Hornmasters: The Exhale and Points of Resistance, Part II

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As I have noted elsewhere, horn teachers of days gone by seem to rarely have attacked each other directly. But if you read their methods critically you can tell they could not possibly have agreed with each other on many things, which is certainly that case in relation to the exhale and the points of resistance.

Disclaimer: if you feel you have the breathing cycle down and have no other problems with your tone quality and range 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, complicated quotes that will be seen in Parts I and II of this series I will get to my personal bottom line in Part III. And, as a final note, the part of this topic that has to do with the points of resistance is in general is a bit of a can of worms, but it was a can opened wide by Farkas in the “Bible” and other teachers followed his lead. As my goal with this series is to work through all the topics in the Farkas book I can’t pretend the topic does not exist. In the words of the Borg, “resistance is futile.”

Starting with the topic of the exhale, Gunther Schuller in Horn Technique is primarily concerned with the relationship of the exhale to the music being performed. He is especially concerned that players not have any hesitation between the inhale and exhale.

The end of the inhaling process should be as closely connected as possible to the beginning of the breathing out of air…. Both inhaling and exhaling should be thought of as a single uninterrupted act.

Hesitation between breathing in and expelling the air again serves no purpose other than to tighten the various body muscles which should remain in a state of ‘relaxed tension’ for free natural playing. There is one exception, however. In the upper register, most players on an initial attack like to hesitate for the purpose of tightening the diaphragm into a strong supporting position. However, I wish to emphasize that this momentary hesitation is measured in fractions of a second, and is not long enough to choke back the air stream, unnecessarily tightening the neck and shoulder muscles.

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[UPDATE: An excellent and related discussion of the same topic may be found in Christopher Leuba, The Rules of the Game. Leuba certainly feels the inhale and exhale are to be done in one continuous motion. One quick quote: “Although I am in complete agreement that preparatory timing should be as consistent as possible, regardless of the tempo of the music, I feel that a slow preparation … may cause the player to over-prepare, perhaps to ‘stall’ or ‘stutter’ on the release….”]

Later Schuller speaks of the lungs and the muscles that control them being “a kind of bellows” that we must learn to exert absolute control over to provide exactly the correct flow of air which is steered by the embouchure.

The principle involved is a very simple one: the flow of a steady unchanging stream of air fed by the source (the lungs) can be increased by closing the opening through which it issues (the embouchure), just as, in a stream, a sudden narrowing of the river bed will cause a relative acceleration in the flow of water.

In explaining this concept further he turns his discussion toward four points of resistance which mirrors Farkas and opens up his perspective on how he visualized the topic.

The air stream, and in turn, the tone, are also controlled by another organ, the larynx, which functions as still another element in this four-way chain of pressure I am attempting to describe. The larynx (situated in the trachea) is used in horn playing almost to the degree that it is used in singing. And of all the points of control I have mentioned it is probably the most versatile. The larynx is a valve-like organ which at one extreme can shut off air from the lungs completely, at another (when open) can let the air rush out completely unrestrained, and can, of course, adopt all graduations between these two extremes. To illustrate its function briefly: in playing a loud sustained note the larynx must be wide open; on a very soft sustained note it must close sufficiently (again the ear is the final judge) to slow down the flow of air to the proper volume. The larynx’s other important function is to end a note. This is achieved by closing this valve still further to the point where the air stream being allowed to pass is not sufficient to vibrate the lips and horn. This feeling can be easily practiced by singing a sustained ‘Ah’ syllable and gradually choking the sound off with the larynx….

All four points of control (diaphragm pressure, larynx pressure, embouchure pressure, and the unalterable resistance from the mouthpiece and the horn) function in a completely integrated inseparable manner, and only diligent and analytical practicing will give the player the necessary control assuming that he is not—as some players indeed are—a ‘natural’ talent, to whom all these technical processes are already second nature.

Milan Yancich in A Practical Guide to French Horn Playing noted that he believed “strongly in the use of a demonstration to solve a problem rather than a lengthy explanation.” He did however present some thoughts on the topic of hesitation attacks. These he feels must be eliminated, but it is not easy.

A positive method of eliminating the hesitation or stuttering type of attack is doubtful. This problem attacks a minority of performers and the aggravation of such an attack or articulation beginning often occurs in the late stages of the development of a performer. I have seen colleagues of mine in orchestras who can enter on a note without fail when the conductor gives a down beat of a baton. I have also seen the same performers hesitate or “freeze” or produce a faulty attack because of the lack of a down beat.

