Super Long Tones

Once in awhile I take a deep look at long tones.

The goal is not just to play long-tones, but to play extremely long, deeply controlled tones with good pitch, sound and control.

For us wind players the key is quality of air. Gulping a huge breath without engaging it in a stable way can lead to uncontrolled sound. Let's examine and optimize all parts involved to maximize both quality and quantity of breath. We'll check:

  1. feet, legs and hips
  2. torso
  3. the inhale
  4. the practice exhale
  5. the longtone

1- Place your feet shoulder width apart. Feel the tripod of each foot connecting with the ground. Let the soles of your feet relax and spread wide, as you bend your knees very slightly to engage your thighs. Relax your hip area and feel the strength of your glutes (butt) as you engage all these large muscles to support yourself. Feel the solid flexibility of this stance as you bounce very slightly.

2- As your legs find the strength of the ground, your torso finds stability from your hip area. Your hip area consists of more than top leg joints. The bones of your hips are shaped like a big saucer, the edges of which go far up your waist. Feel your torso arching up and out of this saucer of your hips, which rest atop the strength of your legs and feet.

Note that your spine is the core of your torso, and that your spine includes your neck. I like to think of my whole torso as the neck of a giraffe, one continuous long neck.

3- Now you are ready for a really deep breath. Your lungs surround your inner spine, with your heart in the middle. Feel this arrangement as you breathe deeply into your back. Your ribs move up and out at the breathing joints where they connect to your back spine. Keep your neck and head relaxed as your torso widens to make room for air. Your shoulders will go up as air fills your top lungs, but you DO NOT RAISE THEM.

The main mechanism which creates the space for air is the diaphragm descending. When I take a deep breath, it feels like my heart drops into my stomach. (The dome of your diaphragm arches up to your heart, so this feeling is understandable.) Let your viscera (guts) remain soft so they can be pushed down and out of the way by the diaphragm.

Whew. A lot to do before playing.

4- Next, I recommend holding the clarinet as if you are about to play; form your embouchure; take a deep breath and let the air out through your nose. This teaches relaxation on the exhale while playing. Notice and release any neck or shoulder tension if it occurs. Take a few deep breaths and release them this way. You are now ready to play. (Be sure to sit down if you get light headed with all these practice breaths)

5- Start with a low note. One last rule- Do not hold your air before playing. Take a deep breath and play a low E. Begin with air, so as not to bite. Let the sound come from deep in your lungs. As you being the exhalation, please do not ever tighten your ribs. (this is the most critical detail of this whole process, as it affects tone quality)

Once the tone begins, feel the steadiness of your air speed against the resistance of the instrument's tube. This resistance is the key to your support, not your diaphragm or any part of your torso. As you crescendo, the increased resistance determines the strength in your air. A crescendo maintains the same air speed you began the sound, and widens to allow greater volume.

Crescendo for 8 slow counts, then diminuendo for 8-12 more. Always diminuendo to air. Begin with hissing air, and end with hissing air.

I chose not to detail which muscles are used to exhale. Firstly, good inhale will lead to a good exhale. Secondly, I have discussed the details of exhale in other posts More Breath Support Ideas and Structures and Movement of Breathing and Breathing Naturally Comes Naturally.

The length of your long tone is not as critical as the quality. You may wish to have a tuner on to check your pitch, and eventually use a metronome to measure the length of your long tone.

I was able to extend my long tones to 40-45 seconds during my practice yesterday. I did one long tone on each note up to double high c.

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!

6 comments for “Super Long Tones

  1. Lyndon Moors
    December 18, 2009 at

    David, the next step in the progression of "longer" tones would be with the implementation of circular breathing. Oboists who have mastered this technique have a fighting chance to perform the infamous Strauss Concerto. I can maintain a fair mega-long tone on the trumpet (!), but I have not been satisfied with my attempts on the oboe…

    • December 18, 2009 at

      Hi Lyndon. Indeed. I do practice circular breathing on long tones. But I found that I occasionally need to practice real deep breaths and real long tones to work all those deep muscles. Circular breathing is something you do every few seconds, so breathing is not as deep. I’m impressed you can do it on trumpet. You’ll be a whiz on oboe before you know it!

  2. December 1, 2009 at

    Lol. I think there is no such thing as a good reed, only one which does what you want when you need it!! Thanks for your kind comment, Joar.

    • December 2, 2009 at

      Then that would be the definition of a good reed (for a given situation). I suppose we can at least agree that there is such thing as a bad reed…

      • December 2, 2009 at

        Joar, I need to write about this topic. I think many people find reeds which facilitate their bad habits, sort of a co-dependent dysfuntinality. People who bite, play hard reeds, for example. Since I have been playing Legeres, I have had to face a few of my own habits, such as the classic biting to play soft.

  3. December 1, 2009 at

    Thanks for sharing this! Tried it during my practice session today, and it helped make me conscious of what I really am doing. I also realized that doing what you describe in this post, is a good way to indicate whether your reed is sufficiently good (whatever "good" would mean).
    I love your blog; there is always something useful that can be learnt from it!

Comments are closed.