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What are the rules for breathing for the wind instruments? How long can they continuously play?


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I am trying to compose something for a orchestra with a lot of wind instruments, wood and brass, and I am not sure if they can actually continuously play, in example, an arpeggio for minutes or something like that, without rests.

 

How long can they play? What are the rules? Or what do you recommend? Thank you.

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I'm not a wind player. It would be nice if someone jumped in here with real experience in lung capacity. I think it depends on articulation and volume and duration. I think a legato passage could be carried quite far, maybe farther than you think with a really good player. But for other solutions see Stravinsky's Petrushka - The Shrove Tide Fair. He uses a staggered breathing/playing methodology to achieve his endless wind ostinatos that would be impossible with only one player.

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Not a wind player, but I believe with the circular breathing technique, certain wind players can play fairly continuously....not recommended though! I guess it depends on the stamina of an individual player, but there are any hard and fast rules. 

 

Stravinsky is a good example, check out how Ravel also used winds in his works (particularly Daphnis et Chloe).

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It depends on a few important factors. Namely:

1) The lung capacity and diaphragm control of the player: If you cannot sing the line without running out of breath it is likely the player cannot either.

2) The length of the instrument: Long instruments require more air. It is important to realize that for woodwind instruments changing the pitch is effectively synonymous with changing the length of the instrument, so generally speaking it requires less air to play in the high register (speaker keys make this a little more difficult to estimate). I believe that brass instruments require equal air throughout the overtone series of a given fundamental - at least this is what personal experimentation leads me to believe, I of course cannot reach beyond the first few partials and must admit I do not really know.

3) Air pressure: Conical instruments require more air pressure because they are narrower at the tip. This makes them harder to play but it also means that air enters the instrument more slowly and therefore that they can generally play longer. Oboists for example are very rarely in danger of running out of breath, but rather of running out of oxygen - the air they inhaled becoming saturated with carbon dioxide. IANAD, but I can hold my breath comfortably for 60 seconds, so I would think you can with good conscience write passages that last maybe 30 or max 40 seconds for the oboe. You would however be highly optimistic to hope for a passage half as long from a contrabassoonist.

I hope this helps, somebody correct me if my information is wrong or inaccurate.

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2 minutes ago, danuniversal said:

But do you have idea about the times? How long do brass players can play?

 

It's hard for me to say exactly. Any brass instrument will need to breathe more frequently if they are playing in their highest register. This is the best I can give you:

With trumpets, I would say that unless they are playing high in their register breathe shouldn't be a big problem. The instrument is small and cylindrical, so there isn't much resistance. I would say a trumpet could play for about as long on a single breathe as the oboe mentioned by gylfi, maybe a little longer. 

French horns and trombones would require about the same amount of breathe, I think. They definitely cannot play for as long as the trumpet on a single breathe. Bass trombones will need more breathe than tenors.

And the tuba takes a ton of breathe to speak, so any tuba part will need pretty frequent breathes.
 

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I was trying to review some orchestral scores to get an idea of breathing and pauses, and looking at Tchaikovsky's 1812 overture, from the measure 332 (which is like minute 12:25 in the video) the woodwinds have very few pauses, and I actually counted sections of more than a minute without a silence. In some parts they play almost like the strings.

Here is the score if you prefer it:

http://conquest.imslp.info/files/imglnks/usimg/a/a8/IMSLP403720-PMLP03587-1812_Overture__1880__-_Full_Score.pdf

Perhaps the director or the woodwinds section organise to take turns to play without loosing breath?

 

I am looking for such a extreme example in brass. I counted up to 20 seconds in the brass section without a silence (perhaps I did not not a longer section?). Suggest me some other composition.

 

What do you think about this case? Does this demonstrate that woodwinds indeed can play for minutes without a silence?

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If you have more than one player on a part they will self-organize to stagger their breaths.  And no-one is going to die to make it without breathing.  You don't have to necessarily provide a rest or a breath mark.  Part of being a good musician is figuring out the best pieces to breathe to make individual phrases out of a piece of music.  It's part of what makes music sound musical.  Part of being a good director is over-ruling those decisions and suggesting other solutions if something is standing out of the overall mix, since they are sitting where they can hear the interplay of all parts more equally.  I wouldn't stress over it too much.  

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What instrument do you play? 

The best way to determine is if you are able to sing the line.

Are you asking about a single note?  Or are you asking about continuously playing in general?  Register and dynamic play a huge role in the answer. 

As a general rule, if you can sing it, a player can play it.  Yes there are differences between instruments.  As stated, oboists need to learn to exhale before inhaling lest they hyperventilate (a big problem for younger players!).  What level are you trying to write for?  Young players will expend air faster than an advanced player.

Talk to some players of the instruments if you're not sure.  Take a trumpet player to coffee and he will probably tell you a lot of what you need to know.

Perhaps you can post what you want them to be able to do, and someone can tell you if it's doable.

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On 6/26/2016 at 2:06 AM, fishyfry said:

... I find that for brass instruments, more air support is needed for the higher notes in the range to sound well.  

 

Sort of.

Lower notes will use up a lot more air. Higher notes will need more support, air speed and pressure, but a lot less air is actually being used.

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