Which Wind Instrument Requres the Least Amount of Lung-Power?
October 10, 2007 4:37 PM   Subscribe

Hi, folks! I'd just like to ask, out of curiosity, which wind instruments (especially brass) require the least effort and wind. I'm thinking of taking up something, but proper breathing is not my strong suit and I'm looking for something less taxing to build it up on. Any help with this query will be most appreciated!
posted by Buddy-Rey to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Not brass, but have you considered a recorder? They can play more than just Hot Cross Buns and they have a low price entry.

posted by ian1977 at 4:48 PM on October 10, 2007

Yeah, the recorder.
posted by fire&wings at 4:54 PM on October 10, 2007

When I was in high-school our teacher would conduct "longest note" contests. A trombone always won.
posted by rhizome at 5:07 PM on October 10, 2007

The recorder is the easiest you're going to get, from a lung power point of view. If you're set on a brass instrument, the smaller ones are probably going to require a bit less lung force - avoid the tuba, trombone, and French horn, and try trumpet or maybe euphonium. Wind instruments, I think the clarinet would be easier than the flute and probably easier than oboe/bassoon. (I only play one from each family to any level of competence, so it's hard for me to compare.)

I suggest that you try doing some breathing exercises to help you get going in the right direction - the Jacobs breathing exercises[PDF] seem to be the recommended ones specifically for brass players, but I quite like these breathing exercises, aimed at singers but with general good ideas in there.
posted by penguinliz at 5:07 PM on October 10, 2007

Harmonica, melodica.
posted by ludwig_van at 5:08 PM on October 10, 2007

Response by poster: Oh sweet merciful heavens no, NOT the recorder!!! Let me revise my question to exclude all instruments I was forced to play in 6th Grade! ;-)
posted by Buddy-Rey at 5:10 PM on October 10, 2007

Speaking as a former trombone player, I can believe rhizome's anecdote. Of all the standard brass instruments I played, it seemed to provide the sweet spot between resistance and volume requirements as far as airflow was concerned. I think it's a combination of the relatively simple design and the naturally sized mouthpiece.

Note, however, I'm talking tenor trombone here. First time I played a bass trombone, I nearly passed out.
posted by jal0021 at 5:18 PM on October 10, 2007

Best answer: Generally, the brass instruments at the bass end of the spectrum take a little more physical effort, in terms of air volume, than does the trumpet, or the flugelhorn. If you lack lung capacity, and the willingness to huff the weight of a sousaphone, or a tuba, stay away from the big horns.

But it might surprise you to find that the difference in wind effort isn't as great as you might imagine, simply by looking at the relative sizes of the horns. There's a difference, and the best trumpet players can blow a single note a bit longer than the best trombonists, or vice versa, without resorting to circular breathing, but not 3 times as long, in any comparison. And frankly, you should build your wind slowly, as you build your lip, on a real horn, through regular practice. Trying to build wind, if your lips aren't coming along too, is just setting yourself up for real trouble.

My advice is to buy a horn whose sound and repertoire you really like, so that you'll want to play it. Get a good teacher. With their experience, pick the best horn you can afford, and a mouthpiece that really suits you, but be prepared to buy additional mouthpieces as your embouchure develops. Take your time, and practice as your teacher instructs. Your lip will develop, with your wind.

And mostly, have fun!
posted by paulsc at 5:26 PM on October 10, 2007

Christ no, not the clarinet. Now, it's easier than a double-reed instrument, but when I was playing regularly, any long session where i got sloppy, the backpressure would wind up coming through my nose rather than down the instrument.

I can't make a brass recommendation, but on the woodwinds, I always felt like the tenor sax split the difference between the bari, which needed hella volume, and the alto and soprano, which require very precise pressure control.

