How to cure unintentional vibrato 2: running out of breath

In March I posted an article about how to cure unintentional vibrato when playing recorder. I talked about the misconceptions people have about how to breathe. In this post, I want to take that a step further, and discuss length of breath. Fear of running out of breath is a major concern for a lot of players, but you may be surprised to learn that the solution to it is a little counterintuitive. Almost as counterintuitive as putting water all over the wind way on your recorder!

We shouldn't think of ourselves like this fuel gauge - running out of breath is normal.

Fear of running out of breath

If you have a long phrase ahead of you, do you worry that you’ll run out of breath? What does that do to you physically? I’m willing to bet that it causes you to feel anxious. You may feel your heart rate spike. Your chest and shoulder muscles may well tense up, and your shoulders might raise. And I’m fairly certain that you’ll try to take a truly MASSIVE breath.

As you play the phrase, it’s likely that you’ll not really be thinking about the notes you’re playing; you’re thinking about your breath. It’s almost as if you have a little ‘breath gauge’ – like the fuel gauge in a car – and you can see it slipping down towards zero. And the one thing I bet you really don’t want to do is run down to zero on the end of the phrase.

This form of thinking is going to have some negative effects on your sound. It is going to be less resonant, because of the physical tension. An audience will hear that you’re not really thinking about the phrasing. And by the final notes of the phrase (especially if they are long), you’re likely to be suffering from an unintentional vibrato.

Obviously we don’t want to negatively impact our sound and musicality as we play. So what’s the solution?

Run out of breath!

It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s the desperate desire to store breath away that is causing much of the trouble. Our lungs are not designed to store breath – we are not squirrels storing nuts for the winter! The respiratory system is both complexly designed and stunningly simple, in that when we reach empty, the pressure difference between inside our body and the outside environment will cause our system to switch from exhalation to inhalation. The musculature is designed to go from empty to full, and back to empty. 

Running out of breath isn’t scary. It’s normal.

Think in phrase lengths

The other issue that contributes to a player running out of breath is a mismatch in air taken in, compared to the phrase length. What do I mean? Well, if you come across a longish phrase and you’re worried about running out of breath, it’s very likely that you start thinking about taking a BIG breath. You’re not thinking about the phrase you’re about to play.

One thing I’ve learned from my time as an Alexander Technique teacher is that the human body is a truly remarkable thing. FM Alexander talked about having an idea or a goal, and then leaving the details up to the “subordinate controls of the body.” In other words, if you want to walk, you don’t need to think about every specific muscle that’s going to be involved. You have a concept of what you want to do (and where you want to go), and you let the motor centres in your brain get on with the job of organising the specific muscles.

What if recorder playing was similar? What if you could look at the phrase you’re about to play, think about the end of the phrase, and then trust that your body will breathe in just enough to cover what you intend?

Doing it in practice

It can take a little while to break out of the grip of the fear of running out of breath. It can also take a little while to get to know your lung capacity and know just what your maximum phrase length is likely to be. So I suggest the following:

  • Pick a piece of music that has challenging phrase lengths.
  • Look at a phrase. Notice the end of the phrase.
  • As you’re thinking about the end, breathe in.
  • Play the phrase. As you get to the end, notice if you start to feel anxious.
  • Once you’ve played it, breathe in again, but don’t keep playing. Stop and analyse how things went.

You’ll either make it to the end of the phrase, or you won’t. It may take a little while to get an accurate assessment of your true lung capacity, and to marry that up with playing. It may also take a little while to get used to the feeling of empty lungs. But if you work on this a little every day, your ability to judge breathing and phrase length will improve, and you’ll be able to trust your system to do the job for you.

Final point: play to the end of the phrase

Sometimes it is also tempting to stop thinking and breathing once you reach the final note. But as with football, it’s not over till it’s over! You haven’t finished the phrase until you’ve played right to the end of the final note. So work on maintaining your focus.

Good luck!

Image: Petar Milošević [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

How to take apart stuck plastic recorder joints

Do you own a plastic recorder with joints that sometimes stick together and become really hard to take apart? I think every player has experienced this at some point. Here are my tips on dealing with stuck plastic recorder joints, and some pointers on how to avoid it getting stuck in the first place!

