Hornmasters: The Exhale and Points of Resistance, Part III—My Turn


To conclude this short series I will step away from old horn methods and focus in on my take on the exhale and points of resistance.

There are two main problems commonly seen with the exhale. One is a hitch in the cycle of breathing. The other problem is over-conceptualizing the points of resistance. Both problems are often fueled unfortunately for horn players at least in part by reading what Farkas had to say on the topic.

A normal exhale outside of brass playing involves simple relaxation. In brass playing we need a more forceful outflow of air. What we want is a natural control of this outward flow guided by the ear and the sound coming out the bell.

The exhale is a natural turn-around of the inhale. Where the process breaks down is usually related to tonguing issues. The inhale, exhale, and articulation all happen in one motion and I personally suggest the thought of it being an attack rather than a release which will help avoid the development of a hesitation attack problem. For a bit more on tonguing, not part of the Hornmasters series, check this article.

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

The primary point of resistance to the general flow of air is in fact, at least for higher brass players, the tongue. There is a certain amount of air that is needed to make the lips vibrate at any given dynamic and pitch. Rather than regulating this flow of air directly at the lips or way down in the lungs and chest, the flow of air is regulated at least in part by the tongue. The tongue is a large organ and can actually stop the flow of air in multiple locations if desired—front, middle, back, and even way down at the back. That last location is commonly thought of as “the throat” but I believe I am accurate in saying that the controlling mechanism is still the tongue.

The above may seem like a somewhat radical statement in relation to traditional pedagogy but take a second and think about your tongue. Really try to feel it in your mouth and throat. Where does it end? What directions can you move it? What shapes can it make?

If things are otherwise totally open the tongue can easily regulate speed of the flow of air from nothing to full flow. One impression of how this regulation works is by changes of vowel shape in the mouth, as in the difference between “hee” and “haw.” The tongue is capable of practically an infinite number of very specific formations of which we have total control.

Discussions of the topic of resistance usually include a discussion of the instrument and mouthpiece as a point of resistance and also the glottis or the area near the vocal chords. The instrument and mouthpiece are minor players in the process and are fixed constants. The glottis is a space next to the vocal chords which we have control of; it is the “valve” that closes when we cough or clear our throat. While it could theoretically close partially to control the general flow of air, MRI studies have demonstrated that it is active in relation to tonguing, closing with every articulation. It is open when playing though, and for purposes of this discussion of resistance is a minor player and a fixed constant.

mri-hornReturning to vowel sounds, the way I perceive the extreme ranges are “hee” for high and “haw” for low. In the Third edition of Horn Playing from the Inside Out by Eli Epstein he suggests high to low “tee,” “tseh,” “thuh,” and “thaw,” vowels clearly matched to the MRI horn studies. As unusual as they may sound to readers on first hearing, clearly vowel changes are done in a similar manner by all elite horn players, even if the players think they are doing something else. To not do so goes against something that is very natural for managing notes in the range we play.

In summary, the main point of resistance as I would define it in relation to the Farkas discussion of the topic– that we can use to any advantage as a performer is the tongue, and it is controlled to regulate the flow of air to the lips primarily via the mechanism of what we perceive as vowel shapes in the mouth.

This is not quite the same as players of other brass instruments seem to perceive things. As I noted in part II of this series,

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 higher brass often 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).

Finally, as repeatedly noted in the disclaimers, there is a danger in over conceptualizing all of this. If your sound is on track and you can manage your way in and out of the extreme registers you are more than likely managing this element in a natural, correct manner. But do give vowel shapes in the mouth some thought, perhaps you will perceive things you are doing that you never previously realized. And in the end don’t look at any one book as being your Bible for horn playing. Be willing to break a rule or two and let your ear be the guide toward finding the place where your sound production is the best.

Continue in Hornmasters series

Return to Points of Resistance PART I


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