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.

Breath control: How to cure unintentional vibrato

It’s a fairly common thing to meet amateur recorder players who are a bit worried about their breath control as they play. Some run out of breath; others struggle with a sort of unintentional vibrato that causes notes to wobble around. If I meet a player with this sort of problem, I listen to them play to see if they show any of these potential causes:

  • Playing too softly
  • Playing too loudly
  • Not noticing that the recorder does have a degree of resistance in the windway – it’s just really delicate compared with some other wind instruments.
  • Issues with breathing generally

In today’s post I am going to concentrate on that last point, partly because it is so fundamental to what we do as recorder players, and partly because so many of us feel we don’t do it very well. And if we feel that our breathing is problematic in ordinary daily life, then it is likely our worries will be amplified (quite literally!) when we put the mouthpiece of the recorder between our lips! To cure the problems of unwanted vibrato, we need to get to the bottom of our more general issues around breathing. Therefore, today I am going to give you a whistle stop tour of your respiratory system.

Do you know where you breathe?

It sounds like a silly question, but it’s something that is actually really important. Pretty much everyone knows that the air we breathe in goes into our lungs, but after that, all knowledge is up for grabs! Some people lift their shoulders up to their ears when they take a breath. Others try to ‘breathe into their belly’. Some suck their tummy inwards when they breathe (I’ve heard singers describe this as ‘reverse breathing’). But what is anatomically most appropriate?

It’s an important issue, and can cause a lot of issues around unintentional vibrato. So take a second, and put your hands where you think your lungs are.

Did you put them on your chest?

Lungs are surprisingly large: they start just under the collarbone, and go all the way down to the base of the ribs. They have a truly massive surface area, because we need it to be able to hold all the air we would need to take part in serious physical exertion (or, indeed, playing a contrabass recorder). 

Lungs and shoulders

If we think of the lungs as massive sacks for the moment, it seems reasonable that, if the sacks are filling with air, that there would be an expansion involving the ribs and the back. And seeing as the shoulder structures rest over the top of the ribs, it only seems fair that there should be a little accessory motion in the shoulders, too. Note that I say ‘accessory motion’ – raising your shoulders to your ears doesn’t really help you get any more air in your lungs. We don’t end to deliberately lift them, but we shouldn’t be keeping them absolutely still, either.

Diaphragm and belly

The diaphragm is a muscle that you may have head of, and it has an important function in the breathing process. It is the diaphragm contracting downwards that causes the change in pressure in the pleural cavity that starts the process of breathing in. Now, when the diaphragm contracts downwards, it runs into the organs beneath it – primarily the digestive organs. These don’t like being squished, and need to move in order to avoid it. They can’t go downwards, because there’s pelvis in the way, and can’t go backwards because the spine is in the way. So they move outwards as we breathe in – or should do, in a normal breathing pattern.

(If you want to watch a video explaining the system, try this one from Crash Course. The mechanics of lungs and diaphragm are about 5 minutes in)

Breathing control

The trick with breathing is that it is both autonomous AND voluntary. That is to say, we can choose to a large degree when and how we breathe. This is good, because it means that we’re able to talk and play musical instruments! But it also means we can impose ideas and beliefs that can really impede the normal action of the respiratory system. Anyone who has done any classical dance training, for example, probably won’t be comfortable with allowing their belly to move outwards, because it conflicts with good form in classical dance. Or if you’re like some of my classical singing Alexander Technique students, you’ve been told so many times that shoulders should not move while breathing that you actively hold them down!

Rediscover your breath

One of the best ways I know to rediscover the whole respiratory system, after doing a bit of research looking at anatomy books and YouTube videos, is to lie down and feel what you do when you breathe.

I would suggest lying on your back on the floor, with your feet flat and your knees pointing towards the ceiling. You can put some padding under your head if you like. And breathe. Notice what happens in your chest, shoulders and back. Notice what your belly does. Once you’ve started to acquaint yourself with your breathing patterns, start experimenting with allowing movement through your ribs, back and abdominal region as you breathe in and out.

Jen demonstrating position for investigating breath control

It is tempting, too, to focus solely on breathing in. I would strongly recommend that you spend just as much time noticing what happens as you breathe out. Notice which muscles are working, and which ones relax. See if you can make your out-breath more tension-free.

If you have problems with an unwanted vibrato, it is likely that you’ll have found some unwanted tension in your breathing, and that you may have had an incomplete notion of how the whole system works. So spend a couple of minutes each day investigating what your breathing is doing today, and think about allowing the process to be more closely aligned to an anatomic normal. Once you feel happy with what you are doing, get back up and start to play. Or you could even try playing long notes while lying down, and see what you notice about the sound.

Next time I’ll speak more about long notes, and about issues of dynamics and windway resistance. But for now, just enjoy experimenting with your respiratory system.

Fingers: where do they move from?

To play the recorder, you have to move your fingers to cover and uncover the holes. But how do you do it? Where do your fingers bend?

I have played recorder since I was six, but it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I started getting RSI-like wrist pain. I did all the usual obvious routes: doctor, physio, specialist, osteopath… Nothing really helped. In fact, it got so bad that I stopped playing.

Even after I started experiencing improvement in my arms after studying the Alexander Technique, it took a while for me to pluck up courage to start playing recorder again. And when I did, I got some help from an experienced and very wise teacher friend, Jill Tappin.

Jill quickly became fascinated with the way I was using my hands. We discovered together that I had a very odd idea about the way my fingers moved. I believed that they should bend where the crease line is at the bottom of my fingers, here:

 

Of course, that isn’t right at all. They flex much lower, at the knuckle. That’s where the joint is:

 

But even though it wasn’t anatomically possible to flex my fingers higher up, I had managed to create a set of complex and exhausting muscular contractions that had the net effect of moving my finger where I believed it was correct.

My brain power overrode my anatomy.

Changing my idea of where my fingers flexed had a dramatic difference upon my recorder playing. I found I was able to move my fingers more easily and more quickly. I found I could play the fast passages faster, and do cross-fingerings more cleanly.

So…

Today as you play, I want you to take a moment to think about your fingers. Where are you flexing them – at the knuckle, or at the skin crease? What would happen if you did it differently?