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Your Breath is Everything

I found this quote by Jean-Pierre Rampal recently: Breathe into the flute, don’t blow in it.”

This spoke to me for a number of reasons. First, The sensation of blowing into something and breathing into something are two very different physical sensations for me. I feel the breath lower as I exhale when I am intensionally breathing into the flute, blowing creates a sensation a bit higher in my chest. Second, Sheryl Cohen’s writings on this matter (in Bel Canto: The Rampal School) go even more in depth. She talks about how our emotions are directly related to our breath. She talks about recalling a memory of love or sadness or joy, and how they all effect your breath differently, even if it is through a memory alone.

I find myself talking about breath a lot in lessons. After all: “your breath is your sound,” something said to me by Marianne Gedigian in a lesson. I put this in my recycle bin (Survival of the Flutist shoutout) -- I don't know if I fully grasped the concept at the time

The inhale:

Breathing in is just as important as the breath out. The breath in should be in the character or mood you’d like to set. I have observed many students holding the breath in at the top of the inhale, then deciding when to start the note. This could be a millisecond or a whole second, but when we do this our lungs pressurize in a different way. Even just sitting wherever you are, you can take a big breath in, hold it for even a small amount of time and exhale. Did you feel the air pressurize in your lungs? Did you let out more of a sigh than a natural exhale?

This habit seems to be the result of students trying to control the exhale or the airflow. However, it really does the opposite. The breath will pressurize and come out in an even less controlled way (from higher up in the chest). This can cause a couple of things. When you feel like you can’t control your air from you lungs (the pressure of your diaphragm), you try to control the air from a higher place: your throat, your mouth, your embouchure, and your aperture. This tension (in the throat, mouth, embouchure, and aperture) caused by this perceived lack of control of the air then detracts from the tension you can put at the base of your lungs (where the biggest support system is).

The support system:

Putting tension intentionally in your support system (air support, musculature around the bottom of your lungs) allows those other muscles to release (throat, embouchure, etc.). Feeling the direct effect of your diaphragm engaging in your mouth and your aperture is so important. Here’s what I mean: If you do a diaphragm kick (with or without your flute) and don’t feel the air immediately in your mouth and coming out of your lips in the manner in which you kicked the air out, you may be holding tension or closing your throat.

I think diaphragm kicks and jet whistles are a great way to work on this. If you can’t get out a high pitched jet whistle with a mean sounding whoosh, you may be holding tension in your throat. About three or four years ago, my teacher Marianne Gedigian suggested I practice Taffanel and Gaubert No. 4 all on diaphragm kicks. Man, is this a workout… But it really did teach me a lot about support and the direct connection your diaphragm needs to have with the manner in which the air goes into the flute. After all, all flute playing is just shaping air.

My struggle with this:

In 2012 I attended the Round Top Festival Institute and had a couple of lessons with Carol Wincenc. During a lesson she told me: “You’re using about 23% of the air that you need to be using.” I thought, there is NO WAY this is true, are you kidding me?? I am blowing so much air! This kept happening in orchestras (throughout the next few years) as well, I would get the comment that I wasn’t playing loud enough. I thought I’d literally pass out if I used even more air… Maybe my lungs are just small? I am pretty short... Of course all of this was because I was not shaping and controlling my air in the most efficient way.

I now think about controlling the air from the bottom of my lungs to be like squeezing out toothpaste from a tube from the very bottom. It is the most efficient and creates the most momentum. Squeezing the toothpaste from the top will result in less paste on your brush and it takes more effort to get it out, even if the tube of toothpaste is largely full.

Some more realizations:

If our breath is a reflection of our emotions, how insanely convenient that is that it would be the basis of our sound. Being present in your body is essential to breathing effectively. If we realize these emotions in our breath, our sound will likely be in the mood we desire.

Our prep is in our breath, not in the movement of our flute. I have struggled with movement and body control for several years. I used to move a LOT. I used to prepare notes with the end of my flute. As I see many students use this motion as a prep, I think about where we got this idea. A string player needs to have an external physical prep for their down bow and are even often told to breathe and connect these two motions. However, we need no physical motion other than our breath as a prep. Many times we conflate these two things and even wait for our flute motion prep to be fully underway before we breathe or play. I find thinking of the inhale as the prep is always more effective.

My best friend, in terms of my practice, is body awareness. Much like it is used in meditation, it allows me to be present, and focus on my breath: what was the inhale like? did I hold at the top of by breath? where is the pressure? is it in my mouth or in my lungs? can I feel the breath coming up through my throat and into my mouth? where is the air in my mouth? is this the most efficient place? — this is where I learn.

1 Comment

I love reading your posts, as I feel I am desperately trying to relearn my life embouchure and breathing. Do you/did you do any meditation exercises, or breathing exercises to make you more aware of your breath? Do you have any recommendations of where to start?

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