When it comes to playing a wind instrument such as the flute, the way we breathe and blow is really the cornerstone of our performance.
We’re all told to use this concept of ‘breath support’ when playing.
Despite being a critical playing concept, the actual muscle mechanics of breathing and breath support during playing is poorly understood by both players and teachers alike. Because of this we all have a different definition of what breath support means. And that’s lead to so many different methods being taught to achieve it.
Research measuring which muscles professional players use to achieve support confirms this variability. So, how can we even begin to learn this important concept? Let’s take a step back and understand some breathing basics.
What is Meant by ‘Breath Support?’
For now let’s define ‘breath support’ as the physiological processes used to control sound production. Specifically, it’s how we control our respiratory muscles (the muscles we use to breath in and out) to regulate air flow, air speed (how much and how fast) and pressure.
What Are The Benefits of Playing With Breath Support?
There are so many! Support gives players much better control over
- endurance (you can play for longer periods)
- fuller tone quality and
- using expressive effects such as vibrato.
Playing with ‘support’ is associated with high quality playing. It helps us to move past the point of simply blowing into the flute and making a sound. The take home message – if you want to be a great player, you need to harness this technique.
How Does Breathing Work?
The inspiratory muscles (the ones that are activated when you breathe in) are primarily the external intercostals (the muscles between the ribs) and the diaphragm, which sits under the chest cavity. The diaphragm dome pulls down, increasing the volume of the chest cavity and the ribs are expanded up.
The expiratory muscles (that help you breathe out) are the internal intercostals and the abdominals. During quiet breathing we rely mostly on the lungs innate elastic recoil (the lungs stretchiness) to ‘bounce back’ to their original state, pushing the air in our lungs out.
When we breathe out normally there is always some ‘leftover’ air inside our lungs. We don’t really empty them. During flute playing, we need to extend the duration and power of exhalation and increase the volume of our inhalation over and above (our normal breathing requirements.
Which Muscles Do We Use For Breath Support While Playing Flute?
To identify which muscles coordinate during playing to provide support, a small group of professional flute players were asked to play a series of notes – once ‘with (their perceived idea of) support’, and once ‘without support.’ During their playing, precise measurements of the respiratory muscles were taken.
In the absence of ‘support’, there was strong activation of the lateral abdominals in all subjects at the end of musical phrases (when lung volume is lowest and expiratory muscles must develop their greatest pressures). Basically this means you run out of air, and begin forcing it out and using that ‘leftover air’ I spoke about earlier. The sound gets strangled, and you start to panic as you realise you can’t play to the end of the phrase.
Whilst there was considerable variability between the players, some common muscle groups were observed and a general definition of breath support could be made. Flute breath support is a mechanism to avoid the active, conscious recruitment of the expiratory muscles, by engaging the inspiratory muscles. This keeps the rib cage expanded, lung volumes higher and the expiratory muscles relatively relaxed and not actively ‘pushing’ out air.
How to Practice Breath Support
When we play we essentially need to ‘balance’ these two groups of muscles. While it seems counter intuitive, if we don’t engage the inspiratory muscles as we are playing, our air kind of shoots out without any resistance to build up enough pressure. So what’s the best way to practice?
- Good posture. Standing up straight, neck and back lengthened, shoulders down and chest up, feet planted firmly on the ground and approximately hip distance apart. Your rib cage needs to be free to fully expand. Yoga is a great way to achieve this
- Breathing exercises
- Lie on your back and put a book or your flute case on your stomach. Breath out and then breath in deeply again, visualising filling your lungs from the bottom-up. Watch how your stomach (and your book) rises and rib cage expands when breathing in. Your shoulders shouldn’t tense up. Hold this ‘full’ position for a few seconds and then while breathing out slowly, try to keep the book up in the air for as long as you can.
- We need to practice inhalation and exhalation for two different flute playing scenarios. A deep, leisurely breath at the beginning of pieces or a quick, snatched breath between phrases as you play. To gradually increase your overall lung capacity for that leisurely breath, try breathing in for an increasing number of counts and then out over an increasing number of counts. (Remember to expand your rib cage out and fill those lungs from the bottom.)For example breathe in for 4, hold your breath for 4, and then breathe out for 4. Then increase the counts. For that snatched breath, try breathing in for shorter and shorter periods, and breathing out for the same length. For example: In for 8 out for 8, then in for 6 out for 8, then in for 4 out for 8, then in for 2 out for 8, then in for 1 out for 8.
I. Cossette et al. Respiratory Physiology & Neurobiology 160 (2008) 187–195
I. Cossette et al. Respiration Physiology 121 (2000) 33 – 44