Working With Performance Anxiety

Learning how to deal with performance anxiety has been one of the central points of my growth and development as a musician. We all want to represent the most accurate version of our playing in a performance or competition context. So, we prepare diligently in order to put our best sound and our best self on stage. It can be extremely frustrating when symptoms due to nervousness and performance anxiety get in the way of us being able to convey this best self.

There is a usual gamut of suggestions that one can expect to hear when dealing with performance anxiety. This advice includes seemingly quick fixes like taking slower breaths to lower your heart rate, eating a banana an hour before playing to calm down, or drinking water with lemon to avoid dry mouth. The problem with many of these suggestions is although they can be helpful, they address the symptoms of performance anxiety, but not the underlying causes. Learning to live in harmony with performance anxiety ultimately requires addressing what happens before the symptoms ever appear: the thoughts you have, and what you choose to focus on before, during, and after a performance.

Everybody experiences performance anxiety differently. A big part of better understanding your own performance anxiety is being able to identify your specific fears and trigger points, and how these manifest as symptoms.The sources and triggers of our worries can vary: for some people, it may be anxiety over the judgment and perception the audience has of our playing, for others, it may be general fear of losing control. Thus, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to performance anxiety.

For all of us, however, coming to understand and work with performance anxiety begins with cultivating a healthier relationship with our own selves – through what we say and think to ourselves, what we choose to focus on leading up to a performance, and how we choose to frame our experiences.

Listed below are some helpful strategies I have found for practicing better mental hygiene, both on and off the stage. It isn’t necessary to diligently instill all of these suggestions at once – that would be a potentially anxiety-inducing endeavor in itself. Simply try out what speaks to you, and come back to this post if you’re ready to expand your anxiety-busting skill set or are still looking for a strategy that works for you.

1. Affirmations

An affirmation is a simple phrase or sentence you can say to yourself that can help put you in a positive or empowered mindset. Your affirmation might not express how you feel or see yourself right now, but it does represent how you want to feel or where you want to be. Start by finding some examples of affirmations on the internet that appeal to you, and later modify them to fit your needs. Ideally, you want your affirmations to be personal to your values as a person and musician. Here are the four main affirmations I have gradually crafted that I find myself continually returning to:

“I am strong, grounded, and capable.”

“I am free and relaxed.”

“I have something I want to share.”

“I strive for clear expression.”

Try to make a habit of going through your affirmations on a regular basis. Choose a specific time to review them, such as when you first wake up or right before you go to bed. You can also write down your affirmations on sticky notes and place them in areas where you will come across them often (such as on your music stand or inside your instrument case).

Affirmations can also be used within the context of a performance. For example, oftentimes its difficult to silence the chattery mind right before a performance, and repeating your affirmations to yourself can help you return your focus back to what matters in this moment: the music.

2. Mindfulness

You are not your thoughts. You are, rather experiencing thoughts that are happening to you. You are the ocean, and your thoughts and emotions are the waves, temporary forces that swell and fade. However, it can be difficult to remember this, especially in the context of performance, when your stress response is running high. It can be easy to become caught up in the chattery commentary that likes to rush through our minds at top speed while on stage. (i.e., “Wow, the lights are really bright.” “Oh boy, here comes the hard part! Will I make it through?” And so on.) As you may have experienced, this commentary becomes very distracting and can get in the way of us being able to play and enjoy the music.

How can we distance ourselves from these types of thoughts while performing? One useful strategy for this is to sing along with the music you are playing in your head, as you are playing it. We can call this strategy “singing brain.” Sing the music so loudly in your head that you drown out the unhelpful thoughts. And whenever you find your mind drifting back to the same worry or anxiety, simply return to singing.

The ability to return to this singing brain mode in as short of time as possible after catching your mind drifting is a skill that gets better with repetition. At the end of each practice session, try setting aside a time to run through part or all of your piece using singing brain. Most of our time in practice, our brains are focused on analyzing and problem-solving. “How can I make the phrasing more clear here?” “What can I go to make this technical passage more even?” When performing, however, we need to be able to turn off this analytical monitoring and focus on making and expressing what we have already worked so hard to polish.

Mindfulness meditation is another great way to overcome mental chatter. Meditation has become vastly popular in health and wellness culture and the amount of advice and apps on the many ways of meditating can be overwhelming. But it doesn’t need to be anything complicated – you don’t even need to download a special app or join a special program to meditate. Start by following the steps below:

  1. Sit or lie down in a comfortable position.
  2. Close your eyes.
  3. Breathe naturally (make no effort to control you breath)
  4. Focus your attention on your breath, moving in and out of the body with every inhale and exhale. Notice the movement of your body as you breathe. If you find your mind wandering, simply return your attention back to your breath.
  5. Continue this practice for two to three minutes to start, and then try gradually increasing to longer time periods, up to five, ten, or even fifteen, whatever feels most comfortable for you.

You can bring your meditation experience into a performance context by directing your attention onto whatever is happening in an accepting and nonjudgmental way. When we become more mindful in performance, we are able to better shift our attention to what we are currently doing, that is, getting in the act of what we are doing, rather than getting caught up in all the thinking and worrying about what we are doing.

3. Visualization

Visualization is a technique you can use to mentally rehearse your performance. Simply put, it is the process of using your imagination to create an experience of how you want your performance to go. Find a quiet space where you can be alone for about 15 minutes, close your eyes (if you can), and relax your body. Next, envision yourself going through a successful concert, audition, or competition.

The technique may be called “visualization,” but do your best to incorporate all of your senses. Try to include as many details as possible. Start your visualization with the night before – imagine yourself getting a good night’s rest, waking up refreshed and alert, having a nourishing breakfast, and going through a relaxed and focused warm-up. Moving to the performance itself, how do you feel as you walk onto the stage? What expression do you want to carry on your face? Now hear yourself playing the music. (You can chose to sing through in your head all of the music, a few highlights, or maybe beginnings and endings of pieces, depending on how much time you have). Where is your focus? When you finish playing, how are you feeling? How do you acknowledge the audience?

Start your visualization practice early on – but even doing just one visualization exercise the night before each audition can be helpful. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. As with affirmations, right before bed or right after you wake up are powerful times to go through a visualization process. Visualization is an effective and certainly a positive alternative to worrying about everything that could go wrong in a performance. As Jasmine Choi described in a January 2017 Flute Talk article on nervousness, “Imagination is a fabulous tool, and we should strive to use it in a positive direction.”

To Sum Up…

Learning to work with performance anxiety is a process. Even after employing some of these techniques, you may find that the physical symptoms of nervousness still come up for you. Part of dealing with performance anxiety is accepting that the physical symptoms (like dry mouth, trembling hands, weaknesses, racing heart, vertigo, etc.) may or may not occur, and that you cannot control that. However, you can choose how to respond to the symptoms. Affirmations, mindfulness, and visualization can prevent us from falling into a negative thought spiral (i.e., worrying about the symptom, causing the symptom to get worse, causing us to worry about it even more). In the moment of performance, all we can do is acknowledge the fear, accept it, and then choose not to give it any further attention. Remember that your audience is here not to judge you, but to enjoy the music. They want you to play well! Share what you’ve worked so hard to be able to express, and sing out with all your heart.

Breath and Support with the Breathing Bag

One of the main symptoms I experience when suffering from performance anxiety is a general feeling of weakness. As my cortisol levels shoot up and enter “fight or flight” mode, my body clearly prefers the option of “flight.” Each limb feels like soggy spaghetti, and I can sense my posture sink downwards, as if my brain is telling my body “nope, we don’t need to be here, let’s just disappear!” This, of course, can make it awfully difficult to take properly deep and relaxed breaths, which translates into a weak and unsupported sound.

