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Air/embouchure balance

One of my favorite topics to work on with student oboists is the concept of air/embouchure balance. We know that both the air we blow and the embouchure we use on the reed have a huge impact on the way we sound, but we often forget to think about that balance.


What’s the ideal Air/Embouchure Balance? 

In my ideal world, I hope to use my embouchure to hold the reed in place while I play, and very occasionally to adjust my pitch. Aside from that, I try to use airstream manipulations to control the sound that I create. If I had to put numbers to it, ideally I’m using 30% embouchure effort and 70% air effort when I play. 


That said, it’s so easy to press harder on the reed than is truly needed, which is hands down the most common error that I see students make. Using more embouchure pressure than absolutely necessary compresses the sound, limits dynamic range, and limits students’ ability to play in tune.


Potential growing pains when adjusting Air/Embouchure balance

Expect to make small, incremental improvements. At first you won’t be able to maintain your new air/embouchure balance without thinking about it really hard. I recommend starting your warm up (crowing, long tones (aka Notes of the Day), slow/slurred scales) by paying close attention to the air/embouchure balance you’re trying to achieve. Then when you move on to your repertoire or harder scale exercises, it’s OK to let your focus drift away from the air/embouchure balance. The more you automate the new air/embouchure balance in your fundamental exercises, the easier it will be to use the new feeling in class or when playing more difficult music. 


You may lose some of your dynamic range at first. If you’re used to squeezing extra with your mouth to play softer, you’re going to have to figure out alternate ways to play soft to maintain the new air/embouchure balance you’re striving for. (tips for that here)


You may notice that you play flatter than you used to. For those of you who tend to play sharp most of the time, this will be a very positive change! For those of you who play in tune already, when you remove the embouchure pressure, your pitch will naturally get flatter - the secret is that your air needs to compensate and become stronger to support the pitch. Use the reminder phrase “Fill the note with air” to help get your pitch back up in tune without adding embouchure pressure back. 


Have patience and be persistent! 

It’s so important that you’re patient and kind to yourself as you transition to using less embouchure pressure when you play. Notice the small, incremental improvements you make day by day and point them out to yourself when you start to feel discouraged. Even a small success like “I played my scale with less embouchure pressure and a more consistent air stream” is a positive step forward! I’m confident that you’ll hear the difference in your playing, so use what you hear to guide you.


 

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