(for the record, I put a bari reed on a tenor and got an easy-to-maintain tone that was so warm and fuzzy it made "yakety sax" sound like a choirboy by comparison.)
posted by notsnot at 5:28 PM on October 10, 2007

Unless your arms are really short, start with the trombone and go from there. If you do have short arms, try the baritone. If you can stand the rare brain aneurysm you might want to switch to the trumpet, and if you have big shoulders you can play the tuba in a Mexican banda group. Because that's the coolest brass sound in the world.

People always told me the french horn was the most difficult to learn but I don't know why.
posted by billtron at 6:02 PM on October 10, 2007

One of the reasons the french horn is considered more difficult to play is due to the natural harmonics of the instrument. The notes one is typically required to play are higher harmonics than what a trumpet, for example, would have to play. The horn's lowest notes are down in tuba-range. This means there are more notes that are close together and have the same fingering in the middle range in which one would play. For example, middle C, E, and G (where the beginner starts playing) are all open (no valves down). When you get into the upper register, you can play just about every note open (and they did in earlier times, combined with hand stopping). To contrast with a trumpet, middle C and G on the 2nd line are open, but the E between is played using the 1st and 2nd valves. Might not seem like much of a difference, but it just adds to the complexity when you're starting off. It can be hard to train your ear and lips to tell the difference between the notes and be able to hit them consistently.

Disclaimer: it's been a few years since I played regularly, so hopefully I haven't butchered this info too badly. Apologies if I did. Also, horns rock.
posted by flying kumquat at 6:32 PM on October 10, 2007

Unless, you are totally stuck on a brass instrument, I'd consider a sax (alto or tenor). I haven't compared it to a trombone, but certainly it takes a lot less effort (i.e. you blow at much lower pressures) than a trumpet. Trumpet (and other brass players, as far as I know) generally have to take some care not to blow themselves out by practicing too much, but sax players don't have that problem.

Tenor sax takes a little more air than alto, but generally at lower pressures; I find it easier to play from an effort perspective.
posted by ssg at 7:15 PM on October 10, 2007

posted by Clyde Mnestra at 7:36 PM on October 10, 2007

I'm a woodwind player, but my sis and son both play brass. I'd suggest either trombone or baritone/euphonium.

(As a sax player, I'd say that it is indeed possible to blow out a lip playing too much. Some of that was probably due to the crap horn I had at the time, but I did put a hole in my lower lip one year.) I haven't played alto sax in years, but a tenor sax takes a lot less air than either a flute (low volume, high pressure) or a bari sax (high volume, low pressure).
posted by jlkr at 7:59 PM on October 10, 2007

Pocket trumpet or coronet
posted by hortense at 8:08 PM on October 10, 2007

I would advise the trombone (despite being a sax player myself). The trombone is not very heavy (although a bugle would be absurdly lighter) and the thing with brass is that not much air is required at all to make sound, except to make it LOUDER. A trombone has a comfortable enough mouthpiece that it doesn't feel like you're going to dive into your own instrument but yet not so small that it feels like you're trying to breathe through a straw. The smaller brass instruments like a trumpet generally require more lung strength (rather than capacity) because it's more difficult to create the necessary lip-flappage with a smaller mouthpiece than with a larger. On the lip-flappage scale, I'd wager french horn would be the most difficult.

Woodwinds generally require a carefully honed amount of air (which tends to be a lot, for me) to generate a good sound, else it just sounds like FFFFFFFFththththththtFfffFFFfffTHTHTH all the time, plus require you to disassemble the reed from the mouthpiece every time and maintain its dryness/moisture levels with not/in use, plus you have to replace reeds every so often. You can create a better mouth formation to keep it from sounding so breathy, but generally requires you to focus the air better (falling back on lung strength again).

