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Set - Exhale - Inhale - Play

Set - Exhale - Inhale - Play

One of the things that Universities do well is to teach how musical instruments should be properly played. Unfortunately, one of the things that universities maybe teach less well, is how to diagnose problems in performance on musical instruments and how to correct those problems, or better yet, how to avoid those problems altogether. The best solution to a problem is one in which you completely avoid the problem altogether and your students never even know what the potential problem could be!

Yet, the position often taken by music teachers or universities is that students who are suffering problems with their musical instruments may need to see a private tutor for correction. In my career as a secondary band teacher in Maple Ridge, private tutors for band students were rarely an option that parents would or could consider. I suspect today that is probably true in many more areas of our province. This leaves the band teacher in the unenviable position of being the only expert that students likely will see throughout their time in a music program. 

Facing this reality, I found myself often asking the question, “Why this student, and not that one?” For example, “Why did this student develop a habit of playing trumpet with a closed throat, and that one did not?” If you are not sure what I mean by closed throat on trumpet, you have at least likely heard the sound. It is a tight raspy sound that is small and very stressed. The player usually has a very limited range (can’t play high), often off the pitch, has a very poor tone as well as poor articulation. It is a very unpleasant sound, and often makes the listener feel like the trumpet player’s head is going to blow off his shoulders!

After literally many hundreds of trumpet players and thousands of wind musicians, I saw a trend. The students that developed that closed throat sound while playing trumpet were often the same ones that were breathing in at the same time as they were bringing the trumpet up to their embouchure. Despite my objections, they just seemed unable to separate the “breathing in” function with the “raising of the horn to face” function. It seemed to me that there was a natural connection with raising the trumpet to the face and taking a breath in at the same time.

This seemed critical to me. Students that breathe in early as they raise the trumpet to the face actually MUST close off their throat to wait while the embouchure gets set to play. The only way to stop the instant release of all air before the mouthpiece becomes set is to close off the throat. This is also known as a glottal stop and is deadly in playing trumpet, as well as many other high-pressure wind instruments. Closing the throat while playing, then, becomes an unintended outcome in learning due to incorrect mechanics of breathing in.

It is important, then, even critical, that you teach your music students that the breath comes AFTER raising the horn to embouchure, and not during. When I would see students falling back into that bad habit, I would stop them mid-downbeat. They must learn that this must NEVER be done again. Each episode of breathing while raising a horn to face reinforces the unintended outcome of a closed throat, and must not be allowed to continue.

Still, I found that there was a small subset of those “throat players” that were incredibly persistent in breathing in while lifting the horn up. It probably has something to do with the actual lifting of arms is kind of akin to breathing in, and therefore triggered that response.

In any case, I needed to find a way to reprogram their brain, so that in time a new routine becomes the norm. So, I had the trumpet players learn the routine Set – Exhale – Inhale – Play. This routine allows the trumpet players to re-open the glottal (larynx) BEFORE attempting to make a sound on the instrument. When they learned this routine well, it seemed to help break the bad routine of breathing in while raising the trumpet to the face, which would almost always result in a closed larynx.

So, let’s have a closer look at each of the 4 steps in more detail:

SET In this step, the mouthpiece of the instrument must be set in place, ready to play. The term I used is “Locked.” When the mouthpiece is locked in place, if the mouthpiece were to be moved slightly, it would also move the lip with it. For the brass players, the lip to move would be the top lip. For the woodwind players, it would move the bottom lip. WARNING – DO NOT allow students to touch each others’ instruments in any way. If you attempt to move a mouthpiece, be VERY gentle, as students can get dental damage from instruments fairly easily!

Now, the reason I have learned to ask for a mouthpiece locked in place, is that trumpet players will sometimes just place the mouthpiece in front of their lips, but not contact the lips until AFTER the breath is taken. Students that do this must then close off the throat once again before setting the embouchure properly in place. This is no better! The mouthpiece needs to be locked in place. Insist on it.

EXHALE – This is an important step, as breathing out with no resistance is what opens a closed throat. Students are often directed to breathe in as the conductor begins the upbeat, but they will not be able to breathe in if their throat is already closed and their lungs are full! They must exhale first.

Now another warning. Some students will try to exhale through the mouthpiece, and therefore through the horn. Explain to them that the exhale here needs to be around the mouthpiece and not through it. The student should drop the lower jaw slightly, open the corners of the embouchure, and exhale out around the mouthpiece while keeping the locked lip in place. The reeds (clarinets and saxes) will likely still have the upper teeth on the mouthpiece as well as the lower lip locked.

