One of the key skills of a saxophonist is air support (or breathing control). It is essential to start developing your lung capacity as early as possible. As a woodwind instrument, the saxophone requires consistent and proper airflow to produce the right sound. Without it, you'll not be able to produce a proper pitch, the right intonation, volume control, and stability.
Here are 5 areas you can focus on to improve your air support as a saxophone player; Inhalation, Exhalation, Breathing Exercises, Breathing Techniques, and Cardio Workouts.
The main key to inhaling is that you need to take in enough air to support you through your playing. Thus you need to understand Diaphragmic Breathing.
Your normal breathing is quite shallow and does not utilize the full capacity of your lungs. Diaphragmic breathing, on the other hand, will effectively increase the amount of air your lungs can hold by engaging your diaphragm.
The easiest way to experience breathing with your diaphragm is to lie down flat on the ground, or your bed. Place your hands over your diaphragm, relax your shoulders and slowly inhale through your nose.
You should start to feel your stomach rising (expanding). And when it reaches its maximum expansion, it creates more room for the bottom half (or about ⅓) of your lungs to expand.
Now continue inhaling with your nose and you’ll start to feel your lungs filling up with more air than usual (a lot more than your normal breathing).
Keep practicing this inhalation method by engaging your diaphragm first, and when you’re able to perform diaphragmic breathing on cue, you’ll be able to do it in a standing position.
While in a standing position, you’ll know that you’re doing it wrong if your shoulders start trembling and pulling backward while you’re inhaling to the maximum.
Fun fact. If you observe a baby when they’re sleeping, you’ll notice that the way they breathe is diaphragmic breathing.
With exhalation, it’s more straightforward in the sense that you only need to be aware of the amount of air and the speed in which you’re releasing the air. Make sure that you’re not letting all the air out at once, but in a small controlled amount. As if you’re blowing into a mouthpiece.
The main concern with exhalation is to maintain a controlled release. You’ll find that by utilizing your diaphragm, you’re more capable of controlling air release, especially towards the end of your breath, tightening your abdominal muscles to push out all the air that is left.
This will be a lot easier to practice with a saxophone. But for breathing exercises, just make sure that you’re controlling the amount of air coming out of your mouth slowly and consistently, with your lips only open slightly like you’re blowing out a candle (or the shape of your embouchure).
3. Breathing Exercises
For beginners, there are a few breathing exercises you can use. One is to just get into the habit of breathing with your diaphragm, take in as much air as you can, and exhale all of it steadily. Make sure you’ve emptied all the air before you take your next breath.
Next, you’ll want to try this with a metronome. Set it to 65 bpm and see for how many beats you can hold while exhaling steadily. With a metronome, you can more accurately track your progress. The longer you can exhale for means you’re starting to take in more air.
A slight modification to the above exercise is to use a piece of paper, put it in front of you and blow into it. There are 2 reasons why using a piece of paper can be helpful when you’re learning breathing control.
First, it can give you a much clearer indication on how well controlled your air releases are. If the paper is fluttering around, then you’re releasing the air at an irregular rate and you’ll need to work on that.
Second, you can use it as a power gauge. Meaning, you’ll be able to tell how strong you’re pushing air out by how much the paper is moving away from you. Naturally, the harder you push, the more air you’ll use.
So use the above method to train yourself to be able to push air out with different strength levels, for a longer period.
A note of caution, if you’re starting to feel faint during the exercises, it may be due to you not taking in enough air. Just take a break and resume later.
4. Breathing Techniques
When you’re playing the saxophone and need to inhale, you’ll always do it via your mouth. For obvious reason, your nose is just not fast enough to replenish all that lost air in a short period, especially while you’re playing.
Typically, a saxophone player will inhale from the corners of his/her mouth without affecting his/her embouchure.
Some players would drop their lower jaw while keeping their lower lips in place over the teeth and inhale from the center of the mouth.
There is yet another method called Circular Breathing, made famous by Kenny G when he was able to sustain an E Flat for 45 minutes and 47 seconds using the Circular Breathing technique.
The Circular Breathing technique is more commonly used by Didgeridoo players where oftentimes they’re required to hold a much longer note.
The main key to this technique lies in holding that last breath of air in your mouth, filling up both cheeks. And while slowly pushing out the air with your cheeks, you inhale with your nose.
Yes, I know, it’s easier said (typed) than done. Though circular breathing is not a necessary skill set for most saxophone players, but if you’re interested in holding a note for 45 minutes and 47 seconds I say go for it.
Cardio exercises can greatly improve your lung function and lung capacity. Any form of aerobics exercises will be good for cardio like swimming, running, jumping ropes and even brisk walking can help.
The important key is to get your heart and lungs to work hard during these sessions for the workouts to count. A good rule of thumb is to at least work out for 30 minutes per session and reach a heart rate above your resting heart rate (typically 60-100 bpm)
Research has shown that it’s safe to perform cardio exercises for up to 60 minutes per day. Remember to warm up properly and be aware of your physical conditions to prevent injuries.
Other simple exercises you can do to improve your lung capacity include lungs/rib stretching, pushing out, and abdominal breathing.
Lungs/Rib stretching can help increase your lung capacity by stretching out your lungs to allow more space to be utilized.
Pushing-out is a great breathing exercise that gives your lungs an increased capacity to absorb oxygen.
Abdominal Breathing is the same concept as Diaphragmic Breathing, where you’re breathing in through your nose, air fills your diaphragm first before filling up your lung.
Alternatively, you may lie on your back, elevate your legs with a pillow/support near your ankles and proceed with the Abdominal Breathing exercise.
In conclusion, having good air support is a vital skill for any wind instrument player, and there are many exercises out there to help you develop good air support.
But always remember to practice self-care and be aware of your own physical conditions so you don’t injure yourself in the process. If you’re in doubt, always consult with your doctor first on how you should proceed with any exercises for the purpose.
Rock On nn/,