basics breathing yoga

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.

auditions basics feedback

Are we confused now?

Here is a long, rambling flute entry based on last week’s teaching: helping “older” students who still have basic problems. Because we’re talking about professional training, “older” means mid-twenties – usually – but there are notable exceptions. However, by age 21-22, most young flutists have done their 4-year degree and are looking for a Masters or Artist Diploma program.

I remember reading Trevor Wye’s take on entrance auditions. Many aspirants are weeded out: “too many problems”. I can understand that totally. Not that teachers are lazy, exactly…. It’s just that time (and a short time – graduate programs are normally 2 years only) will be spent fixing (rather than developing, which is what teachers love to do) stuff before the music can be addressed. Sure, you can nurture the musician in parallel, all technical problems can be musically addressed, but, …but…, still, it’s just easier, and a hell of a lot more fun, to take someone who has already got the “flute”stuff (embouchure, fingers, articulation, breathing) figured out.

So how many times have I had a student in front of me, coming to me at the last minute for tomorrow’s audition/competition, but with a lifetime of either bad habits, or a baggage of confusion? Mostly it’s the latter. I am usually blessed with intelligent and diligent students. But whether their intelligence is a blessing, well, it’s a two-sided coin. They’ve taken lots of lessons, looked for answers from many teachers, read a lot, looked in front of a mirror a lot, listened to many recordings and youtube vids. Hence the confusion.

Here are some examples: I’ll focus on the basic problem of embouchure/sound production
“I was practicing fine, but then I looked in the mirror and noticed my embouchure was crooked”
“People tell me I’m not flexible enough – I have to do (fill in the blank) with the corners of my mouth, or (fill in the blank) with my jaw”
And the list goes on . “People have told” the poor student so many things, what can come out of it?
Well for students of the age group I’m talking about, who have played for 10-15 years already – I’ve devised some guidelines for embouchure/sound production:

  • Your ears are more intelligent than your eyes. Use the mirror only to make sure the hole in your lips is lined up with the hole of the flute. All else is vanity.
  • Barring a serious medical problem, there is no such thing as an inflexible lip. If your lips were inflexible, you couldn’t talk! Again, your ears are more intelligent than your eyes. Give the center of the lips room to manoeuvre (Spielraum – great, succinct word in German!).
  • What you do with the corners of your lips is sausage (another great saying in German – meaning: it just doesn’t matter). I asked William Bennett about this when I was about 15 years old and obsessed with the corner question. He put it in plain English: it doesn’t matter a damn what the corners do as long as the center can do its job!

You may have guessed by now that I know from where I speak, first hand. Yes, I have been down this path. I had the advantage though of graduating university early, at age 20. I had serious playing problems. It took 2 years to get shaped up, and then I was able to start a Masters program at the “normal” age of 22.

Why was I such a mess at age 20? Well, with all due respect for my then teacher in Pittsburgh, Mr. Goldberg, the one thing I never developed was the trust of, or reliance on, my own ears. We always started with long tones. I tried to produce my sound according to what he said and what I heard him do. Since what I did was always wrong, I developed a mistrust of my ears and relied only on what he told me, which was usually that it sounded bad. By the time I finished my 3 years with him, I couldn’t produce a reliable sound below low G.

I can’t put all the blame on him, though. What 19-20 year-old girl has the presence of mind to question someone whom the local newspaper critics say “plays like a God”? And someone who was “sans doubt” Moyse’s successor? This is why I encourage my students to give feedback. And you as a teacher have to ask hard questions like, did this exercise not work because you didn’t practice it, didn’t understand it, or because it just didn’t help you? Otherwise, everything is a waste of time.

I want to end on a positive note about Mr. Goldberg though, since I don’t consider my time with him wasted. He did his duty, I came out with a technical solidity and knowledge of the French repertoire and style.

basics practice

The Value of Time

I’d like to keep a running blog, something I can keep coming back to, on just how long it takes to do stuff. Especially practice things. We are all told – do your Moyse long tones! do your scales! etc. However, I notice that with my students and myself, under the gun and with a stack of notes to learn, basics fall way by the wayside. “I have so many notes to learn I just don’t have time for the basics!!”

Well, here is a starter:
breathing exercise = 2 min.
finger tai-chi exercise 2 min.
a movement from a Bach or Telemann Sonata (an everyday absolute for me!) = under 5 min.
Moyse “pour les tons graves” = 11 min.
my scale exercises = ca. 4 min.
my harmonic trill exercise = 3 min

I’ll get back to this as time goes on!