INHALE – If the first two steps were done correctly, the students now should get a much more successful breath in WITHOUT closing off the throat. I have usually stressed to students to breathe in long and slow, filling from the bottom up with the expanding rib cage done at the end, not at the beginning. Move directly into beginning the sound on the instrument so that there is no delay and therefore no opportunity to close the throat.

Warning to teachers – Try to avoid any delays between breath in and play. Those unintentional delays, though, usually come later, well after the students’ first year of playing. In these later grades while in the “heat of the battle” trying to learn a piece of music, be careful to not change your mind after the upbeat. This will encourage your experienced players to go back to closing their throat while they wait for you to give that downbeat. No extra delay outside of the in-tempo upbeat, please!

– If the first three steps were learned well, students should have much less trouble creating that first sound at the beginning of a musical line. The sound should come out more relaxed, free, with a nicer tone, and better in tune. Don’t be surprised, though, that you might have to work at Set – Exhale – Inhale – Play many times to get it completely internalized in your students.

My next evolution in teaching/learning kind of went like this. I wanted the trumpet players in the first-year band to internalize these 4 steps so that they could completely avoid the whole problem of the closed throat. To help the trumpeters do this, I then started asking all of the students in the band class to practice the four steps along with them. It seemed so much easier if we all slowly learned each step, rather than having the majority of the class sit it out. Those sitting out from an activity are far more likely to be disruptive, and therefore cause you and the trumpet players to just “pedal harder” to overcome the distractions. So, have everyone do this!

What I discovered when we all did this together was some pretty profound changes in sound with the entire band. The flutes often lost the closed throat if they were doing it. (Flutes will sometimes learn to play with a closed throat for a slightly different reason. For them, this often begins with a loose undeveloped embouchure creating the need to “throttle” the air back. Instead, get them to firm up the corners of their mouth to create the resistance at the embouchure instead of in the larynx.)

Other great benefits to the entire band class learning to do the 4 steps together include flutes playing less sharp, clarinets playing less flat (first-year players!), saxes playing less sharp, better-tuned harmonics in the brass, better tone across the band, cleaner starts together, and better articulation for everyone! What is not to love about this?

If you are in doubt about the four steps, try teaching this to a more experienced group of musicians. I would sincerely doubt that you would not hear at least SOME of the changes that I listed above. You will likely hear enough to convince you that this should be actively taught to first-year musicians until it is fully internalized, and then reinforced frequently in later years.

One Final Thought – By examining, understanding, and teaching the mechanics of beginning a tone on a wind instrument, I have found that senior players that have internalized this skill can deal with the “conductor vagaries” of the downbeat. You know, sometimes we don’t count them in, which is their chance to exhale before they inhale. Or, sometimes we are about to give that upbeat before the downbeat, and then realize that something else needs to change, so we stop the whole process.

For young players this can screw up the 4 steps, so please try to avoid doing that with them. I would teach the beginners to exhale on prep counts 1-2-3 and inhale on 4. A longer slow exhale does a better job of relaxing the upper body and the larynx. Later you will need to move them into the idea of an exhale followed by just a quick inhale on the upbeat without a count-in before play. 

But, experienced players can go one step further to help deal with erratic conductors! For experienced players, once the horn comes up to the face and the embouchure is set & locked, they can then begin the exhale to get ready for the upbeat. If a conductor delays slightly before the upbeat, they will not need to panic, as their training will now have them ready to pause at the BOTTOM of their breath cycle. I have usually found that pausing here does not create the closed throat syndrome, as there is no pressure created which then needs to be held back.

Avoid any delays before the upbeat as much as possible anyway, as your students will learn to not trust you if it is done too often. But, if it does happen, your senior students will be able to handle it if they have internalized the 4 steps well. As a rule, though, NEVER delay a downbeat after the upbeat. Consider it sacrilege to do this. Let them play, and then stop the band later on if you must fix something else. 
If you are new to teaching band, try the 4 steps for yourself on your instrument. Then try teaching it to see if it helps your first-year players. If you are already doing this, I commend you. If you haven’t yet tried it, I would be surprised if you don’t see huge growth in your players very quickly. The trick, though, will be in being persistent with it, especially over years when students return for more advanced classes. 



Ed Dumas, B.Ed., M.A.Ed.


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