The second installation of Conversations with Professor Laura Jellicoe of the Royal Northern College of Music.
Question - What exercises would you suggest to a student who has a pretty, but slightly squashed, flute tone?
Hello again everyone, greetings from Manchester, UK – I hope you’re keeping well.
Firstly, I think it’s wonderful to have a pretty sweetness at the core of our sound – after all, we are flute players! But we also need to be able to carry our sound across a massive symphony orchestra, right to the back of the audience, and not get lost along the way! So, alongside finding resonance (which we’ll talk about in another chapter) we need to free up and open the sound as much as we can – and the key here is how we breathe.
I spoke last month about the importance of posture and relaxation when we breathe and when we play, and I’d like to reinforce this again – it’s so crucial, and exciting, to find a ‘state of being’ which is balanced and free, where we are relaxed, lengthened and aligned. This comes partly from understanding how our body works, and from discovering that everything in our body (and in our mind!) is connected.
So firstly, I’d like to suggest a couple of simple ways you can relax your body so that the actual Technique of Breathing can be freer and require less effort, and then I’ll share a few breathing exercises.
1 – Finding balance.
This exercise might help you to find some balance within, and will help when doing the breathing exercises that follow.
Stand up, with your weight evenly distributed throughout your feet. Gently rock back and forth a few times, being aware of how your tummy muscles/core support is working for you, and eventually settle where you feel balanced ie you are not ‘holding’ yourself up. Imagine your shoulders back and down, your chest/ribcage free and open, your neck free, and you have let go of your ankles, knees, hips and pelvis, jaw. Have a little shake until it feels good.
Now take a few slow, full breaths, but this time using your whole body - imagine you’re breathing into your feet, your arms, your tummy, your chest, up and down your back, and imagine your ribs moving freely – imagine your whole body floppy and relaxed, yet full of energy, and the crown of your head reaching to the ceiling.
Goal – to find your most relaxed and balanced position for breathing and playing.
2 – Say goodbye to unnecessary tension
Tension anywhere in the body will affect the breathing, as the following exercise shows.
Stand or sit, and take in a full breath whilst tensing your thighs – how did this feel? Where did it feel restricted? Repeat this a few times until you notice things you maybe haven’t noticed before – think about how tight your throat might feel, or your tummy area, or even your shoulders. Now take in another breath, but this time move the focus of your attention to your thighs and let them go, free them up, find space in there, and even imagine you’re breathing INTO them – I hope this feels a little freer?
Goal – Over time, you want your breath to become freer, easier, more open, fuller, and more connected to your sound, so that you can express the music within you without the breathing getting in the way.
I like to think of the following arrows when breathing –
Breathing in – widen and deepen Breathing out – lengthen spine, be aware of pelvis/diaphragm
moving up inside, but imagine pelvis moving down gently
A few things to note here –
I am using the word ‘imagine’ deliberately – I love this word! Our mind influences so much of what happens in our body, therefore we can change habits and reinvent ourselves simply by choosing where to put the focus of our attention – how good is that?!
Try not to rush your breathing practice. This is YOUR time, so treat these exercises like meditations, do them slowly, mindfully and ENJOY!
For those serious students who would like to go into these issues more deeply, I would thoroughly recommend Lea Pearson’s ‘Body Mapping for Flutists’ book. This book explains our anatomy so clearly, and suggests how we can let go, free up, and start making sure our bodies are working with us – and not against!
I’d love now to share a few breathing exercises which will hopefully be helpful for everyone.
1 - YOGA breathing exercise
This is a brilliant exercise to do first thing in the morning, without the flute. Sitting or standing, in a comfortable position –
Breathe in for 4 seconds
Hold for 4 seconds
Breathe out for 4 seconds
Hold for 4 seconds
Continue this cycle many times, possibly for 10 minutes or even more if you like, until it becomes fluent and effortless.
Things to think about –
Find your balance and centre – this is also a warm-up exercise for your flute practice
Keep your ‘in’ and ‘out’ breaths slow and controlled – they should last for the whole 4 seconds.
You might feel your throat closing or tightening as you hold the breath – this is natural, but keep asking it to let go
Make the transition between each stage as smooth as possible.
Think ‘widen and deepen’ when inhaling, and ‘lengthen and down’ when exhaling.
After a couple of weeks this might be flowing nicely, so you could then start your practice as above but after a couple of minutes increase the time to 6 seconds for each stage. If this feels good a couple of weeks later, move on to 8 seconds, 10 seconds……and eventually 12 seconds – this will take you very deep within yourself and you will know that things are going well!
2 – The “In’s and Out’s” exercise
This is similar to above, but without holding the breath – still without the flute. Write down your own series of numbers, where you breathe in and out for a prescribed amount of time.
Things to think about
1) Keep your breathing and body free and easy – let go of any unwanted tension, imagine your ribs moving freely
2) The exhalation noise (through a flute embouchure) should be the same volume all the way through – make sure the last bit of air is as loud as the first bit, otherwise this is unusable when you play. Imagine a string player moving their bow at the same speed throughout the whole note. To achieve this as a flute player, you need to feel your support working more towards the end of the note.
3) Try to exhale fully, but without letting your throat close.
4) Make the transitions between inhaling and exhaling as smooth as possible.
3 – The “Continuous phrase” exercise
In this exercise, we start to think of the breath as part of the sound and as part of the musical phrase. We want the note to merge into the breath, and the breath to merge into the note. Try to breathe like a goldfish for this exercise! Don’t be afraid to open your mouth, drop your jaw, and imagine space between all your teeth.
Breathe in fully for 1 second, then play a beautiful note for just 2 or 3 seconds. Repeat continuously for a few minutes until this feels easy, changing to a new note whenever you like.
