This is an exercise I strongly believe in. It is truly my favorite breathing exercise for tone. I have used this with students to improve their tone and response, sometimes with nearly miraculous results. Here’s how it works:
Breathing through music
Take a piece of music that you are working on. Breathe in, and pretend that you are playing a phrase, but do not put your instrument up to your lips. You are only going to use your tongue for articulation and blowing air out into the open…no buzzing! Some band directors will do this with their students by “hissing” air, though we’re going to do something a little different. Breathe the same way you would if you were playing through your instrument. Listen to the sound of the air coming out of your mouth. If your tone on your instrument is not as open and free as you like, then there is a good chance you will hear one of these things as you breathe through the phrase:
- Hissing sounds
- Whistling sounds
- Closed throat sounds (like an impression of a fire-breathing dragon)
These are examples of what you do not want to hear with this exercise! The first two are indications that your tongue is not getting out of the way of your airstream when you play. The third means that your air is not being pushed in the right direction or there is extra tension in your throat.
Now, think about how you breathe if you yawn, or if you are trying to fog a mirror. The air has a very deep, open sound, with almost no resistance when you exhale. If you apply articulation by tonguing at the beginning while breathing like this, you should get something like a deep “taw” or “toh” sound. This is the sound we want to hear when performing this breathing exercise for tone.
Go back to the music and try this again. As you breathe, aim for the deep “fogging a mirror” sound we just described. Do not worry about pitch; you are not trying to recreate the sound of the music. Just aim for deep, open, steady air all the way through the passage. You will run out of air much, much faster than usual. This means you’ll have to take more breaths than normal, and that’s okay. Pay especially close attention to any quicker rhythms, and make sure each individual note sounds just as open as the longer notes. If you’re breathing through a slur, make sure the air is a solid, steady stream, and not “puffing” for each individual note.
When you’re comfortable getting a deep, open air sound by breathing, go back to playing your instrument. As you play, try to breathe through the horn just like you did into the open air with deep, full air support. Most people will notice an immediate improvement in their overall tone. You will find you may have to make some small adjustments to your control and upper range notes. That will come with further practice. Most students are very happy with the results they can get quickly from this breathing exercise for tone!
Doing this exercise one time will not be an instant cure for any tone problems. This exercise will need to be done regularly before the open style of breathing becomes habit. Also, this exercise will not cure issues caused by embouchure position problems or other, more severe playing problems. As always, the best cure is working with an experienced teacher.