Scenario: Your eighth grade band sits before you ready to play a piece. You raise your hands, and by some miracle, every horn goes to every child’s face. You count them off “one-two-three-breathe.” Many of the students breathe with you, you give the down beat, half a beat later you hear the first staggered sounds emitting from the instruments. You cut them off, “Please start together. Try again, one-two-three-breathe.” Down beat, similar results–staggered noises that start half a beat late. With a sigh you continue conducting the music, resigned to your band never really starting together. (I know I’m guilty of this)
So what can you do, what can you change to get the kids to start making noise together? What can you do to get the kids to start right on the downbeat, instead of half a beat late?
You can change the way you breathe.
For anyone playing an instrument, and particularly for those with little to no experience doing so, it takes time to switch from a mouth shape that sucks air in to a mouth shape that expels the air in a manner that will make the instrument vibrate and create sound. It also takes time to get a good, deep breath that fills the lungs in order to play for any extended period of time. The model many of us currently follow is flawed. Requesting students to follow your example and breathe the beat before they are expected to play doesn’t allow them time to take a deep, sustaining breath and doesn’t allow them time to set their embouchure.
The 1-2-3-breathe-play m ethod ensures that your band will never start together or on time by denying them the necessary time to set their embouchures before they are expected to play their instruments. It is also somewhat self-contradictory, if we are preaching proper, deep breathing to our students, then asking them to take one, quick breath just before playing. It makes more sense to allow them time to take a good breath before starting to play. I suggest we (as teachers) change our thinking and our methodology when it comes to breathing and playing in this manner. I suggest we try teaching a breathe-breathe-breathe-set-play method.
This means that we ask students to inhale for at least three beats, allow them one beat to set their embouchures, and then play directly on the down beat, together. I’ve seen this work. It’s pretty incredible, actually. Students are able to take a proper, deep breath, set their embouchures well, hold their instruments properly, and play together. This improves intonation, individual tone (and therefore the overall tone of the whole band), and timing by providing proper air support and allowing students to properly prepare to play.
Now I realize that this isn’t always practical. Those who play instruments that require air or those who sing will eventually expel all their air and need to take in more. It is more than likely that when this happens they will not have time to take four whole beats to inhale and/or set their embouchure. But, by giving them an adequate beginning breath and by teaching proper breathing from the beginning students can apply these principles to the shorter breaths they will need to take while playing (or singing) a piece. They will have a “toolbox” from which to draw proper breathing techniques that will help them learn to take better quick breaths, and with practice, reset their embouchure more quickly and efficiently. Among the tools in that toolbox should be the feeling of a proper, deep breath from which to draw reference as to how the necessary quick breaths during a piece should feel. Without the proper tools and without a good initial breath from which to draw reference students will never achieve supportive quick breaths with which to play or sing successfully.
This all means that, as teachers, we have to change the way we breathe. We have to stop thinking that we can breathe according to habits that our music teachers taught us. We have to start breathing in a way that will help our students. Instead of taking a breathe on beat 4, right before our students need to play, we need to also breathe for at least three beats and allow a beat for them to set their embouchures. If we are setting a good example for them, by breathing properly, they will follow us and learn to breathe better in turn. Allowing students time to take proper breaths and time to set their embouchures before playing teaches proper breathing techniques that students can apply to all their playing and gives them a higher rate of success in their music making efforts.