Breath Practices for Flute Players
When we think of an accomplished musician, finger dexterity is often the first image that comes to mind. However, if you ask accomplished woodwind players, they will often say that breath control is the core skill that needs to be developed.
Over the years, I have been exposed to many approaches and exercises for developing breath control. I've taken those exercises that have been most valuable for me and shared them in teaching settings and in the Native American flute workshops that Vera and I facilitate. This page offers a description of those practices. Of course, the best scenario is to learn these in a live setting with an instructor who is familiar with these practices. However, I'm hoping that most people can pick them up from the descriptions on this page.
This page provides five breath control exercises (or “practices”) that have really helped develop the tone, vibrato, and articulation of many Native American flute players (including me!)
One exercise, Long Tones, is a core practice used by classical woodwind players, and was developed fairly recently. The other exercises come from the practice of Pranayama - a branch of yoga that is centered primarily on breath exercises.
Prana literally means “air” or “lifeforce” but has come to mean anything that is an expression of our aliveness. The practice of Pranayama dates back to at least the era of the Bhagavad Gītā [bah-gah-vahd gee-tah] (Sanskrit: भगवद्गीता; literally the “Divine Song of God”), a Hindu scripture written in Sanskrit between 500-100 BCE ([Zaehner 1973], page 7). Pranayama is described in Chapter 4, Verse 29, and sung here in the original language, courtesy of Bhagavad-Gita Online:
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Apane juhvati pranam
prane ’panam tathapare
pranan pranesu juhvati
(Bhagavad Gītā 4:29)
As with all life practices, these exercises can be seen in the larger context improving your well-being and connection to self, not just in becoming a better flute player. As such, take your time with them. You might spend a month on one, integrating into a daily practice session or doing it during “down time” on public transportation or calling on it during a tense situation. Get to know each exercise: how it is done, how long to practice it, and how your body and mind respond to it.
My thanks goes to Vásken Kalayjian, Allison Gemmel of Kripalu Institute, Paul Butler, and Cornell Kinderknecht for teaching me the basics of many of these techniques.
A few things to note about the breath control exercises on this page:
- The description of these exercises are my own approach and slant, and may be different from the exercises as described by other teachers.
- Some teachers caution against use of some of the exercises, in particular Kapalabhati and Bhastrika, if you are pregnant or menstruating, or have colitis, emphysema, a hernia, uncontrolled high blood pressure, a recent surgery, or other medical conditions that may be aggravated by these exercises. Use caution and check with your doctor and an experienced yoga teacher if you have questions or concerns.
- These exercises are at the service of you and your music. Feel free to use them and modify them in any way you wish. There is no one “right” way to do them!
There are many ways of drawing in and releasing breath from your body, so begin by getting to know your current breath process. A good way to do this is to place your hand on various parts of your body as you breath normally. Breathing normally is the challenging part! The minute you start observing your breath, there is a strong impulse to modify how your breathe.
So try this exercise at various times of the day when you are engaging in typical activities: driving, walking, watching television, talking on the telephone, and (of course) playing flute. Just place one hand on these parts of your body and become aware how they move when you breathe:
- the center of your belly, over your navel
- the center of your lower back (most easily done with the back of your hand)
- the sides of your body at the level of your navel
- place both hands on your diaphragm area - slightly to the sides at the level where your rib cage meets your abdomen
- in the center of your chest, over your breast bone
- over your throat
Dirga is a pranayama exercise that develops your ability to fill your lungs completely. The word “dirga” means “slow and deep”.
The first goal is to fill your belly with breath - “belly breathing” - which is not a common practice for most people raised in Western cultures. One technique to develop this first stage of dirga is to place one hand, palm down, over your navel and the other hand, palm up, over the center of your lower back.
... photo of hand positions …
As with breath awareness (above), observe how your draw in and exhale your breath. Do your hands move closer together as you breathe in? If so, you are most likely breathing into your chest area. The goal of belly breathing is to expand your belly as you inhale, so that your hands move farther apart. You might try focusing on making this happen, or you could even use your hands to guide your breath, pressing your hands gently together.
