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.

Beyond the Masterclass, and Out of the Box

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to attend Jim Walker’s “Beyond the Masterclass,” a weeklong series of flute masterclasses and recitals held at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. It was a fantastic experience, both to get more practice at performing in front of others and to be inspired by so many talented, driven, and passionate musicians.

Jim emphasized a few key themes in the masterclasses throughout the week that reflect his philosophy and approach towards playing music. I thought I’d share some of those themes and my reflections on them here.
Being an intentional performer.
Simply stated, to perform something means to convey an idea to a recipient, or audience. A performer ideally aims to impart to their audience a certain emotion, or to get their audience to feel a certain way through the medium of their choice, in this case, music. In this respect, a performer is channeler of emotional energy, which flows from themselves to the audience. (And for music, there is also a channeling of a very physical element – sound waves).
In order to effectively channel energy to an audience, a performer needs to have a clear idea of what that exactly that energy is. They need to have a clear intentionality in everything they do. Jim often stressed that every musical action we take as a performer must have an intention, and that intention  must have been practiced and rehearsed beforehand. Even is the exact message isn’t known until the time of the performance, such as in the case of improvisation, the performer still has spent hours honing his or her craft of improvisation. In the case of composed music, this means knowing and anticipating what you’re going to do on certain notes.
Intentionality is not an easy task. To approach the act of performance with intentionality requires complete commitment. The performer’s attention should be fully invested in what is going on in the music at that moment. In other words, the performer is completely present in what they are doing. To me, this notion of intentionality is a key to overcoming performance anxiety. Performance anxiety either occupies the past (I should have practiced more) or the future (I’m going to fail). The intentional performer, however, is too invested in the present moment of the music to be distracted by those worries of the past and future. Professionalism is, simply stated, being able to think about what you are doing. It’s a mentality of being able to turn on the focus, even when its not comfortable.
Having an understanding of the music.
How do we, as musicians, determine the intentions behind what we are performing? In order to have an intentionality about the music, you need to be able to understand what exactly you think the music is trying to say. This is where having a theoretical understanding of the music becomes so important. Understanding the underlying harmonies, motifs, and structure of a piece – its “inner logic” – allows you to essentially read the hieroglyphics and break the code of what’s going on. This is what you should essentially be doing in practice: decoding the hieroglyphics. This is very different from what you might call the “rote” method of practicing – repeating something over and over until you trust that you can reproduce it on automatic pilot, without thinking about it.
Jim repeated throughout the week that don’t practice something to have it on “automatic pilot,” rather, we practice to know exactly what’s going on in the music, so that we can pay attention to the notes and have a clear visualization of exactly you want to perform each part of the music. The “deliberate practicing” that this type of method requires is painful – but its the only real route to owning a once-unfamiliar cluster of notes at a whole deeper level. This mentality of diligent patience (understanding, attention to detail) that needs to be cultivated, but it yields great results. (Stay tuned for a future post specifically about deliberate practice).
Another side to intentionality that is important to note is having an idea of why you are performing. To win an audition or competition? To satisfy your teacher? To make money? Try to get to the deeper, core values behind what you do. For the love of music? For the joy of performing? Sometimes it becomes easy to forget why we have dedicated so much of our lives to becoming proficient at our instrument, and reminding ourselves of these underlying beliefs and projecting them through the energy we bring to our playing can be both motivating to ourselves and our audiences.

You have to do whatever you have to do to sound good.
You need to be in the mindset where you’re consistently dedicated to producing a beautiful sound on your instrument, and everything you do is in service to making that beautiful sound. When we hear a performer, the first thing we’re struck by is their quality of sound. Does your sound have a dynamic energy to it? (Hint: use more vibrato, and sing right away on your tuning note with the piano – its the first impression you make as a musician).
Ask yourself in any situation, ”what can I do to make it easier to sound good?” In other words, be results oriented – what is going to get you the best results? That might mean breaking so-called “rules.” But as Jim put it, “If that’s what you have to do, that’s what you have to do.” (And breaking the rules to sound good is not breaking the rules, by the way.) Dare for 90% of the sounds you make to be “money” sounds – a sound that you, yourself are passionate and engaged with. Impart some feeling into it. Get the listener involved. Remember, your sound is the fundamental medium for communicating your message, your voice, what you have to say and how you feel about the music.

