Flute Punch

Review: Arnold Jacobs: Song and Wind

Posted on: February 23, 2009

I decided to read Arnold Jacobs: Song and Wind by Brian Frederiksen after attending a workshop given by Lorna McGhee last April in which she mentioned the title and a few of the concepts. It was not exactly what I expected, but a good read nonetheless.

Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998) was a renowned tubist and teacher of all wind players. Jacobs is revered as an expert in breathing due to his extensive studies of breathing as he sought to overcome his own reduced lung capacity due to frequent respiratory illnesses. Portions of the book discuss Jacob’s history and discography, and there is some information that is specific to brass instruments, but a good portion of the book is devoted to breathing concepts and techniques, and Jacob’s methods for teaching them. Following are the concepts which most stood out to me:

Jacobs believed in practicing correct respiratory function away from the instrument, then transferring the new patterns back to the instrument, so that “the brain is free to concentrate on the musical message.” The book includes a section discussing the various equipment Jacobs used in his studio to demonstrate breathing concepts.

There is a time to analyze and a time to play. That is, performance is not the time to be analyzing our technique; it is the time to “just play,” as one of my teachers once said to me.

the abdominal muscles are capable of exerting enough pressure to support 100 pounds of weight or more, but playing an instrument requires only a few pounds of pressure, give or take. When we use too much abdominal pressure, it activates the Valsalva maneuver, which closes off the throat. This is the most common cause of restricted air flow. Optionally, in this instance, if the throat is not closing off, the tongue might be used to hold back the pressurized air — also not good.

The vital capacity of a person (ie, the size their lungs can hold), which peaks around the age of 20, varies depending on the size and sex of a person. Jacobs notes that the tuba and the flute require low pressure but high air flow rate (vs. the oboe at the other end of the spectrum, which requires higher pressure but a lower flow rate). But because the flute is a small instrument, women of small frame are frequently directed to it, only to be more frustrated with it than they would be with a different instrument.

Do not think of blowing more air, or of blowing it harder; think of blowing a thicker column of air.

The tongue is not a valve to stop the air; it is only a focusing tool for the sound.

Quality of tone should be established before working towards playing longer phrases.

And last but not least, possibly my favorite quote from the whole book: “Challenge precedes development.”


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