Air support and the Francaix concerto

I spent a good part of this summer learning the Francaix clarinet concerto. I was looking for a challenge, and I sure found it. But, what I failed to appreciate was that the challenge in the concerto was not only for the fingers and tongue. After a month or so of practicing the first movement, my tongue and fingers were humming along smoothly, but my tone was not as beautiful as it had been, and I was having a lot of trouble finding suitable reeds to play on. It turns that since beginning studying the concerto my air support had become worse and worse. Some pieces are better at encouraging air support than others. The Francaix concerto, with so many high notes and soft dynamics, is probably the worst at forcing you to support. A Brahms sonata encourages you to dig into the instrument and blow a lot of focused air; the Francaix concerto encourages you to use little air pressure and take shallow breaths. Thankfully Andreas Sunden pointed this out to me, and so I have recently begun practicing to improve my support (after several months of having neglected it). Listen to these two audio clips, the first from the 5th August, and the second only a day later, after working on improving my air support.

The second recording is better in a number of ways. The sound has more resonance, so it does not sound as thin as in the first recording. The high E is in tune, the low notes sound deeper and richer, and the tonguing sounds less hard and more delicate. The room I was recording in was different, but I think the differences in my playing are still apparent. The support is even better here:

What did I do between the first and second recordings? I spent several hours practicing exercises that help me 'feel my support,' meaning that I could identify and activate the muscles which enable better air control. Air support is a nebulous and hard-to-define concept. There is no real support in your abdomen: the support comes from the floor and your bone structure. But, there are muscles in the abdomen which enable the clarinetist to more precisely regulate the outflow of air. Air support is not something that is easy to 'turn on' in the middle of a phrase. It is more of a skill that improves or deteriorates slowly, over the course of many days. For example, if I have been working on my air support for a week, then I might not have to practice it today and I will probably still support well. But, if I have neglected it for a week, I can practice it today, but I should not expect that my air support will be fantastic by the end of the day. My air support improved in the day between the first and second recording, but it improved much more over the course of the following week.

An important principle to remember when working on air support is that every good inbreath starts with a good outbreath. It is essential to fully empty the lungs with the minimum of tension so you can take an inbreath that is quick, silent, and effortless. The inbreath should feel like it expands the abdomen and ribcage in every direction.

Here are some exercises I used to improve my support:

1) Low notes played at a forte dynamic are best! Practice the Vade Mecum trill exercise or any other low note exercise and blow as much air as possible maintaining a centered tone without tightening the embouchure.

2) Practice lying on the ground. This helps you breathe deeper and feel the muscles of the lower back.

3) Practice a decrescendo from forte to niente on any note (but probably the most difficult is the second octave B). As you approach p, pp, and ppp, you will feel the muscles of the abdomen activate to control the outflow of air. This activation is what it means to support in a soft dynamic, but they should also be active in forte. This activation of the muscles is not unwanted tension. Tension in the chest is the wrong kind of tension which will restrict breathing and freedom of movement. But the tension felt during this exercise is your support, so find it and remember how it feels!

4) Find a way of elongating the instrument. Put something on the bell to make the low E more resistant or even to change its pitch. The more resistance at the bell, the better you will support. (Basset clarinet forces you to support very well). The same is not true with resistance in the reed. Resistance in the reed does not improve support. The more you think of blowing air through the bell of the instrument, the better the support will be.

That's all for now!