Expanding your box.
You might have a “lid” on your sound – unintentionally limiting the full extent of the volume or resonance you can produce out of a fear of cracking a note or making a mistake. As Jim stated at one point, “you’re playing cautiously because you don’t want to make a mistake. But just do it, even if that’s tough in this environment.” Making a great sound might require you to expand your comfort zone in a scary situation, to open that lid. Using your voice to your fullest capacity, in fact, might require you to act completely against your nature. We all have our own “nature” (our sense of self). But in order to continue to grow as both performers and humans, we need to give ourselves permission to give yourself the opportunities to expand our own nature. Be in a play, or do an activity that requires you to stand up and deliver/use your voice. Be curious – learn what is completely NOT in your nature… so you can do it.
Learning to use your voice and do things not in your nature doesn’t mean abandoning you who are. (I, for instance, am proud introvert and a more quiet and reflective person by nature. But in order to perform, we have to learn to be like an actor or actress, able to put on different masks and portray different characters or moods in the music. To success to which we channel the energies of those characters and moods depends on the extent to which we use our voice to fully embody those masks and let them become who we have, even if just for the length of the performance. This is my personal next step in the quest to see myself as a performer. My job, especially in this year ahead as I apply to graduate programs, should be to give myself chances to evolve. Yes, its always going to be scary to expand the box, but every time you have a chance to stand a little higher, or use your voice a little louder, dare yourself to do it.

Music as Physical Expression

When I play and perform as a musician, I have a tendency to get locked up in the head, constantly trying to think my way through things by analyzing, looking ahead, and evaluating myself in relation to where I think we should be. Of course, I need to be able to think about the music in order to play it.

But too much analytical thinking detracts me from the playing in itself, which is rooted in physical action and the movement of physical energy. Ever since attending Amy Porter’s Anatomy of Sound flute workshop several weeks ago, I have been becoming more aware of how the head can get in the way of the body when it comes to expressing yourself through music – or for that matter, any mode of physical expression. Here are some of the concepts and ideas I’ve been processing, mostly collected from Jerry Schweibert, author of Physical Expression and the Performing Artist.

Performance as Balancing

Think of performing like walking across a metaphysical tightrope. On one side of the rope is the music’s demand for your focus, for your full attention. On the other side is play, the ability for you to be right in the moment and immersing or “losing” yourself in what it is that the music is conveying to you. A dialectal interaction between two opposing forces, between a left brain and right brain, or a focused and diffuse mode of thinking.

Focus. Performing is about having a specificity of intention. That is, you need to know what exactly it is that you are going to say. To know what your intention is, you have to develop the technique in order to say it effortlessly, you have to practice your music, and how you will say what you want to say. To have specificity of that intention, you have to know the music so well that you don’t need to think about it. Preparation sets you free. Discipline sets you free.

Play. To truly enjoy the music and cultivate a sense of play, we have to let the whole body be available for movement. Having an available body doesn’t mean you have to move, it just means you have that option. Of course, in reality, we are always moving – the natural volume of the body constantly expands and contracts as we breathe in and out. Your muscles extend throughout your body – all of them have to move while you play. In other words, movement is natural if you allow it to just happen!

Too often we try to fix most of our problems by stillness and isolation – but this is the wrong approach. We need to have movement to allow for counterbalance. Muscles work in pairs – when one contracts, the other relaxes. When we don’t allow this natural counterbalance to happen, we get tension. (One way to play with this idea: as you go up, think down.)

If you’re too busy judging yourself, then you’re not truly playing the music. Just celebrate the music. Rather than coming from a fearful place of inadequacy, trust yourself. You already have it in you. Now simply get it out.

Break the Default.

When we want to do a good job, we hold ourselves in a certain way. We to lock ourselves in the perfect “default” position in order to play. The default position feels like a safe spot to be in. It provides just enough tension to make it feel like you’re going to achieve something. However, the default is actually limiting you because your flexibility and capability to engaging in different modes of expression. The audience will get bored if you always use the same tone color, volume, and vibrato.

What happens if you break out of your own default? Guess what – it won’t be the end of the world! Try not to “assume a position.” Just put the flute on your face and play. Experiment, explore – the worst thing that can happen is that you might sound “bad.” You might step over the cliff a few times (i.e., where you can’t get an actual sound/tone/the effect you desire on the flute), but this will teach you where the edge of the cliff is. And you might even notice that where the edge is changes over time.

Making changes in your embouchure and the way you play will be uncomfortable at first, because you’re working muscles in ways that you haven’t had to before. It can be tempting to back out of that discomfort and return to the comfortable default, but you have to play through the discomfort if you want to make changes. (Note: this is not to say that you should “push through it” if a certain action causes physical pain.) Practice going back and forth between the old “default” way and new ways, and noticing the difference between these two states.

Take Up Space.

Compression blocks the flow of air. Don’t start from a compressed place or collapse down when you go to look at the music. How tall can you actually be? When you take in a breath to begin, think about the back of your body breathing, moving, and being just as present as the front. (We hold a lot of the sound in our back. Let it go).

As you play, keep your head suspended on your neck.Take up space in the downwards direction, too. Realize you have a whole lower body under the diaphragm. (You don’t want to be trying to hold all your weight in the upper body – this creates tension in the arms and hands. Practice dropping your elbows down while playing). Keep your ribs open when you breathe out. Stretch out those intercostals as you play to provide yourself with additional support (i.e., playing on a “cushion of air”). Trust that the support will be there.

Remember that when you perform, you own your space (both your body and the stage).  Coming from a grounded place will then allow you to share your space with your audience. Invite them into the experience you want to share.