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?