As with all wind instruments, bassoonists produce sound by blowing air into the instrument and creating vibrations. Much of the advice given below applies to all wind instruments, but there are a few things that are specific to bassoon.
Breathing to play an instrument may seem like a taboo subject that is overly complex and difficult to understand, but it really isn’t. We all are breathing every second of every day and don’t think twice about how we are doing it. My goal in this article is to make breathing to play feel as easy as breathing to survive.
Forget the metaphors and silly analogies that you learned in elementary school band. Breathing is not like filling a glass of water, it does not feel like you are expanding your lower abdomen/stomach. It feels like breathing and that is the end of it. Here is how you can make your breathing feel more natural, and you don’t even need an instrument to do it.
- exhale completely
- hold empty for longer than you think you can
- when you can’t hold anymore, breathe in.
The breath you just took in was not a breath to play. It was a breath to survive. You knew that you needed a lot of air, so you took in a large quantity of air in a very small amount of time. We need to do this countless times a day as a musician, and why should we need to separate breathing to survive and breathing to play?
Do the exercise above a few more times. Each time try to analyse how you are inhaling. Are you taking in a frantic and tense breath or one that is deep and relaxed? Try to make the sound of the inhalation calm and resonant and NOT one that sounds labored and resembles a gasp. Even when we breathe in very quickly, musicians always take in a calm and natural breath. Remember, why change how we breathe to play when we can just keep breathing to survive?
On the bassoon there are a few things that we must consider in addition to the technique listed above.
The bassoon is not a tuba. We cannot blow massive amounts of air through our instrument and keep a characteristic tone. Something that happens to bassoonists, and even more so to oboists is that we have the potential to take in more air than we need. This can cause some problems because if you have to much air stored up while you are playing, you will need to exhale the excess before you can inhale more air. This decreases the efficiency of our breathing and can, in extreme cases, cause the player to hyperventilate. Know how long you need to play before the next breath and plan accordingly.
It is crucial that when you breath that you keep one of your lips in contact with the reed. You get to choose: do I move my top lip up off the reed to breathe, or do I move my bottom lip down off the reed to breathe? The choice is yours as it is a pretty even split among bassoonists. Chances are you are doing one of these and don’t even notice. If this is the case don’t change anything. You are already breathing in the way that is most natural to you. If you find that you are removing both lips from the reed completely when you play, its time to spend some time with a mirror. Face the mirror and play something you don’t need to think about like an F major scale or Hot Cross Buns. Whenever you breathe, check and make sure you are not removing both lips. Don’t have a mirror? while everyone is setting up their instruments in band class, have your neighbor watch and tell you what you are doing. Try removing the upper lip to breathe. If this feels unnatural, move the bottom lip to breathe. Chances are one of these will feel mote natural, and you should try to do it all the time.
Removing both lips from the reed is bad because it totally removes the embouchure from the reed, and when you go to play after the breath you will probably be playing out of tune since your mouth is most likely in a different place. Keeping one lip on the reed anchors your embouchure in place and will allow you to play smoothly and consistently before and after the breath.
Breathing on the bassoon is breathing to survive. The only difference is that you have a thin piece of wood in your mouth.