somewhere else ? if it is in the diaphragm and you feel no tension anywhere else move on. If the pressure feels like it is building up anywhere but the diaphragm work to bring it down into the diaphragm. Pay special attention to the throat, neck, shoulders and face. The oboe has a reputation of creating a lot of back pressure, but there is a way to play while feeling comfortable and without tension. The problem may be the reed if you feel you need to blow a lot of air to make it work.
- with the pressure built up in the lungs and diaphragm open the mouth very slightly and listen to the air stream. does it sound as if it is being released at very high pressure? experiment with this until you can release a little bit of air at a very high pressure. Work to utilize the abdominal region to create the pressure and not the throat, shoulders or face.
- Try to tighten those muscles without closing the mouth and building up air pressure. I like to practice this by blowing against my lips as above, feeling the push of the muscles in my abdomen, then keep the muscles tight but release the air pressure. Hold the muscles and feel the sensation.
- Now work to tighten and strengthen these muscles and just get accustomed to the sensation of tightening these muscles. When you can utilize these muscles without needing to take in large amounts of air you will be better at blowing the air at very high speed without needing to push so much air volume.
The oboe should not take a lot of air volume to play, but it will require a lot of air pressure. High pressure, low volume. Contemplate that idea.
My goal within this article is to encourage students to look their own understanding of air support. I encourage you to really dig deep to understand if you could be breathing in a way that makes oboe playing a better experience. Do not just blow into the oboe, think and feel what you are doing. Develop efficiency and comfort in your own playing, no one else will ever be able to give you that. Spend time with the exercise outlined above to get in tune with the internal sensations within the body. Conceptualize how the pressure is being created in the system and work towards efficiency. Find a reed that works well and feels comfortable.
Please subscribe to my mailing list, and leave comments about your own experiences with this topic. I would love to hear how other oboists approach air support. Happy oboe-ing