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.