I never thought I would write an article about breathing. In fact, I promised myself that I would not touch the topic in public. However, I have heard such far-fetched tales about breathing lately that I am going to share my ideas on this controversial topic.
Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide
Breathing is the most natural thing we do. The Merck Manual of Medical Information reports that “breathing is usually automatic, controlled subconsciously by the respiratory center at the base of the brain. The brain and the small sensory organs in the aorta and carotid arteries sense when the oxygen levels are too low or the carbon dioxide levels are too high, and then increase the speed and depth of breathing.”
Nose and Mouth
Breathing begins as we take air in through the nose and mouth. The air passes down the pharynx (part of the neck and throat just behind the mouth and nasal cavity). The pharynx is also used as the passageway for food. The air passes through the larynx or voice box. The entrance of the voice box is covered by the epiglottis, which closes when we swallow, channeling the food to pass into the stomach rather than into the lungs.
As you face forward, the position of the trachea (wind pipe), esophagus (tube through which food passes), and spine in the neck may be remembered in alphabetical order: A for air, F for food, and S for spine. Knowing that the air passage is just under the skin in the front of the neck helps many musicians breathe more naturally and with less tension when they play.
Voice Box and Trachea
From the larynx the air travels through the trachea and branches into the lungs through the bronchi. Inside the lungs the bronchi divide many times before evolving into even smaller airways called the bronchioles. At the end of each bronchiole are dozens of air-filled cavities called the alveoli. Each lung has millions of alveoli, and each alveoli is surrounded by capillaries. The thin walls of the alveoli allow for an easy exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood of the capillaries.
The Rib Cage
The lungs and other organs in the chest are protected by a bony cage that is formed by the spine, ribs, and sternum. Each pair of ribs is joined in back at the spine’s vertebrae. In the front, the upper seven pairs of ribs are connected to the sternum by the costal cartilages. Ribs numbered 8, 9, and 10 join with the cartilage of the rib pair above, and the last two rib pairs are called “floating” ribs because they do not join in the front. Most flutists are surprised to learn that the top of the lungs is slightly above the collarbone, and the bottom of the lungs is near the floating ribs.
To explore how the ribs expand, try these body positions. First, hug yourself with both arms and breathe. Notice the expansion in your back. Now, lift your sternum (breast bone) with your shoulders back and breathe. Is there still expansion in your back? Squat with the right knee touching your chest and the left leg stretched out behind you. Notice the expansion of the lungs to the left side of your chest wall. Explore these and other positions while watching yourself breathe in a mirror.
Intercostal Muscles and Diaphragm
The intercostal muscles are between the ribs. They help to move the rib cage and assist in breathing. However, the most important breathing muscle is the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a bell-shaped sheet of muscle that separates the lungs from the abdomen. It is attached to the base of the sternum, the lower parts of the rib cage, and the spine. As the diaphragm contracts, it moves down, allowing the chest cavity’s size to increase. This added space reduces the air pressure in the chest. Air then rushes into the lungs to equalize the pressure. The diaphragm then relaxes and moves up. Then the chest cavity contracts and the air pressure in the lungs is increased.
Remember the quotation from the Merck Manual – “breathing is usually automatic, controlled subconsciously by the respiratory center at the base of the brain.” You can not voluntarily move the diaphragm. It is an involuntarily muscle.
In managing the air to play the flute, remember that the brain is your best friend. When you run uphill, the brain tells the body to go into panting mode. You do not say, “Ok body, I am going to run uphill. Please increase my breathing speed.” When you recline, the brain tells the body to go into sleep mode. It is all so simple. We inhale. We exhale. The speed of the breath is taken care of subconsciously in the magnificent human brain. So, when playing the flute, let the brain help you organize your breathing.
One of the tenets of tubist Arnold Jacob was to sing a phrase in your head the way that you want to play it and then let your brain provide the air to do so. Joseph Mariano, the legendary Eastman School of Music flute professor called this “playing on the air.”
Panting Is Your Friend
For years we have heard teachers tell students to “Open your throat.” Most students don’t have a clue what this means. What we should be saying is “Open your larynx or voice box.” You can teach this quite simply by asking students to pant. Notice that when you pant, the vocal folds are separated on the inhale and the exhale. This is the position they should be in when you play. So, abandon the words “open your throat” and now say “separate your vocal folds.”
Vocal Folds and Vibrato
Vibrato is produced as the vocal folds open and close on the exhalation of a breath. In order to explore a controlled opening and partial closing of the vocal folds, play hah, hah, hah very staccato and quietly on a third-line B. The initial H sound opens or separates the vocal folds (the top of the vibrato cycle), and the silence in the separation of the staccato (between each hah) produces a minor closing of the folds (the bottom of vibrato cycle). After students can play four staccato hahs at quarter = 60, then ask them to slur the hahs. This provides a basic vibrato.
Some of my students have been told that they were breathing incorrectly in masterclasses with other teachers. My response is: If you are breathing incorrectly, why are you still alive? This remark always produces a smile or giggle followed by a very serious look. Then I know that they are ready for a lesson about how to organize breath.
Generally the pure act of breathing is not the problem in flute playing. The problem is organizing the air so that you can reach your musical goals. When the body is at rest, breathing may slow to 15 breaths per minute, but during flute playing you may breathe only 3-5 times a minute. This very slow breathing speed is why we have trouble controlling air use first thing in the day.
