Building Breath


Sometimes I think that we forget that the clarinet is a wind instrument. We can get so focused on fixing embouchure, articulation, and finger placement, we may neglect the root of the problem that may exist in how we are breathing. Despite what some may think, the clarinet takes a lot of fast, cold air to respond and have a focused tone quality.

When I was in high school, I attended a summer music camp. When I returned from camp, I went to my next clarinet lesson and after playing just a few notes, my teacher exclaimed,

"What happened at music camp? Your sound has changed. It is bigger and fuller. What happened at camp!

My epiphany at music camp came from working with the trombone professor, not the clarinet professor. I don’t remember why I was in the trombone teacher’s office, but he introduced me to a device that brass players have used for quite some time. It is called a Breath Builder. It is a simple device for exercising and building air capacity. I only needed to try it out to feel what it meant to take a deep breath and expel that air completely through the instrument. Taking a “Breath Builder” breath changed my playing almost instantly in the following ways:

  • My tone suddenly was bigger, more focused, and much louder.
  • Since my tone was improved, my intonation also improved.
  • The clarinet began to respond for me.
  • High notes came out easier.
  • Ascending skips were smoother and more connected.

The Breath Builder is a tube with a ping pong ball inside. Two straws are provided: a large bore straw and a narrow bore. The objective is to exhale and inhale through the straw in such a way that enough air pressure is exerted to keep the ping pong ball raised to the top of the tube, both on exhale and inhale. Holes in the top of the tube may be covered to increase the resistance.

I have used the Breath Builder with my students and the results are often magical. In just a few minutes, the tone and dynamic range are improved instantly. It takes repetition and daily practice to increase air capacity, but the instant feedback, from the ping pong ball, helps students feel what kind of air to use on the clarinet.

If your students aren’t sounding the way you want, go to the probable root of the problem. Teach them how to take a “Breath Builder” breath.