Today’s edition was inspired by a question I got from Newsletter subscriber Glen last week. Glen is a multi-woodwind musician, and says
“my problem is air….too much air, to be precise. [...]I have gotten into taking less air and releasing air while resting if I feel the back pressure is too much, but still run out of steam after about 30 minutes of practice/playing”
I think all of us who have played oboe can relate to the feeling of having too much air - or like you have extra air left in your lungs. This extra air in your lungs builds up over time into a feeling of pressure, and that’s what Glen is referring to as “back pressure”. Sometimes the back pressure can even feel like it’s filling your head with air or giving you a headache.
Why do we have extra air? Why does playing oboe cause so much back pressure?
Before I get into how to manage the feeling of having too much air or too much pressure, I think it’s important that we understand why this feeling happens. Fundamentally the oboe reed’s opening is too small to let a lot of air move through it. We aren’t going to be able to put the same volume of air (physics volume) into the oboe reed as we could through a clarinet or saxophone mouthpiece, or even through a bassoon reed. It’s just not physically possible! That leaves a LOT of FAST air that you’ve created to get the reed vibrating just stuck somewhere in your body.
The other factor at work is that your body is using the oxygen from your most recent lungful of air. While extra air builds up over time, it also becomes deoxygenated. This means that as the air in your lungs becomes more stale over time, you feel a greater pressure to breathe in order to take in more oxygen. It can also become hard to pay attention to details as you get to the end of your oxygen supply even if you have more air in your lungs to use or not.
How do I prevent back pressure from forming?
We actually can’t prevent back pressure from forming as we play - it’s part of the mechanics of playing oboe. Remember: back pressure is the feeling of pressure when you have more air in your system than you can push through your reed.
It can be really tempting to solve this back pressure problem by taking smaller breaths so you don’t have as much air hanging around in your body. Unfortunately, taking smaller breaths will wear you out more over time. This happens for two main reasons:
You don’t have enough air to develop the air speed needed to play with a gentle embouchure and thus you squeeze the reed harder over time
You need to inhale more frequently which adds to the ambient air pressure in your system.
So, DON’T use less air - the air isn’t the problem.
Instead, work on controlling the placement of air pressure. Funnel all that air pressure to the front of your mouth, right behind your four front teeth (where the reed sits). Imagine that the air pressure forms a big marshmallow of swirling air behind your front teeth (A S’mores size marshmallow). This marshmallow of air will help you control the reed with changes to the air rather than changes to your embouchure. So, your lips will need to do less while your air is working harder.
Experiment with this:
To work on achieving the marshmallow of air, first use a long tone. Play a comfortable middle-range note at a healthy mf dynamic, and hold the note for a while. As you hold the note, try to push your air into that marshmallow shape in the front of your mouth. You may need to reset your air and try this a few times. If you’re having a hard time feeling the marshmallow, set your embouchure up with more space between your teeth and try again. It’s OK to feel out of control of your sound during this exploration…the path to control sometimes takes us out of control first.
Once you can find the marshmallow of air, play a very slow scale while maintaining the marshmallow of air throughout the scale. The more you can feel that shape in your mouth, the less you need to do with your lips, so work on letting go of the reed as well.
The ultimate goal is to always play with that marshmallow of air present. It will facilitate better intonation, dynamic control, and tone quality.
Do you want more exercises to experiment with? Subscribe to the Oboe 101 newsletter for a weekly email with something about playing oboe.