Have you ever wondered what they actually mean
when they say “use your diaphragm” ?
And once we get what that means, is diaphragmatic breathing really all it takes for flutists?
Or is there more to playing the flute with “good and adequate support”?
Air is our bow, so it is the basis of our sound and playing. And moreover, breathing is the fundamental activity of life.
Playing the flute touches the soul of so many people and can even result seductive, because it is so close to the basic movements of life. So enjoy learning more about it and use it carefully.
Make sure to use the breathing technique that best fits the expression you aim for.
Is chest breathing bad?
Chest breathing is what we use in everyday life. When we are stressed it can become a very limited flat breathing to the uppermost part of our chest.
When we panic we will just stop breathing at all or hyperventilate.
That is all part of chest breathing and life itself.
It is not bad at all, we develop muscles that we train just by living. Our rips are not fixed and can expand outward, the more we train those muscles. It is in fact the way back inwards that we need to control and delay. It is exhaling what is most interesting to a flutist.
But we usually use only the front part and not our back. So it is limited and not useful for playing any instrument just as it is. We need to become conscious of that and also develop our back breathing. We can do so, just by sitting in a chair or in a seat, leaning backwards.
You should try to feel your backbone moving away from the resistance you are leaning on by inhaling. As easy as that. You can train that while traveling, in class or meetings, even in orchestral rehearsals.
Once you are familiar with the feeling of expanding your lungs all around you and not just in front, we can start training delayed and controlled airflow outside, exhaling.
You can use any consonant (s, f , sh) for counting seconds and training to make it at least to 20 sec.
Diaphragmatic breathing – technique and benefits
Now we are ready to take a deep breath, literally. Put a hand on your stomach and tray to breath against it, your tummy moving outwards. It this seems weird, try to lean on anything at your abdominal height (table, the fist of a friend…) and you will immediately feel you abdominal muscles activate to prevent pain from the inward pressure. This activation is what you need to feel. Inhaling is active, and the deeper, the more energy and muscles we need.
What happens anatomically is that your diaphragm, a muscle underlying your lungs and preventing your stomach from moving upward, is lying relaxed as a limit between the abdomen and its contents and the lungs and chest. When you inhale your chest will expand forward, and only when you did the previous exercise right, also backwards. But the diaphragm is not moved automatically. We need to breath “into our stomach”, which just means that our lungs expand downwards as well by activating the diaphragm in a downward movement and sucking in the air. The abdominal content need to go somewhere, so the belly expands.
But it doesn’t just move forward, if we do it correctly, and yes, you might have guessed it, it will also move outwards on the back, above our hips. There is plenty of space, and the lungs can expand for many liters of air.
That is inhaling. Exhaling in the anatomical and medical sense is relaxation, the stomach and abdominal content goes back to where it was, the rips go back inside and also the diaphragm turns to its original place.
This technique leaves us with a lot of oxygen, muscle movement and awareness. In itself it is very powerful and can be studied anywhere and at any time. Make sure you use both, chest and abdominal breathing and you become aware of how they work together. This calms you down and anchors you in the present. It prevents anxiety and helps with stressful situations. So actually, we flutists are blessed! We get to study playing the instrument and coping with performance anxiety at the same time!
Improve a flutist’s abdominal diaphragmatic breathing
So we have covered the inhaling part of breathing. What about exhaling?
You are perfectly right. This is what serves us the most when playing the flute. But only if we inhaled consciously and deeply as explained earlier. Otherwise, exhaling is close to playing your flute in apnea, which means not controlling anything, from sound to intonation and phrasing.
So what we need to do is from exhaling like before in the chest breathing section, just for a long time on a consonant, we have to move on to controlling the airflow.
This will also lead to a beautiful alive sound with natural vibrato, which will become our business card.
So now we will feel where the control is based in our body by:
- exhaling on continuous airflow introducing a pulsation with a combination of consonants like ts, ch, tsh…
- doing the same while kneeling down, elongating the air column by stretching our backbone
- doing the same while leaning with every part of the pack to a wall, knees bent as much as needed
- leaning onto a table or friends fist with the lower part of the belly, just atop of the public zone
And there is still more to it. Every time you pronounce a new pulsation with the consonant combination chosen, try to move you belly outward. This and the above exercises stimulate what we need to develop:
Active exhaling to play the flute expressively using diaphragmatic breathing technique
ACTIVE EXHALINHG is different from what medicine and anatomy teach us.
Exhaling is passive to them.
But we need to activate it to be able to control it and use it in a communicative way. So how do we do that?
What parts of exhaling do we need to train?
- angle of the airflow outward your lips : how do we study that? There is a fun way of practicing it, it’s called air football! You simply take a piece of paper and make a light and fist-size ball of it, put it in the middle of a table and on both ends of it, kneeling down, there are two players competing to make goal, all you can use is your breath and you can also only stop the ball with your breath. Goal is the opposite side of the table, where your opponent is kneeling just with his face above the table, like you.
- velocity of the airflow is determined with how far the air has to travel, how much air is sent up, how much space it has and how big the pressure is. You can train it with the game above, moving the paper ball a long way at high speed
- volume of airflow is determined by your lips opening and your throat just like the connected elements of velocity and pressure. It doesn’t matter if it comes from your chest or abdomen though. It is only important only when you need high volume for a prolonged time to make sure it comes from where there is more (so a complete inhalation).
- Pressure this is the product of gaining high speed on a short way up and having a small opening where to pass, it is what you need in table-soccer to make a goal, a lot of pressure, right angle and planning. This is also what you need for the right intonation and expressive playing.
All these aspects are very important for phrasing, intonation, articulation, sound quality and vibrato use.
On the latter aspect please get more insight and help with exercises on my vibrato special.
So in general, how you use those 4 parts (angle, velocity, volume, pressure) of exhaling and your muscles to control and activate them, determines your overall ability to play the flute and the sound quality.
Another way of thinking about controlling exhaling would be to imagine inhaling at the same time. That activates your diaphragm to move downward while actually letting out just as much air as you wish, at the right speed, pressure and volume.
Those are then further refined on the airflow’s way up through your body by encountering limitations, tensions or obstacles. We will speak more about the other three controlling points to your perfect sound in the next articles.
For now there are two more observations I’d like to share with you:
- the right feeling of controlling your pubic zone, activating the diaphragm in a downward direction even when exhaling, is only when you imagine going to the loo. Yes, that’s right! Imaging controlling your “fluids and solids” way out of your body and you will use the right muscles!! (a horrified student told me, she imagines riding a bike uphill to activate those muscles. this is more horrifying to me ;))
- only when you train your diaphragmatic breathing right you will develop some strong abdominal muscles. Be sure to relax them now and then, because you need them to be flexible, not just strong!
Breathing is natural and should be used for expressive reasons
Whenever you play, you are alive and playing with the very essence of life: air.
Be sure to get acquainted with it and familiar to how it feels in your body. Use it, don’t be afraid of it.
Use it also in your every day life, when talking, thinking or stressing out.
You are in control and you know where it resides. Use it for phrasing. The just length of a phrase is where your breath takes you.
Don’t worry about circular breathing, worry about what you can say in one breath, with words and notes. Do it right, or at least with intention. Don’t waste not even one breath in vain.
Breathing is life, playing the flute is magic and owning life.
So be proud and aware, play to add value to the world, study to become conscious. It is a sport, it is life, expression, virtuosity, and so much more. It is what you make of it!
If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below and I will get back to you!
I would love to hear what you think.
Happy flute life,