As EWI-ers we are given an amazing opportunity to express ourselves. Unlike a saxophone, clarinet or flute, with EWI we have a huge (and almost infinitely expandable) palate of sounds at our disposal but, most importantly, one of the most expressive interfaces to play those sounds.
Keyboard players also have a huge range of sounds available. But just think about how difficult it is to get the same range of expression. Pedals, sliders, wheels and all sorts of other controllers are needed to get the sort of control an EWI player can get from just using their mouth and breath.
It’s for this reason that I think the “Wind” in Electronic Wind Instrument is so important.
The technical details
So how does this thing work?
We say that the saxophone mouthpiece is the most important part of the instrument, and with the EWI it’s the same. Packed inside the EWI mouthpiece is a breath sensor and a bite sensor and it’s with these that we can control the sound.
When you blow into your EWI mouthpiece two things happen. Firstly, a “start” message is sent via MIDI to the internal sound engine. This says how loud the sound should start and, like with a saxophone, the volume is determined by how hard you blow into the mouthpiece.
Following this, an ongoing message is sent to the sound engine for as long as you blow into the mouthpiece. This is used to relay any changes in volume of the sound. So, it is possible to start a note at one volume, then increase the air pressure into the EWI mouthpiece to make the sound increase in volume, just as you might with a saxophone or any other wind instrument.
In EWI language this “controller code” is called Breath Control, but it can also be translated by the EWI into other messages if needed like Volume or
It’s with the control of these two messages (start and ongoing volume) that we can be so expressive with the EWI sounds.
To get the most out of the EWI it’s so important to master the control of the mouthpiece. This is something so often overlooked by players and the end result is a very “one-dimensional” EWI style that doesn’t take full advantage of the huge dynamic range available.
I have a series of exercises I use with my EWI students to really master this breath control. They look very simple but are more difficult to do than they look.
This looks pretty similar to what you might work on to develop your saxophone, flute or clarinet tone. The same principle applies – it’s all about controlling the stream of air into the instrument.
Aim to get the biggest dynamic difference possible from barely audible, to lifting the roof off. Also, make the crescendo up and the decrescendo down as smooth as possible. This is harder than it sounds to do really well.
Coordinating your tongue with your breath is tricky to get just right. In this exercise make each note as “staccato” as possible. Really short and sharp. The trick is to make sure the attack on each note sounds the same even as you increase your volume.
One of the most common issues for EWI-ers is to get a much harsher attack as we play louder. To avoid this, keep your tongue movement small and precise even as your dynamic level changes.
The third challenge is to keep your legato tonguing in control as your dynamic changes. This time listen closely to how your notes start and keep the smallest break between the notes. It takes a lot of control to keep the attack even for each note. Try it and see how you do.
To really get the most out of this brilliant instrument, you need to master the technical skills, just like you would with a flute, clarinet or saxophone. By taking time to work on your breath control you will unlock the potential of your EWI and begin to take advantage of what I think is one of the most expressive instruments available.
Worksheet: EWI exercises sheet PDF
About the author:
Bernie Kenerson is an AKAI artist and one of the leading experts on EWI in the USA.