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!

Why we should all start practising long notes

What do you do when you start practising?

A long note - because practising long notes is a great warm-up.

Most people, if they’re honest, generally start their practice session by picking out a piece and starting to play. A few minutes in, and a number of mistakes in fingering and tonguing later, they pause, take stock, actually look at the music, and start thinking about what fingers and tongue really ought to be doing.

Of course, I would never start a practice session this way… *tries to look innocent*

Why do we avoid long notes and technical work?

Here are my best guesses:

  • We think we’re saving time
  • We prefer playing ‘real’ music over exercises
  • We think (secretly or otherwise) that working on scales and technical work is boring and difficult

The fallacy of this as a practice strategy has been brought home to me by watching my son work with his trumpet. He starts nearly every practice session by ‘buzzing’ with just the mouthpiece, and then by running through basic flexibilities – a series of exercises designed to work on breath pressure and finger control. Once he has done these, he turns to his pieces. And what I have noticed is that he plays the pieces so much more effectively and accurately after the flexibilities, far more than if he skips the flexibilities (which happens rarely).

Recorder flexibilities?

So I am wondering what would happen if we recorder players behaved a bit more like brass players in our attention to warming up. It seems likely to me that we would benefit from spending some time on thinking about breathing, breath pressure and co ordination with fingers before embarking on repertoire.

So let’s have a go at playing long notes at the start of a practice session. I’ve been experimenting with it, and have noticed the following:

  • I think more about how I am lifting the instrument, so experience less tension;
  • I think about my breathing;
  • I listen to the sound of the instrument I’m playing. Each note has its own timbre, and varies depending on dynamic;
  • Playing long notes gives me time to focus my attention on the activity I am about to do. I find myself thinking about playing recorder in the present moment, rather than the rest of the things on my to-do list.

My experience is that playing long notes helps my focus, breath control, and the efficiency of my playing, and all of these help me when I start to work on scales or pieces.

So… will you give it a go?

Michael Grinter (1953-2018)

Michael Grinter at work.
Michael at work

I first met Michael Grinter when I was studying recorder as a teenager with Zana Clarke in Armidale, NSW Australia. Michael was up visiting from Victoria, and very kindly tried to make my inexpensive (and not good) wooden recorder play a little more reliably. He loaned me a recorder; I fell in love with his beautiful instruments, and ordered a 415 treble. It is my prize possession, and plays like a dream.

I kept in touch with him over the years, and he occasionally gave my 415 a once-over, just to keep it playing so beautifully. He was always unfailingly kind and friendly – an email from him always made me smile.

When I started playing in The Biber Duo with my lovely colleague Tim Lanfear, I let Mike know that we were playing his instruments in our concerts; Tim had bought a Grinter 415 secondhand, and even though they weren’t an exact match, they sounded very well together. Mike enjoyed seeing the videos of our performances, and even included one on his new website, grinterflutes.com. He was kind enough to write this: 

here’s a lovely video of Jennifer Mackerras playing in a duo with Pink Noise colleague Tim Lanfear.  This is the duo’s first concert playing the  Telemann Canonic Sonatas – exquisite playing

Last year my duet partner Tim and I ordered matching 440 trebles from Michael. He was thrilled at the challenge of making matching instruments, and our order came at just the right time as he was planning to come back to recorder making. Indeed, he was planning to visit the UK in Spring 2019 for this reason, and I was looking forward to his visit.

Tim and I took delivery of our lovely 440 trebles in October 2018, and we programmed a lovely Boismortier sonata in our December concert to showcase them. 

It is likely that our instruments were the last recorders he completed, and he died before we had the chance to perform and record the sound of his beautiful recorders playing together. I will always be sad that he never got to hear them.

He wasn’t just a very good recorder player and a great maker; he was a truly lovely and generous man, and I will miss him very much.