Thankfully, my ability to perform in high-pressure situations has continually improved as I have worked on my relationship with nerves from a mental standpoint (more on that in a future post). However, sometimes the physical symptoms of nerves still pop up, even if I have prepared my music and trained my mindset to the best of my ability. What can I do to fight this feeling of weakness? The answer “use more support” is a seemingly obvious one, but what does it really mean to have a “supported” sound?

Generally, when wind musicians refer to the use of support, they mean the engagement of the abdominal muscles while blowing air through the instrument so we can better control the rate and strength at which we expend our air. Through a engaging support, we are more equipped to handle interval, register, and dynamic changes with nuance and ease. “So,” you may be thinking, “how do I engage my abdominal muscles?”

I’ve had teachers tell me when using support your abs should feel hard, as if you’re bracing for an impact from someone about to punch you in the gut. Hopefully not all of us have had to brace for impact from a punch, but most of us probably know what it feels like in our body to have engaged abs, whether that be through our weekly pilates classes or memories of being forced through sit-ups in high school P.E. class. Yet, speaking for myself here, my body gets confused when I look down at my stomach muscles and tell them to just flex. Guys, why aren’t you doing anything? I swear I’m not weak!

There are other, more effective ways of engaging the support we need to sustain a strong sound that doesn’t involve yelling vague directives at our midsections. As I alluded to earlier, our support as musicians is intimately connected with the way we use our air. We activate our support not only through our abdominals, but also our diaphragm and the intercostal muscles between the ribs. We can try to isolate and control what each of these muscles is doing, but it can often be easier for us to respond to indirect tools and directives. It may seem counterintuitive, but rather than telling ourselves to move or engage a certain muscle we only just learned the name of, we can achieve more by focusing on what it feels like in the body to do a certain action, and then emulate that feeling in the act of playing your instrument.

I was reminded of this method of embodied learning in a recent lesson with Immanuel Davis, flute professor at the University of Minnesota. Prof. Davis showed me a refreshing approach to support and breath control using a tool called a breathing bag, a rubber balloon with a plastic ring tied around its opening. (But you can easily make your own with a large Ziploc bag and a piece of PVC pipe.

 

Breathing Bag Basics

First, take a nice deep breath in. Holding the plastic ring in one hand and the end of the bag in the other, fill up the bag to visually see how much air was inside of you. In a relaxed manner, simply move the air back and forth through, in and out of the bag several times. As you breathe in, ry to keep the jaw relaxed. See if you can close your teeth while keeping the jaw open and not clenched.

As you inhale, feel as if you are coming up for the breath with your whole body, keeping the ribcage in a lifted, suspended state. Rather than thinking “urgh, I have to take in as much air as possible” and shoving it down, think about opening up the spaces between your ribs (which actually gives room for the diaphragm to go down and provide more room for air to fill the lungs.)

After inhaling and exhaling through the bag about 3-4 times, inhale once more, keep that air in, and bring your flute to you and play a sustained note on a note in the middle to low register that comes easily for you (B to G on the staff is great). How does it feel to play a notes with the air off the bag? Now, take another breath and play a second note, this time trying to carry over that same physical feeling of what it was like to breathe with the bag. Feel your ribs moving as you do this, flexible and free. You may find that playing comes with more ease this way, with a more solid and supported sound. An added plus is that breathing in your own air calms you. “When I’m backstage before a performance or audition,” Prof. Davis stated, “I’m always doing this.”

 

Breathing Bag Exercises: The Fundamentals

Next, Prof. Davis showed me several simple exercises that use the breathing bag in order to gain a greater awareness of air usage. The core element of each exercise was the act of visually monitoring the amount and rate at which your air enters and exits the breathing bag – being able to actually see how you are using your air rather than just feeling it in the context of playing an instrument.

 

Exercise #1: Finding the Tempo

Each exercise begins with inhaling, and then filling the bag at a relaxed pace to gain of knowledge of how much air you have to work with. Every exercise should ideally be done with a metronome on, at first at a natural and relaxed pace such as quarter note = 60 bpm, and later at the tempo of the piece you are trying to improve your breathing on. In this first exercise, exhale for 4 quarter-note counts into the bag (1-2-3-4) and then inhale for one quarter note. Repeat this process – out for 4, in 1, out for 4, in for 1. Remember to keep your eyes on the bag! A common tendency you may notice is that you aren’t getting all the air from the bag back into your body when you inhale. Try to take in as much air with the inhale as you can (without tension – keep the throat relaxed). Remember to think “up” with the ribs as you inhale.

You may also notice that the pacing of your exhale is uneven. It is common to blow out air faster at the beginning and then trail off at the end. In a musical context however, this style of pacing results in a sound that starts off strong but becomes unsupported by the end of the breath, with weaker tone or lower pitch. As Prof. Davis described, “good wind playing is when the sound gets bigger throughout the phrase.” Resist the urge to let the air come popping out of you at the very beginning. Let your exhale start slow and speed up into the breath, gradually blowing out your air more intense rate (as if every every exhale is imbued with a small crescendo).

 

Exercise #2: Exhale Expansion

The second exercise begins the same as the first. After your initial relaxed exhale and inhale from the bag, blow into the bag for 4 quarter note counts, followed by a one quarter note inhale. In the next breath, however, exhale for 6 counts, followed by the same quarter note inhale. Next, exhale 8 counts, in for 1, exhale 10 counts, inhale for 1, exhale 12, counts, inhale for 1 – you get the idea. You can expand the exhale to whatever count is most comfortable for you, or what you are working towards in a piece (for example, 16 counts is a good goal exhale length because a common phrase structure in music is four measures of 4/4 time). In this exercise, you are exhaling the same amount of air each time, but now you must learn to pace the air differently. Longer exhales will require you to move the air out of your body at a slower rate and with greater resistance coming from your abdominal and intercostal muscles. After doing this exercise a few times, you may notice that your sound on your instruments is more sustained, or that you are able to play longer phrases in one breath without having to alter your tone or dynamics. This is the magic of “support” in action. This exercise, however, still doesn’t address a major obstacle that often prevents us from utilizing our full breath capacity: the fact that you don’t always have time for a luxurious quarter note-length rest to inhale in. Which brings us to the next exercise…

 

Exercise #3: “Point of Rhythm” Inhalation

There are several parts to this third exercise. In the first part, begin the same way as exercise #1, exhaling for four counts and inhaling for one. Exhale for 4 counts again, but now, shorten the inhale to the eighth note upbeat of the last count (the “and” of 4 is the inhale for the next exhale). It helps to have your metronome subdividing eighth notes. Exhale for 4, and now inhale on the “a” subdivision, or the last 16th note of the last count. Effectively, you are shortening the length of the inhale with each repetition. The trick here is to inhale the same amount of air, regardless of how much time you have available to do it. Focus on keeping the throat relaxed. Resist the temptation to open up your jaw to get in more air, creating an extra “gulping” motion. Instead, focusing on dropping your diaphragm and inhaling right on the appropriate subdivision. As described by William Kincaid in Kincaidiana, always breathe on a “point of rhythm.” In other words, breathing in time allows you to better integrate the rhythm of your breath with the rhythm of the music.

A common tendency of the “Point of Rhythm” exercise is to exhale faster when inhaling faster. Using the visual reminder of the breathing bag as a tool, however, challenges you to take a faster breath and quickly switch to a gradual, controlled exhale. Most importantly, for all of these exercises, the bag teaches you that the gesture your ribs make when you inhale and exhale are always the same, no matter what the length of the inhale or exhale is. The gesture is the same, just faster or slower. The breathing bag doesn’t tell you which muscles to use. But it does teach you how to better observe your breathing tendencies and adjust those tendencies so that you are pacing the timing of your breathing in the most optimal way possible.

