ArticlesEducationFeaturedIssuesMay 2021

Conversations about Flute Playing with Laura Jellicoe

Laura Jellicoe has appeared as Guest Principal with the BBC Philharmonic, Hallé and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestral, and has performed as a soloist with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, amongst others. As a conductor she has worked with Manchester Camerata and the RLPO, with which she has recorded three CDs, and is currently Music Director of Cheshire Youth Orchestra. Laura studied at the RNCM (and Junior RNCM) and privately with Marzio Conti in Italy. Competition successes include the British Flute Society Young Artist award, chaired by James Galway, and reaching the final of both the BBC and Radio 2 Young Musician of the Year. During her studies, Laura was appointed Sub-Principal Flute with the RLPO, later spending three years as Acting Principal. In addition to her role at the RNCM, Laura is also a Tutor in Flute and Chamber Music at Chetham’s School of Music.

Part 1 –  Posture, Breathing, Support.

“I've noticed that you have very specific ways of helping students with their sound, support, vibrato and embouchure (all connected for sure).  For today, can you tell us how you discuss breathing and basic support?  What are some of your techniques and building blocks for developing these strengths in your students?”

Hello Barbara and everyone! Thanks for asking me to join you from across the Pond today - I’m really excited to be chatting to you and your readers about these issues because they are so central to our flute playing, and I’m so passionate about them in my own teaching. 

The first thing to say is that probably the most useful gift a teacher can give their student is a decent breathing technique – this will last a lifetime.

It sounds so simple, and in many ways it is! The challenge is that most of us aren’t taught this as we start to play, so we develop bad habits which become ingrained in our bodies as we go on and become more difficult to fix. But the good news is that it is absolutely possible to change these habits and develop new ones – it just takes a lot of patience and desire!

When a new student of any standard or experience comes to me for a lesson, we go back to the beginning in terms of posture, breathing and support. These players might be youngsters in their early years of learning, or professional players who, although they might be getting really good work in professional orchestras, deep down realise something doesn’t feel quite right and they want to address it now. I have such admiration for these players, and have seen amazing transformations to their playing once they have had the courage to re-think their basic set-up.

Posture, breathing and support are of course fundamentally linked, so the first thing we do is try to find the most comfortable and relaxed posture for each flute player. Nowadays, there is so much information out there to help us with these issues, and I encourage students to look seriously at things such as Alexander Technique, Body Mapping, Yoga and Pilates.

Alexander Technique is, thankfully, now becoming part of the curriculum in so many of the world’s top music schools and colleges. “Lengthening the spine”, where we imagine the crown of our head reaching towards the ceiling whilst feeling grounded through our feet, is central to its philosophy – most of us become more and more slumped as we go through life, but this technique tries to take us back to the posture we had as babies. Next time you have the opportunity, take a look at a toddler sitting on the floor and notice the shape of their spine. Then be aware of your own spine. When our spine is allowed to lengthen, and our joints (ankles, knees, hips, shoulders etc) are unlocked and find space, our breathing apparatus frees up, and we are able to breathe more fully.

Going back to a typical lesson with a new student, after hearing them play I would probably start by saying how important posture, breathing and support are to our flute playing. I would look at how they are standing, and notice how free and balanced they might or might not be. I would briefly describe very basic anatomy, mainly thinking about where our ribs, lungs, tummy muscles and diaphragm are within our bodies, and how they are connected. (This is discussed brilliantly in Lea Pearson’s “Body Mapping for Flutists” book, which I highly recommend.) I ask the student to place their hands on various parts of their body eg lower tummy, upper side ribs, back etc, and ask them to be aware of what happens as they breathe calmly and naturally. This can be done either sitting at the front of a chair with a straight back, or by standing in a balanced position with unlocked ankles, knees, hips and shoulders, or by lying on the floor with knees slightly raised – however the student feels more comfortable.

You can also do this leaning forward in a chair, with head and shoulders falling between your knees; stay there for a few breaths until you feel your body letting go, then take a few slow, deep breaths and feel your whole rib cage opening up at the back, front and sides – we want to emulate this feeling when we take the flute and start to play. As with so many things in life, daily repetition of this practice will help it to become more natural.

Then either sitting or standing, we would gradually start to breathe more deeply, but whilst keeping the feeling of openness, balance and relaxation throughout our whole body. When this is feeling good, we take our flute and play some long notes, but we are now focussed on the actual Technique of Breathing, rather than the tone itself – we will think more about the tone another time, ie we have moved the focus of our attention to our body and breathing, and want to feel different to normal. By this stage, hopefully the student is enjoying this new state of relaxation, and is able to take this feeling into their personal practice, although of course it needs reinforcing each lesson.

Over the next lessons, we would then move on to various exercises to help expand our lung capacity, and over time we learn how to fully exhale and develop our deep breathing whilst staying relaxed. We all know breathing is so crucial to our playing, and I can’t imagine ever giving a lesson where we don’t work on breathing at some point!

Once the breathing and posture are developing well, and are feeling more free and more instinctive, it’s time to move on to learning about ‘Support’. However, if the posture and breathing have been well set up, support comes much more easily and naturally, and it isn’t such a big deal – in a nutshell, I think of it as ‘switching on’ the lower tummy muscles about 30% (as they discuss in a Pilates class) as you blow out – it’s simply a natural way of using our bodies to expel the air in a controlled way. Let’s discuss the topic of ‘Support’ in more detail another time – I’d love to share some exercises with you.

I hope that’s given a bit of an overview of my thoughts on these subjects - I look forward to discussing in more detail in our future chats.

All the best to everyone – please try to stay relaxed, and notice your breathing while you’re lying in bed tonight. Remember that with thoughtful practice, and dedication, anything is possible. As I heard a great flautist say recently with regards to practice - it’s now or never!

This month starts my new column called Conversations. Each month I will discuss flute pedagogy and interview an amazing flutist/pedagogue. I’m starting with Laura Jellicoe, the professor of flute at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England.  With the pandemic raging and my overseas students worried about being able to attend graduate school in the US, I wanted to find out about professors at the UK schools. I asked my favourite Scotsman, Stephen Clark and he recommended Laura Jellicoe, and thankfully she agreed to teach at last summer’s and this winter’s virtual intensive.  She is a brilliant and astonishing teacher, and the students learned so much from her (I did too).  I asked her if she would be willing to speak about her teaching techniques with The Flute View community and she agreed.  This is the first of a series of discussions that we will be having. 

Barbara Siesel

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