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Relaxation and Breath, A Masterclass with Renée Fleming

Polly Hansen | November 2015

    Flutists share many breathing techniques with operatic singers, so when I heard that Renée Fleming, one of the greatest sopranos of our time, was giving a masterclass at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, I jumped at the opportunity.
    Renée Fleming has been hailed “The Peoples Diva,” and is a fun-loving musical ambassador with an unassuming, warm and friendly manner. With a rich and expressive, smooth-as-silk voice, but bright as sunshine, full of power and emotion, Fleming can sing a quiet sotto voce that leaps across the stage into the back tiers of an opera house, as well as she can effortlessly belt out a forte at the top of her incredible range. During the masterclass, Fleming revealed that this style of projection, ease and power comes through relaxation and breath control – two things that apply to flute playing as well.
    Three graduate vocal students performed during the masterclass, and the first one to perform admitted she was nervous.
    “Yul Brenner always used the same routine before a performance to calm his nerves,” Fleming said. She then demonstrated the following breathing exercise to “breathe into the back.” Bend over slightly from the waist with your hands on your ribcage. Relax the shoulders. Take a big, deep breath quickly, and then let it out with a slow hiss. Think of moving the shoulders away from the ears. You will find that this exercise helps to engage the breath and ease the body quite nicely.”
    Fleming sings with great ease that starts in the body. “Make easy body movements; keep the movement anchored in the body,” she says, and further advises, “Distract the mind with body movement.” She says moving about on stage helps keep her relaxed. Flutists with stage fright might try this as well and see how it works – bow, sway, move the stand, and walk a bit while tuning. Just a little intentional movement may help settle the nerves.
    Then Fleming described this image: “Give more to the audience on a platter.” I like that image – flutists offer tone, expression and grace to the audience, dishing up a bounty of gorgeous, sumptuous, delectable sound. Who could feel nervous with an image like that?
    Fleming continued her emphasis on relaxation. “Keep the back of the tongue relaxed,” she instructed. “Say ‘Blah, blah, blah.” Fleming drops her jaw and sticks out her tongue with each syllable. This reminded me of when my flute students play with a pinched sound, I instruct them to relax the jaw and open the back of the throat as when yawning. Then the tone projects naturally with a freer, bigger sound.
    “Don’t let stress creep into your neck and shoulders,” Fleming continued. “Your body should support your tone and get out of the way at the same time.”
    To develop excellent breath support, Fleming regularly practices yoga and Pilates. She especially likes planks – where one bends forward from the waist, and then walks the hands out in front with the wrists directly under the shoulders and hips in line with the body, neither angling up like a mountain, nor sagging like a hammock. The legs and arms stay engaged. Hold this position as long as possible and feel the connection to your breath.
    “Connection and support do not mean pushing and forcing out more air,” says Fleming. She instructed one of the performers to sing while holding a plank. Unfortunately, flutists cannot do this and play, but it demonstrates nicely where projection and power come from.
    Fleming asked one of the singers to create more space in the mouth cavity. She suggested singing on an E vowel with a pencil held horizontally by the teeth. I often tell my students to make or even just imagine more space between the upper and lower teeth at the back of the jaw to establish more relaxed playing.
    To that end, Fleming also suggested rolling the shoulders while singing to keep tension out of the neck and to keep from craning the neck forward. To correct this flaw, Fleming had one performer sing while standing with his heels, back and head against the wall. Flutists can do this, too, but because holding both arms to the right compromises balance, they should place the left foot forward. It is an excellent demonstration of holding the body erect, but relaxed, with the neck in line with the shoulders. It corrects the neck craning forward position instantly, a posture seen in many students. An additional benefit of this wall exercise is that I can more readily feel the resonance of the sound in my chest and abdomen through contact with the wall. It all vibrates together sending the message – we are an extension of our instrument.
    Fleming says that if you are especially nervous the day of a performance, do Pilates. “If you engage your legs, you are less likely to engage your neck and shoulders with stress. Sing like a boxer – engage your legs!” Flutists can do that, too.
    To gauge how much tension was creeping into their singing, Fleming suggested the singers “sing” without sound and without too much breath pressure. Then when they actually sing, they should try to maintain the same level of relaxation. Flutists can try this by playing whistle tones while focusing on releasing body tension. Try to maintain as relaxed a stance and grip on the flute when playing whistle tones as on a high C.
    “How do you harness the breath?” Fleming asked. She said to hum into a straw. Lengthen the breath, then release, so you can take a breath, but don’t allow the air to come in too quickly. Make sure no muscles are working at the back of the neck. Resist the collapsing space you have made on the exhale.
    Fleming’s final advice was to be more disciplined about warming up the body. This may seem more necessary for singers whose instrument is the body, but, the body is also an extension of the flute – without our breath we have nothing. I know my sound is always excellent after a good physical workout, and not so good if I have not exercised for days. So, in the end, Fleming’s advice about warming up the body may be just as critical to flutists as it is to singers.
    If I had to use one word to sum up Fleming’s technique, it would be relax. Fleming came back to the theme of relaxation again and again throughout the class. Every performer could relax more, the throat, the jaw, the neck and shoulders, but also engage the legs, stay grounded and focused. I know when I relax, when I keep my shoulders down and tension out of my neck as I stand against a wall and blow, my playing feels and sounds big, gorgeous and full.
    So, relax. Check in with your body again and again as you practice, just as Fleming reminded the performers throughout the class to do so. If tension has crept in, let it go. When the performers in this class were reminded to do so, their singing improved immeasurably. When flutists remind ourselves to do the same, our flute playing will improve, too.      

Photo courtesy of Decca/Andrew Eccles