 

Exercise Insights

There are endless possibilities with the breathing bag. Breathing bag exercises can be applied to any piece or phrase (for example, count the number of beats in the opening phrase of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and practice the pacing of this exhale into the breathing bag). You can also think and articulate the music while blowing through the bag. As you watch the music go by and hear the music in your head, make sure you don’t fill up the bag to fast. This exercise is also a great multi-tasking challenge, preparing you for the challenge of attending to multiple playing and listening responsibilities in an ensemble setting.

The breathing bag, according to Prof. Davis, reveals to us the key secret to playing the flute: timing. How you pace everything out, beginning with your support and breath, has an effect on all aspects of your playing. And you may find that after a few rounds of breathing bag practice, you begin to sound more “musical” on your instrument. Innately your musicality is able to come out because you are no longer spending mental and physical energy holding on or worrying about running out of air. You have a sense of how long the phrases were.

The interesting thing about breathing is that there’s this cross between automatic and conscious control. On the one hand, you can choose to consciously control the rate of your breath, but if you fall asleep or pass out your body will take over on its own. The breathing bag allows us navigate this balance between automatic and conscious control by connecting us with the embodied gesture of the breath, addressing how we actually feel and experience it in our body, ultimately allowing the breath to be less of a separate worry and instead become an integral part of your phrasing.

Musicianship and Embodiment

I believe that I play my best when I am fully embodied. To be embodied is to live consciously within your body, to be in touch with your senses and have a full acceptance of your body the way that it is. An embodied person is able to listen to messages and cues from their body, and respond to those cues in healthy ways – resting when they are tired, nourishing themselves when they are hungry, energizing their body through movement.

Embodiment refers to being aligned with one’s emotional body as well as their physical body. To be emotionally embodied is to feel our emotions rather than ignore them. It means expressing ourselves when we want our inner voice to be heard, or stepping back into quiet reflection when we feel saturated so that we may process our experiences.

The opposite of embodiment, disembodiment, is when we numb out from the body’s physical and emotional cues. In a disembodied state, we harden and construct walls around our physical and emotional pain in order to protect ourselves. But in not acknowledging that pain, it remains stuck in the body. (What you resist, persists). To live in an embodied way is to be able to soften around that pain, to recognize and accept so that it may move its way through the body.

I am personally striving towards becoming a more embodied person, so that I can both grow as a musician-artist, and feel more at home within myself. Embodiment starts from self-acceptance and self-compassion. It means practicing self-care; taking care of your body, mind, and heart. For the body: are you getting enough sleep, are you eating well, are you getting in daily movement? For the mind: are you being kind to yourself through your thoughts? Are you learning something new everyday and allowing yourself to open your mind to new perspectives? For the heart: are you loving others and letting yourself be loved? Are you able to connect to something greater than yourself? Are you allowing yourself to experience belonging within a community or group? Each question takes time and patience to tackle, and we work towards them through the small actions that make up our daily lives.

 

Four Tips for Cultivating Embodiment (as a musician, and as a person)

1. Check in

Check in with your body regularly. Listen to the body’s cues, and respect those cues. Don’t ignore or delay responding to them. It might feel it might feel as if you are not working hard enough at first, because we’ve all received the societal message that we are worthy when we are busy or overworked to the point that we become burnt out with stress and fatigue. However, you are able to achieve your best quality work when you are well. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Create a mini body-check in routine before each practice session and during breaks. Take a minute or two to release tension where you discover you’ve been holding tension. (If it helps, do a body scan, starting from the crown of the head and moving down to the bottom of the feet). Take stretch breaks, especially if sitting or practicing for long periods of time, so that you’re not staying in the same position for an extended amount of time. Breathe, let oxygen get to the brain and move through the body.

 

2. Energy management

Become aware of the things you can do in your day to best manage your energy. We all have peaks and dips in our energy. We can learn to work with them, not against them. Get familiar with the times of day that you feel most energized and capable of giving your best in practice sessions. But as I mentioned in an earlier post, challenge yourself to practice in non-optimal times as well so that you can be prepared for auditions, lessons, or other important events that might fall in this time.

Remember also to treat your body well. See your musicianship as physical training – train your skills like an athlete would. Your physical and psychological health is just as important to your success as your playing ability.

 

3. Carry yourself with dignity and self-respect

Become mindful of how you carry yourself (your posture) both while you are practicing/playing your instrument, and when you are moving through your everyday life. How you move through the world says a lot about how you see yourself occupying the world. Are you staying small by keep your head down and slouching? That carries a message of “I don’t deserve to be here.” Try taking up more space. Validate your own existence. Carry yourself in a way that says, “I deserve to be here. I want to be here. I respect myself. I respect you, and am open to what your have to offer.” Let your chest expand. Allow yourself to move when you breathe. Lift your head up. This is a shift from closing off from the world to opening up to the world. Moving and holding yourself with dignity and grace translates to treating yourself with dignity and grace. Other people can see that, and are attracted to that. You are acting your way into the way you want to be, and how you want to be seen.

This goes for how an audience perceives you on stage, as well. You are opening yourself up and connecting to the audience with the music you have to offer, rather than closing off from the audience and projecting a message of “I don’t want to be here. Don’t listen to me, I’m no good.” Project an open body language. Take your time. Accept audience applause. Keep your eyes open when playing a memorized piece. Transition from feeling like you don’t belong to the space or don’t deserve to be there into holding the belief that in this moment, you completely own the stage. Allow yourself to take up space when breathing. Give yourself room for imperfections, rather than staying contained within a safe bubble. Be okay with stepping off the cliff. What happens when you step off the cliff? Maybe a bad sound. But no one dies. We are generally not risking or lives as musicians, but sometimes we play so carefully as if this is the case. Stop being so careful. Take risks. You completely own the space. You control the atmosphere. Doing this can be especially challenging in unfamiliar spaces. Try to see if you can visit the space or see pictures of it beforehand. You can visualize the space even if you’re not sure of what it will look like.

 

4. Allow yourself to feel

We are all emotional creatures. But some of us who consider ourselves more reserved or stoic (hey there) can feel as if we are numbing ourselves off from our own experience at times. Or, we might be so driven and focused towards achieving a goal that we forget to really pause and feel the process of reaching the goal. We forget to stop and smell the roses along the way, if you will. As a musician, don’t forget to get out of the practice room, sit down, and just listen to music. At the risk of sounding a little woo-woo here, don’t try to analyze or form opinions about the music or the performer, just let the emotional experience of the sounds run through you. Remember the reasons you love music in the first place. Take these powerful emotional experiences with you and use them as a tool in your own playing.

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I am still discovering and exploring the connections between physical, mental, and emotional embodiment. If you have any other suggestions for how to exist in a body – as a person, as a musician – feel free to leave a comment. We could all use a little guidance sometimes with the ever-perplexing and continual challenge of being human.

Legato and Air

Two concepts have come up for me in recent lessons and practice that I'd like to explore today: legato, and air.

Legato.

