Breathing & Support

Teaching students to breathe properly is difficult. Teaching them to support is even more difficult. An approach that works for some students won’t work for others. I’ve collected advice from around the web (and the library) to help you as you teach your students proper breathing/support techniques.

All students struggle to understand what the diaphragm really is. This video helps students visualize how it works: (the video is good, the audio less so)


Martin Schuring (oboe) from Arizona State University published an article in The Double Reed [32/1 (2000): 19-22] with great ideas on how to teach breathing. Here is an excerpt:

Every student has heard, “Breathe from the diaphragm!” without really knowing what that means. Where is the diaphragm? What does it do? Why is it important to wind playing? The diaphragm is a sheet of tissue that separates the heart and lungs from the internal organs – the stomach, intestines, etc. Its muscular action pulls downward when we inhale and relaxes as we exhale.

I would honestly prefer to leave the diaphragm out of the breathing discussion altogether – nobody can really visualize or feel their diaphragm – but the use of the term is so well established that this much discussion, at least, is unavoidable. Instead of dwelling on the diaphragm, it is important to begin by breathing as deeply as possible – all the way to the bottom of the lungs – and to fill to the top from there. Most students are adept enough at taking a shallow breath, so the first goal is to bring air all the way to the bottom of the lungs. Everyone frequently does this naturally – when sleeping, or laughing, coughing, gasping – when doing just about anything besides playing the oboe. It’s worth trying a few of these natural things to observe how they feel. Yawn – a really deep satisfying yawn. Feel how the air goes all the way down; feel how your stomach goes out? Laugh. Feel how your stomach moves? Cough. Feel the same thing? Gasp as if you’re suddenly scared to death…

Let’s skip right to a simple exercise that almost never fails. Sit on the edge of a chair, lean forward until your hands touch the floor, relax, and inhale. An observer should see your lower back expand; you should feel your belly expand against your legs. Repeat the breath a few times, especially if it is a new sensation. Now, while gradually moving to an upright sitting position, continue to take slow deep breaths while maintaining the same feeling. Remember to take deep, full breaths. Repeat the chair exercise every time you aren’t sure whether you breathed correctly or not. Your stomach should expand first, then your chest. Don’t breathe just from the belly. Many students, under the impression that they must “breathe from the diaphragm,” never fill up the chest at all. Remember the toothpaste tube – not filling the chest is as useless as filling only the chest; we must inhale air to all parts of the lungs. A helper or a teacher should check progress by putting his or her hands on either side of your back just below the armpits. After the stomach expands, the upper back should expand also, forcing the observer’s hands apart. The idea is to expand the torso – to make it wider, not taller. If breathing makes you taller, re-examine your posture

Brett Van Gansbeke of has a good article on the subject at his website.

He quotes Waterhouse, McGill, Weait, and others in his discussion of breathing and embouchure.

Eryn Oft of Jacksonville State University has a YouTube video that demonstrates how she uses balloons to teach proper breathing, embouchure, and vibrato.

Bassoonist Sean Gordon shared this great advice on the Bassoonists United facebook page:

There are a lot of myths and personal opinions (which always have merit but might not work for everyone) floating around about what “support” is.

I’ll try to explain what it actually is, and how to develop it: when you inhale, your diaphragm contracts- it flattens and widens like rolling a pizza dough, pulling your lungs downward and pushing your ribs outward. Air rushes into your lungs to fill this space. When you exhale, your diaphragm RELAXES back to its normal state, putting gentle upward pressure on your lungs and allowing your ribs to fall back into place, pushing and squeezing SOME air out of your lungs. But when your diaphragm is totally relaxed, there is still lots of air left in your lungs. Moreover, simply allowing your diaphragm to relax as we do in normal breathing, you cannot create near enough air pressure to get a sound on the bassoon. This is where our abdominal core comes in. It: 1- squeezes the ribcage inward against the lungs; and 2- squeezes our guts up against the diaphragm. This allows us to expel more air at a very and controllable high pressure. Maintaining this SUPPORT of the airstream as we move BETWEEN notes, articulations, and registers helps us sound good by making sure the different resistances of different notes don’t get the best of us.

On tone- it’s important to balance air and embouchure pressure. Too much embouchure and not enough air pressure makes a sharp, quiet tone that tends to cut out as the reed closes up from all the mouth pressure (aka biting). On the flip side, too much air and not enough embouchure tends to produce a loud, often “buzzy” and flat sound.

The best way to learn to support well with your air AND embouchure is to make sure you have a good reed and practice playing intervals with a tuner, focusing on a resonant and even tone that you think is “good” (“good” varies extremely from player to player.)

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