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So obviously we can say "if you want to play louder, blow harder." However, is the connection really as simple as "more air means more volume," or is there a secondary effect which can permit louder sounds without having to expend more air.

I'm particularly thinking about how to play long fortissimo phrases where my instincts are to cut back on the loudness to complete the phrase, or long pianissimo phrases where so little air is used that I feel like I can't get enough oxygen unless I explicitly exhale before every breath (which there's often no time to do)

  • Have a look at Circular Breathing – david strachan Dec 8 '15 at 20:36
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    @davidstrachan Circular breathing is a fun party trick, but is rarely applicable in real-world situations. – MattPutnam Dec 8 '15 at 20:50
  • Do you practice long tones? Have you timed yourself to see how long you can hold a controlled note? FWIW you should be able to play at least 45 seconds mp-mf and at least 30 seconds f . In my clarinet days I worked up to about 55 sec (f) , which was great for exercise but not needed in performance. – Carl Witthoft Dec 9 '15 at 13:38
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    @MattPutnam I disagree with you there - I know many musicians that circular breath (including myself) to very effectively link phrases or, in some cases, perform music that couldn't be performed effectively otherwise. Also, circular breathing is one of the core techniques for playing didgeridoo, which is a cultural instrument as much as a musical one. – jjmusicnotes Dec 10 '15 at 5:53
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For the most part, yes, volume is determined by the amount of air. You're not going to be able to play loudly with a tiny amount of air, or quietly with a lot.

However, there is an efficiency factor. Part of this is the player, and part is the equipment. If you can play in a proper relaxed manner that doesn't choke the vibration in the mouth, and use equipment that's in good shape and works well together (primary example: reed/mouthpiece combination for single reeds) so it responds easily, you'll be able to make more sound with less effort.

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    Unfortunately, I disagree with you here as well. Trumpets use a tiny amount of fast-moving air through a small aperture, but are still able to create large volumes of sound. By contrast, when I play tuba, I still use huge volumes of air to play sub-contra notes quietly, due to their frequency. Dynamic is determined by the speed of the air, not the volume. – jjmusicnotes Dec 10 '15 at 5:55
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    First of all, this kind of discussion has an implicit "all else held equal", so comparing two different instruments is irrelevant. Of course tuba uses more air. Second of all, you can't adjust the bore size while playing, so air speed and volume are inherently linked. You can't create a faster air stream without also putting a higher volume of air through the instrument. – MattPutnam Dec 10 '15 at 15:20
  • @jjmusicnotes is correct. I am a clarinet player (have been slacking for a few years), and any good teacher emphasizes that notes at different volumes should have the same amount of air. If you put less air through a softer note, your sound will lack support and can have some intonation issues (it's been a few years, so I don't remember the specifics). – Clarinetist Apr 15 '16 at 13:31
  • @Clarinetist "amount of air" is an unspecific term. In the context you're talking about, this is more about the feeling of the back pressure, not actually a raw measure of air flow. – MattPutnam Apr 19 '16 at 14:26
  • "You're not going to be able to play loudly with a tiny amount of air" - this is simply not true. The flute uses by far the most air of all the woodwinds while the oboe uses the least. With high pressure you can put in a lot of energy into the instrument with little air, but high pressures are usually achieved by shrinking the throughput of air. – Get_Schwifty Feb 13 '18 at 13:04
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More air does not mean more volume. Sound waves move by alternating between pressure differences and air part velocities. The actually moved air is only important with regard to how much it contributes to the original vibration. Take a look at an accordion: it generates sound regardless of whether you push or pull, so it's not how much air goes "out".

It's how much effect the air has on the original sound. With recorders and flutes, that's quite related to the amount of airflow (though one can trick with a more focused air stream, easier to do with flutes than recorders): while the resonating chamber is an important part of the tone production, the sound originates at the labium and the flowback from the air column is only part of the source.

With reed instruments, the pressure difference against which the reed resonates is important. That is formed by embouchure shape and strength as well as static pressure. The actual amount of air flow is comparatively small, particularly with double reeds.

So one key to achieving loud volumes is efficiency. Reducing waste/side air is important.

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For reed instruments efficiency also plays a large role. Covering more of the reed with your lips damps the vibrations and thus lowers the volume, sometimes to the extent that you have to blow harder in soft passages. Conversely, allowing the reed to vibrate freely (like in a bagpipe) makes full use of the energy and heightens the volume.

Furthermore, less stiff reeds require less energy to play loudly (provided that they are still stiff enough to vibrate at all). So thinner reeds and/or reeds made from softer materials are louder in proportion to the energy put into blowing the air through them. However, stiffness also increases the maximum possible energy input.

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Blowing harder is typically not the best idea, since it suggests to use muscles in the mouth region and increased tension there - these are tiring quickly. It helps to focus on increased support originating in the diaphragm instead.

There are various ways to influence the energy contained in the breathing stream: one can try more air, faster air flow or more focused air flow (works well on woodwinds at least).

Your idea of fortissimo deserves some comments:

  • fortissimo nearly never means full power throughout. Typically one starts with that, but fades away and possibly adds a crescendo towards the end. Details depend on the piece and the conductor.
  • In an ensemble there are various additional options: just half of the instrument group may play, alternating before suffocation; it may also be possible (if much louder instruments are around you and playing in the same time) to simply drop a bar for breathing.
  • Strongly disagree with your interpretation of fortissimo. There are plenty of times that one plays loud and stays loud for 16 or 32 bars. (Beethoven and Star Wars, I'm looking at you) – Carl Witthoft Dec 9 '15 at 13:39

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