You DON'T know how to breathe!

Updated: Dec 14, 2021

You've been doing it since birth. If there is one thing you've practiced more than anything else, it is breathing. Yet, ask any clarinet teacher or music instructor of a wind instrument and I bet you are doing it all wrong.

Let's clarify from the beginning that when we speak of breathing here, we are talking about the mechanical process of moving air in and out of the lungs. The lungs themselves move the oxygen out of the air and into the blood stream in a process called diffusion. Unless you plan on playing your clarinet with your blood, we're not going to focus on the lung diffusion process.

So how can you do it wrong? What these confused, well-meaning people are saying is that, "Playing a clarinet requires a special breathing process." We need to bring in more air than normal and we need to expel it in a special, controlled way—but we'll still call it breathing. Let's look at the process of breathing in a normal way and maybe we can better understand what is needed to play the clarinet properly.

Human anatomy image of ribcage and diaphragm demonstrating breathing.

There are basically two physical control elements to breathing naturally: your lungs and your diaphragm, intercostals (muscles between your ribs) and serratus. Your lungs are sacks that basically sit there waiting to be acted upon by the diaphragm, intercostals and serratus. When you breathe in, your diaphragm flexes and expands downward, pulling on the lining around the lungs. At the same time, your ribs expand, pulling outward on the lungs. This creates lower air pressure in the lungs and air rushes in through your mouth or nose.

Human anatomy image of ribs and intercostals demonstrating breathing.
Internal Intercostals

To expel the air, you basically relax and the weight or pressure from your muscles and bones press down on the lungs, pushing the air out. (You do NOT use your diaphragm to push air out.) If you want to speak, you close the passage with your larynx like pinching a balloon off and the voice is the squeaking from the balloon—we are pretty talented balloon manipulators, aren't we? If you want to yell, you start to employ your intercostals and, to a lesser extent, your abdominals to increase the speed that the air comes out.

Human anatomy of back of ribs demonstrating breathing process.
Superior and Inferior Serratas

If you think I'm making this stuff up, check out this video:

Of course, the video could be making it all up too, so maybe you'll believe the government better. Try here: National Institute of Health. No?

I am going to assume that somewhere along the line, you believe me about how you breathe. How is this different from the breathing needed for clarinet playing? Shh. I have a secret to tell you. It's not really all that different. :-)

If you imagine that playing the clarinet is a little like talking loudly, you will get the breathing down pat in just a few practices. Remember that in talking loudly, you want the air to come out faster than normal breathing and you squeeze your intercostals and abdominal muscles to increase the air speed. When we play the clarinet, we also want the air speed to increase so we squeeze with our intercostals and abdominal muscles.

And just as the larynx closes off the air coming out of the lungs, the embouchure, reed and mouthpiece do the same on the clarinet—our embouchure, voicing and fingers take the place of our larynx in this equation. The difference is, there is a lot of nuance in our control of the vocal cords that we have to learn concerning the reed—when you play the clarinet, you really are singing with your instrument...literally.

There are a number of methods for teaching breathing (or breath support) for playing the clarinet. Some people insist that your abdomen must stay firm at all times to control the air. Others feel that your stomach should relax when you breathe in and flex when blowing. Even further, there is debate on whether your chest and or shoulders should move when breathing in. Arnold Jacobs, a famous tuba player and clinician, taught that we simply need to allow the body to do what it does naturally when we breathe. Smart guy.

What I will suggest is:

  • Sit or stand with good posture and the arms slightly away from the body when playing.

  • Breathe in relaxed (similar to yawning).

  • Breathe in through the corners of your mouth, leaving the mouthpiece and reed on your lower lip and teeth on top.

  • Think of our lungs expanding down, out and then up when we breathe in.

  • Return the embouchure and tongue to playing positions as you breathe out.

  • Flex the stomach muscles in slowly as you blow through the instrument.

  • Alternatively, you can keep your stomach muscles flexed out as you blow (this takes practice) which will vastly improve the quickness of breathing in deeply the next breath.

There are many approachs to breathing properly on wind instruments because it is vital to our craft. And, of course, everyone wants to show you because you don't know how...or do you?

Here are some differing suggested videos on breathing properly for clarinet playing:

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