You might consider the piano xP heh
posted by Quarter Pincher at 8:40 PM on October 10, 2007

soprano trombone
posted by hortense at 12:22 AM on October 11, 2007

Cornet. I have slight lung damage from being on a ventilator at birth, and moderate asthma, and I played the cornet for about 7 years in school. It was surprisingly easy when it comes to having enough lung power. You'll probably need to build up a little lung strength no matter which instrument you choose, but I found the cornet a whole lot easier than the trombone - and even the trumpet, actually.
posted by flod logic at 12:29 AM on October 11, 2007

The other issue with french horns is the mouthpiece. I played trumpet for a long time and tried a french horn for a few weeks during the summer. The mouthpiece has a very small diameter and a really deep cup. It just makes things difficult.
posted by ericales at 1:45 AM on October 11, 2007

I have played trumpet, trombone and euphonium. I really can't say that one required a significant amount of air than another. With any wind instrument (even recorder) your breathing is important. With practice, you can greatly improve. This is a learned skill, not a natural talent. Part of what a teacher will teach you is how to breathe.

For me a big factor in choosing an instrument would be considering what you want to do with it. If you're looking to get good enough to join a community band, I would go with low brass as there's usually not as many people that play them. (That's why I switched--I realized I could be 5th chair trumpet my whole life or be first chair euphonium.) But if you're looking to play to do solos, entertain family and friends, or whatever, trumpet would probably be a better option. There is an incredible amount of repertoire for solo trumpet compared to any other brass instrument.

(My personal preference is euphonium--which has a bit of a bad rap because of baritones in marching bands. A euphonium is a key player in wind ensembles and gets some of the most incredible parts. Plus it's just fun (and a teeny bit pretentious) to say!)
posted by wallaby at 4:37 AM on October 11, 2007

French horns require the tightest embouchure, and can be hard to pick up. Although it can be remarkably easy if you are transferring from the flute. What flying kumquat talked about is very true as well. A reasonable player can happily play a full scale without pressing any valves. After playing "Sleigh Ride" for 5 years, we kept ourselves entertained by playing it "open" (with no valves pressed).

But the French horn (I think the international society of horn-ness or whatever it's called now just refer to them as "horns"), is a really wonderful instrument. It is awesome.

Most instruments are going to take a lot of air. The flute, for instance, is probably not something you want to start on, as it wastes air like nobody's business and everybody ends up feeling floaty and lightheaded for the first few months of playing it.
posted by that girl at 6:02 AM on October 11, 2007

Oh man, you've asked a question that you don't want to hear the answer.

There is a measurement of the resistance to air flow in a wind instrument. It is called acoustic impedance. The lower the impedance, the easier to blow.

You can easily rank the instruments from low impedance (easy to blow) to high impedance (hard to blow). The ranking (in general) goes like this:

1. Fipple type instruments (flute, recorder, tin whistle)
2. Reed instruments (sax, clarinet, oboe)
3. Brass instruments (trumpet, tuba, trombone)

Actually, reed instruments and brass instruments are both considered high impedance instruments, but brass instruments are generally a little harder to blow.

Out of the brass instruments (what you seem to want to play), you have to look at how much air needs to be input into the horn to make it sound. As jal0021 and rhizome indicate, there is a trade off between impedance (of the brass instrument) and the amount of air needed to sound the instrument. A larger instrument (think tuba) has the benefit of lower impedance, but the downside of needing more total air to go through it. The small instrument (think trumpet) has the benefit of needing less air but the downside of being higher impedance. The sweet spot may very well be with the trombone, as several people have indicated.

(I would agree with people that say that there's not too much difference in air blowing requirements between the trumpet and the trombone for experienced musicians. I think beginners would find the trombone easier to learn on, perhaps...unless you have small lips.)

So the answer to the question that you asked is: the recorder. (Don't hate on recorders just because every middle school music teacher ruined the recorder experience for you. A recorder in the hands of true musician is very beautiful, as is a tin whistle.)

The answer to the question you meant to ask is: the trombone, probably.

The real answer is that you should find an instrument that you want to play and play it! Your lungs will adapt.

IAAMA (musical acoustician)
posted by achmorrison at 4:56 PM on October 11, 2007

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