When we hold our breath, we are actually doing something called apnea. Like many scientific and medical terms, this word comes from Greek: a(no)-pnea(air). The root, pneu, refers to air and by extension to lungs, for example, pneumonia.
Sleep apnea is a serious health problem for infants and older people. For a number of reasons, external air intake is suspended for a few seconds. When this happens for any length of time, apnea can have dangerous consequences.
Voluntary apnea, on the other hand, is not hazardous to the health of wind players. If it were, Flute Talk would lose a lot of readers. The problem for us is compounded by the fact that we must combine voluntary apnea with control of the amount and pressure of the moving air that creates sound. Other woodwind players have a mouthpiece to blow against, which helps control the release of the air and creates backpressure. Flutists have to control the release of the air by letting it out a little at a time, not letting it go all at once; this is voluntary apnea.
The flute, which seems so easy to some people, actually requires more air than most wind instruments because about half of the air blown across the embouchure hole actually escapes, while the rest of it creates a turbulence upon hitting the strike edge. This turbulence is the source of the flute sound. There is practically no air traveling within the tube.
Let us deal with the two sides of the same coin: breathing (inhalation) and blowing (exhalation), although no one can claim to have the final word on these eternal topics. My approach is to be as natural and simple as possible.
There are many theories, philosophical, physiological, and even downright weird on the subject. Assume you are standing in front of a bulletin board, or waiting for the bus, or sitting reading a book. When you breathe, do you raise your shoulders? Do you jut out your chin? Do you pull in your tummy (if no one is looking)? Of course not. Breathing for the flute should be similar.
Actually, the best example of good breathing is a very pleasant one. The next time you yawn (not now, please) observe what happens. The jaw drops, and the throat opens. Cooled by the incoming air, your ears pop indicating a balance of pressure in your eardrums. The shoulders stay low, and the tummy relaxes as you have an impression of fulfillment. It feels so good.
I would say a cold throat is the most important indication of a good breath, because it means that the throat is not constricted – nothing interferes with the air as it entered the lungs.
Why is an open throat so important? We will see later its effect on blowing. Breathing, especially for a long apnea, is a bellows effect. The air that comes in does not, in spite of our perception, inflate the lungs. It is the movements of the rib cage and abdominal wall that create a vacuum. Then, providing there is no obstacle, such as a restricted throat, ambient atmospheric pressure is drawn in by that vacuum. When the atmospheric pressure is low, as in high altitudes, we have more trouble breathing, due to less oxygen content for the same air volume.
Assuming you have taken a proper breath, apnea is only the first step of playing; it is how you release the air that actually produces sound. Holding the breath is not enough. There must be air flow to play. However, the full chest cavity is supported mostly by the abdominal muscles and, to a lesser extent, the chest muscles. If there were no means to release air a little at a time, we would empty like a carnival balloon. We have to find ways to support and control the air flow at the same time. It’s not impossible.
I adapted a singer’s technique called appogio to control the air release. The abdominal support is tempered, almost countered by the action of the muscles between the ribs (intercostal muscles) and the lower part of the chest, that resist the collapse of the rib cage. Thanks to this technique, there is no need to attempt to modulate the flow of air by restricting the opening of the throat or by modifying the lip position.
Tenuto, Sostenuto, Ritenuto
Because appogio is specifically vocal (singers do not have to contend with an instrument or an embouchure), I have worked out a flute technique I call T.S.R (Tenuto, Sostenuto, Ritenuto). Tenuto implies a steady embouchure provided by the stability of the lip plate on the chin through the left arm. Sostenuto is the abdominal support, and Ritenuto is the prevention of the chest’s collapse, as in appogio.
Air management is a way to use T.S.R. to save air, especially at the start of an apnea. With a full chest of air, it is easy to blow out too much air. Therefore, our job is to not blow, to save air at the start of a long phrase, instead of spending a lot of air at first and ending up short later. We all know that feeling.
How Much Air?
If you don’t need a huge breath, however, just don’t take one. A strong attack, especially in the flute’s lower range is more focused on a medium-sized breath. A full chest excessively blown often explodes. A delicate attack in the high register is hard to control on a full tank of air. The problem is that sometimes we don’t have the luxury of breathing any old place.
Young players are often concerned about their breathing, thinking they don’t have enough air. I try to tell them that the culprit is probably their blowing, not their breathing. I used to ask beginners to blow all their air out and then play right away, even for a second. The short result was usually well supported and focused, albeit uncomfortable. We would then focus on the blowing, not the breathing. It’s the old sophism: What came first? The egg or the chicken? Blowing or breathing?