In general musical terms, legato refers to a smooth and connected style of playing, in which there are minimal breaks between notes. Legato can be produced as an articulation with the tongue, but it is also created by how a wind musician uses their air to move between the notes, playing the complete arc of a phrase rather than note-by-note through a consistent, horizontal air stream. As flute players, however, we don’t spend very much time talking about or working on legato for multiple reasons. For one, we often have so many notes to learn that technical facility becomes the main priority. But more importantly, unlike other woodwind players who have the resistance of a reed, we have a completely free-blowing instrument. This makes connecting between notes a lot more difficult for us, and we end up not spending a lot of time getting this concept of legato in our ears. Listening to non-flute players, however, can give us a more informed approach of legato. This can be especially helpful when working on flute solos that were also written for another instrument (such as oboists on the Mozart D Major Concerto, and violinists on the Prokofiev Sonata). That being said, try listening to how professional oboists, violinists, and singers move between notes. You can also integrate more “legato thinking” into your warm-ups. Moyse’s De La Sonorite exercises are quite appropriate for this. However, you can also add something more melodic to your palette. Use Moyse’s 24 Little Melodic Studies, or etudes with a mix of intervals, such as Etude No. 1 from the Anderson Op. 30 book. Breathing whenever you need to, notice how you use your air to make the shapes of each phrase in these exercises.

Air.

Air is closely related to legato, because the extent to which you are able to control the speed and volume of your airstream is what allows you to create the resistance necessary to fluidly move between notes. As flutists we ideally want the usage of our air to be separate from the usage of our throat, fingers, and tongue. At a recent lesson a teacher noticed that sometimes she would hear something stuck in my through, a sort of catching in between notes, that made each note its own entity rather than one long, connected line. I need to make sure that I am keeping my throat open and using my throat (i.e., closing my vocal folds) to assist in articulation. During my practice this month, I’m aiming to be mindful and periodically ask myself if I am carrying the same homogenous sound completely, from note to note. As my teacher described, ultimately it can be very freeing to get that separation between air and throat, and it really comes through in a performance. The audience can pick up on a sense of freedom in a sound that is continuous and doesn’t depend on what type of notes, (articulation, rhythm, etc.) that you are doing. Always return to the air.

Staying on the 'Edge'

I have an ideal version of my playing. I don’t always have access to it. I only reach it after a secret combination (unbeknownst even by me) of warm-up, playing done in a given week, and time of day. I know immediately when I am in this ideal state of playing. Playing the flute is easy, not hard. My sound comes out effortlessly, and my body is doing what it has to do without my mind trying to think about it or force it. The ease at which I am able to play allows me to release tension and relax, which frees up my sound even more. This creates a positive feedback loop that fuels the ideal state even more.

Yet as I mentioned, I only reach this ideal state when the conditions – some in my control, some not in my control – are perfect. I wish I could have this ideal experience every time I play, but the truth is, this is not realistic. Here’s how I like to think of it: Playing is not an act of balance, but an act of balancing. The word ‘balance’ implies a type of static equilibrium. The word ‘balancing,’ however, implies a constant back-and-forth movement. Having the perfect sound all the time would mean that I as a physical and mental being would be static and unchanging. But humans are dynamic creatures. Our sound changes just as our mental, physical, and emotional state change. In other words, our playing is a direct reflection of our physical, mental, and emotional states. We have to learn to live with this fact rather than fight against it.

Becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable.

We cannot expect to always be in an ideal state when we practice. In fact, I believe that it is crucial to practice specifically in times when we are not in our ideal state. Why? Because this will help us prepare for the reality of a higher-stakes performance or audition, where we are certainly not going to find ourselves in an ideal state, no matter how much preparation for the event we may have done.

Because no matter what you might do to try and prevent it (sleeping well, eating a banana before, visualization. etc.), there will still be that element of uncertainty, the nerves may evidently show up. However, rather than letting the certainty of uncertainty, if you will, be a reason for us to give up, we can learn to work with the uncertainty. We can accept that the nerves may evidently be there without letting them have complete power over our capabilities as musicians.

“Looking deeper, we could say that the real cause of suffering is not being able to tolerate uncertainty – and thinking that it is perfectly sane, perfectly normal, to deny the fundamental groundlessness of being human.” – Pema Chödrön

Practicing in a non-ideal state: playing “on the edge”

Learning to play comfortably in a non-ideal state is learning to play “on the edge.” At the risk of sounding cliché here, the playing “on the edge” as often as you can allows you to become more comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. First, figure out what times and conditions you generally avoid practicing in. This could be playing at a different time of day than you normally would, such as in the early morning, playing in situations where you feel nervous or on edge (in front of people, in public places), or playing when you don’t feel you have enough energy, such as at the end of the day.

Before you even play your first note in this uncomfortable place, accept that this state you are in is a temporary reflection of your situational state and not a permanent representation of your identity. There is nothing morally wrong with how you are going to sound. Let go of the notion that there is only a good sound and a bad sound. They are simply different types of sounds with different qualities, and each has its own value.

Be prepared to hear your inner critic’s voice a little louder than usual – you’ll have to learn how to turn down the subjective judgment and turn up the objective, neutral observation. Yes, you’ll have to live in that sound you don’t like for the time being, but don’t lose yourself to a snowball effect, letting every aspect of your playing go to the wayside (well, my tone sucks, so I guess I can’t articulate as clearly, so now my rhythm is off…). Instead, notice what you can and can’t control in this non-ideal state. Hone in on the aspects that you can control.

One way to neutralize the inner critic is to replace judgments with key words that can act as gentle reminders to bring you back to what you are doing – such as “relax,” “breathe,” and “listen.” Let’s go over each of these key words.

First, relax. You may notice yourself tensing up the muscles more. Repeatedly stop and tell yourself to relax. Don’t try to force the sound out. Restrain yourself from making constant adjustments to your instrument in the hopes that a better sound will come out (doing stuff with the reed, adjusting the headjoint). Try to soften the muscles around the area of tension. A progressive muscle relaxation meditation can also help with this.

Breathe. When our body is relaxed, we can breathe more deeply. See my previous post for breathing advice – think about breathing low and full, from the diaphragm. Especially for wind players, when we are breathing more deeply, we can move more air through our instruments, thus giving our sound a nice cushion of support.

Listen. The number of elements we can potentially notice in our playing can be overwhelming, especially when we don’t feel in complete control of all of those elements. Instead, choose one thing to listen for at a time. As my teacher Karla Flygare says to her students, “focus on the note you are playing and its relationship to the next note.” That’s all you need to do. This focus can help melt away irrelevant thoughts that are getting in the way of your playing. Try also singing along in your head to the music. That is, instead of monitoring and judging what you sound like as you play, focus on what you want to sound like by singing along with the music in your head. Think, for example, of pianist Glenn Gould’s habit of singing to guide his piano playing. For more information on this idea, see Noa Kageyama’s article: What Should You Think About When You Perform?).

“The terror of performing never goes away. Instead, you get very, very comfortable being terrified.” – Eric Whitacre

The most rewarding part of non-ideal practice is when you are able to get over the initial hump of discomfort and forget that you are in a non-ideal state. You may still sound the same, but your mind is no longer obsessing over the way you sound. Your muscles are more relaxed and you can play freely and with ease. At this point you have entered a flow state despite being in sub-optimal conditions. You realize that your musicianship is unconditionally contained within you, it is not something elusive that must be externally sought after. When you have let go of striving to arrive in a perfect or ideal place, you have the freedom to enjoy what you are doing. You are reminded of why you fell in love with music in the first place.

Articulation and Double-Tonguing

Articulation is an important tool that a musician has for conveying the style and character of the notes they play. Articulation refers to the way in which a note is sounded by a musician – the way a musician attacks, sustains, and releases a note. By articulating in different ways, a musician can make notes sound detached, connected, harsh, or light. These articulation qualities are denoted in music through symbols such as the staccato, slur, sforzando, and tenuto.