Things to think about
1) Imagine a continuous circle as you breathe in, play, breathe in, play – I like to practise this without the flute first, drawing the shape of a circle with my hands as I breathe in and out continuously. As you breathe in, imagine you are already playing. As you play, imagine you are already breathing in – in other words, you are always thinking about the next stage of the exercise
2) Don’t fully exhale for the first few minutes, as this exercise should feel easy – only use around 2/3 of the breath.
3) Imagine your whole body letting go and opening, your ribs moving freely, your neck released, crown of head towards ceiling, breathing into legs etc.
4) “Widen and deepen” when you breathe in, “lengthen and gently support” when playing.
When this process feels natural, which could take days or weeks, increase the difficulty slightly, in steps
1) gradually lengthen the note – play for 3 seconds, then 4, 5, 6, etc
2) start to make the breath slightly shorter
3) play 2 legato notes ie a short phrase, then 3 notes, 4 notes etc – keep thinking of the continuous musical phrase, which doesn’t want to be disturbed by our breathing.
Again, this exercise can become like a beautiful meditation, as you start to let go – it is so healthy for us on many levels!
4 – Very relaxed breathing
This exercise helps us to both let go, and to not over-breathe. We start by taking the tiniest of breaths, and then gradually begin to increase the amount of air we take in, whilst staying extremely relaxed.
We don’t always need to take massive breaths when playing, so this exercise helps us find out how much we actually need to play each phrase. Practise without the flute first, so that you can focus on how it actually feels for you, then start to play when you’re ready.
Sit or stand comfortably and take a very slow, very small breath - imagine a butterfly breath or just enough to give the softest, lowest sigh possible. Imagine this breath going very low down into your body - think of your diaphragm opening, widening and moving down to the pelvic area, or even as low as your upper legs. Breathe gently into this space. Repeat this several times, until you can feel yourself quietening down.
Stay focussed – you will get more out of this if all your attention is on this exercise.
Take the same, tiny breath plus a little bit extra this time – about enough to play for 1 second.
Keep thinking very low down, with virtually no energy, and this time take just about enough air to play for 2 seconds. And then 3, 4, 5, etc and so on.
Things to think about
1) As you very gradually increase the amount of air you take in, always think of the air firstly filling the ‘down below’ area. As you progress through the exercise, feel your whole tummy/abdominal area opening, at the front, back and sides. Then include the rib-cage – feel this expanding and rising slightly as the breaths get bigger. And even notice a little movement at the top of your chest when you are really filling with air.
2) Spread this exercise out over 10 minutes to get the full benefit. Think - ribs free, diaphragm down and wide, and the whole of the abdominal area open. Enjoy the expansion – hopefully you will now be taking in more air than usual, and feeling a little more relaxed than usual.
If you’ve kept with me so far – bravo! There are many more exercises to help with breathing, but I think that’s enough for now!
Some final thoughts –
1) Don’t be confined to ‘normal’ sitting or standing positions when you are playing. It’s very useful to try these exercises in positions ‘outside the box’. Try
a) leaning against a wall, with your legs bent into a sitting position – this takes the stress off your shoulders, and you might feel much freer.
b) squatting down, sitting on your ankles or the balls of your feet– this is very good for all-round ‘letting go’.
c) sitting on a chair with your upper body leaning forward and down over your knees – this helps to open out your back and therefore expand your breathing capacity.
d) lying on your back on the floor, possibly with a cushion under your upper thighs – this gives your whole body chance to re-group and settle – you could do this for up to 25 minutes if you have the time.
And walk around while you’re playing - this is great physically, mentally and musically!
I really hope that some of these exercises will be helpful for you, and that you can find some time every day to devote to them. At the end of the day, by breathing well we are better able to express the music – and that’s what it’s all about!
Take care, and most importantly - enjoy making music.
Laura’s career as a flautist has taken her all over the world, playing with many of the UK’s top orchestras and ensembles. She won 1st prize in the 1992 British Flute Society’s International Young Artist Competition, chaired by Sir James Galway, joined the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra at only 22, and is currently Principal Flute with the English Symphony Orchestra.
She has also played with orchestras such as the BBC Symphony, including at the ‘Last Night of the Proms’ and many other Proms concerts, and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, with whom she has toured Europe. She has broadcast on radio and tv many times, and can be heard on recordings such as the complete Beethoven Symphonies with Sir Charles Mackerras, the Bax Symphonies conducted by Vernon Handley, Delius with Richard Hickox, and Faure, Kodaly, Nielsen with the RLPO.
Alongside playing, Laura has a real passion for teaching, and for passing on what she has learnt both in the profession and from her previous tutors (Michael Cox, Clare Southworth, Peter Lloyd, Richard Davis, Kate Hill). She had 10 wonderful years teaching at the internationally renowned Chetham’s School of Music, and is now Head of Flute at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, following in the footsteps of Trevor Wye and Peter Lloyd. Her goal when teaching is to try to bring out the expressive voice of each individual student – this involves letting go of all tension, finding good posture and balance, developing a relaxed breathing technique, and developing resonance. Many of her ex-students are now enjoying professional orchestral positions or a busy freelance career, and one of her greatest joys is turning up to a gig to find herself sat next to one of them!
Laura has given many masterclasses over the years to students at the UK conservatoires and universities, including the Royal Academy of Music in London, and also to students in New York, Hong Kong, Italy, London etc, and she is currently setting up her own flute course. She is also a conductor, and has coached many orchestral youth Wind sections, working regularly with musicians from Chethams, the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, and RNCM. She has been on the panel for competitions such as BBC Young Musician of the Year, the British Flute Society and Feis Coeil competition in Dublin.