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A Breath of Fresh Air for Spring

Michel Debost | April 2013

    Why make it simple when you can make it complicated? We are all drawn to finding complicated solutions to our flute playing problems. Most flute teachers and authors have a personal set of concerns, and it is difficult to resist the magic of one’s own opinions. I speak from personal experience. We are the apostles of our own certitudes such as the method will be the cure-all; this  technique will fix your problems; or that change of embouchure position will bestow upon you the magical sound of one of our dead idols, who obviously cannot challenge our axioms or disagree.
    Once again: Why make it simple when you can make it complicated? Simple solutions do not occur by wishing them or with a finger flick on a computer. The most natural approach to conventional problems makes common sense. This is certainly true in the case with our constant obsession with air.
    The most natural way to breathe is comparable to what we do when we are not aware of it, such as when we read a bulletin board or a newspaper while waiting for the bus. We don’t raise our shoulders, jut out the chin, or raise the elbows. We just take a normal breath with a simple natural posture. When Jean-Pierre Rampal was asked if he had a breathing secret in an 1981 interview in Flute Talk, he said, “No. I just open my mouth. Do you have a breathing secret when you speak? No. You open your mouth, you breathe. When you’re talking, you just naturally breathe between phrases when you need a breath. In music, it’s the same.”
    You do not need a special posture for flute breathing. Raising the shoulders contributes to constriction in the throat and in some instances so much so, that the spoken voice is affected. A jutted chin (which also affects pitch control) can lead to a tight embou-chure and painful jaw muscles. High elbows force flutists to break the wrists unnecessarily, especially the left one.
    Likewise, the posture for breathing and playing the flute while sitting can be compared to the posture we have when reading a book in a chair. The lower part of the back rests slightly against the chair’s back, and the shoulders and elbows are relaxed. No slouching, of course. I insist on this relaxed attitude for inhaling because it is the pre-requisite for supported blowing. When we breathe naturally, the air does not go in the upper part of our chest, which everyone knows is not the optimal prelude to playing.
    There is a very simple way to test if the air is well directed on intake. Try breathing with clenched teeth. This produces a hissing sound, a poor and high-placed intake, and cold teeth. Not good.
    Now, breathe with a half-opened mouth. This produces a slurping sound that is so often heard, a better but still incomplete intake, and the mouth is cool. Better, but still imperfect.
    Finally, open your throat and feel the cooler air deep in your throat. The air intake goes down and is ready to support, and the upper chest remains uninvolved. It gives us a conscious feeling of the air reaching deep into the abdomen, a source of pleasure and of the sound’s energy.
    An open-throated breath produces the HHAAH sound, which is the sign of the best air intake. Now the abdominal muscles drop. You might have the impression that the abdominal muscles pump the air in, but they do not. Rather, the abdominal muscles create a bellows effect. When the abdominal muscles (belt) stay flat, as in chest breathing, the air has very little room to go anywhere. When the waist drops during a low (abdominal) breath, a kind of void occurs below the diaphragm. If the throat is open (as in the HHAAH sound above), a bellows effect occurs that draws air in, due to the simple action of atmospheric pressure, not by a pumping action of tummy muscles.
    A simple and logical way to feel this low air intake is to observe what we do when we yawn. Yawning is the best and most pleasant way to feel and observe the process of breathing. When we dread a stressful event, a yawn is an easy way to relieve tension. We cannot yawn with high shoulders. In yawning, the shoulders drop automatically, liberating the neck area. Our ears pop, as in a descending airplane, indicating that the air pressure is reaching balance on both sides of the ear drum, and that all the air inside our resonators (throat, sinuses, even lungs) is acoustically in contact with tone production.
    We cannot yawn through the nose (except, of course, when we make a polite effort to hide our boredom). Instead the mouth and throat are wide open. When the shoulders drop, the abdominal muscles also relax automatically, creating the bellows effect, an impression of fulfillment and an imminent readiness to blow and play, which are, after all, the actual purpose of breathing, regardless of the countless theories that prevail about such a natural act.
    Breathing is the essence of life itself, not some hypothetical (and complicated) physiological theory. For some reason, we tend to use slurp breaths and their ugly noise during the course of phrasing or when there is little time to breathe. However, the HHAAH sound, dropping the belt for breath, is the fastest, most silent, and most efficient. Once good breathing has been mastered, breaths need not be huge (unless a long phrase demands it) and actual playing, air management, and control of the airflow follow naturally.
    I can hear the objections from some of you. If we support the air from the belt and do not control its release, the lungs deflate quickly like a child’s balloon. The secret solution to this is what singers call appoggio, meaning the act of leaning or pushing. In the appoggio, the abdominal muscles support the blowing action while we refuse to allow the ribcage to collapse, as if the ribs were still pushing outward. 
    At first controlling the release of air seems complex, but it is well worth the effort to understand it. This technique will improve your intonation and dynamic control by stabilizing the airflow. It is important to develop a way to control airflow, instead of blindly blowing all the air at once, coming up short, and then worrying about running out.
    It takes more knowledge, thought, and effort to play softly in the second and third ranges than to blast the sound at all times. The Big Sound, so beloved by many contemporary flutists and flute makers, is nothing more than an easy and noisy paraphrase of what a flute sound should be: human, ethereal, tender, sometimes recalcitrant and aggressive, but always sensual and poetic.
    The method of supporting and withholding the air (appoggio) is essential for good playing. Once you have mastered it, as opposed to letting the air all out at once, your inhalations will be more efficient as well. This is especially true when playing in soft dynamics. The important matter is mostly in the blowing, even more than in the breathing.
    (Note: The words belt or abdominal, and their equivalents, do not refer to the diaphragm, which moves up and down out of the player’s control, but to the area below the navel, perceived as the sneeze point or cough point.)