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.

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.

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?

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.