Hornmasters: The Exhale and Points of Resistance, Part I

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In this series of Hornmasters articles a topic I have honestly not looked forward to addressing is that of the points of resistance. It is topic I generally hope to never have to speak to a student about as it can tie a student up in knots. It is also however a very important topic that we can’t shy away from and for some may be a key concept for working out playing problems on the horn.

Disclaimer: if you feel you have the breathing cycle down and have no other problems with your tone quality please feel free to skip this article. I would almost prefer that you not read what follows, as it can lead to over-conceptualizing the points of resistance.

Additional Note: To avoid the long quotes that will be seen in Parts I and II of this series (which honestly don’t always make sense if you read them really critically) I will get to my personal bottom line in Part III.

I was once assigned to read this portion of the Farkas book (see page 29) by a teacher specifically to address how to eliminate a “twa-twa.” I read it closely then and was like many readers a bit mystified; certainly however Farkas was trying his best to explain difficult to explain perceptions and mechanics.

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As this specific section of the Farkas book is one that has confounded many readers, in our Horn Matters discussion the topic will be broken up for clarity into three parts. Part I will present the original Farkas texts on the topic (he takes two stabs at it), Part II will look at other authors of other classic horn methods on the same general topics, and Part III will present my personal take on all of it.

A normal exhale outside of brass playing involves simple relaxation. Farkas noted in The Art of French Horn Playing that “This gentle pressure, however, is not sufficiently strong to motivate a brass instrument, so we have to apply certain forces to expel the air with greater pressure and steadiness.” For Farkas the motivator of this steady pressure was the contraction of the “abdominal muscles and all the muscles going completely around the body….”

The next section focuses on several closely related mechanics of the exhale, what Farkas referred to as the “four points of resistance.” He recognized that it was impossible to produce a steady pressure without anything to blow against.

If there were no resistance somewhere between the lungs and the end of the horn bell, the least pressure put on the diaphragm would send the air rushing out of the lungs in one great, shout burst. In attempting to avoid this effect, many players make their first mistake in the use of the diaphragm. Instead of putting resistance somewhere in the air column, they leave it completely free and merely avoid that rush of air by putting little or no pressure on the diaphragm. …the air literally dribbles out and the result is a very uncontrolled, fluttery tone.

Two of the points of resistance Farkas views as being relatively fixed–equipment choice (horn/mouthpiece) and the lip aperture. [The aperture also being somewhat defined by equipment, in particular the inner diameter of the mouthpiece.] He continues to describe the two last points of resistance, the tongue and also the throat. The latter he recognized right away might be considered controversial so it is presented very carefully.

We are left, therefore, with two points at which the resistance is completely controllable. One is the base of the tongue, quite far back, where the letter “K” is formed. In fact, the resistance is formed by approximating the actual formation of “K” without closing the space completely. It might also be described as a very constricted “E” formation, created by arching the back of the tongue higher than would be needed in speaking the sound “E”. The other controlled resistance point is the one I consider the most useful, although some players will probably disagree. Many of our finest players use it consciously, and I believe that even those who disagree with it in principle nevertheless use it unconsciously. We have the ability to completely control the opening called the larynx or “voice box”…. The resistance to which I refer can be observed when coughing. Just before the actual cough, notice that the air passage is completely shut off and is only partially opened during the cough. This furnishes the resistance necessary to “clear the throat”….

Practice controlling this valve by completely closing it off so that no air can go through it….

When it becomes fully automatic, it will be used somewhat in the following manner: on any given note, starting pianissimo and making a crescendo to forte, one should feel the diaphragm pressure increasing. In fact, the air pressure should increase quite rapidly, as a moderate increase in pressure is necessary to merely sustain a note evenly. As the pressure increases, the resistance of the larynx and the arched tongue (and also the lip-aperture) gradually relax to accommodate the increasing volume of air.

Although avoiding the word “support” Farkas seems to be getting at the concept when he discusses performing at low dynamics.

Most players use the diaphragm correctly when playing forte. It is in piano and pianissimo that one must be sure to use the combination of good diaphragm pressure plus the necessary resistance in order to obtain a smooth, controlled tone. When done correctly, the power of this air pressure (plus careful limiting of the amount escaping) will result in a soft, ringing tone which “floats” on the air with remarkably little effort on the part of the player.

And he adds this caution: “The only danger involved in learning this control of the larynx might be in confusing this valve with the external neck and throat muscles. These should never be tense.”

Confused? In The Art of Brass Playing Farkas again turned to the topic of the points of resistance, with the hope I believe of clarifying and expanding upon the thoughts above. Setting up his discussion he notes

Perhaps before considering the various points of resistance, this is a good time to warn of a bad habit prevalent among wind players which is particularly detrimental to their soft playing and which again points up the need for resistance somewhere. The general pressure of the abdomen and intercostals muscles can be made very light, resulting in an exhalation of a little “push”. In my opinion, this principle of using very little pressure from the diaphragm for the production of soft volume is a serious error. All of us will instinctively support a long tone quite correctly…. The real danger of blowing a brass instrument incorrectly occurs during soft passages.

Farkas suggests the concept of the “slow leak.”

Here is another analogy which might clarify this concept. If one wished to trickle a tiny stream of cold water into his too-hot cup of coffee, he could phone the pumping station and request it to slow down the pumps, and then proceed to turn on the faucet on full force. This would possibly result in the desired trickle. But … the thing that amuses us with this idea is the incongruity of doing a simple act “the hard way”. How much easier and simpler to let the pumps go ahead in their efficient way and simply “crack-open” the faucet a tiny bit….

The points of resistance are keys to this concept. In The Art of Brass Playing Farkas expands his list of points of resistance to include 1) the glottis (larynx), 2) the back of the tongue, 3) the tip of the tongue, 4) the lip aperture, 5) the bore of the mouthpiece, and 6) the instrument itself. The most extended discussion is about the glottis, where he tries to clarify the relationship of the glottis to the throat, a topic to which other brass teachers must have reacted negatively, based on the way he presents his concepts.

The glottis, being the opening between the vocal chords, is not a tangible thing, but simply the space between these cords which is completely adjustable in size from wide open to absolutely shut…. For instance, the glottis is completely closed during an act such as lifting a heavy weight. It is exploded open during a cough, or when clearing the throat. It is partially open for whispering, and wide-open for a rapid exhalation…. In this way, the glottis is used as a natural valve, and not for the purpose of vocalizing. I mention the fact that this is a perfectly natural, everyday function of the glottis, because many brass players react in horror when I suggest using this valve for purposes of playing our instruments. They evidently feel that I am advocating the use of a “tight throat”, a condition all teachers have carefully avoided from the inception of brass playing. To me, the bad habit of playing with a “tight throat” means the forcible tightening of the neck muscles…. The proper use of the glottis is natural and effective and is quite likely being used by most successful brass players, either consciously or subconsciously.

Farkas certainly inspired other writers of horn methods to address the general topic of the points of resistance. More from them soon in Part II of this series.

Continue in Hornmasters series to PART II

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