Jen Cluff ~ Breathing for Flutists
Canadian Flutist and Teacher
Easier Flute Breathing:
2005 General Questions
about breathing easily and quietly
I can sustain most notes for at
most eight seconds only. I seem to have to blow a lot of air to produce
sound, hence the air finishes off soon. Is there any way to determine if
I have a low lung volume?
Most commonly, beginning flute
students show signs of being typical 'shallow' breathers. These folk
simply need to learn how to fill the BOTTOM of their lungs up first,
*before* filling up the middle and top of the lungs.
The bottom of the lungs is "pear-shaped" and much larger in volume than the tops of the lungs, which are small, and high up under the collar bones. Learn to fill and use the bottom of the lungs, pushing the gut viscera out of the way as the large, lower lobes expand. The top of the lungs rarely even need to be referenced.
Breathing deeply for beginners:
What you do is to fill up the bottom 1/3rd of the lungs on a long, slow inhale. Feel your tummy area expand fully (as all the viscera get pushed outward to make room for the large, pear-shaped base of the lungs as they expand. Exhale slowly, and relax.
Next: Fill up the bottom 1/3rd of your lungs, and then consciously fill the middle third of the lungs. Feel your tummy and ribs expand fully outward in a 360 degree circle. Exhale slowly, and relax (rest longer if getting dizzy.)
Next: Fill up each third of the lungs in sequence; bottom 1/3rd, middle and top 1/3rd of the lungs, slowly filling up with air. It may help, if you are tense and out-of-shape, to slowly raise and open your arms in a "Waving, hello! I'm over here!!" gesture, on either side of your head as you slowly inhale:
\ o /
The above is a picture of your head with your arms up and opening your chest area. You can raise your arms very slowly as you inhale, and lower them as you exhale to stretch out the breathing apparatus.
Always proceed slowly and surely and be sure to fully exhale and relax comfortably before proceding (the rush of oxygen is refreshing but may take getting used to.)
Additionallly, you will zoom ahead in breath control if you practice the exercise called: "Blow from the belt." Way back in the old days, flute teachers would often effet this exercise by getting students to lie down on the floor with a flute case (or other weight) on their stomachs, and ask them to breathe in, making the book or flute case rise first (stomach fills with air before chest does) and then when exhaling, leaving the stomach extended as much as possible to create control over teh exhale.
But the "blowing from the belt trick" is much easier:
Pretend there's a belt done up two
notches too loose around your waist. When you breath in expand the
floating ribs (bottom three ribs) in a 360 degree circle, the stomach
and the back, in order to make the imaginary belt tight around your
stomach. When you then blow the air evenly out, as though blowing the
flute (you can use your flute embouchure) make a point of keeping the
stomach/back-lower ribs expanded outward as if you're trying to keep the
belt taut around your waist. (try with a real belt to see if you're
doing it right.) This really works!!! It allows the torso muscles to
control the speed at which the air is leaving the body through a light
muscular involvement of all the abdominal and intercostal muscles.
More questions: Why would my nose leak air 'unconsiously'?
When air leaks through the nose it
is usually a "survival technique" of the human body that's being asked
to do something novel such as breathe in very deeply for no apparent
"survival" reason (unlike a GOOD reason, like being chased by a cougar.)
If you try to bend the paper
SHARPLY backwards with your air, then your nose will definitely
close off by itself--as the brain now understands the reason for the big
lungful of air having been taken, and directs the outflow more purposely
through the mouth.
But when using the mirror and
self-observation, note that the aperture should only be big enough to
accurately hit the "sweet spot" on the far side of the flute's blowing
Coffe Stir-stik immiation
(turn head to view this almond-shape sideways)
...sensitize and conform your
inner lip membrane to the slightly oval shape of the stir stik. The
inner lip membrane is the wet part of the inside, red, portion of your
Jen Cluff July 2004
- You must find the "sweet spot" on
the mouthpiece to aim for, so that
- You must be able stay poised and
ready at the end of blowing so that your lungs can fill up again
quickly, and with no counter-productive tension. Your teacher will have
shorter breath-length exercises for you to do in order to get you to
sense any tension while holding longer and longer phrases of music.
What does it mean to take a breathe with a open throat? What does it mean to breathe from the back of your throat?
When I take a breath I consistently gasp. It's like an asthmatic sound almost but not as bad.
Also, I have a bad habit of breathing through my nose, not from the diaphragm. My teacher told me, I need to work on taking breathes as quietly as possible. She demonstrated and gave exercises. She said, "I'm still trying to hard, relax, relax everything, relax the throat, I'm constricting the air when I take a breathe getting ready to play".