For flute players, articulation is controlled by the way we use our tongue and air to start and stop a note. Flutists use the terms “French” and “American” to describe two common articulation styles. Each style uses a different placement of the tongue in the mouth to start a note. In French articulation, the tongue comes up to the inside of the lips and touches the bottom of the upper lip. A flutist releases their tongue backwards horizontally to generate the sound built up by the air column that is ready to be blown across the flute. This style of articulation can be simulated by spitting rice. American articulation, on the other hand, sits further back in the mouth. Here, the tongue strikes the roof of the mouth at the point where back of the two upper front teeth and the gums meet. A flutist then moves the tongue back and downwards to produce a sound.

There are many possible variations on the basic French and American articulation styles. Different consonant syllables that we use in verbal speech can be used that produce a sound on the flute. Each syllable is created by a different tongue placement in the mouth, and produces a different effect. A “ta” syllable produces a crisp, hard-edged articulation. Syllables like “tu,” “da” and “du” create softer, more mellow articulations. Practice switching between saying “ta” and “da.” How does your tongue placement change between the syllables? “Ta” uses more of the tip of the tongue, with a placement further in the front of the mouth. A “Da” syllable uses a broader tongue placement further back in the mouth.

These different syllables are not only created by the placement of the tongue in the mouth, but also by the size and shape of the oral cavity (the inside space in our mouth). Changing the size and shape of the oral cavity changes the vowel sound we make when speaking. Syllables ending in an “ah” vowel sound use a more rounded, open oral cavity, while syllables ending in “u” and “eh” use a more narrow, closed off oral cavity. Take the time to experiment with these different syllables and vowel sounds in your articulation. Keep in mind that the front syllable and the vowel shape you use work best in counterparts. When using a softer vowel sound, for example, you can afford a harder consonant articulation.

Your articulation is the first impression of your sound. Because articulation can denote stylistic choice, it can reveal a lot about the character of the music if you use it skillfully. It is important to remember that in any articulation, the air is the driver of the tongue. The shape of a phrase ultimately defined by how you use your air, so try not to let the tongue get in the way of the what you are trying to say. You are not starting the sound with your tongue, rather, you are releasing your tongue to let out your air. Imagine stepping on a garden hose and turning on the water. The water builds up in pressure as it reaches the spot you are stepping on, and as you release your foot (your tongue), the water  (your air) rushes through the hose.

It is also helpful to think about keeping the tongue light rather than heavy. Unless a composer specifically asks for it, it is generally best to avoid using a heavy articulation that overemphasizes the attack and takes attention away from the sustain of the sound. In order to achieve a lighter tongue, practice “ha-ha” articulations that use your breath rather than your tongue to start the note. Choose a simple exercise, such as a scale, pulse the beginning of each note with your diaphragm instead of your tongue. Add in the tongue, lightly, on top of this foundation of breath support. If you are having trouble with an articulation pattern in the context of a particular piece, trying taking out the tongue and playing each note in the “ha-ha” style of articulation. When you add the regular articulations back in, you will find yourself relying more on your air and abdominal support to execute the passage rather than “forcing” the air out with your tongue. Many tricky spots in our music that we attribute to a finger and tongue coordination problem can actually be solved through putting more of our attention and energy into or air and support usage.

Double-Tonguing

Double-tonguing helps a flutist tongue articulate more notes in faster succession by alternating between tonguing with the front and the back of the tongue. Every teacher seems to have their own opinion on what syllables to use for double-tonguing. Like with single-tonguing, each syllable has its own advantage. While the syllable pair “tah-kah” produces a large and resonant sound because of the “ah” vowel shape in the mouth, the tongue has to cover a lot of territory (with the “tah” far in front of the mouth and the “kah” far in the back). Try instead to keep using the ah syllable in the back of the mouth, but with a “tu-ku” tonguing in front and center of the mouth with a wide and flat tongue (but keep in mind that the tip of the tongue is always where the action of the articulation occurs). This will keep the tongue relaxed and prevent it from traveling far. While double-tonguing, also make sure that the cheeks aren’t tight – the tissues between the cheeks and tongue are connected.

There are numerous ways you can improve your double-tonguing. Start, however, with a single note that you can play with comfort and ease. Once you can double-tongue on a single note, expanded to two by going up a step. Gradually add in more notes until you are ready to double-tongue larger patterns, such as scales. Expand your intervals, as well. Practice double-tonging in thirds or arpeggios. One good challenge double-tonguing exercise is to use exercise 13 from Taffenel & Gaubert 17 Daily Exercises book, the broken arpeggios. At a very slow and comfortable tempo, go through the whole cycle in C Major, but double each note with double-tonguing. Some common double-tonguing flaws might reveal themselves throughout your practice. One is that the “ta” syllable is too dominant, resulting in an unbalanced “Tg” articulation. If you notice this coming up in your playing, practice temporarily switching the emphasis to the opposite “dK” articulation. Another common problem is uneven dotted eighth and sixteenth notes. Listen very carefully for this, it can be subtle, and work at a slow enough tempo where all note lengths are even before working the metronome up. Putting the metronome on the off or and beats can help with this. If you notice your tongue getting tired or sore, stop. Don’t forget to take breaks during this type of repetitive practice and to reminder yourself to use your air. With time and patience, your tongue will become stronger and better coordinated with how you use your air and fingers.

A final recap of what we’ve discussed:

  • Articulation is defined by how a we use the tongue and mouth to start and stop a note. Having control of our articulation is important because we can use it to affect the style, character, and sound quality of the notes we play.
  • We can control what type of articulation we use through the placement of the tongue in the mouth (the consonant sound) and the shape of the oral cavity (the vowel sound).
  • For flutists, double-tonguing can increase the speed of our articulation by alternating between attacking notes with the front and back of the tongue

Artistry

Sometimes, as a musician, I get so wrapped up in learning the notes of a piece and playing them “correctly” that I forget that I am an artist, an individual capable of giving life to a piece through my own ideas and creativity. At times I find it useful to have a tunnel-vision focus in the practice room, with logically-oriented tasks and goals to help me get from A to B.  However, if I forget about my primary role as an artist, I end up merely reproducing what is on the page. When this happens, my playing ends up not very inspiring. Boring, even. I merely go through the motions by executing the instructions handed to me, doing what I am “supposed” to do and not letting myself be moved by the music and have an emotional response that translates into a personal interpretation of the piece.

I find that this type of machine-like tunnel vision tends to turn on when I feel under pressure, such as while playing in a lesson or masterclass. This is because I become especially attuned to the judgment of those listening to me and worry about outer expectations of what I should do, rather than listening to my inner muse (who, by the way, already knows how the piece goes because I’ve done it that way so many times in practice).

This fixation on the outside opinions of others is a common trap that any of us can fall into when we want to do a good job on something, as musicians or people. As I described, worrying about performing well for these “others” – your audience, your teachers, or the instructions of the composer – can lead us to playing in a mechanistic way and consequently ignoring our own musical intuition. This shift away from our musical intuition is related to my last post, where I discussed the traps of solely focusing on developing our technique as musicians. But let’s step back for a moment. As musicians, we aren’t mere executors, we are artists, if we allow ourselves to be. But what exactly does it mean to have artistry in what we do?

Artistry = Technique + Voice

This formula is inspired by a masterclass I attended last summer given by flutist Donna Shin. Technique represents the physical skills a musician-artist has. It also reflects the intellectual and aural knowledge they have about the music they play– a piece’s historical context, ways it has been performed and interpreted, their idea of how a piece sounds. As musicians, we gain this information through the various experiences we have built up through the years, through lessons with teachers, masterclasses, time in an orchestra or other ensemble, music classes such as music theory and history, the list goes on. In other words, we acquire this knowledge through outside sources. But there is another aspect of artistry that must be acquired internally. That is the artist’s voice.

