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So I am trying to compose this woodwind quintet and other pieces relating to woodwind and brass instruments, and I need to figure out whether I can let some instruments breathe or keep playing. After some research, I now know a few things:

  1. Flutes are extremely air-inefficient. It almost uses as much air as a tuba.
  2. While not bad with air use, double-reed instruments are pretty hard to play. It would be best not to force the players to play a lot.

However, can I make clarinets and French horns play for extended periods of time without them protesting against my score for either air or difficulty reasons? What other woodwinds and brass instruments are out there that can play long, hard phrases with no problem?

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    Fascinating question. The flute/tuba comparison is truly surprising. Do recall where you learned that?
    – Aaron
    Apr 29, 2023 at 1:29
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    @Aaron This really short video helped me realize that: How to Write for Flute in 2 Minutes. As a professional musician, I wouldn't believe any such random facts easily, especially from such types of tutorials, but the guy in the video does have a point.
    – Hudson
    Apr 29, 2023 at 1:32
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    Point two reveals that air efficiency isn't your only concern, or even your primary concern. The oboe is the most air efficient instrument hands down, but your research shows that you nonetheless should give them periods of rest. It's also not clear if you're asking how long a phrase a player can play without needing to breathe or how long a passage a player can play before you should give them a chance to put their instrument down.
    – phoog
    Apr 29, 2023 at 2:39
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    As @Aaron suggests, a clarinet player and a sax player I know can circular breathe and they can play legato for at least two minutes at a stretch. These are exceptional musicians who are essentially at the low end of virtuoso status. I would only consider writing long passages like that if one of them specifically commissioned a concerto from me. As it stands they will both just connect phrases that are not marked as such to show off/enhance the music. But it’s their choice to do it when they are rested and motivated. Apr 29, 2023 at 3:30
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    Just look at some scores to see how good composers write for the different instruments. There's a huge selection for free on imslp.org.
    – PiedPiper
    Apr 29, 2023 at 12:41

2 Answers 2

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can I make clarinets and French horns play for extended periods of time without them protesting against my score for either air or difficulty reasons?

No. You can’t extend any particular instrument. It doesn’t matter much which instrument is most air efficient (it’s probably the oboe), because the greatest need to breathe is often “stale air”, not lack of air.

As air sits in our lungs, our lungs are removing oxygen and adding carbon dioxide to the air. Normally we exhale and inhale again fresh air that has plenty of oxygen in it. The longer the air sits in our lungs, the less oxygen it has and the harder it becomes to extract the oxygen - the air is “stale” and we need to replace it with fresh air.

This is why oboe players actually have to breathe out sometimes when they play. Their instrument is so air efficient that their air becomes stale before they can breathe out enough through the instrument.

Even on clarinet I’ve had to put exhale breath marks in my part sometimes.

The other thing is musically you usually want instruments to breathe together, even the strings should “breathe” with the winds and brass in many cases.

Finally, no matter what you write, players will breathe. You can’t stop them from doing it and you shouldn’t try. The only thing to do as a composer is if there are moments where you really don’t want them to breathe, you can put slurs over those moments and encourage breathing before and after with rests and/or longer notes with no slurs and even decrescendos on them. That’s when we like to breathe.

Pros won’t protest. They might roll their eyes at each other when your back is turned and they will breathe when they have decided it is musically correct.

I’m also remembering that for oboes and brass (especially horn), their chops (aka “face” for oboes) just can’t last through long extended passages. Breath support and embouchure require significant physical effort - not quite athletic level but still fairly tiring. I can currently go about two hours on clarinet (with breaks) but only like ten minutes on oboe. Obviously pros will have more developed facial muscles than mine, but it’s still tiring for your face and core.

Be good to musicians and they will be good to your music.

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    "No"? No to what? (If upvoted, by the way; I just don't understand the first word.)
    – phoog
    Apr 29, 2023 at 8:52
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    As an oboist and occasional player of all the other instruments mentioned here, I concur. It's not even possible to use up an entire lungful of air, playing quietly, before your oxygen runs out and you need to inhale again. Apr 29, 2023 at 10:28
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    @phoog There was only one yes or no question in the question but for you I’ve reproduced it in my answer. Apr 29, 2023 at 13:08
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I need to figure out whether I can let some instruments breathe or keep playing.

The best way is to make some friends (or to have them already) and ask them to play through the piece for you. They can tell you not only how difficult the piece is but also what aspects are difficult and why, and they may be able to give pointers on what to change.

can I make clarinets and French horns play for extended periods of time without them protesting against my score for either air or difficulty reasons?

This depends on who your players are. Undergraduate liberal arts students? If so, majoring in music or something else? Conservatory students? If so, at what level (and at what conservatory)? Professionals? Adult amateurs?

(Further, "extended" is vague, and for each category mentioned above, the threshold for "extended" will be different.)

What other woodwinds and brass instruments are out there that can play long, hard phrases with no problem?

When I was a student, there was sometimes talk of which instrument is "hardest." At some point, I realized that this was largely about which instrument was hardest for beginners. Every instrument is hard to play at a professional level, because, as with every human endeavor, the people who are best at it work very hard at it to become good. The threshold for "long" and "hard" will be different for different instruments, but the top players in the world will be able to play long, hard phrases relatively easily, while high school players will have problems.

If you don't play the instruments yourself, there's really no substitute for workshopping your piece (or pieces) to get a better sense of the instruments' and their players' capabilities. Consider having the group play a piece from the standard literature to compare. Study several yourself beforehand, and pick one or two for them to play. Studying these questions only theoretically is insufficient. For example, take "how to write for flute in 2 minutes." With those points in mind, study some flute parts from orchestral pieces and wind quintets, both scores and recordings, to see how composers put those points into practice. "Don't write below G unless you know what you're doing"? See how composers who did know what they were doing actually used that part of the flutes compass.

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