Sunday, January 22, 2012

Teaching Breathing Easily

Question: Dear Jen, I've started some new intermediate flute students this term, and several of them have breathing problems. I haven't had any extraordinary breathing problems myself over the years, so I'm not sure of the best remedies that will give quick and lasting results.
Can you give me some straightforward breathing/teaching techniques?

Dear Flute Teacher,

There are a few "tricks" to breathing that I find are readily teachable, and easy for the student to instantly grasp.

1. Firstly, of course, overall body posture is all important as are the equal balance of the weight on the two feet.
There are a couple of excellent points made by Fiona Wilkinson in her book "The Physical Flute" about keeping the shoulders low, while gently lengthening between hips and shoulders, and then, again keeping shoulders low and relaxed, lengthening the distance between the shoulders and ears.
Make sure your feet are shoulder-width apart, and that your knees are flexible (not locked) and you are not arching the small of your back to start.
Then the rest of the basic posture points are summarized in this diagram.

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2. Along with the idea of torso lengthening, there is the all important raising of the sternum by 1/2 an inch. This is a position of the chest and ribcage that spontaneously makes breathing easier, and is covered in Roger Mather's book "The Art of Playing the Flute (pdf)".
These are the instructions that work for both singers and flute players:

If you raise your sternum (the bone at the solar plexis) approximately 1/2 an inch upward, breathing suddenly becomes effortless and the tone quality becomes more resonant.
It places your stomach and rib cage in a relationship to operate smoothly and effortlessly.

3. Another quick teaching pointer about effortless breathing came from William Bennett who, in an interview, said he learned from the great singer Janet Baker.

There is a triangle of nerve endings at the back of your throat, which, if you feel the temperature of the "cool air" when you breathe in, will spontaneously lower the diaphragm.

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This is a topic that I originally covered way back in 2005 on my breathing for flutists page: (however, the Bennett quote is no longer on his webpage, unfortunately.)

4. Fourthy, the quick and intelligent use of the Psoas muscles that join the top of the leg bones into the pelvic girdle, is all important to what flute teachers have long called "support" of the breath.

Your blowing muscles are connected by this large pair of very powerful pelvic muscles, from the bottom of the diaphragm, to the tops of your leg bones. Have a look at an anatomy diagram of the Psoas in red below.

The Psoas run diagonally from the top of each thigh-bone, buried deeply within the pelvis, (where you spend your life being unaware of them), and if you 'push down against the floor with your feet' (such as when you go from sitting to standing or vice versa) they give added "ooomph" to the breathing aparatus. (Singers are taught about this anatomy also, in choir warmups when you sing a held tone, and then go from sitting to standing, while singing. You will hear the added "ooomph" in the vocal quality.).
Consciously pressing down, very gently, with the arch of your feet, allows the flute player to exhale into the flute with a controlled air speed, and with almost no effort needed. It is especially useful for the highest register.

The bottom of the diaphragm is connected to the Psoas muscles, and without having to stiffen any other muscles, allows the flutist to exhale steadily and very easily, and make the breath last longer.

Note: The two feet are equal in their balance and the pressure applied would be very light.(Feet should not be crossed at the ankles, or leaning more on one foot or the other, or feet too close together.)

The flutist's stance of "feet shoulder-width apart" is key to the success of this, and then all you have to do is "push gently down against the floor using the arch in the center of both feet when you blow out".

To inhale, feel cool air on the triangle on the back of the throat, and then to exhale again, gently push down against the feet. Both these techniques instantly do the work for you to create the ease in the breathing apparatus.

The diaphragm's ability to sustain a constant air pressure is hugely improved (without any other muscles being used) as long as the flutist is standing with an open and balanced set of gently active Psoas muscles. After several weeks practice, these muscles can also be used while sitting. (Push down against the seat of the chair very lightly.)

Click on jpegs to enlarge. Use back button to return here.

5. Fifthly, the amount of air and the air pressure are most easily related to singing.

Singing and playing allows the flutist to use the minimal amount of air-moving muscular effort to creat a songful, musical phrase.

Singing is the closest thing to flute playing; same air, same phrasing, same naturalness.
So, as shown in Robert Dick's "Tone Development through Extended technique", it is easy to sing and play first, then to switch to only playing, and use the exact same motion of air.
The embouchure is the "nozzle" instead of the vocal cords, to increase air speed and focus on the tone.

A simple way to use singing-while-playing is during longtones where you play the original longtone the first time, sing any low mezzo-piano humming pitch while you play it the second time, and then play it plainly the third time and listen to the increased resonance and improved tone quality. I hope to demonstrate this in the future. (Let me know if you need an mp3 or a written exercise sheet.)

In summary, I find that with students of any age, that these five teaching methods above represent the fastest way to learn to control air for easy breath use for flute playing.

They avoid "paralysis by analysis" and, providing the flute student doesn't "try too hard" (ie: sing until they hurt their throat, or push their feet into the floor using too many unecessary muscles, or "overdoing" the instructions in any forceful way)
then the average student picks up on these pointers immediately and gets instant results.

Mind you, sometimes in individual flute students, breathing problems are the result of practicing in bad habits such as:

- going too long without a breath (see sample of Andersen Etude for creating better breathing during learning)
- emptying the lungs too far (which causes gasping)
- trying to speed up the air by tensing the throat, or closing it down
- mistakenly tensing the abdomen during inhale (backward breathing)
- raising the shoulders high
- trying to play with too little air speed or air pressure.

These are separate topics which I could cover in another post if there are lots of interested readers.
Let me know.
Use the comment button below. Thanks!

Best, Jen
Comments (4)
Anonymous John Devitt said...

Thanks for this very thorough and helpful article Jen!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012 2:42:00 AM

Anonymous Deborah said...

Thanks, Jen: This is very useful.

Saturday, January 28, 2012 1:08:00 PM

Blogger Liz said...

Thank you for clarifying some misconceptions I had. This was very useful!

Thursday, February 09, 2012 6:35:00 AM

Blogger MATTHEW TAYLOR said...

Thanks Jen an excellent article. I especially liked Wibbs suggestions for inhaling and the feeling in your throat.

I find that to get a good open throat I breath slowly in through my nose before playing feeling how the air feels going down my throat. Then when I play and breathe in through my mouth I try and feel the same sensation in my throat, nice and open like when I breathe through my nose.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012 12:59:00 AM


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