Musicians are always in search of the magic pill that will help us do what we do, better. In my work as an educator, both as a university flute instructor and Body Mapping specialist, the most regularly asked questions I receive are about breathing.
Can I take a breath in this phrase, and if so, where?
How do I eliminate some of the breaths that I’ve marked in?
How do I breathe properly?
I’ve thrown myself more deeply into yoga this past year. Like swimming, my other favorite form of exercise, the benefits of yoga are plentiful. In yoga, we use our breath to move through this pose or that. I’m reminded of a class several months back with a favorite yogi, Deb Wineman. Deb had trouble getting her music to work that morning, so we continued without music and simply with the sound of her voice and of our breath. I loved it. I enjoy the gift of silence and not feeling like I have to underscore my every activity with a soundtrack. At that class, I really felt like I was able to direct my attention inward, connect with my breath in a new way, and use it to guide me through the more challenging poses. Deb used the words “victorious breath,” reminding us how “nourishing” our breath can be. This especially resonated with me. It also made me think of something another yogi said in a recent class; to use our breath to help us through difficulties; attempting a new or challenging pose, maybe even falling out of it, picking ourselves up to try again, always using our breath to help us and lead our bodies.
Use our breath to help us through difficulties, indeed. We all could benefit from that right now!
Such valuable advice and totally applicable for flutists.
Why do we flutists worry so much about where to breathe in a piece of music? Is it because we’ve had teacher after teacher preach the consequences of not playing L’Après-midi d’un faune in one breath? Or wave a finger of disapproval if we’re not able to make it through Mendelssohn Scherzo? My gift to you all is this: I’m giving everyone permission to breathe. Sure, you need to figure out where it makes the most musical sense to do so, but here’s the thing; if you push past the point of your abilities and what is in your comfort zone, beyond appropriate effort, guess what happens? You create unwanted tension by squeezing, gripping, and tensing up, just so you can make it through the phrase. It’s like the young beginner flute player who practically does a backbend in order to finish the end of their phrase just to prove they didn’t have to take another breath. We’ve all seen this, and it creates a chain reaction of compensatory tension, often planting the seeds for a new, not so good habit. Your brain tells you this is the new norm: pushing through tension to get to the end of the phrase by whatever means necessary.
Here’s another option: breathe.
To help demystify some of the various breathing misconceptions, here is quick and simple explanation of what happens anatomically when we breathe. This is not a pedagogical discussion. It simply is what is.
First, understand that breathing is natural and involuntary. It’s not something that needs overthinking, it happens automatically. Right here in this very moment as you read this your brain is sending signals saying “hey, it’s time to take a breath” and you breathe. Simple, right?
You take in air through your nose and/or mouth, which then travels down your trachea (the front tube on the front of your neck), and into your lungs.
Your ribs travel upward and outward upon inhalation and downward and inward upon exhalation. It’s essential to allow for this movement, because anything that limits your rib movement means you won’t be free to take in a full, nourishing and victorious breath!
Your lungs take in air like a sponge takes in liquid; uniformly, not from top to bottom or bottom to top. Further, your lungs are everywhere your ribs are, from your collar bones to the bottom of your ribs, and no further.
Yes, air also goes into the backside of your lungs as well, because everywhere your ribs are, your lungs are, too, as well as your heart, which is nestled between your two lungs. This is why when we feel anxious, it is vital to draw our attention to breathing because slow, steady inhalations and exhalations will help restore our heartrate.
Your diaphragm travels downward upon inhalation and naturally springs back upward upon exhalation. The reciprocal movement that occurs, by virtue of our diaphragm’s excursion, is that of our pelvic floor, which moves in a similar way as we breathe.
And, speaking of the diaphragm, it divides your thoracic cavity, where your lungs and heart live, from your abdominal cavity, where your organs live. This means, you do not have lungs in your abdominal cavity. (So, please stop trying to force air there). Allow for a 360° movement to naturally occur in your abdominal area as your lungs take in air, also in a 360° way, and of course, the movement of your diaphragm and its natural excursion downward.
Your spine is also an important part of your breathing; it gathers on inhalation and lengthens on exhalation. You don’t want to manufacture this movement in any way, it happens naturally, so simply allow it to do so.
Find your collar bones. Now, find the bottom of your ribs including your floating ribs. Put your hands on the sides of your ribs and follow your breath for a moment of two. Feel that movement? Allow for that. Draping over a large physio ball is an excellent way to explore breathing and get your air moving before you being playing. While on your knees, drape yourself over your physio ball, turning your head to whichever side feels most natural, and breathe. Avoid hugging the ball, rather let your arms be wherever things are most free and easy.
There are many useful resources to help further your understanding of breathing. A few favorites are Amy Likar’s Breathing Book for Flute, Jessica Wolf’s Art of Breathing, and Amy Likar and Barbara Conable’s Move Well, Avoid Injury.
Set a new intention for yourself right now, to get out of your way to find your victorious breath. You’ll be so glad you did.
Rena Urso is a member of the faculties at California State University Long Beach and California State University Stanislaus, and a Course Coordinator for California State University Summer Arts – home to her popular biennial summer flute course, The Complete 21st Century Flutist at CSU Summer Arts. An active freelance musician in the San Francisco Bay Area, she is a member of the Oakland Symphony, the Oregon Coast Music Festival Orchestra, and Alcyone Ensemble. As a Licensed Body Mapping educator, she presents Body Mapping workshops and masterclasses all over the world. She is also a certified Yoga and Meditation Instructor. Rena lives in the Chicago area with her husband John and their dogs Lillie and Po.