Keeping My AIR to Myself

I was out running this morning and I crossed the street to avoid a perfectly nice lady walking her perfectly nice dog.  We smiled and waved at each other – but didn’t dare to get close.  Runners in this COVID season allow a lot of space.  The air I use when I run comes right out of the bottom of my lungs, like my whole body is exhaling at once, and I’m aware, in a way that I never was before, about the cloud of exhale that surrounds me when I am breathing like this. About having to keep it to myself.

And then I got to thinking about the oboe.

We use our air in a variety of ways, right? And we oboists have that trick, that superpower, of not ACTUALLY needing that much ACTUAL air to play the instrument, so I often see students trying to get away with HEAD air only. Blowing only from the neck up, letting their lower body NOT be a part of the process.  As you might expect, this leads to an unsupported sound, a fair amount of throat strain, a need for very soft, easy reeds, and a relative lack of dynamic range.

At the other extreme, I see people who take a GIANT breath, filling their lungs with air, and then playing with a ton of pressure.  The result can be heavy, over-tiring – and of course these people also have the problem of needing to get rid of ALL of the extra bad air in their lungs.  It takes longer to exhale a TON of air than only a little, so they can really get themselves into trouble in extended passages.

I see people straining to play the oboe on a teaspoonful of air or struggling to manage an overfilled tank – and I SEE that struggle, because it is a hard balance to find.

I generate my sound from deep within my body, using the same open, relaxed throat I have when I run.  I try to simulate the very natural way I breathe when I’m exerting myself A LITTLE.  At the same time, I intentionally avoid taking giant breaths – I let myself breathe like a normal human.  When I use that natural air, from my own breath and body, it feels like the oboe is just an extension of myself.  A heightened, more musical part of myself.

It feels PERSONAL to play an instrument with my air, with the breath of my life.  It feels GENEROUS to perform for an audience using my air.

I’m accustomed to thinking about my air, and the air of the students and clients I work with.  I’m not used to thinking of it as a source of contagion, I’m not used to feeling afraid of someone else’s natural, personal air.  This is a strange strange time.

Are you a sipper of air or a gasper when you play your instrument?  How do you think about your air?   If I do a free training in a few weeks over on Facebook, is this an interesting topic?

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