Rocking the joint

The first thing to try if you have stuck plastic recorder joints is not turning, but rocking the joint. If you’ve tried turning the pieces and they feel completely jammed together, try rocking it backwards and forwards a little; for example, hold the middle joint still, and put pressure on the head joint as if you were making a doll nod its head. This is sometimes enough to get the tenon unstuck, and you can go back to twisting it off.

If not, try putting the instrument over your lap, and pressing GENTLY down on the piece hanging off your leg. This will help to break the seal within the joint, whether it is a vacuum or just gunk adhering the pieces. Take care that you don’t press too hard, though – we don’t want to damage the tenon.

Hot water

If that doesn’t work, try putting the joint under warm running water (not too hot). What you are trying to do here is expand the plastic on the outer part of the joint just a little. Then try turning/rocking again.

Get the gloves out

If that doesn’t work, reach for a pair of latex surgical gloves. Put them on, and try turning the pieces while wearing the gloves. These should give you a better grip on the plastic.

Using surgical gloves to take apart stuck recorder joints

And if it’s still stuck, find a friend and give them a set of gloves, too. You turn one part of the recorder while they hold the other part absolutely still. The combination of the increased grip and the extra muscle power really should do the job!

Avoiding it happening again

Once you’ve experienced having stuck plastic recorder joints, you’ll understandably want to avoid it happening again! There are three main culprits for sticky joints: not keeping the instrument clean; storing it somewhere with variable temperature and humidity; and using too much joint grease. I’ll cover each in turn. (There’s also just never taking the instrument apart, but the solution for that is fairly obvious, so I’m not covering it here!)

Cleaning

All instruments need attention and a bit of a clean at some point. My son’s trumpet teacher has a particularly gruesome story about a young pupil who had never cleaned his cornet – when the teacher took it to the staffroom and ran hot water through it, the result was enough to make the pupil gag!

I’m quite sure that your plastic recorders don’t have nearly the same problems as that young cornet player’s instrument, but a simple wash will prevent the build-up of anything unsavoury. Clean them regularly with warm soapy water (if you play them frequently, maybe once a month), gently dry them to remove excess water, and let them air dry. This gets rid of dust and any particulates that have accumulated in the joints, holes and mouthpiece.

Storage

When you buy your first wooden recorder, you’ll be warned in no uncertain terms about keeping your instrument in a place with fairly stable temperature and humidity. Wooden recorders need a stable environment so that the instrument doesn’t have to adjust itself to extremes by expanding and contracting.

But plastic recorders, though they are far more stable than wooden instruments, still need stability of temperature and humidity wherever possible. Just think what happens to a plastic pot that is left out on a sunny windowsill! This is why, even though my teaching room is at the back of my house, my recorders (including the plastic ones) are stored in a different room where the temperature is less variable.

Joint grease

It is really tempting to think that, if a little bit of joint grease is good, then using a whole lot must be better – especially if the joint is already a very snug fit. But think about it: if the joint is snug, there is very little space there. Joint grease takes up space – it has molecules, and when you put the grease on the joint you effectively add width to it.

Trust in the joint grease – just a very light smear will be enough to do the job.

A light smear of joint crease prevents stuck plastic recorder joints

I hope this helps you to keep your recorders in a good playing condition. If you get really stuck, then contact these people for help:

Anthony Barrett Repairs

Julie Dean

Early Music Shop

How you breathe in is vital to a good recorder tone

Do you sometimes feel as though you struggle to get a good tone when you’re playing recorder? Good recorder tone is affected by many factors, including posture, instrument, humidity levels… But have you considered that how you breathe in also has a direct and dramatic impact upon the quality of the sound you make?

In my other life as an Alexander Technique teacher, I know that the way people organise their heads in relation to their bodies is vitally important to the ease and flexibility of the way they move. This is also true of recorder playing. And importantly, the quality of your playing tone will also change according to what you do with your head in relation to your body as you breathe in. So let’s investigate!

Two ways of breathing in

If asked, most players admit that they take their air in through their mouth as they begin to play. And everyone knows that you have to open your mouth in order to do so! But did you know that there are two different ways you could do this?

Method 1: leave your skull still, and let your jaw hinge downwards

For the purposes of today, I want you to imagine you have two bones (functionally speaking) in your head: your skull and your jaw. They articulate at the tempera-mandibular joint, which is located close to your ear. The simplest solution to the problem of opening the mouth is to leave the skull still and just let the jaw drop downwards, hingeing from the tempero-mandibular joint. This is a very simplified diagram to illustrate:

The advantage of this is its simplicity and economy of motion. It also just uses muscles crossing the jaw joint to make the movement, which is economical on muscular involvement. This means that the whole breathing mechanism is in a more free and flexible state, and you’re more likely to get a good recorder tone.

