No More Tears – Breath as a Leit Motif

For the past year, my colleagues and I have been working with a wonderful vocal coach, Martin Lindsay. His sessions are structured in a way that got me thinking. We start with light stretching and breathing exercises, just enough to activate the abdominal muscles and diaphragm. I won’t go into detail about what these exercises entail because I want to focus on the how not the what. The successful how is that these exercises become a leit motif throughout the session; we come back to them regularly, if only briefly. This is such a wonderful way to come back to basics, especially after a difficult passage where tension may have built up. For years I have been thinking of this but using it only haphazardly in my teaching and practice. Wouldn’t it make sense for all of us to use breath awareness as a leit motif on a more regular basis? Imagine how many physical and psychological injuries may be avoided!

I am reminded of a masterclass I attended some years ago given by a high profile flute teacher. The lesson started with a focused breathing session and an intelligent discussion of the breathing process. Then as the student played, she stumbled on a technical passage, over and over again. The teacher, instead of bringing her back to the relaxed and focused state she had at the beginning, continued to berate her for not being prepared. In the end, she was in tears, and I thought, what a shame! Perhaps she didn’t practice enough, but perhaps she didn’t practice well enough? Isn’t it also our job as teachers to address the issue of how to practice? Breathing awareness (whether you do actual exercises or not) should not be just an item on our checklist to be crossed off at the beginning of our session. We have to incorporate our awareness of good breathing in the literal sense of the word: to absorb it into our bodies. This will include repetition just as the development of a difficult passage, or the development of any good habit, will include repetition. To make any practice successful, whether musical, spiritual or the latest diet, it is not enough to just pay lip service. I pledge to make breathing awareness my leit motif.

Are intervals born of air or lips? Let the leopard decide.

On forums and in masterclasses there has been a lot of discussion about which element plays a more important role in producing intervals on the flute. Aside from the change of fingering, do we change more with the lips, with the air speed, or with air volume?

Take the fingering element out of the equation and try playing through the harmonic series on low C or D. How do you produce the upper partials?

The trend these days is to say the air makes the changes. Emily Beynon makes a good example and case for air speed:

In this (long) masterclass series, Phillipe Bernold has a student start the day on a rising dominant 7 chord. Here he suggests the most important thing to start the day is to wake up the air column. There should be a natural increase of both volume and speed of air as you ascend. The lips stay neutral. This is very important for legato.

Here is why I agree that the air, either volume or speed, rather than the lips should play the major role in interval moving. Please note I do not deny that the lips must remain flexible, and that exercises for suppleness also include playing intervals and harmonics (at least some of mine do).

As humans, which is more necessary for survival, fast reflexes of our breathing apparatus, or of our facial muscles? Imagine a pre-historic flutist out strolling, searching for good material to build the perfect bone or wood flute. She is set upon by a leopard. She screams and runs. The lightning-quick reflexes of that sharp intake of breath to make sound and to get enough oxygen for the muscles to run is what saves her life. Fast-talking a leopard has been a known fail.

A Cro Magnon Bone Kingma-System, gimme gimme!!

“A Cro Magnon Bone Kingma-System, gimme gimme!!”

So it is my unscientific opinion that the muscles controlling the breathing apparatus, including the diaphragm, have much quicker reflexes, thus can make quicker adjustments than the facial muscles used in the embouchure. Of course, we all know some fast talkers, but they are a scientific law unto themselves!

Wildlife disclaimer: when stalked by a predator in real life, do not act like a prey animal and run. You will be chased. And caught. Unless they are bees.


Breath, Its Infinite Cycle

The breath cycle

For those who work well with visual imagery, have a look at this adaptation of one of my clever student’s drawings. The mid-point of the “8” represents your lungs as they are when speaking normally, just havin’ a conversation. Michel Debost calls this “mid-breath”, and describes its usefulness in his book The Simple Flute. The white arrowsheads, hopefully discernible on your screen, show the flow to and from this mid-point.

I love how the figure “8“, when turned on its side, also represents infinity.

Once you pass this point by actively filling or actively emptying the lungs, it can be helpful to realize that the next natural step is a passive one.  I find this helpful when having to take a quiet, quick breath when playing, say, a fast movement from a Bach Sonata.


Circular Breathing on the Modern Flute

This entry is cross posted on the musikFabrik blog
In 1992, while in residence at the Banff Centre, Canada, I spent eleven weeks learning to circular breathe so that I could perform Flames Must Not Encircle Sides by Robert Dick. I figured if I could do it at 1.500 meters (ca. 5000 feet) above sea level, in the dryness of the mountain air, I could do it anywhere. I won’t forget that first performance so easily! Flutist Aurèle Nicolet was also performing in that concert, so the pressure to perform well was intense.
There is one correction to make on this video: at ca. 01:04 I say “beneath the tongue” when I should have said “towards the base of the tongue”.
Michel Debost points out that Circular Breathing should be properly called Circular Blowing. I do believe he is right, but for the sake of consistency and electronic searches, I will keep the term Circular Breathing.
For more about the details and history of circular breathing I can recommend:
Michel Debost, The Simple Flute

Wannabe Yogi – and some breathing ideas

I am writing this in honor of my lapse in yoga practice. Once I confess this sin, I can go and sin no more – that is, get back into my practice. Don’t know what happened, I was ill at the end of Feb. and since then the dark, grey days of late winter have left me unmotivated for movement.

Why is yoga practice so important? I have enough to do, cuddling my boy, practicing flute, teaching and rehearsing. Why? Because I feel like a dog’s breakfast if I don’t. Or like a rusted-out car.

I have a great teacher, we’ve been working privately for the past 6 years. At first we did Ashtanga, then more mixed with Hatha and Universal Yoga. I think she deserves a separate blog entry for the future.

When I was in school, I had wonderful flute teachers. Since graduating, I joked that my Alexander Technique teacher was my best flute teacher, and she was for those three years after school. Now, I think my yoga teacher is my best flute teacher, although she says for my Ayurvedic type (Vata), flute playing is not the healthiest activity for me.

After all these years, I should know something by now about my body and how to use it to breathe and play the flute. Abdominal breathing helps – pranayama (breathing exercise) helps too. These are calming, expanding concepts. I also love Michel Debost’s ideas from The Simple Flute about expansion and retention.

Sometimes, however, I find that Uddiyana Bhanda works. That’s what all flute teachers tell you never to do! It’s the diaphragm lock – you inhale while drawing the abdomen in and expanding the ribcage. This gives you a rush of energy in your upper body. No, I don’t play like that, but if I need a kick, this is what I do. Peter Lukas Graf’s 2nd breathing exercise in Check Up for Flutists partially uses this concept – although he doesn’t use the yogic terms.

Speaking of diaphragm! I learned through Lea Pearson’s book Body Mapping for Flutists that the concept of breathing through, or using, the diaphragm is pointless. You cannot control it or feel it directly, as its movement is regulated by the abdominal muscles.

These are the muscles you need to control: these in turn are connected to the long, long muscles psoas major, (if I remember correctly), which are connected to the outer edge of the diaphragm and run all the way down to the legs! That’s why it’s important to keep excess tension out of the legs, it really can inhibit the movement of the diaphragm.
More research is needed on my part, so I’ll stop here. I thought I’d pass this on though, because it really makes sense to me anatomically.