Wind-and-song Wednesday

Herbert L. Clarke, one of the most admired cornetists and brass teachers in history.

Trumpeters are reluctant advocates of breathing exercises and concepts that our low brass counterparts fully embrace. The reason? I think it has to do with the way we use our breathing for the trumpet–the highest range instrument of the brass family. We use less volume of air and more air pressure than horns, trombones, and euphoniums, not to mention tubas! So, while it is nice to participate in the Breathing Gym exercises, or whatever program is getting tuba players to play in a relaxed way, it isn’t directly addressing the real issues trumpeters have. We have to look at a completely different school of thought that was offered up years ago by such great trumpeters and cornetists as Rafael Mendez, Claude Gordon and Herbert L. Clarke.

Real improvement comes mostly from expanding the demands we place on the capacity of a single breath. How FAR can we go in one breath? How focused can we remain, even when our lungs are at the end of their breath? I know, I hear the grumbling now from all the doubters out there: “if you play to the point where your lungs are shaking, then you are practicing poor air support and reinforcing bad tone!” I hear you. BUT, it is the effort in expanding our capacity that allows us to play on better air for longer stretches of music.

Who could play the whole Mexican Hat Dance in one breath? Rafael Mendez, that’s who!

Let me quote from Rafael Mendez’ Prelude to Brass Playing (Carl Fischer, 1961, 2005, p. 13):

To help you attain correct breathing habits and to build up the chest, lungs, and muscles, the following exercises are recommended:

1) Regulating the breath (you will need a watch)

Stand erect…. Inhale deeply…. Timing yourself, blow out a small stream of air…. How many seconds? 15? 20? Breathe correctly and try again. Add five seconds…. In 80 seconds of blowing out, try holding the diaphragm steady for 10 seconds, the allow ten seconds for it to recede, and the final ten seconds for lower ribs to return to normal. Keep adding five seconds each time. You can get this up to 60…70…80…90…100 seconds and over by exerting will power. Will power can be your greatest ally in music study. Right here is where you start to exert it. [emphasis mine]

And of course Clarke is always advocating to play his exercises in one breath, and if there are repeats, to see how many repeats can be made in one breath. See his Technical Studies for this kind of advice.

Claude Gordon, great high-range pedagogue.

And Claude Gordon, who was a student of Clarke, and who has helped a lot of players play great in the high (and low) register, advised the student to play long tones “as long as possible with a crescendo at the end. Hold the note until all the air is gone and longer (until your stomach shakes).”

I think Clarke had the best additional advice to make sure this kind of practice would not hurt the player or result in poor tone: always play softly. And I agree with this advice, especially on technical kinds of practice. Soft playing, with a metronome, intentionally trying to improve by small increments of speed and of duration of breath. This is basically working on our physique, our technique, but most importantly of all, our mind focus.

Now, go out and play some “Clarkes” with more reps than ever!! (softly)

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