Updated: Aug 20, 2021
The way we breathe when playing a wind instrument such as the flute is really the foundation of our performance.
Breath Support is the physiological process used to control sound production. How we control our respiratory muscles to breathe in and out to then regulate air flow, speed and pressure. You need to use the diaphragm, which is the primary muscle involved in the breathing process. The location of this dome-shaped muscle is below the lungs and heart, and it is contracting continuously while we breathe in an out.
The benefit of using breath support when playing gives players much better control over
intonation, dynamics, pitch, endurance, fuller tone quality, vibrato and a better high quality of playing. Basically the overall message is - if you want to be a great player, you need to harness breath support and control.
During flute playing, we need to extend the duration and power of exhalation and increase the volume of our inhalation over and above our normal breathing requirements.
In the absence of ‘support’ and when lung volume is lowest means you run out of air, and begin forcing it out and using that ‘leftover air’ The sound gets strangled, and you start to panic as you realise you can’t play to the end of the phrase.
There are three types of breath.
The Super-Deluxe luxury breath where you have a lot of time to take a breath e.g. at the start of pieces.
The snatched breath where you just suck in enough to get you to a convenient spot.
Finally the normal breath where the music allows and the action of breathing doesn’t interfere with the flow and the listener would find it hard to detect it.
How can we maximise our breath support...
Good posture. Standing up straight, neck and back lengthened, shoulders down and chest up, feet planted firmly on the ground and approximately hip distance apart. Your rib cage needs to be free to fully expand. Without the correct posture the rib cage is not free to expand to its full potential and the air stream will be constricted as it leaves the body
Yoga is a great way to achieve correct posture and correct breathing
Lie on your back and put a book or your flute case on your stomach. Breath out and then breath in deeply again, visualising filling your lungs from the bottom-up. Watch how your stomach (and your book) rises and rib cage expands when breathing in. Your shoulders shouldn’t tense up. Hold this ‘full’ position for a few seconds and then while breathing out slowly, try to keep the book up in the air for as long as you can.
We need to practice inhalation and exhalation for two different flute playing scenarios. A deep, leisurely breath at the beginning of pieces or a quick, snatched breath between phrases as you play. To gradually increase your overall lung capacity for that leisurely breath, try breathing in for an increasing number of counts and then out over an increasing number of counts. (Remember to expand your rib cage out and fill those lungs from the bottom.)For example breathe in for 4, hold your breath for 4, and then breathe out for 4. Then increase the counts. For that snatched breath, try breathing in for shorter and shorter periods, and breathing out for the same length. For example: In for 8 out for 8, then in for 6 out for 8, then in for 4 out for 8, then in for 2 out for 8, then in for 1 out for 8.
We are not only improving our flute playing by breathing properly, but also our health will be benefited. Short and superficial breathing with incomplete exhalations will make you feel more anxious and will negatively affect your health in the long term. Developing breath control will help you to keep calm and manage your emotions much better. After all, breathing has been used as the main tool in most meditation techniques, because focusing our attention on breathing helps greatly to quiet our minds. This explains why playing the flute with breath control can help us to get into meditative states easily and achieve deep relaxation.