Try picking up your flute without warming up and play a long pianissimo note with a tuner. The first thing you notice is that you can’t keep the needle on the tuner still. Your brain is still trying to figure out what you are going to do. Once the brain realizes you are going to play the flute now, you will be able to play that perfect long note.
Many flutists also have trouble controlling the first notes of a concert because of nerves. Don Greene, a performance coach at Juilliard, suggests that musicians run up a flight of stairs to produce a fast breathing rate and then immediately pick up their instrument to play a long note. At first, students have bouncing bows or uneven air, but once they can control the bow or air, auditioning and performing become easier in the future.
Notice that I used the word alignment rather than posture. Most of us have an incorrect idea of what correct posture is. This usually includes shoulders held back too far and a head and sternum that are raised too high. A physical therapist once told my father to stack it up, and he did. His alignment was much more accurate than if she had used the “P” word. A good message to remember is:
Balance the head on the spine (a small nod will show you the balance point), shoulders over hips, and hips over ankles.
Good alignment helps us manage the breath as well.
Some Tricks for Air Use
1. Think of the breathing cycle as out and in rather than in and out.
2. Before beginning a long musical passage, exhale all your air and wait several counts before inhaling. The breath that you take will be of much better use to you in playing a musical line.
3. Breathe more often. When we play on long breaths, the brain and the small sensory organs in the aorta and carotid arteries begin to sense an imbalance of oxygen and carbon dioxide at the end of the phrase. The brain wants us to breathe to restore this balance. This feeling of needing to breathe produces some tension in the voice box. This tension will change the quality of the sound and perhaps even the pitch quality. This is why many musicians think the sound is better when we play on frequent short breaths. Breathe more often and breathe musically.
4. Double breaths are some times useful in places like the opening of Mozart’s Flute Concerto in D, K. 314. As you count the opening measures that the piano/orchestra plays, choose the measure in which to exhale, allowing enough time to wait several counts before inhaling. Then, just before you enter, inhale again with a catch breath, which will be the second breath you take before playing that first note. This breathing trick helps us get through the four measures of tied whole notes in one breath.
5. Most flutists use just enough air to make the flute sound, but when you use a bit more, so that air is consciously exhaled and you can feel an airstream in front of you, you produce a better sound. Be sure that you always exhale air when you play. Practicing with the headjoint and a child’s pinwheel helps. I can make a wonderful sound and keep the pinwheel still, but if I make the pinwheel spin, the projection and the tone is actually better. It is the same as projecting the air to a spot at the back of a concert hall wall. This is how we get the air out and moving. The more you move the air stream out and away, the longer it will last. Always think about playing on the exhale and not on just the available air in your body. When swimming and blowing bubbles out, think about how you can bring this concept to your flute playing.
6. Play a series of off-beat eight notes. Learn to play them with a breath in between each note while opening the mouth like a guppy. This exercise also relaxes the aperture and embouchure. While maintaining the embouchure, play the off-beats with a breath after each set of eight beats, but stop the sound between the eighths with your vocal folds. This type of breathing is called “conversational air” because it is similar to the breathing you do when responding “Yes” when your name is called. We don’t stop and take in air before replying in such a situation, but speak on available air.
7. In Yoga, one-nostril breathing is taught to achieve balance and relaxation. Close one nostril with your finger tip and breathe naturally a dozen or more times. Then close the opposite nostril and breathe a dozen or more times. Then breathe regularly with both nostrils. Most people find that a more balanced breath is possible after doing this exercise.
8. I am not fond of commercial breathing bags. My main criticism is the shape that your embouchure is in when working with the bag. (The bag is held in the lips and the jaw hangs much lower than it does when playing a flute.) Holding your mouth in this position is not like the embouchure position and aperture used when playing the flute. While the larynx is the first control of the amount of air released when playing, the aperture controls the angle of the air and the final size of the air stream. I think it is better to place a twist and tie bag on the end of the headjoint and practice breathing exericses on the headjoint, where the aperture and jaw placement are more consistent with proper flute playing. Good exercises to do with the twist and tie bag include watching the bag fill when you play a long breath and watching the bag bounce evenly when you vibrate or double/triple tongue
9. Take in only the amount of air required for the specific passage or note. If you find that you have too much air, release some air through your nose and/or mouth before starting to play.
10. Some musicians only expand the abdomen when inhaling and then tighten the abdomen when playing. To learn how much tension should be in the abdominal region, sit in a chair and practice with your legs stuck straight out in front of you. Remember that breathing is an out and in cycle, so the abdomen should have some small movement.
11. Think about how you would use air if you were going to move a heavy object such as a piano. Notice that you will have the abdomen out while blowing out, which is the exact opposite of the breathing in the previous paragraph. I have found that some passages, especially ones that are super soft, are better controlled when pushing the abdomen out rather than pulling it in.
Note this list of breathing tricks in your practice diary. As you discover more solutions to efficient breathing, write them down. This will help you develop your bag of tricks so that when you perform, your breathing seems effortless and expressive.
We are Green
To sum up this discussion, we play the flute by first inhaling. The air is taken into the lungs where the brain balances the supply of oxygen and carbon dioxide. On the exhale, as the air passes through the vocal folds, the opening and semi-closing of the vocal folds creates the shape and speed of vibrato. The air then passes through the lips and is snagged by the outer edge of the embouchure hole. The tone is created. And, best yet, the beautiful sounds and music that are created are made with recycled air.