What is your voice as an artist? Your voice is what you have to say as a unique individual. What do you have to say, and what do you have to express to the world that no one else can say or express? Your voice is very personal, and is connected to your identity as an individual. I once heard a teacher say, “to have something to say on your instrument you first need to develop who you are.” This remark honestly discouraged me a bit when I first heard it. As a young person, I felt a bit lost and was still in the process of figuring out who exactly I was. Well, here’s a little secret: you are always growing and changing as a person, no matter how old you are. Those unknown, foggy parts of ourselves are still a part of us, even we can’t quite understand how quite yet. Both our known self and our untapped potential are core to each of our identities. And as you begin to explore and grow into the unknown parts of yourself, your voice becomes stronger. When you become more attuned to and comfortable with your authentic self, that is, the self aligned with your inner desires and principles rather than outside expectations and “should,” you have a greater capacity to express it freely.

At many points in our lives we may come to a threshold where we are leaving a period of “fitting the mold” and faced with finding our own voice. I am personally at one of those thresholds, having recently graduated college and navigating what it is that I really want to do with my life. To recognize the sound of your own voice in these moments in life is to be able to identify what parts of your identity have been given to you by others. We have all been shaped in various ways by our families’ beliefs and values, the culture we grew up in, and the educational institutions we learned from. Once you have parsed out what voices in your head are coming from others and which are coming from within, you are able to take a step towards deciding which of those outside voices and beliefs you want to keep as aligned with our identity, and which you want to let go. With this clarity you can then seek out new beliefs and values if you wish, exploring other outside voices (reading books, gaining new knowledge), and taking the time to look deeper within yourself through a contemplative practice (through journaling, meditation, a physical activity like walking or yoga – how you do it is a personal choice).

This perspective allows me to see myself as actively shaping my own identity, through a process carving out the beliefs and values you choose to live by based on my daily actions. The wonderful thing is that this process can be ongoing for the rest of my life, if I continue to let myself grow through learning and exposing myself to new experiences and perspectives. We are all in a constant, never-ending process of becoming. This process of becoming is what formulates our voice as a musician-artist. With your unique voice, you communicate your idea of a piece of music as filtered through your own values, experience, and perspective.

Of course, as musicians playing a piece of music that is written by someone else, and to an audience that may not share all of our beliefs, we aren’t necessarily just expressing our own personal voice. You are trying to navigate the complex combination of the composer’s, your teacher’s, and your personal intentions. How do we balance all of those voices in the act of performance is an art in itself.

To put these other intentions aside at the moment (maybe I’ll address them in a future blog post), how can we take practical steps to strengthen our own voice in the context of the practice room? First, recognize that in order to make your own sound and own it, you need intention. That is, a knowledge of what you are doing and why you are doing it. Your intention is not simply “I am doing x because x told me to do it that way.” Rather, your intention is a melding of what you have collected from the outside with what you believe from the inside – yes, what your teacher told you to do, but also what you have found to work from listening to recordings and experimenting on your own. You need to know what you are saying it, how you are saying it, and why you are saying it in that way. In other words, you need to know as much about your playing as the audience does.

This is where technique comes in. Use the tools from your technique toolbox to convey your voice. You’d be surprised to see how many tools you have at your disposal – articulation, tone, tempo, dynamics, phrasing, knowledge of musical structure and form, rhythm, character… these are all factors you can manipulate to be more “musical.” While practicing, think in terms of how a tool can be applied to convey the voice you are aiming to express. Experiment, and exaggerate differences to get it across to an audience. And don’t just think analytically. Can you play a phrase angry? melancholy? anxious? joyous? Often without even thinking about technical directions we can change a lot in our playing through getting the imagination involved. Playing music is not executing technique. Playing music is using technique as a tool to express your voice. Have your vision, and the tools will be employed. This is the approach I am personally striving towards as I make the transition from self-identified student to a more whole musician – student, teacher, creator, listener, artist.

Overcoming the Traps of Technique

Technique, in musical terms, refers to the physical ability of a musician to control the mechanics of their instrument in order to produce a desired musical effect. Whether the mechanics refer to buttons, keys, slides, or vocal chords, technique comes down to how fast and how precise we can move various parts of our body to control our instrument.

When learning any new piece, it can be easy to become over fixated on mastering technical demands. As musicians who want to do it right, we naturally want to successfully execute the correct notes and rhythms at the performance tempo of the piece. Oftentimes, this requires the drilling and repetition of a few especially tricky technical passages within the piece (passages with many notes within a short period of time, complex rhythms, difficult finger exchanges, etc.) However, sometimes we can become so preoccupied with mastering the technical challenges of a piece that other important musical elements, like phrasing, character, and dynamic sensitivity, fall to the wayside. How can we better address technique in a way that serves our ability to overcome the demands of our repertoire but doesn’t overtake our ability to play with musicality, grace, and nuance?

Changing our relationship to technique first requires a revaluation of what musical “virtuosity” means to us. A trap a lot of young musicians fall into is the notion of virtuosity equating to playing as fast and furious as possible. Certainly, there is a place for physical demanding music that highlights the dexterity and showmanship of the musician, but flying fingers isn’t everything. If the composer is trying to communicate a message that says something more than “look what I can do,” then we must see technique as a means to the ends of communicating that message, rather than seeing technique as the end in itself. In other words, technique is what allows us to get the notes to come out at the right time and in the right place. Once the notes are there, a musician then has the capacity to shape those notes into music, that is, to infuse them with a message or a deeper emotional meaning.

That is not to say that technique doesn’t matter. Having a solid technique is essential to becoming a whole musician. We are simply changing our relationship to technique. A musician who has become over fixated on technique hears only the notes. A musician who uses technique to get them to where they want to go can hear the notes as music. An audience can tell the difference. The audience will hear what the musician hears, because what the musician hears comes out through their playing.

So how can we change our relationship to technique? Let’s start by stepping back and assessing what technique actually is. I like this conception of technique, shared to me by flutist John Thorne in a recent masterclass: think of technique as a choreography of the fingers. It can be easy to get bogged down in the individual notes when trying to tackle a tough passage. However, thinking of our hand movements as a flow of patterns, rather than a series of separate events, allows us to focus on how one note moves to the next.

This perspective helped me think of technical passages in more musical terms. Rather than looking at a tough spot on a page with a surge of panic and feeling the need rush or “muscle through” all the notes I began to pay more attention to groupings between the notes and how the notes relate to each other, especially in terms of the intervallic distance between notes and the relative structural importance of different notes within the phrase. So now that we are able to conceptualize technique as a choreography that helps us execute the music, what are some ways we can develop our technique as musicians?

 

1. Practice your scales and technical exercises.

It should be a given that practicing your scales is important, but I’ll mention it here anyway. Music (Western music, at least) is generally based in major or minor keys, and thus many note patterns are simply different combinations of notes from the (hopefully familiar) scales of the circle of fourth or fifths. By practicing your major and minor scales regularly (as well as major/minor thirds, fourths, and other intervals), you are essentially reinforcing your basic vocabulary skills to speaking in the language of a given key. When encountering a busy-looking technical passage, ask yourself if the notes are based off an identifiable scale. This will turn it from an unknown mass to something recognizable.

If encountered by a passages in music that is rooted in an obvious major or minor scale, ask yourself if it is based off of another pattern. A pentatonic, whole tone, octatonic, or another grouping of notes? From here, you can create exercises based on the scale of the technical passage that you can use in your warm-up. Ultimately, you want to be able to execute any possible finger exchange between the notes in that key.

