Saturday, July 14, 2012

Breathe, Don't Blow

(K. David Van Hoesen)

Breathe, Don't Blow

This is the title of an article written by C. Robert Reinert and Alan Goodman.  It was published in the Double Reed in 1998.  I find it to be the best explanation of how to create a beautiful, resonant sound on the bassoon.

Please read this article before reading further in this post.

High Points and Reactions

Although Reinert and Goodman use some jargon, the article is very concise and clearly written.

After a short introduction, they state that the most important part of making a beautiful sound happens before the sound is initiated.

"Technique aside, there is nothing more important than being able to visualize the sound, the quality, the ease, the inevitability of a beautiful tone."

If there is no tonal concept for guidance, the player will not be able to focus.  This will be readily apparent to anyone listening.

Next come the following statements:

"It is the presence of resistance that determines the quality of tone. Too little resistance produces a weak tone, thin and poor. Too much resistance produces a tone heavy, thick, and unmanageable to attacks and coloration."

"The least amount of resistance that produces a full tone is recommended."

I couldn't agree with this more!  Sometimes we get stuck on the idea that more resistance is good because it allows us to push more air into the reed.  While this may feel good because we're putting in more effort, the will not be commensurately more resonant.

Reinert and Goodman explain:

"Waves travel, not air. Waves do not travel as a consequence of being "blown" by a large stream of air.  Blowing harder does not project the sound.  Carrying power is supplied by the fullest resonance of overtones."

This is brilliantly put! If the reed, bocal or bassoon won't resonate or if there are impeding tensions in the player's body, no amount of blowing can "create" a projecting, resonant, beautiful sound.  You cannot force a bassoon to resonate.

In this matter I believe the bassoon (with its flexible reed) is closer to a stringed instrument (with its pliant strings) than a brass instrument.  What happens when a string player presses the bow harder and harder against the strings?  The result is just like the description of resistance above.  Not enough produces a thin tone, too much produces a tone that is too thick and unmanageable.  Somewhere in between the player must find the resistance that's just right. (Take that, Goldilocks!)

So how is the desired sound created? Through the use of "pressure energy".  I found this to be a somewhat elusive term.

However, by reading further, it occurred to me that maybe they are referring to the pressure of the excess air in the lungs at the end of the inhalation phase of breathing -- the simple need to expel air to equalize the pressure in and outside of the body.

There are two ways to do this, one by simply blowing (easy for soft, hard for loud).

The other is by supporting the sound by using two opposing forces.

Inhalation pressure is built up during inhalation and "held" during exhalation.  Exhalation pressure is exerted during exhalation only.

The two forces work together.  The analogy used of two hands pushing against one another is perfect for the description of abdominal support necessary for a resonant tone.

It is important to note the emphasis on the muscles of the abdomen and back in their discussion.  There is never a sense of pushing or pulling these muscles in as you play, rather the midsection exerts an outward pressure.  This can be felt as the "reluctance" of the pressure of inhalation to yield to the pressure of exhalation.  A yin and yang of pressures!  You can't have one without the other.

Yes, the chest and abdomen will naturally draw in at the end of the breath, but proper support comes through the gentle resistance to this action.  Singers talk of "raising the sternum" for support.  My teacher, David VanHoesen advocated expanding the chest out slightly with a bit of an arch in the small of the back for a more resonant tone.

Try these and see if you hear more resonance in your sound.  Don't take these actions to the extreme.  There should be no pain or tension involved!

As the 2012 Summer Olympics approach, I find much inspiration in learning from the athletes.  Watch the sprinters at the start.  There is NO tension in their bodies.  It would be counterproductive for a sprinter to tense up prior to starting -- so why do we musicians tend to do this before initiating the sound?? Tension is the enemy of resonance!

After the start, the best look fluid and graceful, even while applying maximum effort for speed.  They have learned to direct all their energy towards their goal -- a winning time.  As musicians we should always strive for a sound that has resonance and beauty!

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