Better Breathing Guide for Clarinetists – Tips to Take Fewer, Better Breaths

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – I believe that air is the cause of the majority of issues clarinetists experience.

Learning how to properly use our air is crucial to developing better sound, technique, phrasing and more on the clarinet.

An essential part of using our air is learning how to take effective breaths when we are playing a piece of music. Here’s my advice to help you narrow it down so you can take fewer, better breaths:

Where should I breathe?

Please note that these are general breathing suggestions. Each piece of music is different and will benefit from different approaches to breathing. Be open-minded and willing to experiment with different options to see which sounds the most musically compelling to you.

  • Rests. This one might seem obvious, but be sure to use rests as an opportunity to completely exhale the stale air in your lungs and fully replenish your lungs with fresh air before your next entrance.
  • Tied notes. Tied notes are a great opportunity for breathing since you can omit the second note of the tie and replace it with a quick breath. (Make sure to differentiate between tied notes – two of the same notes linked together – and slurred notes – two different notes linked together.)
  • Dotted notes, especially dotted quarter notes. This is another opportunity to cut the dotted note slightly short (while still maintaining the rhythm) to sneak in a quick breath.
  • Articulated sections. Breathing is more noticeable if you interrupt a slurred passage, so be on the lookout for articulated sections (combined with the aforementioned rhythms) which will allow you to take a breath.
  • Before pickup notes. Oftentimes, pickup notes are a good indication that a new phrase is beginning, so they are typically safe breathing choices.
  •  When in doubt, consult a teacher, recording, or colleague. It’s always nice to have a second opinion, and others might have creative solutions to help you incorporate better breathing into your performance.

Where should I NOT breathe?

Just as important as knowing where to breathe is knowing where NOT to breathe. Here are a few instances in which you should avoid taking a breath:

  • At the apex of the phrase. Breathing at a climactic musical moment will weaken your interpretation, so be sure to fill up beforehand to avoid this.
  • In the middle of a crescendo. In addition to interrupting the phrase, there’s also the likelihood that you won’t re-enter at the same dynamic level you had before the breath.
  • Before a delicate entrance. Avoid breathing before delicate entrances, whether these are soft dynamics, high notes, or other instances where you risk a popped or sudden attack.
  • Before notes that have a tendency to be sharp. The note immediately following a breath is slightly sharp, so avoid breathing before notes which have a tendency to run sharp. (Learn more about how I use breathing to improve my tuning.)
  • In every rest you encounter. Over-breathing is just as much of an issue as under-breathing is. Inhaling without the opportunity can cause something I call lunglock. (Learn more about lunglock here.)

Now that you know where to breathe, here’s some general advice for taking better breaths:

  • Plan your backup breaths. During performances, it’s normal for you to experience a different air capacity, due to nerves, excitement, environment, and other factors. As a result, you might notice that your breathing is different than when you’re practicing. This is why it’s important to plot your backup breathing spots. I notate these in my music using parenthesis – I indicate a breath mark with a comma (,) in my music, and I add parenthesis around this to show that it’s a backup or optional breath mark.
  • Don’t let breathing be the enemy of the phrase. The most beautifully performed phrase can be destroyed with a breath, if not executed properly. Make sure you know where the musical phrases are so you can avoid breathing in the middle of phrases. If you do need a breath in the middle of a phrase, be sure to take it elegantly and covertly as possible. Remember – breathing is just as much a part of the music as the notes you play are.
  • Avoid nervous breaths. One of the most common breathing issues I see is people breathing before a trick section or after they make a mistake. This is a human reaction, but as you practice, try to train yourself to avoid reactionary breathing – only breathe when it’s a physical necessity and not mental incertitude.
  • Time your breathing with the musical phrases. Air is like the bow of string instruments, so time your “bowing” (air) with the phrases so you completely expel all air by the end of the phrase and can fill up and start fresh. This visualization helps me to conceptualize how to use my air strategically as I perform phrases and pieces.
  • Pay attention to your releases before you breathe. Be sure you’re not clipping the last note before a breath – this interrupts the phrases and draws even more attention to your breathing.
  • Enter at the same dynamic level. When taking a breath, be sure to re-enter at the same dynamic level you had before taking a breath. (This does not apply to subito dynamic shifts.)
  • Quick or slow breaths? Sometimes, the music calls for a quick breath, depending on musical style and time given to breathe. Other times, such as beginning a slow movement, might call for a longer, more gradual intake of air. As you locate potential breathing spots, experiment to see which kind of breath is more musically compelling.
  • Take fewer, better breaths instead of more frequent shallow breaths. Prioritize quality over quantity, and continue developing your air support through daily long tone practice. (Here’s my complete guide to long tones, as well as some long tones I’ve created specifically for clarinetists.)

I hope these suggestions help you to optimize your air. Happy practicing!

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