After you are comfortable with belly breathing (and that could take a long time - remember that these are life practices), focus on filling the upper parts of your chest after your belly is full. First fill the area in your lower rib cage and then your upper chest. The traditional practice of Dirgha pranayama is a three-part breath.
There may be other areas that can draw in breath. This may be particularly valuable for flute players when you wish to hold a very long tone or play a long passage. Many people can draw additional breath by expanding the area around their kidneys, in their lower back on the sides and a good way around the back towards the spine.
The ujjayi breath adds sound to the basic dirgha breath.
Begin practicing dirga and exhale through your mouth as if you were trying to fog a mirror in front of your lips. Create a gentle contraction in the back of your throat and listen for an "ocean sound" like the water on a beach as it recedes back over the sand.
When you are comfortable with creating the ocean sound with open lips, try closing your lips and continuing to make the ujjayi sound.
Then, try expanding the sound so that it encompasses both the inhale and exhale, all the while maintaining a relaxed and natural dirgha breath.
For flute players, the natural extension of dirgha and ujjayi breath practices are to add long tones on a flute. While this exercise may sound simplistic, especially after you've been playing for a while, realize that many experienced and accomplished woodwind players use this as a core daily practice.
The Native American flute is particularly good for this practice, since you simply breathe into the flute and the mind does not become distracted with trying to form an embouchure.
Pick a mid-range flute that is comfortable to hold in one hand. You might start this practice on a flute with a fair amount of back-pressure and progress to flutes with less back-pressure.
The idea of long tone practice is simplicity: no vibrato, no fancy articulation or attacks, no change in volume. You can hold the flute in one hand and use the or fingering. Inhale with the dirgha breath and exhale with a clean "Haaa" attack on the note. Then hold the note, working towards a smooth, even sound with no variation in volume. When you are near, but not at, the end of your breath, try making a “round” ending to the note, so that it drops off smoothly and cleanly into silence. The idea is not to be gasping for air at the end of the note, but to end the note while you still have a bit of air remaining and before there is any tension to begin the inhale.
Even players with a lot of experience will find this exercise challenging at first!
Of course, listening to your sound is a key part of this exercise. To hear yourself better, you might try standing in front of a wall so that the sound from the flute is reflected back to your ears. When you can hear yourself clearly, try moving back a step or two and keep your focus on the sound coming from the wall. This is an adaptation of an exercise used by public speakers.
Over time, gradually move further and further from the wall, while keeping your focus on the reflected sound. If you can do this in a large hall such as a gymnasium, and auditorium, or some other cavernous space with a flat back wall, you can really enjoy the game!
The goal is to develop your projection of sound and focus of listening so that it always encompasses the entire space in front of you.
A particularly challenging part of long tones for many players is the end of the note. Each flute is different, but there is a common technique that works on most flutes to help make a smooth, round sound at the end of the breath. See Air Bleed for a description of this technique.
Kapalabhati is another pranayama practice that combines a strong, forceful exhalation with a soft, passive inhalation. It helps to reduce tension on the inhale (i.e. “gulping air”) when playing passages that you would like to have only short breaks between phrases.
Begin with a deep dirgha breath and exhale forcefully through your nostrils by contracting your abdominal muscles. Now change gears completely for the inhalation: fully relax your belly and let your abdomen fill naturally with air. The frequency of breath cycles is not important here - you can practice Kapalabhati breaths as fast or as slow as you like, keeping the exercise comfortable.
See cautions (above) regarding health issues and the practice of Kapalabhati.
This final practice adds physical motion to the breath, and uses a strong inhalation as well as a strong exhalation.
Bend your elbows and raise your hands in soft fists up to shoulder level. As you inhale strongly, raise your arms over your head and open your hands. When you exhale strongly, bring your hands back down to shoulder level and into soft fists. Continue these cycles, keeping your arm motions in coordination with your breath.
Rather than strongly emphasizing both the inhale and exhale, you can choose to emphasize and focus on just the inhale or just the exhale for some of the cycles. However you practice it, keep a focus on how your body, attention, and energy react to Bhastrika.
And, once again, see cautions (above) regarding health issues and the practice of Bhastrika.
Also, see Kathleen Joyce-Grendahl's article, Breathing as a Musician ([Joyce-Grendahl 2009]).