Question: I have difficulty playing extended phrases. I know I shouldn’t breathe everywhere, but my nerves often get the best of me. How can I improve my breath control?
Answer: This is a challenging issue for every flutist. While it is essential to make long tones a staple of your practice routine, there are additional steps that will improve your breath control. Daily work on vibrato and harmonics exercises will also help you become efficient in tone production. A high maintenance tone uses too much air too quickly.
First, check your posture and make sure your shoulders and neck are relaxed. Take several breaths where you are aware of the inhale and the exhale. Conscious breathing is a powerful way to calm the mind and body. Oxygen is restorative and helps you to be more alert and energetic.
Put breath marks in your music so you know what you are working towards. If you have questions about where to breathe, ask your teacher or listen to CD performances by musical performers. Learning to control breathing is about consistency, so try to breathe in the same places each time you play the music. The teacher’s section of Flute 101: Mastering the Basics by Louke & George shares these breathing points based on the teachings of William Kincaid:
• At the end of a phrase (may be 2, 3, 4, 6, or 8 bars)
• In a rest
• After a long note or a tie
• After 1 (as in 2,3,4,1 phrasing grouplet)
• Between repeated notes or syncopated figures
• Where the composer or conductor indicates
When playing, breathing has a direct relationship to the tempo. Avoid the tendency to freeze your breathing in performance. Strive to breathe in tempo to the pulse of the music and the flow of the phrase.
If there is a particular passage where you consistently run out of breath, think about whether you are playing too loudly. Try it again and decrease the volume by one dynamic. You may also be moving around too much. Check your posture and realign yourself.
If you are still having problems, set the metronome at a slightly slower tempo than marked. Select one note per bar and hold it for every beat of that measure. Go through the entire phrase by playing only the single note you selected for each bar. When the number of notes is greatly reduced, you have time to concentrate on air flow. There are no distractions as it is just the one note and your breath. When you arrive at the last note of the phrase, play it for as long as you can. Repeat this exercise, but this time play two notes per bar. Repeat this process until you are playing all of the notes. It is effective to practice this exercise daily until the performance.
Another useful exercise is to set the metronome to twice the indicated tempo. Play the entire passage over and over again, each time decreasing the metronome by one notch until you reach performance speed. This will teach you to use air efficiently. These exercises develop consistency and will boost your confidence.
Of course, it is easier to be consistent in the practice room. Playing for teachers and colleagues adds another level of challenge. I knew a brass player who prepared for auditions and significant performances by running up and down a flight of stairs several times and then grabbing his horn and playing the passage. This simulated the shortness of breath that performers often experience when playing with nerves. Remember the audience wants you to do well, so enjoy the performance and the preparation.