Breath = Life

At a recent lesson with my teacher, we discussed how it often isn’t until a few weeks or even months after an experience that we can begin to reflect and internalize its lessons and insights. With both college and my summer masterclass experiences now behind me, I’m finding in my practice time that concepts repeated to me are suddenly starting to make sense. I’m not exactly sure why it works this way – our brains just need some time to consolidate the information? Or maybe now that the rush of schoolwork has calmed, I finally have some space to think. Either way, one action that has really helped me process everything I’ve learned this summer was taking notes. In the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing with you those notes here. I will do my best to give due credit to each teacher I gained the information from. And of course, keep in mind that the information I’ll be presenting is filtered through my own thoughts and experience. If you have any comments or questions, feel free to leave them on these posts or contact me. Happy reading!

The breath is arguably the fundamental tool of the wind musician. Our air is like a violinist’s bow – we use it to give life to a note or a phrase, and determine its length and shape. From a physics standpoint, air is what produces sound. Because air is so primary to our sound, it’s important to understand what is physically happening when we breathe. This was a central theme of a lot of John Thorne’s masterclasses during my time at ARIA. In Prof. Thorne’s opinion, the problem is that people try too hard to breathe in an unnatural way, and then it only ends up getting in the way of our playing. Breathing in is a lot simpler than we make it – we knew how to breathe from the first few minutes we were born!

So how can we better harness the power of natural breathing as musicians? For Prof. Thorne, it starts with having an awareness of what actually goes on in the body when you inhale and exhale. When you breathe, do your muscles activate when you inhale, or exhale? It might seem tempting/intuitive to think the muscles are active, or tighten up, when you inhale, but this is not the case. You don’t “draw in” air when you inhale naturally. That would tighten your throat. Rather, your body acts as a vacuum, opening up and expanding while your diaphragm and organs drop down to accommodate the incoming air.

When you inhale air in preparation to blow air through your instrument, think about your air going to the bottom of the ribs/solar plexus (at the height of where your belly button is). Expand everywhere, from the bottom up. Notice how your abdominal organs move down to accommodate the air, and your back moves out, too. Especially when under pressure, a musician’s muscles can become tense and “locked up,” preventing the full range of motion required to take a breath that will sustain a resonant sound. The next time you’re nervous, try to let your body be available for that motion.  Progressive muscle relaxation exercises, which guide you through tensing and relaxing different muscle groups in your body, can be a great help with this. The key take-home message here is that inhaling does not equal tightening.

The exhale is when the muscles do activate. As you exhale, you guide the air out with your lower ab muscles (moving inward and up) and intercostal muscles between the ribs. These muscles are what control the exhale. That, is, the degree to which you activate these muscles determines the rate and at which the air is being pushed out (this is why it’s so important to have a strong core as a musician).

Now that we have a basic knowledge of how breathing works in the body, what are some actions we can take to become better breathers as musicians? Both Prof. Thorne and Prof. Keeble stressed the importance of doing regular aerobic exercise. Find a form of movement that works for you – jogging, swimming, even jumping rope – anything that raises your heart rate. In the practice room, take the time to plan your breaths. Especially when learning a new piece of music, decide where to put breaths in a way that both makes musical sense and allows you to stock up before the “empty” light comes on. In fact, breathe before you think you need to. Oftentimes when we wait too long to take a breath we end up gasping and not being able to fully recover when the next chance to breathe does come by – don’t take that risk.

Additionally, be aware that there are different types of breaths. You can take your time and allow air to expand down to your lower body in the first breath you take before a piece, or after a long rest. Other moments, however, may require a quick “catch” breath. Also consider whether it would be more appropriate to hide or breath and make it unnoticeable to an audience, or to make it audible, as an expressive part of the music. Consciously making these types of decisions is where you can start to take control of your breathing. However, it’s also crucial to practice being flexible. Where you will need to breathe might change depending on a number of factors (physical factors like fatigue or nervousness, as well as coordinating breaths with others in an ensemble situation).

I love that the breath is so fundamental to flute playing because for me, the breath is a metaphor for life, just as the breath gives life to sound – a continuous act of inhaling and exhaling, receiving from and giving to the world. In this way, our breath represents our life energy, our chi. We can use the breath as an anchor to ground ourselves in times of stress and uncertainty. When you inhale, your heart rate slightly increases. When you exhale, your heart rate slightly decreases. The next time you find yourself dealing with performance anxiety (or anxiety in general), try focusing on lengthening your exhale – breathing in for two counts, and our for four, in for two, and out for six, then out for eight, and so on. At the end of the day, the breath is the one thing we can control, both as musicians and humans.