Answer: On William Bennett's website there's a great interview that, for me, holds the KEY to breathing quickly and quietly, and filling your lower lungs easily. See: http://www.wibb.co.uk
William Bennett said that during his conversation with singer, Janet Baker she said:
'Another thing I do when I sing is try to bounce the sound off the soft palate'. And I said, 'What's that?', and she said, 'Oh that's the bit at the back of your throat that feels cold when you breathe in'. She taught me how to breathe! If you take in a breath that strikes the air cold on your throat, the apparatus of your stomach works without thinking about it. 'Don't think about the diaphragm, it thinks for itself!'. Taste the air as it goes in and cools the throat, without making any noise, and you have breathed well. People have terrible trouble with breathing because they think about the stomach. People also have terrible trouble because they hold themselves so badly, of which I'm also guilty, but at least I'm fighting it!' ------------end quote
Jen continues: Do you catch the bit about the soft pallet and the trigger response that it seems to have to easier breathing?
I was taught to expand the lower 1/3 of the lungs first, then next 1/3, and finally the top third (without tensing the shoulders or raising them.) Then we experimented with YAWNING while breathing in, for awhile, to teach the throat to go really wide and open. Then to say "Ho" backwards while breathing in to make the air go in quickly.
However the above description manages to surpass and surplant all of these instructions. Works like a charm. Give it a go and see for yourself.
Since I was re-reading "Body Mapping for Flutists" last couple of nights (see below for more on this fab book):
As they've discovered with Alexander Technique, tense and noisy breathers usually have a posture where they polk their chin forwards, retract the back of the neck like a turtle going into his shell, and have pushed their chin quite far forward.
This head angle is from a combination of desk-work-tension, computer work, reading for years, working under high stress from regular life etc. The head is tilted back and the jaw hinge is therefore in a tense place, and can't open easily and effortlessly.
Once the person becomes aware of how to balance their head and release the tension in the back of the neck (see any Alexander book for pictures, or go for several lessons) their breathing noise disappears.
Just adding this in case your teacher doesn't know about this weird "jaw and head tension" factor in all this.
If this might be the case with you, write back and I'll dig out an old post about "QUICK" Alexander Tech. for doing while reading the computer.
Alexander Technique suggestions for flutists:
R. wrote: > I have a real question too...I'm in about 8 classes/lessons that require "perfect posture". You all know what I mean-straight back-lifted chin that you need to get all the room for the air.
Anyway-my backs been getting kinda on the sore side and all the basic stretches I know don't really help all that much...any ideas?
I liked the ideas of strengthening the stomach muscles, Tai Chi, and Yoga that other listers gave. But don't forget about the book called "The Physical Flute" and the famous posture system called: 'Alexander Technique' for musicians!!!! It will not only help your posture, your holding of the musical instruments you're learning, but will also make incredible improvements to your breathing@@
Here's the simplest version I know of Alexander Technique for flutists:
The true center of your balance and good posture (according to Mr. Alexander) is a spot right on top of your spine: where your skull is attached to your topmost vertebrae.
This spot is actually "between your ears, and behind your nose" and can be located with your "feeling senses" by gently nodding "Yes".
When you nod Yes, your skull is sliding back and forth over the topmost vertebrae of your spine.
Stop and locate this point of balance. (try nodding and feel for the sliding point between your ears at the very center of your head.)
Now that you've located it, put a helium bubble on that sliding point and allow your whole head to feel buoyant and upwardly rising. Feel it lead the stretch as it rises higher and higher.
When your head rises freely upwards in this way, your spine follows as if it's being hung from a string.
If you just *can't* feel this center point in your head, try imagining a string is holding up the crown of your head from the ceiling and lifting it up and away from your body.
Imagine tieing helium balloons to THAT string and letting your head float upwards. Your spine (being attached) will follow.
Let all the rising feelings be gentle and soft. Don't yank the head up, or stiffen any muscles. Just float it up milimeter by milimeter, while remaining comfortable.
This can also be done while seated as long as you're angled forward on the chair, and not leaning into the chair back.
Keep your knees flexible (not locked) and your hips flexible (don't arch your back or stick your bum out or anything that'll tighten you up again.)
Just gently follow your floating head up and up.
Look in the mirror.
Do you not feel tall and straight yet bouncy, flexible, and resilient?
Like you could move continuously and flowingly into ANY posture?
Do you not feel more stretchy and relaxed than you do when "force" your muscles to create "good posture"?
As you forget this and lose it again (about every 40 seconds or so, just let your head rise up again and again. Don't "hold" it, let it be flexible in all directions like a bobbing balloon.)
I just *love* Alexander Technique, and the author of The Physical Flute for explaining it so well as it relates to flute. She manages to give releasing instructions to all aspects of the body too (loose ribcage so it can expand better for breathing, loose abs, so they respond quickly to a breath intake etc.)
For more info. on this check out Alexander books at your college library. Also, look into "Body Mapping for Flutists" and "The Physical Flute". The former gives all sorts of info. on how our bodies actually work, and "The Physical Flute" gives all sorts of warm ups and exercises that you can do while releasing unnecessary tension.
To order "The Physical flute" go to my fave repertoire page for the 800 number that will connect you with the order desk for "Physical Flute", and also search online for the excellent book Body Mapping, by Lea Pearson. Both books will really make you 'breathe easier.' :>D
Best, Jen Cluff 2002
Back to Jen's homepage
© Jennifer Cluff