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.

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?

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.