 

2. Slow Practice or Fast Practice?

Is it best to practice a busy technical passage at the performance tempo, or start at a slower tempo you can manage and gradually increase the speed of the metronome? Slower practice can be useful because you may get a better sense of how the choreography feels in the hands. At a slower tempo, you have more time within each rep to think about and isolate the exact finger exchanges that are particularly challenging within the passage. Most importantly, practicing slowly allows us to be practice with a greater attention to detail on the subtler nuances of a technical passage that would otherwise be too fast to accurately observe when practicing up to tempo. (For more information on how to effectively practice slowly, see Noa Kageyama’s related article.)

When practicing slowly, however, keep in mind that you are essentially ingraining in your ears and muscle memory the way a passage feels when it is played slowly. You may have built up the neural connections that tell you how to play the passage accurately when it is slow, but not when it is fast. Of course, this means that you would need to gradually speed up your practice tempo (see Gerald Klickstein’s article on strategies for making this slow-to-fast transition). Try also practicing at the performance tempo, but in small chucks. Start with one note, and gradually add in the notes that precede and follow it. Don’t add a note to your chunk until you have mastered the current chunk with complete accuracy. Be patient – this method will take a lot of reps, and a lot of time.

I recommend that you be intentional about whether you decide to practice a passage slowly or at tempo. Decide, for example, to devote a single practice session or devote learning a single piece to either slow or fast practice. You may find that the best method will vary depending on the type of music you are playing.

 

3. Find the problem note.

Oftentimes we call a passage “technically challenging” when we always end up getting stuck in the same spot. You may have identified a “problem note” of the passage, the note that your fingers always get tripped up on, or the note that never seems to speak. However, in many cases you’ll find that it is the note before the problem note that’s causing the problem. Why? Remember, technique isn’t about the notes, but the choreography of the notes, or the relationship between each note. Consider how you are arriving to the problem note from the previous note. Try starting the passage, but put a fermata on the note before the suspect note. Now, consider some ways that you can better prepare for the next note. How are the hands balanced on the instrument? What are you doing with your air stream and support?

Understanding the relationship between the notes of a technical passage helps build a stronger “intervallic awareness.” Throughout your repetitions in practice, pay attention to the differences in how you use your body, embouchure, and air when moving up or down different intervals – for example, a 2nd versus a  5th versus an octave. Like being able to gauge how much energy you’ll need to jump across a puddle, as you practice you will become more aware of what exactly you need to do with your body to prepare for an interval in any musical context (which can be especially useful in sight-reading scenarios).

 

4. Dealing with tricky rhythms

A passage can also be technically demanding because of challenging rhythmic demands. First, remember to subdivide. But if you still find yourself having trouble getting a rhythm consistet and even in the fingers, try switching your metronome to beat on the offbeat rather than the downbeat. This requires the brain to more actively subdivide by filling in the gaps of the missing downbeats, and can be especially helpful for passages with rhythms divisible by 4 or 8.

Additionally, try changing the rhythmic groupings of the passage. Count how many total notes make up the technical passage. Figure out what numbers that total is divisible by (that are not the same as the groupings already written on the page.) For example, say you have a passage made up of three groups of four 16th notes, or twelve total notes. Rather than practicing the passage as three groups of four, twelve is also divisible by six, so try practicing the passage as two groups of six notes in various rhythm patterns (two eighths and 4 sixteenths, 4 sixteenths and 2 eighths, etc.) This method is useful because it can reveal where or how you are tripping up if you weren’t previously certain. It forces your brain to think about the passage in a different way, helping you get out of any old habits your fingers may be stuck in after repeating it so many times in the as-written rhythm.

 

One Last Note

A teacher once told me that technique is like a savings account. You build it up slowly, over time. Whether practicing slowly or at performance tempo, building up a solid technique that you can count on requires patience and repetition. But remember, while technique is necessary, it isn’t everything. The purpose of technique is to be expressive, not just to become a one-trick person pony who can impress an audience by playing fast. Use technique as a tool to express the meaning and message of the music you play.

Breath Support: Understanding How to Use the Air Column

As a wind player, I often hear band directors telling ensembles to play with better “breath support,” or simply more “support.” Having good support is key to having a good tone. However, the idea of breath support has always remained admittedly elusive to me. Yes, engaging your abdominal muscles to control your exhale as you move air through your instrument leads to a more “supported” sound, but I never felt that I truly understood what exactly breath support was and where it was located in the body. In this post, I’m going to define and break down the mysterious concept of breath support into factors that can be individually manipulated to produce a desired result.

Let’s start with a working definition of breath support. I like this one from a blog post by Bret Pimental: "Breath support is the engagement of the abdominal muscles (including the sides and lower back) during exhalation."

This definition gives us an action we can consciously use to create breath support: controlling our exhale by engaging our muscles – specifically, the abdominal muscles you feel when doing sit-ups, as well as the intercostal muscles that line your ribcage and back muscles that you use to sit up straight in your chair to get that good posture during band class. Okay – but how exactly does engaging these muscles let us “control” our exhale? When we are exhaling, that is, blowing air into our instrument (or in the case of flutes, across the mouthpiece), there are several things that we control with our support. Let’s break it down:

Breath support = muscle engagement = air volume + air speed + air direction

You’ve taken a nice deep breath in, you’ve set up your embouchure, you’ve engaged your abdominal muscles, and you’re about to play a note. Now what? First, you’re going to decide how much air to use to produce that note. This is our first ingredient of breath support, air volume. Air volume refers to the physical amount of air that you are expelling through your instrument to make a sound. Using more air will produce a note that sounds louder. Using less air will produce a note that sound softer.

But this isn’t the only thing we control during our exhale. We also control the speed of the air column, or the rate at which you expel a certain amount of air out of the bod and into the instrument. Air speed can be a bit more difficult to conceptualize. As Dr. Cate Hummel describes in this blog post, it may help to try thinking of faster air as more concentrated, and slower air as more diffuse. In other words, air volume is how much air you are exhaling through the instrument, and air speed is how quickly you are exhaling air through the instrument.

As wind musicians, and particularly flutists, the goal is to be able to maintain a high air speed in our playing, regardless of what the dynamic might be or what register we are playing in. Having a high air speed at all times allows us to play with a strong, focused sound that projects well. Yes, it can be tempting as flutists to slow down the air when trying to play something soft, but this will result in a weak and flat sound. Conversely, it can be tempting to blow “harder” to make faster air when playing high notes, but this will result in a sharp, spread tone. The key to good breath support is the ability to maintain a stable, high air speed while adjusting air volume to produce desired effects in dynamics, register, tone color, and other musical factors. Maintaining a high air speed (through engaging the core during the exhale) is what can allow a flutist to execute both strong, projecting low register notes, and controlled, soft high notes. One postscript to add is that flutists can influence whether a sound appears to be fast or slow through manipulating the speed of their vibrato. This is not the same as changing the speed of the air column. (More on vibrato in a future blog post).

There’s one last factor, however, that particularly flutists can manipulate under a foundation of a well-maintained air speed: air direction. The direction of the air column, whether we blow “high” or “low” against the back wall of the mouthpiece, is how factors including register and intonation can be controlled. You can visualize air direction by blowing against the palm of your hand. A low air direction will result in the air hitting the bottom your hand where the palm meets the wrist. A higher air direction will result in the air hitting the top of the palm near the fingers. Air direction is the primary factor a flutist manipulates when playing harmonics (a lower air direction is required for the fundamental note, and an increasingly higher air direction is required as you move through the overtone series). That being said, practicing any harmonics exercise can help give you better control over your air direction. Blowing with a relatively higher air direction on a given note can help raise the pitch, and vice versa with a lower air direction. Air direction allows us to influence the tone color of a note: aiming higher will result in a sound dominated by the higher harmonics of a note’s overtone series for a brighter, thinner sound, and aiming lower will result in a sound dominated by the lower harmonics of a note’s overtone series, resulting in a tone with more depth.

