Almost every issue that arises in wind playing can be traced back to problems with the air support or embouchure. This actually makes perfect sense when we stop to think about it, since sound cannot be produced without the air from our lungs, and the point where the air from our lungs enters the instrument is at the embouchure.1 Every note, in every passage, is sound that is created at a particular pitch, length, and dynamic. Each additional feature added to the note, such as articulation or vibrato, is an ornamentation of this sound that is produced with the air. Waterhouse describes the fundamental role the airstream plays in all aspects of wind playing:
This, to the wind player, is what bowing is to the string player. Such basic elements as tone production, control of nuance, phrasing (especially in slow tempi), tone quality, intonation, projection all depend on the quality of our breath and how we use it.2
Likewise, McGill adds that “all musical inflections are controlled by the abdominal muscles, which manipulate that crucial supporting air in the bottom of the lungs.”3
For wind playing, both inhalation and exhalation should originate from the lower abdomen, as Waterhouse explains:
During this process of controlled exhalation we should commence by activating the muscles at the very base of the abdomen just above the groin; these we normally involve in such actions as carefully coughing up a bone lodged in the throat, or when we attempt to excrete. As exhalation proceeds, the point of control will appear to rise up towards the base of the ribs. We may compare with to [sic] the squeezing of toothpaste out of a tube by starting from the very bottom.4
To develop this type of deep breath, Waterhouse recommends lying on the floor with a small stack of books on your stomach and trying to lift them by only inhaling from the abdomen. McGill suggests another useful exercise:
[…] speak beyond the capacity of your lungs, continuing until you feel you absolutely must take a breath. As you reach your limit it becomes ever more obvious by their intense tightening that the abdominal muscles are responsible for pushing air out of the lungs. But they go into action without conscious effort.5
My own spin on this exercise involves repeatedly whispering the words “Ho, Ho, Ho” slowly over the course of one breath, while also trying to lower the pitch of these words as far as you possibly can. Really push deep to find the absolute lowest pitch you can say these words. In addition to engaging the abdominal muscles, this exercise naturally lowers the jaw and opens the throat—two things we should also strive to incorporate into our bassoon playing.
In order to fully inhale from the abdomen, there should also be a lateral expansion of the lower back and sides. To develop an awareness of this expansion, try breathing deeply while standing with your back against a wall. You should feel your body being pushed slightly away from the wall as you inhale; concentrate on inhaling from deep within the abdomen until you can feel this expansion.
Before breathing in, first exhale the air already in the lungs with a “cleansing breath.” This breath should also originate from the abdomen and is intended to help begin the process of a relaxed, tension-free inhalation. Opinions differ on whether the act of inhalation should create a sound. Weait says that we should “inhale quietly. Noisy inhalation is slow and indicates obstruction of the gateway.”6 Weisberg, on the other hand, believes that the intake of air should be audible:
A great deal of energy is used when breathing through the mouth and the breath enters so rapidly that we can actually hear the rush of air. Too many players avoid making this kind of noise. Perhaps they feel that it is impolite, but if politeness is our main goal, then music is the wrong choice of profession.7
I think the undesirable “noise” that Weait is concerned about is caused by the closing of the throat during inhalation, not by the sound of the air itself. He is correct—the throat and oral cavity should not be allowed to close or tighten during the breathing process. It is also important to note that the intake of air should end with a natural taper of sound, not with an abrupt cutoff caused by closing the glottis. I recommend forming a “Ho” syllable when both inhaling and exhaling, which acts to keep the passageway open and to prepare the player to start the first note with an open voicing and sufficiently low pitch.8 A great way to find this open feeling comes from my teacher, William Ludwig, who recommends doing your best Johnny Cash impersonation: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”
In almost all cases, the top lip should remain in contact with the reed when taking in a breath. Instead of moving the upper lip away from the reed, the lower jaw should be opened to draw in the air. Jooste writes:
By keeping the upper lip on the reed, and by dropping the lower lip, the pressure of the upper lip is not disturbed in any way, it stimulates the relaxation of the lower jaw (which also discourages the bite action on the reed), and no movement of the head occurs.9
This is also the technique described by Weisberg, although he does advocate leaving the embouchure in place and inhaling from the corners for quick breaths. The “Ho” syllable technique is also helpful here because it encourages the lowering of the jaw and maintains an open throat and oral cavity.