Method 2: leave your jaw still, and hinge your whole skull backwards

Unfortunately, this is what I see most of the time! In this highly simplified illustration, you can see that the jaw is kept still, and the whole head is thrown backwards. This is achieved by the use of a whole clutch of muscles in the back of the neck:

throwing the head back does not promote good recorder tone

I think it happens a lot with woodwind players because they know that the weight of the instrument partially rests on the lip of the player. That is to say, the recorder is partly held ready to play when its beak is resting on the player’s lip. The player understandably doesn’t want to disrupt the balance of the instrument, so they hold their lip and lower jaw in place, and throw their skull backwards to breathe in.

Why is this problematic? It uses a lot more muscles than just dropping the jaw, and all in the back of the neck. It sets up a series of contractions all the way down the spine and breathing mechanism that ultimately interfere with the way the whole mechanism works. By making the larger movement, the player is involving more muscles in a way that negatively affects what they want to achieve.

It’s also based on a false assumption: that the balance of the recorder will be badly affected if the jaw moves. Actually, especially if you are using a thumb rest on your recorder, you can rest your recorder on your lip and your right thumb, take away your left hand, and open and close your mouth quite easily. I’ve held whole conversations like this – recorder resting on right thumb and lip – with my most expensive hand-made instruments! If you can talk and the recorder stays still, you can most certainly open your mouth a little to breathe in.

But does this really help with good recorder tone? Try it out!

But don’t just believe me – experiment with the two different ways of breathing in. Experiment with dropping your jaw; see how little you actually need to move in order to take a full breath. You may be pleasantly surprised at how little effort it takes.

When you become proficient at dropping your jaw to breathe as an activity in itself, try using it as you play. I recommend that you watch yourself in a mirror to check that you aren’t throwing your head back – it can be a tricky little habit to break.

And record yourself playing – I think you’ll be pleased with the increase in tone, resonance and volume that you can achieve. You may also find you get fewer headaches! And, as always, let me know how you get on.

What is good recorder playing posture?

Two questions to begin:

  • Do you have good recorder playing posture? 
  • What do you think that might look like?

‘My posture is terrible!’

I ask my questions in that order because I strongly suspect that most players – if they ever think of their posture at all – would probably answer ‘no, my posture is terrible’. Our default opinion with regard to posture, whether holding a recorder or not, is that ours is almost certainly not very good. As an Alexander Technique teacher, I have lost count of the number of adults who still hear their parent’s voice in their head telling them to ‘stand up straight!’

‘My what?’

And that’s assuming we’ve thought about our posture as we play at all. Especially if you’ve started playing at a young age, your first thought on picking up the instrument is likely to have been more on what sounds you could make, rather than how you’re going to get the recorder most efficiently to your mouth! But thinking about what you are doing with your body as you prepare to play becomes very important as you become more proficient. Thinking about your recorder playing posture will help you to play more difficult music because your technique will be better, and you’ll be able to play for longer.

As a result, many players have developed playing postures that aren’t as effective or efficient as we would like. In Spring 2017 The Recorder Magazine had this image as its front cover. I adore it for the accuracy of the artist’s portrayal of some of the more common types of error one sees in recorder playing posture.

Collage image of recorder players, from Recorder Magazine, Spring 2017. Many recorder playing posture faults in evidence.

In the back row, 2nd and 3rd from the left, one can see players holding the instrument too close to their chests, with their elbows close to their sides. The one on the left is compensating by flexing their wrists too much; the one on the right is arching their wrists. The player on the far right of the back row is arching their back; this will make it very difficult to breathe in effectively as their ribs won’t move as freely. In the front row, the girl on the left is bending herself down over her recorder, instead of lifting the recorder to her mouth. This will cause her to lose breath pressure, and she’ll probably play flat. The boy on the right looks like he is raising his shoulders up to his ears as he breathes in. As I wrote recently, this isn’t actually necessary for good breathing.

So what is good recorder playing posture?

Principle 1: bring the instrument to you, not the other way around.