So, now that we’ve defined each part of breath support, let’s try to put this all together. Breath support is the act of controlling our exhale to produce a stronger, more focused and supported sound. A musician controls their exhale through the amount of air they use, the rate at which they expel that air (using the abdominals to maintain a concentrated air stream), and the direction in which they aim the air.

This is my personal conceptualization of breath support, a conglomeration from various teachers and my own experiences. What are your thoughts on breath support in relation to the body as a wind musician?

Thoughts on Embouchure

A wind musician’s embouchure refers to how they apply their lips and the muscles around their mouth to the mouthpiece of the instrument in order to make a sound. Each instrument requires a different type of embouchure. The shape of a musician’s embouchure also depends on the shape of their lips.

Unlike most other wind players, a flutist does not blow air directly inside of the mouthpiece to make a sound. Instead, the air is directed over the top of the embouchure hole, similar to blowing across the top of a bottle. Sound is produced when the air column hits the back wall of the head joint, splitting the air into two separate pathways. Half of the air leaves the instrument, and the other half vibrates through the flute. (This is why it takes so much air to play the flute – most of the air you use leaves the flute and doesn’t even go into producing a sound!)

There are plenty of articles out there on establishing a solid flute embouchure (See especially Dr. Cate Hummel’s “Three Essential Skills” article for embouchure: https://drcatesflutetips.wordpress.com/tag/flute-embouchure/).

Nevertheless, I’ll briefly go over creating a basic set-up here.

  1. Placement on the face

  2. Balancing the flute in your hands

  3. Shape of the aperture

Figure out where to place the flute mouthpiece on your bottom lip. Bringing up the flute to your face (NOT bringing the flute to you), find the place where the bottom edge of the embouchure hole just touches the edge where your lip and chin meet. The flute should fit snugly in your chin like a shelf.  You want to make as much of a connection as possible between the flute and your chin – the flute shouldn’t wobble easily on your face. (As Marianne Gedigian describes it, you want to have a strong “lip grip,” as if there are tiny magnets on your mouth. This will ensure stable and reliable tone production.) It should be noted that the corners of the mouth are engaged slightly to create this grip, but most of the work is being done by the orbicularis oris, a band of muscle that encircles the mouth.

This “shelf” position may be lower on the face than some students are used to, especially if they first learned their embouchure via the “kiss and roll” method. In the kiss and roll method, flutists are told to press the lips together and “kiss” the flute so that the lips are centered in the embouchure hole, and then roll the flute out. However, this usually creates placement that is too high on the bottom lip, resulting in a thin and sharp sound. Having the flute lower on the lips allows for the possibility of developing a fuller and more powerful sound because of the longer “transit time” of the air as it exits the aperture and hits the blowing edge of the embouchure hole. A lower placement also frees up the bottom lip, giving it the flexibility to make subtle changes in the size and shape of the aperture for a finer manipulation of sound and tone color.

The exact placement of the flute in relation to the lip depends on an individual’s lip shape. People with a fuller bottom lip may need to put the flute relatively higher on the face, maybe even slightly on the bottom lip itself, while people with thinner lips may need to place the embouchure hole slightly below the lip. The key is to experiment until you find the position that gives you the optimal air transit time for a full and focused sound. It’s important to treat this process of finding your optimal embouchure as an experiment. Don’t be afraid to move things around or change things if they are not working. Each time you make a change, observe how it feels, and observe how your sound is affected. Notice that I used the word “observe” and not “judge.” It can be easy to get frustrated about not creating a perfect or ideal sound, but this process is not about sounding perfect all the time: it’s about working through what doesn’t work so you can get to what does work. That process will take time – so be patient. Most importantly, don’t tense up about it. Make sure you are checking in and not overly tightening the lips to force out the sound. This can be easy to do when we are focusing on our embouchure, but remember that embouchure is only one part of the picture – think of your air and abdominal support are the foundation of sound, and your embouchure as the channel that directs that sound out (rather than forcing or pulling the sound out).

 

Your embouchure is not only affected by what you do with your mouth, but also by how you hold your flute. In relation to the body of the flute, the headjoint should be turned inward slightly so that the embouchure hole lines up in between the rods and the top keys (rather than lined up exactly with the keys, as many beginning band books specify.) In this position, the relatively heavy rods are rotated to be more on top of the flute, taking weight off the hands and allowing the hands to naturally rest on top of the keys. This position is more ergonomic, as it allows the flutist to play even open-keyed notes without gripping or tensing up in the hands and wrists.

If the headjoint is rolled out a lot, a flutist has to compensate their embouchure by drawing the lips forward and blowing more upwards. Some flutists like the sound produced by this position because it creates a longer transit time between the lips and the wall of the mouthpiece, resulting in a fuller and more open sound. However, it also decreases bottom lip flexibility and thus makes it more difficult to execute changes in dynamics, tone color, and intonation.

Conversely, if the headjoint is rolled too much inward (lining up closer to the rods than the keys), the flutist must compensate their embouchure by drawing the top lip over the bottom and blowing more downwards to hit the wall of the mouthpiece. This ends up covering a lot of the tone hole, so while the resulting tone may sound clear and “pure” (which is dangerously satisfying to the ear, especially up close), the sound doesn’t project well beyond a few feet, and again prevents flexibility of the bottom lip.

 

The aperture refers to the size of the opening our lips make when blowing air into the flute. The lips form the shape of the aperture by gripping the opening around the air column as it moves out of the body and across the mouthpiece. As Dr. Cate Hummel describes, forming an aperture with a stable grip around the air column is what creates resistance necessary for producing a strong, open, focused tone on the flute. For most wind instruments, sound is made when the musician uses air to build up enough air pressure to overcome the resistance of the reed or mouthpiece. But for flutists, our lips are our mouthpiece! This means that the lips themselves have to create that resistance through a strong (but not tense) aperture that guides the air out.  Generally speaking, a flute aperture size is similar to the opening of a flat coffee straw or an oboe reed. However, the aperture size must change slightly to control the sound.

Where the aperture forms – whether in the center of the lips or off to one side – depends again on the shape of the player’s lips. Generally speaking, a centered aperture will work best to creating a good tone, but a teardrop-shaped upper lip may require an aperture that is slightly off-center either to the left or the right (however, a left-of-center aperture, towards the crown of the headjoint, will better facilitate tone production). Again, experiment with what aperture size is needed to create a focused sound and at what angle to aim the aperture. The blowing angle of the aperture can be controlled by the degree to which you “pout” with the upper and lower lip. Pouting out the upper lip in relation to the lower lip creates a downwards blowing angle, and pouting out the lower lip in relation to the upper lip creates an upwards blowing angle. This subtle changing of the size and angle of the aperture is key not only for creating a basic embouchure, but also for manipulating factors such as register, dynamics, pitch, and tone color.

 

Remember, embouchure and aperture are only a part of the equation to producing a strong sound. All of this needs to happen over a foundation of strong breath support – how we control the pressure and volume of our air during the exhale as it comes out of the lungs and across the mouthpiece of the flute. My next post will cover useful (and not so useful) ways to conceptualize air pressure and volume, and how we can best manipulate these factors while playing the flute. Thanks for reading!