Many younger players inadvertently raise their shoulders while playing the bassoon, but this should not be allowed at any point, and especially not when taking in a breath. The only movement that should occur on some occasions actually involves moving the shoulders downward, which can be incredibly useful when playing softly in the lower register.10 Raising the shoulders during inhalation not only moves the action away from the lower abdominals, but can also cause the aforementioned tightness and closure in the throat.
Once full and open breathing has been established, the next important step is to develop a proper embouchure. Remember, the need for a quality airstream always comes first—a textbook embouchure is of no use with an improper airstream, but an improper embouchure will inhibit even the best airstream. Our airstream is entirely dependent on our embouchure to travel into and through the instrument, and a helpful reminder of the embouchure’s vital importance is to remember that the French word emboucher literally means “to flow into.”11 To form a correct bassoon embouchure, the lips should be drawn back slightly over the teeth, and the jaw should be pulled back just enough to create a slight overbite. The most important aspect of a good bassoon embouchure, though, is the quality of “roundness.” Jooste explains this roundness as the shape the mouth has when blowing through a straw or giving someone a quick kiss. 12 Waterhouse adds:
We should have the image of our embouchure functioning like the drawstring of a purse, with equalized 360o lip support, rather than a jaw-grip clamping from above and below like a carpenter’s vice.13
This drawstring shape is created by the orbicularis oris muscle, or, as it is more commonly referred to, the “corners.” Engaging the corners keeps the upper and lower lips from clamping off the vibrations of the reed; since this jaw pressure is less tiresome to maintain than pressure from the orbicularis oris muscle, players have the tendency to rely too heavily on this top and bottom pressure in their embouchure. This pressure becomes more pronounced after playing for extended periods of time when the corners have become exhausted. Even if the abdomen is actively engaged and proper breath support is being supplied, clamping down with the top and bottom lips will cut off the vibration of the reed, leading to a number of problems in our playing.14 Waterhouse explains:
[…] over-dependence on the embouchure may be considered as being symptomatic of insufficient breath-leading skills… A tight embouchure—the almost inevitable consequence of insufficient abdominal support—will tend to keep the jaws comparatively closed and throat tight, resulting in an impoverished tone quality. Building up the abdominal support will enable the embouchure to become more relaxed, allow the jaw to open, maximize the oral cavity and the tonal resonance.15
One of the best exercises for relaxing the embouchure and promoting abdominal breath support is to play a single note with a tuner and then loosen the embouchure to see just how flat you can make the pitch go. Then, with this same loosened embouchure, raise the note back up to pitch using only the breath support from the lower abdominals. This is a great way to loosen up at the beginning of practice sessions, and is also an exercise you can come back to whenever you feel yourself constricting your throat or clamping down on the reed.
1 This philosophy extends to all aspects of bassoon playing; for example, an excellent reed cannot make up for a poor air stream, but proper breath support can minimize the affects of a mediocre reed.
2 William Waterhouse, The Bassoon (London: Kahn & Averill, 2003), 69.
3 David McGill, Sound in Motion: A Performer’s Guide to Greater Musical Expresssion (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2007), 165.
4 Waterhouse, 74.
5 McGill, 163-64.
6 Christopher Weait, Bassoon Strategies for the Next Level (Worthington, Ohio: Christopher Weait, 2003), 75.
7 Weisberg, 89.
8 This is the same “Ho” syllable that I advocate using in the abdominal exercises above.
9 S.J. Jooste, The Technique of Bassoon Playing: An Evaluative and Methodological Study (Potchefstroom, South Africa: Central Publications Department, Potchefstroom University, 1984), 28.
10 See Brahms's Violin Concerto.
11 Weait, 79.
12 Jooste, 30-31.
13 Waterhouse, 110.
15 Waterhouse, 86-87, 110.