We are often tempted by complicated solutions to our flute questions. It is true that simple solutions do not occur just by wishing for them or with a flick of a finger, but in some obvious cases, looking to nature makes sense. This is certainly the case with our constant problem of 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 our chin, or raise our elbows. We just take a normal breath with a simple natural posture.
You do not need a special posture for flute breathing. Raising the shoulders contributes to constriction in the throat, 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 us to bend the wrists unnecesarily, especially the left one. This particular problem, in my opinion, comes from the emphasis on the French Key System, or In-Line G. For esthetic reasons mostly, it is considered more sophisticated by advanced players and high scale flute makers to disregard the advantages (both mechanical and comfortable) of the Off-Set G mechanism.
Likewise, the posture of 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 el-bows are relaxed.
I insist on this relaxed attitude for inhaling be-cause it is the prerequisite for supported breathing. 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. It gives us the feeling that it goes deep into the abdomen, which is the source of the sound’s energy.
There is a very simple way to test if the air is well directed on intake:
Breathe with clenched teeth: this produces a hissing sound, a poor and high-placed intake, and cool teeth. This is bad.
Breathe with a half-opened mouth: we get the slurp so often heard, a better but incomplete intake, and the mouth is cool. This breath is better but still imperfect.
Open your throat and feel the colder air deep in your throat: the air intake goes down and is ready to support; the upper chest remains uninvolved.
An open-throated breath produces the HHAAH sound, which is the sign of the best air intake. The abdominal muscles drop. You might have the impression that the abdominal muscles pump the air in, but they don’t. Rather they create a bellows effect.
When the belt or abdominal muscles stays 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 you do when you yawn. It 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, indicating 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 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 achieved, and your breaths need not be huge, actual playing, air management, and control of the airflow follow naturally. If we support the air properly from the belt and don’t controll release of the air, 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: the abdominal muscles support the blowing action, while we refuse to allow the ribcage to collapse, as it were, as if the ribs were still pushing outward. It can be compared to pushing to expel the result of digestion. (But of course, flute players, pure spirits as we all are, never have to think about our bowels.)
At first controlling the release of the air seems complex, but it is well worth the effort to understand. 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 all ranges than to blast the sound at all times.
The Big Sound, so beloved by 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 poetic, like the olive branch in the dove’s beak, not like a canon playing God.
The system of supporting and withholding (appoggio) the air is essential for good playing. Once you have mastered it, as opposed to letting the air all out at once, your inhales will be more efficient as well. This is true especially when playing in soft dynamics. The important matter is mostly in the blowing, more than in the breathing.
(The word ‘belt’, and its equivalents, does not refer to the diaphragm, which moves up and down out of control of the player, but to the area below the navel, perceived as the sneeze point or cough point.)