Breath Support: Understanding How to Use the Air Column

As a wind player, I often hear band directors telling ensembles to play with better “breath support,” or simply more “support.” Having good support is key to having a good tone. However, the idea of breath support has always remained admittedly elusive to me. Yes, engaging your abdominal muscles to control your exhale as you move air through your instrument leads to a more “supported” sound, but I never felt that I truly understood what exactly breath support was and where it was located in the body. In this post, I’m going to define and break down the mysterious concept of breath support into factors that can be individually manipulated to produce a desired result.

Let’s start with a working definition of breath support. I like this one from a blog post by Bret Pimental: "Breath support is the engagement of the abdominal muscles (including the sides and lower back) during exhalation."

This definition gives us an action we can consciously use to create breath support: controlling our exhale by engaging our muscles – specifically, the abdominal muscles you feel when doing sit-ups, as well as the intercostal muscles that line your ribcage and back muscles that you use to sit up straight in your chair to get that good posture during band class. Okay – but how exactly does engaging these muscles let us “control” our exhale? When we are exhaling, that is, blowing air into our instrument (or in the case of flutes, across the mouthpiece), there are several things that we control with our support. Let’s break it down:

Breath support = muscle engagement = air volume + air speed + air direction

You’ve taken a nice deep breath in, you’ve set up your embouchure, you’ve engaged your abdominal muscles, and you’re about to play a note. Now what? First, you’re going to decide how much air to use to produce that note. This is our first ingredient of breath support, air volume. Air volume refers to the physical amount of air that you are expelling through your instrument to make a sound. Using more air will produce a note that sounds louder. Using less air will produce a note that sound softer.

But this isn’t the only thing we control during our exhale. We also control the speed of the air column, or the rate at which you expel a certain amount of air out of the bod and into the instrument. Air speed can be a bit more difficult to conceptualize. As Dr. Cate Hummel describes in this blog post, it may help to try thinking of faster air as more concentrated, and slower air as more diffuse. In other words, air volume is how much air you are exhaling through the instrument, and air speed is how quickly you are exhaling air through the instrument.

As wind musicians, and particularly flutists, the goal is to be able to maintain a high air speed in our playing, regardless of what the dynamic might be or what register we are playing in. Having a high air speed at all times allows us to play with a strong, focused sound that projects well. Yes, it can be tempting as flutists to slow down the air when trying to play something soft, but this will result in a weak and flat sound. Conversely, it can be tempting to blow “harder” to make faster air when playing high notes, but this will result in a sharp, spread tone. The key to good breath support is the ability to maintain a stable, high air speed while adjusting air volume to produce desired effects in dynamics, register, tone color, and other musical factors. Maintaining a high air speed (through engaging the core during the exhale) is what can allow a flutist to execute both strong, projecting low register notes, and controlled, soft high notes. One postscript to add is that flutists can influence whether a sound appears to be fast or slow through manipulating the speed of their vibrato. This is not the same as changing the speed of the air column. (More on vibrato in a future blog post).

There’s one last factor, however, that particularly flutists can manipulate under a foundation of a well-maintained air speed: air direction. The direction of the air column, whether we blow “high” or “low” against the back wall of the mouthpiece, is how factors including register and intonation can be controlled. You can visualize air direction by blowing against the palm of your hand. A low air direction will result in the air hitting the bottom your hand where the palm meets the wrist. A higher air direction will result in the air hitting the top of the palm near the fingers. Air direction is the primary factor a flutist manipulates when playing harmonics (a lower air direction is required for the fundamental note, and an increasingly higher air direction is required as you move through the overtone series). That being said, practicing any harmonics exercise can help give you better control over your air direction. Blowing with a relatively higher air direction on a given note can help raise the pitch, and vice versa with a lower air direction. Air direction allows us to influence the tone color of a note: aiming higher will result in a sound dominated by the higher harmonics of a note’s overtone series for a brighter, thinner sound, and aiming lower will result in a sound dominated by the lower harmonics of a note’s overtone series, resulting in a tone with more depth.

So, now that we’ve defined each part of breath support, let’s try to put this all together. Breath support is the act of controlling our exhale to produce a stronger, more focused and supported sound. A musician controls their exhale through the amount of air they use, the rate at which they expel that air (using the abdominals to maintain a concentrated air stream), and the direction in which they aim the air.

This is my personal conceptualization of breath support, a conglomeration from various teachers and my own experiences. What are your thoughts on breath support in relation to the body as a wind musician?