Imagine filling your car up with gas for a long road trip. You're off and running smoothly. Eventually your gas gauge approaches E, and you must pull over to refuel. For some unknown reason you hurriedly fill the tank only half way before continuing on your long drive.
In less than an hour you must stop again. This time you quickly pump only a couple of gallons. In mere miles you frantically pull off the road, this time adding a measly two pints of gas. At the next station it's just a few dribbles of precious fuel before plunging back into traffic. Soon your long journey is no longer any fun for you or for your engine which is now straining to run on the fumes.
My dad always warned not to let the gas gauge go below half. " Keep the tank full", he said. I took that as a breathing lesson. "The car does not run as well on the bottom of the tank", he would lecture. "It strains the engine." Likewise the brass player has to work much harder when only a small supply of air is used.
Say your long road trip is the off stage Post Horn Solo from the Mahler 3rd Symphony. After a very large intake of air you pull into traffic ever so stealthily, joining the onstage C in perfect harmony. Your good air supply is serving you very nicely, and you are in control and loving it. At the end of the very first phrase however you get a bit rattled as there is so little time to refuel. A hint of panic flashes across your mind as you know you did not get enough air for the next passage. That high A is approaching up ahead, and you only took a sip when you needed to guzzle!
This bad dream has only just begun, for the notes are coming at you faster than you can keep them filled with air. You've got another page and a half to go and already you are gasping! You look around, but there is no assistant in sight! You must learn to survive.
Arnold Jacobs maintained that brass playing is less about chops and more about wind. We don't have chop problems, we have air deficiencies. "Your embouchure is starved for air", he would say. A full intake of air must be followed by an efficient release of the air. There seemed to be nothing that couldn't be remedied by a good dose of wind and song. His first suggestion for my running-out-of-gas dilemma: "Phil, make sure all of your breaths are as full as the first one."
The trick is to learn to be comfortable taking full breaths even if they must be very fast. We will not always have the luxury of a full service rest stop. Mel Broiles used to remind us that the best players can take in the most amount of air in the least amount of time. It is about fuel and efficiency. The greater the fuel supply, the better will be the efficiency.