Don’t be like the girl in the front row! You don’t need to do anything with your spine to lift a recorder; use your arms. Hold the recorder with your arms down at your sides. Now lift your arms, but think of moving them from your shoulders so that the recorder almost creates an arc in the air as it moves to your mouth.

Moving in this way helps you to maintain a relaxed torso, and that will help you to breathe more effectively. Arms are appendicular structures, and we can move them without having to involve our spine or torso much at all.

Principle 2: allow your elbows to leave your sides far enough that your wrists are reasonably straight.

Don’t be like the two players in the back row! It really helps your fingers to move more easily if your wrists are not overly flexed or extended, but instead are left straight and relaxed. To achieve this, when you raise your arms from your shoulder joints, your elbows will naturally come out to the sides a little.

I think often we worry about taking up too much space. But we aren’t on a crowded bus! Nor are we often likely to be squeezed into tiny orchestra pits. This means that, particularly as a soloist, it really pays to allow yourself to take up the space to which you are entitled.

Tips for working on your playing posture

  • Spend a little bit of time every practice session working on how you raise the recorder to a playing position. 
  • Watch yourself in a mirror if you can. 
  • Try to move your arms while involving your head and torso as little as possible, using the two principles I’ve outlined.
  • Practise this as a separate discipline to working on scales or pieces. This will make it easier to integrate into your playing, as you won’t be trying to concentrate on posture, music, fingerings etc all at once.

Give it a go, and let me know how you get on.

Image from cover of The Recorder Magazine, Spring 2017.

Recorder clogging up? Try this.

Do you find your recorder clogging up frequently and sounding all muffled and horrible? Today I’m sharing a tip I learned just recently that solves the problem for wooden recorders…

A few weekends ago I attended the Society of Recorder Players Festival 2019 in Durham. It was a fantastic event (please do investigate going to the 2020 Festival in Norwich – you’ll have a ball), and had some brilliant tutors offering great advice.

Perhaps the most simple and practical piece of advice came from Joris van Goethem, who until recently played with the Flanders Recorder Quartet. I was playing with my group Pink Noise in Joris’ ensembles masterclass, and my recorder kept clogging. Joris gave a piece of potentially life-changing advice, and the reasoning behind it.

Moisture and recorders

When we play into a wooden recorder, we have to breathe into it, and the warmth of our breath creates condensation in the instrument. In a well-behaved instrument, according to Joris, the moisture should run in two neat streams down either side of the block:

Where condensation runs on a recorder

Sadly, not all instruments are well-behaved, and not all condensation follows the right path. Sometimes we might end up with a blob of moisture sitting right in the middle of the block. If this happens, it compromises sound quality, and the instrument starts to sound muffled. We could try covering the windway and blowing the moisture blob away; if we’re in the middle of playing, we could try sucking it back in. But just as with raindrops on a window, once moisture has an established path it will continue to follow the path already created; our instrument will clog up repeatedly.

Obviously, we don’t want our lovely recorder clogging up constantly and ruining our concentration and the flow of the music. So what to do?

A paintbrush and some water

Joris recommended throwing a bit of water at the instrument! Put the head joint under the tap, and trickle a tiny bit of water down the windway.

Where to aim water to stop your recorder clogging up

Or, if that scares you, get a little paintbrush, and get the bristles wet. Then paint the block of your recorder through the fipple, and get it nicely moistened. By doing this you create a smooth moist surface over the whole of the block, so there is far less opportunity for one rogue moisture blob to create havoc in the middle of the block. All the moisture should behave in the way we want, and move to the edges.

I’ve tried this with a recorder of mine that has been prone to clogging, and after a couple of seconds of extreme displeasure at being so wet, the recorder then played beautifully each time I’ve tried it, and for over 30 minutes of constant use. One of my colleagues has reported similar results consistently since he started using this method.

But I have a plastic recorder, and it’s clogging…

I haven’t tried the water trick with a plastic or resin recorder yet, so I don’t know if it works in the same way. Bearing in mind that water droplets will behave the same way and create tracks on a plastic surface as a wooden one, it would certainly be worth a try. The other thing that affects plastic recorders is build-up of residue in the recorder, and particularly in the windway. Any brass player will tell you that condensation isn’t pure water, and that instruments need cleaning regularly. The easiest solution for this is to give it a little bath in some diluted washing up liquid, and then let it dry.

Happy clog-free playing!