Question: How do I improve my breath capacity and control?
Answer: One of the most wonderful aspects about playing the flute is that it involves the breath. Feeling the air pass through the body freely can feel exhilarating and sound effortless and resonant. Air has so much flexibility that flutists can change colors, octaves and expressions just by changing the temperature, shape, or speed of their air. However, unless you know how to circular breathe, there are limits. The inhale and exhale can only be as full and last only as long as your awareness and physical capacities allow.
In order to improve breath capacity and management of the air supply when playing the flute, use terminology that clarifies the process of breathing well, along with various kinds of exercises to stretch and strengthen your physical and mental abilities.
One of the best things about teaching flute at St. Olaf College is the opportunity to be surrounded by so many singers. It is amazing how many similarities exist between the mechanisms needed for singing and for flute playing. For this reason, I recently collaborated with a voice faculty colleague in a shared flute and voice studio class. The flute students received instruction from the voice faculty and voice students had lessons with me. While both parties greatly benefited from the exchange, I felt most enlightened by the vocabulary that the vocal students used when talking about breath.
This included expansion of the breath (allowing the back to expand with regard to support), and initiating the breath from the onset (a term used to represent the lowest abdominal muscles engaged, for example, when enunciating a series of z’s, as in zzz). By beginning to inhale from the onset, flutists can be assured that they are breathing to fill their fullest and deepest lung capacity. By expanding the breath in the back – down and away – while they exhale, especially through intervals, ascending or descending passages, and dynamic changes, they can stay connected to a resonant and well-supported sound. This terminology clarifies the idea of support in a way that can be immediately effective.
There are several exercises and activities that flutists already use that engage the breathing muscles in a similar way. Among them is another singer-inspired breathing activity I have used with students. It involves sitting backwards on an orchestra-type chair. Straddle the back of the seat with the legs and lean the chest against the seat back. If you have ever breathed too shallowly, or high in the chest, sitting in this way will help familiarize you with the expansion that occurs by allowing the back to fill with air when breathing low. A couple of variations on this type of activity can be done by resting the chest on a yoga ball, or simply leaning over and resting it on the thighs.
Another exercise to help with expansion while playing involves the use of a stretchy band or a belt. Loosely wrap the band or belt around the torso at either the belly button level or at the base of the ribs. Inhale, and the band should feel snug. In order to keep the band from falling too quickly during the exhale, try to keep expanding the ribs. The point is to delay the full collapse of the ribs for as long as possible. While eventually the ribs will collapse as the exhale nears its end, this exercise can help strengthen the ability to prolong the breath.
A straightforward exercise for increasing capacity and control of the breath came to me while a student. During my studies abroad in Italy, my teacher Marzio Conti instructed me to clock how long I could sustain an A in the second octave while keeping it in tune. I think the first time I tried, my exhale was about 12 seconds long. After making this a regular part of my practice, I began to reach higher numbers – 15, 20, 25, even 30 seconds. Not only did this exercise boost my confidence, but it also gave me a better understanding of how my body worked to pace the air. The long A exercise also helps stretch mental abilities. It shows how to go without oxygen for longer periods and to understand how to better pace the exhale.
I discovered another breathing exercise while studying with Tara Helen O’Connor in New York. At that time, I was recovering from an injury, so Tara had me start again with breathing. We used an exercise she learned from Robert Dick.
1. Breathe in slowly (creating resistance, as if sucking through a straw) for 8 counts, then exhale to empty for 8 counts.
2. Breathe in slowly for 7 counts, then exhale to empty for 8 counts.
3. Breathe in slowly for 6 counts, then exhale to empty for 8 counts, and so on, decreasing the inhale until you reach a half-count inhale, followed by an exhale to empty for 8 counts.
Similar to the held A, this exercise can help flutists understand how to manage the air supply, regardless of how slowly or quickly they may need to inhale.
Another effective strategy for improving breath control can be practiced on any legato series of phrases in your music. Take a full breath, empty half, and then play the first phrase with the remaining half breath. Take another full breath, empty half, and then try playing the first and second phrases with the remaining half breath. Continue this way until you can play the whole group of phrases (for example four) with half a breath. Then do the reverse: take a full breath, then start playing by using only the first half of the breath to complete the first phrase. At the end of the first phrase, simply remove the flute and continue exhaling the remaining air. Work through the series of phrases until you are able to play them all on just the first half breath. When you have done this, you will be mentally assured that you can play a whole series of phrases with a full breath and will also have increased your understanding and awareness of how to better maneuver and manage air in general. You will understand what full feels like in your body, what half a breath feels like, and what almost empty and empty feel like. Understanding this is key to breath control.
As you learn to develop a deep awareness of the mechanics of breathing and how the musculature of the ribs and abdominals work in your body, you will begin to approach mastery over your breathing capacity. As with many things in life, improving breathing capability is possible through an open mind, a little patience, and dedicated work.
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