Earlier this year I was very pleased to be able to post an extended review (in three parts–part I is here) of Horn Playing from the Inside Out — A Method for All Brass Musicians by Eli Epstein. As noted in that review I feel this book is “one of the most substantial and significant horn method books to be published in years,” and I was also excited to see a video was recently released by Epstein that goes beyond topics in the book. Oral cavity shape is a hugely important topic in horn teaching and playing. Epstein agreed to a short interview on the topic of finger breathing and the related topic of oral cavity shape. The full video may be found at the end of this article.
JE: Finger breathing in concept is very familiar as it is closely related to a basic concept presented in The Breathing Gym, but extended for a focus on pitch level. In The Breathing Gym the general idea is to have a low sound when breathing in, this reflects an open oral cavity with low resistance to the air stream. When you breathe in for normal playing do you aim for a low sound?
EE: The way I understand the basic finger breath is that since the low sucking sound is produced outside the mouth, psychologically we’re satisfied that we’re taking in a deep breath, and therefore we reduce the constriction inside the mouth and pharynx on inhalation.
I hesitate to say, “Yes, aim for a low sound on inhalation.” In his master class, Keith Underwood seemed to indicate that the less sound we make on inhalation the better, since less sound means less constriction inside the mouth and pharynx. The idea is “how we inhale is how we will exhale.” So the unconstricted quality of inhalation creates the conditions for unconstricted exhalation, producing a freer, clearer and more resonant sound.
Barbara Conable, noted Alexander Technique teacher and author of The Structures and Movement of Breathing, A Primer for Choirs and Choruses, writes the following: “Air does not need to be swallowed, and pharyngeal muscles are not active in bringing in air, unless their function is mismapped. Some singers tighten pharyngeal muscles, believing them to be inhaling muscles, resulting in audible inhaling because of the constriction in the pharyngeal space. When singers correctly map the area as digestive, not respiratory, they no longer constrict on inhalation. They inhale quietly, and as quickly as they need.”
So, yes, when finger breathing, produce a “haunted” low sucking sound outside the mouth. But when inhaling to play the horn without the finger, I suggest producing very little sound, while taking in a full breath.
By practicing the finger breath many times everyday, we gradually train ourselves to use much less constriction inside the mouth on inhalation. The more we practice the basic finger breath, the more the feeling of healthy unconstricted breathing is reinforced and automatized. It can help to take a full finger breath, and, even though it’s awkward, hold the breath while we bring the horn to playing position and then play the phrase we’re working on. After a period of training ourselves this way, when we breathe normally for horn playing, we’ve developed a very open, quiet habit of taking full breaths.
JE: I can totally make the pitches of horn playing happen when finger breathing as described in the video. However, if I reverse engineer the process and play horn then hold the position and finger breathe I don’t at all get the same pitch as playing horn. Do you feel there should be a close relationship of the two, or is finger breathing more of an exercise or a visualization of a process?
EE: That’s a very interesting question. I tried the same experiment, and found that when I reverse engineered the process, I got the same pitch on finger breathing as when I play the horn. Yes, I believe there’s a very close relationship of the two.
This is how I understand it: It’s certainly possible to get the pitch one wants on the horn without using the optimal oral cavity shape and size. But, one would then have to compensate with another aspect of the biomechanics. If I produce a finger breath sound lower than the desired pitch, then my oral cavity size becomes larger than optimal; when I try to play the desired note on the horn, I find myself working harder than usual to make the aperture smaller to compensate for the larger than optimal oral cavity volume. Conversely, if I produce a finger breath inhalation sound higher than the desired pitch, when I try to play the desired note on the horn with a smaller than optimal oral cavity size, it sounds out of center on the high side of the note, and I find myself lipping the note down. Neither is optimal and requires more exertion from the facial muscles.
As I wrote in Horn Playing from the Inside Out, “The air stream, breath support, elevators, vowels, and finesse in articulation all work in concert with the embouchure, making it possible for us to use the facial muscles to make only minute adjustments…when one or more of these components is missing, the embouchure and facial muscles become overtaxed, draining our stamina and compromising the quality of our sound.”
I believe that finger breathing with pitches is not just a visualization but is a very practical technique that helps us easily find the optimal oral cavity size and shape for each pitch on the horn. When the oral cavity size is optimal, the aperture can remain supple and the sound becomes more open, ringing and beautiful. The idea is to strive for the most optimal equal work load among all the biomechanical components of sound production. Finger breathing is a simple and intuitive means for our bodies to adjust to a more streamlined way of playing the horn.
JE: My oral cavity sensations when finger breathing are very similar to those of whistling. Would whistling accomplish the same general result in terms of learning the skill?
EE: I’ve experimented with that. I imagine there are many different ways to whistle. When I naturally whistle, while it’s true that my jaw position changes in similar ways as in finger breathing with pitches, I sense that the back of my mouth closes a little and holds a certain amount of tension. However when I finger breathe the way I demonstrated in the video, the back of my mouth feels more open. I’ve also tried plain whistling with my students. Empirically, I’ve found that finger breathing helps my students produce more beautiful and open sounds than whistling.
JE: Any other points you would like to make about finger breathing?
EE: Last week I was playing principal horn on several recording sessions of contemporary music which the orchestra was sightreading. I found to my delight, that I could discreetly practice finger breathing certain difficult slurs or small articulated passages and that really helped me “get it” on the second take. I liken this pre-emptive checking to violinists and other string players who, before an entrance, will find their note by quickly pressure-testing their finger position on the string and finger board to make sure the note will be in tune on their entrance. This practice increases confidence.
As I mention in the introduction of my book, “Violinists can see their fingers on the fingerboard, and pianists can see or feel the octave spread of their hands. Brass players also have to use spacial thinking, though we’re not usually trained in that way.” In my view, finger breathing provides an intuitive and kinesthetic method to train our bodies to play the horn more efficiently, easefully and beautifully.
The video is below, which may also be viewed directly on YouTube here. The photo in this article is a screen shot from the video. Thank you again to Eli Epstein for sharing these additional insights and tools for working on and understanding oral cavity shape.