Lessons from High Altitude for Wind Instrumentalists
Updated: Oct 11, 2022
Playing wind instruments under extreme circumstances reveals everyday tips for performing under normal conditions.
Throughout my professional career, I have had many opportunities to consider the effects of high altitude on wind instrumentalist. My first college teaching position was at the University of Wyoming in Laramie at 7,200 feet. I served as the Principal Clarinet of the Central City Opera at 8,500 feet and clarinet faculty at Rocky Ridge Music Center at 9,000 feet. As a student, I received some of my most important music experiences in several summers at the Aspen Music Festival (7,908 feet) and played gigs on the top of Aspen Mountain at 11,212 feet. All of this felt normal because I usually lived at 5,000-9,500 feet.
I didn’t start thinking seriously about high altitude and conditioning as a wind musician until I moved to Lawrence, Kansas in 2007 to start my position at the University of Kansas. I continued working with my orchestras in Central City and Boulder, Colorado; driving out from 866 feet to sometimes almost two miles higher in a day. Suddenly there was a need for an adjustment in equipment and my conditioning. I developed a series of techniques to be able to play close to as well as my colleagues that were still living at these high altitudes. (You can read some of these ideas in my article for The Clarinet Journal www.stephaniezelnick.com/post/the-high-altitude-clarinetist). I realized that playing wind instruments is much more athletic than we are given credit for, especially in terms of air support.
Currently working on a book that combines conditioning and air support with clarinet pedagogy, I am exploring how can we use lessons from extreme conditions, such as high altitude, to make our performances easier in normal settings. By employing mental and physical techniques from mountaineering and endurance sports in our practicing, we can be more prepared and relaxed for auditions and concerts.
*I am not a health practitioner and please check with someone who is before you attempt any new or potentially risky techniques or activities. Dr. Jacobson and I were playing on very old instruments, not our good clarinets, so never take your good horns into any adverse conditions. We also both have extensive mountaineering experience. We climbed this mountain so that you don't have to, please don't try this at home!*
To the goal of studying the effects of altitude on air support, I recently climbed Mt. Audubon (13,223 feet) and Mt. Bierstadt (14,065) in Colorado with my colleague Dr. Lauren Jacobson from the University of Northern Colorado, and played clarinet duets on the summit. Our idea was to find out more about breathing at extreme altitude, conditioning, and lessons from playing in adverse conditions.
There are several immediate lessons that can be gleaned from this experience:
1. Playing at high altitude shows us the importance of proper air support on all aspects of performing, not just tone production.
The real moral of the story was that it feels terrible to play at such an altitude and in extreme weather circumstances! It was much harder to go from playing at the 10,300-foot trailhead to 13,223 feet than it was to go from Kansas to Colorado.
Dr. Jacobson described her experience:
The most significant and surprising difference, however, was in the embouchure muscles themselves. Particularly above 13,000 feet I struggled to seal the corners and to hold a solid embouchure in general, resulting in significant air leaking that had an adverse effect on tone quality. The sensation did not feel like normal muscle fatigue experienced due to playing for a long time. We were playing in short bursts of under one minute, which would normally be well within the amount of time I could sustain an embouchure at approximately 5,000 feet. I am wondering if oxygen deprivation causes muscles to be weaker at altitude.
What was most surprising was the effect of the lack of oxygen on proper finger movement, articulation, and embouchure formation. At normal elevations it is still important to have a strong foundation with air support to make sure that not just sound production, but all aspects of our playing are optimal. Even in cases of moderate hypoxia, the brain will chose survival over the clarinet. This happens to a lesser degree in stressful performance situations when we take shallower breaths. By making sure that we are taking low and relaxed breaths, we can play our best in all circumstances.
An interesting article from the American Lung Association, states, “one of the first techniques taught to new wind players is to learn to breathe from your diaphragm, instead of from your shoulders and neck, which is the way many people breathe normally.” Even though this is one of our first lessons as wind players, tension causes us to take shallow breaths and tense our shoulders and necks.
What’s remarkable about breathing at higher elevations is that the body will attempt to circumvent this tension, taking maximum advantage of the lungs whenever possible in a very organic manner. Whether mountaineering or engaging in other cardiovascular activities, we breathe without the artifice or tension of playing a wind instrument. Imagery is a useful technique for teaching wind players to transcend the bodily stress often associated with classical music performance. An effective image for teaching wind players is to have them take a breath as if they are climbing a mountain or about to swim underwater. Or to have the student go outside and walk up a steep incline or staircase if this is possible for them. When the student returns to the instrument, they are invariably more efficient and less tense when breathing.
2. Engaging in cardiovascular and anaerobic activity, if possible, can help your performing.
Conditioning, as best as we can, matters. Ideally, having a cardiovascular exercise routine outside of our musical practice will also help to make us stronger musicians. Resistance training and other physical and mental health modalities could also have important benefits.
I have listed several interesting resources below but do not endorse a particular method or routine. Please check with your doctor before starting a new activity.
3. Creating “adversity” in your practicing and preparation can make you a more resilient performer.
Although I don’t advocate that anyone climb a mountain to become a better clarinetist, it sure felt easy to get back home and play clarinet after being at 14,000 feet. When I won my position at the University of Kansas, I was fresh off of a season of playing clarinet at high altitude and climbing. What could have been a stressful situation, an early morning recital and interview with a lot riding on it, felt relatively easy because I had been playing in more difficult circumstances, which was in this case, higher elevations. So, when preparing for an important concert, try to make your practicing harder than the audition or performance. Play your repertoire from memory or for someone who makes you nervous. Practice early in the morning and late at night sometimes. Allow yourself to occasionally practice with distractions or while walking around the room (be careful). Don’t play often on bad reeds but make sure that you know how to make them work if you need to. If you are worried about playing that concerto in front of an audience once, then play it two times for your teacher. Sometimes we need to create friction in our practicing lives so that our performing feels easier.
4. We need to work to build mental fortitude and resilience.
Music takes an incredible amount of fortitude, much like climbing a mountain. I’m always amazed by the strength of my students. At young musicians, we practice for an entire week, bring in music to lessons, and then our teachers essentially tell us how we could do it all differently! It’s an incredible journey of perseverance and mental strength from beginning to end.
Musicians who perform full time for a living demonstrate extreme resilience under an incredible amount of pressure. It's much like professional athletics, only a music career can span over 50 years. Developing a positive mindset combined with mental toughness will give a student a great advantage in the field.
5. The mountains remind us to always keep it in perspective.
When you are on top of a mountain, all the big things look so small because of your perspective. In our musical careers, everything tends to feel so big and out of proportion. Because performing is important to us, it tends to loom larger than it is and we tend to lose perspective. We aren’t air traffic controllers or surgeons after all. Yes, what we do is very important, but in the scheme of things, making a mistake or having a less than ideal performance isn’t as significant as we think.
In fact, keeping it in perspective is just one of the issues affecting musician's mental health right now:
We should do everything that we can to create ideal performances but be gentle on ourselves when things don’t go according to plan. On a mountain, there are a lot of things that are out of our control and we just try to do what we can in the moment after great preparation. It's the same thing, with our musical careers: we should strive for the peak every time and make every performance our best. But we should also enjoy the climbs and the valleys, because they are just as important as the mountaintops.