06 January 2008


"There are no chop problems, only air problems."

"Air isn't everything, it's the only thing"

...so the conventional wisdom of brass players and teachers has gone for two generations or so. I'd like to make the ultra-radical proposition that the case for air has been overstated. Of course it is important, and yes, it can indeed make or break one's technique. To state the obvious, you literally cannot make a sound on an instrument that requires you to blow into it without, in fact, actually blowing into it; and having made that realization, there are, of course, more and less effective ways of blowing into it, whatever your desired result might be. I'd even grant that bad air habits are easier to develop, harder to break, and have proportionately more impact on the overall musical product than embouchure problems. To that extent, I am on board.

What I have a problem with is the absolutist, all or nothing, black and white, "my way or the highway" type of attitude which completely disregards embouchure formation and conditioning in favor of blind faith in air. I dare any brass player who believes that "there are no chop problems" to do nothing but practice breathing for a month, then return to the horn and see where that has gotten them. There's a good chance it will get them a lousy sound and reduced range and flexibility. I would further posit that the case of the raw beginner also proves the necessity of some serious conditioning that, while it may be largely directed at allowing them to use their air effectively, ultimately cannot be taught while simply ignoring "chop" issues altogether.

Of course, I'm also not a fan of embouchure meddling, and perhaps this blind faith in air is one way to avoid stooping to that level (i.e. by demanding a certain way of approaching the use of air, one coaxes a better embouchure out of the student without resorting to the sort of nitpicking that is otherwise necessary to achieve a change, yet rarely effective in doing so). Breathing, after all, is a natural and (aside from musical training) largely subconsciously regulated process, whereas the embouchure is not exactly something our bodies were specifically designed to do, and uses small muscles that are difficult to train and easy to injure. I would merely suggest that we temper the apocalyptic tone that has become commonplace in the discussion of breathing- and air-related brass pedagogy. If nothing else, it's just a good idea to mean what you say; hyperbole, while sometimes useful (and often fun), can only take us so far.

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