… It is interesting to note that when a delayed entrance on a note occurs it is usually on a note requiring a piano attack rather than a forte dynamic. From this circumstance we can deduce that articulation[s] in forte dynamics are more apt to be free from hesitation.

To address this problem Yancich presents an exercise in sforzando sixteenth note attacks.

One concern of Fred Fox in Essentials of Brass Playing was keeping the throat open. For sure this paragraph has something behind it related to a different understanding of the points of resistance than that presented by Farkas.

The throat must be open at all times when playing. The sound should have a constant flowing, singing quality. This can only be accomplished if the throat remains open. A tight throat creates a bottleneck in the vibrating column of air from the lips down to the chest cavity…. This bottleneck can be heard in the sound just as surely as it would be heard if there were a large dent on one of the pipes of the brass instrument. Removing the dent opens the sound. Learning how to keep the throat open opens the sound just as effectively.

For a final, classic horn method perspective on this issue we turn to Farquharson Cousins in On Playing the Horn. He has an interesting perspective on the glottis and the mechanics of the inhale and exhale and the points of resistance.

The air column is formed by the lungs and the mouth cavity. These two chambers are linked by the glottis, which, in very general terms, is the muscular valve controlling air inflow/outflow between lungs and mouth cavity. Such a cursory excursion into physiology may be helpful to the understanding that at the moment of tonguing the glottis has to be already open. It is quite possible for it to open simultaneously with the tongue movement. (This latter is not a common fault and is not entirely crippling to note production, but it is rather like starting a car ride with the brake at half-cock.)

The difficulty about controlling the glottis (in our context) is that the mechanism has no conscious feeling. We must therefore resort to finding out what it should do and ensuring that it does it. Its functioning can best be demonstrated by inhaling and then holding the breath. The glottis then closes and we cannot exhale until it opens. When sustaining a note the glottis must obviously be open; it is at the moment of tonguing that the fault can occur.

An analysis of what we do from the moment of taking a breath to the moment of releasing it into the instrument will clarify the point in question. The sequence is

i. inhale
ii. close the glottis
iii. contract the respiratory and intercostals muscles until a slight air pressure is built up
iv. release the air into the mouth cavity (i.e. open the glottis)
v. contract the respiratory and intercostals muscles a little more to make up for the lowering of air pressure when the air cavity is added
vi. release the air into the instrument by the tongue movement.

These actions are so automatic and so dove-tailed that to go through them in slow motion risks difficulty and confusion. However, by doing so we can emphasize the importance of not missing out (iv) and (v).

Confused yet? Overall what we get when horn teachers try to address the topic is a mixture of common sense with regard to the exhale and discussions that are of questionable physiological accuracy on resistance. The authors must have felt that they served as visualizations but certainly they have also led some readers astray.

Which may be part of the appeal of a simple approach like “song and wind,” as advocated by the great tuba and brass teacher Arnold Jacobs.

As implied above, when you go outside the horn you can see there are even more divergent opinions on the general topic of points of resistance. My general take on the big picture of this is that the lower brass are looking at a lower resistance setup (Jacobs: “blow to the lips, not the tongue”) and some higher brass are looking at the tongue arch as a key element (see for example the series of illustrations in David Hickman, Trumpet Pedagogy, of tongue arch placement and focal points in different registers).

In 2012 comments to Part I  of this article Arnold Jacobs also came into the discussion thread so I took the time to reference Song and Wind for any specifics from him on the topic of the points of resistance. Jacobs pedagogy is widely known and respected and can actually be summed up in just a few words (“song and wind”). But with that said I would like to give readers a small taste of his thoughts focused narrowly on the subject of the points of resistance, these two quotes giving some sense of his take on the topic.

I do not want more space in the mouth than the space of the pharynx. I need the resistance to air at the lips, not at the throat. If we take air comfortably through the lips, there will still be a moderate friction in the pharyngeal region. If too much air is taken in, there will be a massive resistance in the throat, which is very hard to cope with.

And a couple pages later,

If there is insufficient air volume moving up the trachea, the glottis will close and the tongue will have too much pressure behind it and there will be starvation of air to the embouchure.

Of course these quotes are so short that you can’t hope to get a true view of his pedagogy in relation to points of resistance but I think it is fairly clear for our present purposes that he did not have the same view on the topic as did Farkas.

When we return to the final part of this series I will present my take on a practical understanding of the exhale and the points of resistance for the horn player in relation to the initial discussion of the topic in The Art of French Horn Playing.

Continue in Hornmasters Series to PART III

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