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 as a Body Mapping specialist, the most regularly asked questions I receive revolve around breathing.
Where can I breathe?
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 over the past several months. Like swimming, my other favorite fitness activity, yoga is filled with benefits. In yoga, our breath is integral to help us move through various poses. Last week our instructor Deb had trouble getting her iTunes to connect with the sound system. We continued without music and simply with the sound of her voice and of our breath. She repeatedly used the words “victorious breath,” and reminded us how “nourishing” our breath can be. I am well aware of the interconnectedness with breathing and movement but something clicked that morning and I was able to access my breath in a new way. I left class feeling lighter and totally rejuvenated. Although slightly editorialized, here are a few more breathing related gems I’ve picked up in class over the past week:
Use the breath to help us through difficulties.
When attempting something challenging, or even falling out of a tricky pose, keep breathing, pick ourselves up, and try again.
Let our breath lead our bodies.
Trace the flow of our breath.
I love this. So helpful and 100% applicable for flutists.
We flutists spend a lot of time worrying about where to breathe in a piece of music. Maybe it’s because of the teachers who have preached the consequences of what will happen if we can’t play L’Après-midi d’un faune in one breath. Or the disapproving glare whenever we can’t quite make it through Mendelssohn Scherzo and try to creatively sneak another breath. It’s almost like we’re waiting for someone to give us permission to breathe.
We ultimately need to organize ourselves around a musical intention so we can figure out where it makes the most musical sense to breathe. Pushing past the point of your abilities, beyond appropriate effort, can and likely will set you up for a host of unwanted tension. It’s like the young beginner flute player who practically does a back bend in order to finish the end of their phrase just to prove they didn’t have to take another breath. This creates a chain reaction of compensatory tension; your brain tells you this is the new norm and the seeds for a not so good habit are planted.
Instead, give yourself permission to 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 lecture; it simply is what is.
- Breathing is natural and automatic and is not something that needs overthinking.
- 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. BTW, food goes down the esophagus, which is the tube behind your trachea. So, you never need to gulp air, in fact doing so can create tension in your throat and the front of your neck.
- 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. Think 360° when breathing.
- Your diaphragm travels downward upon inhalation and naturally recoils and springs 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 in and out.
- 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 put air there. Allow for the naturally occurring 360° movement in your abdominal area as you breathe.
- 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.
Draping over a large physio ball is an excellent way to explore breathing and get things 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. Draw your awareness inward and notice what moves.
There are many useful resources to help further your understanding of breathing. A few of my favorites are Amy Likar’s Breathing Book for Flute, Jessica Wolf’s Art of Breathing, Lea Pearson’s Body Mapping for Flutists, and Amy Likar and Barbara Conable’s Move Well, Avoid Injury.
With the beginning of this new year, set a new intention to get out of your way to find your victorious breath!
Happy New Year and happy practicing!
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. She is the course coordinator for The Complete 21st Century Flutist at CSU Summer Arts, a biennial summer flute course taking place again this July 2020 at CSU Fresno. As a licensed Body Mapping educator, she presents Body Mapping workshops all over the world. An active California based freelance musician, Rena is also a member of the Oakland Symphony, the Oregon Coast Music Festival Orchestra, and Alcyone Ensemble. She enjoys balancing her time between her homes in the Chicago area and California’s Central Valley with her husband John and their beagle Lillie. For more information about Rena and Body Mapping tips, please visit www.renaurso.com.