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.

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?

Divide and conquer: learn tonguing and notation independently to make practice easier

Imagine that you’re working on a new piece. It has a quaver or semi-quaver run in it, and you need to learn a new fingering pattern that you’re not used to. It also involves a particular pattern of tonguing and slurring that makes it trickier.

How would you work on this? What would be the best approach to make practice easier?

Slow down!

My first tip is to slow the passage right down. If I’m working on a new piece, I’ve been known to attempt new fingerings and note patterns at less than a quarter of the suggested metronome marking. Or slower: a musician that my son follows on YouTube, a bassist called Adam Neely, once emphasised the SLOW nature of slow practice by asking his viewers to play ‘glacially slow’.

We slow right down because pretty much all of us are tempted to try to be perfect immediately. We want to be able to play our shiny new piece at the suggested tempo – except we can’t. We haven’t done the work yet. I know that playing slowly can be frustrating, but not nearly as frustrating as trying to play quickly and failing. So keep it slow. Glacially slow.

Divide and conquer

Start off by deciding whether you want to get the notes under your fingers first, or feel comfortable with the tonguing. Once you’ve decided, spend some time on one, and then on the other.

Tonguing: put the recorder down, and say the tonguing pattern out loud, in the metre of the piece, at the nice slow speed you’ve picked. In the example below, remembering to tongue the E after the semiquaver slur might be tricky. If I was working on this passage, I would say the tonguing (written in over the notes) a number of times to make sure I was completely comfortable with it. Note that I’ve also chosen a particular articulation. It’s fairly samey, but it might look different if some of the notes were marked staccato.

Notation with tonguing

Notation: again, play the notes at the glacially slow speed you’ve chosen. Don’t even worry about what your tongue is doing for the moment – just make sure you have all the right fingerings. Do it a few times at that speed. You could try it a little faster and see if you can spot any ‘micro finger flails’ *- this tells you which parts of the passage you’re not comfy with thus far. Go back to the slow speed and work on it some more.

Adding them together

When you’re confident that each skill feels comfortable, try adding them together – at the glacially slow speed. Then gradually speed it up.

How long does this process take?

It depends! Sometimes it will be just a single bar that has you foxed, and you’ll fix it in a minute or two. Sometimes it will be sections of a longer run, and you’ll find yourself mouthing tonguing patterns as you wander around the supermarket. But in reality, the speed of success doesn’t really matter; what matters is that you get the passage under your control so that you feel confident when you play. That’s all that counts.

 

* Hat tip to Lynne Phillips (@teachypiano on Twitter) for this wonderful phrase.

Tennis lessons: what playing tennis has taught me about learning recorder

When I decided to take my Youngster out to buy him something as a reward for a really good school report, I didn’t expect him to choose a tennis racquet. But he did.

And then I didn’t expect his enthusiasm for it to last beyond a couple of days. But it did.

So a trip to a charity shop later, we have two racquets, and have been out to our local park every day to hit a tennis ball around. Every day. For at least an hour.

I was terrible at tennis at school – couldn’t even get the ball and racquet to connect – so was a bit apprehensive about playing, especially when the Youngster demonstrated that he was able to hit the ball very effectively from the off. But the outcome of nearly two weeks of going to the park has led me to a couple of surprising discoveries.

Firstly, tennis is good fun.

Second, I have learned some really good stuff about learning skills. Learning this new skill has reminded me that the principles that I believe to be true about learning in music are true for other areas too. Here are some of the ones that jump out most strongly.

  • In the beginning, you will almost certainly stink. You will play badly. Accept it. Enjoy it. There really is fun to be had in being joyfully bad at something.
  • If you enjoy doing something, you will want to do it more. That’s why the Youngster and I have been out playing every day. We’re poor players, but we’re having fun, and that’s what counts.
  • If you do something a lot, you will get better. At first, I was pleased if I could connect the racquet and ball. Then I started to do that reliably on the forehand, but with no directionality. Then I got directionality on the forehand, but couldn’t hit a backhand. Then I started connecting the backhand, but with no control. Then I started developing the beginnings of control on my backhand. Over two weeks, I have seen improvement.
  • There will come a point where you will need to think about technique. The Youngster and I have enquired about tennis lessons. We’ve both improved a lot, but we realise that our rate of improvement will start to tail off, because we don’t really know what we are doing. We need to learn about how to hold the racquet properly, how to properly play a forehand and backhand shot, how to gain accuracy in our hitting.
  • When you gain some technical knowledge, your ability, your enjoyment, and your fun will increase. A friend of mine recently had a piano lesson with a very accomplished teacher, and came away enthused with all the new ideas and technical things she had to experiment with.

Moral of the story?

Have fun. Practise. Play around. Then get some technical help, and play some more. It’s as true for recorder as it is for tennis. If you’re at the ‘get some technical help’ stage, find a local teacher, or contact me for a lesson via Skype. Get enthused, and get back out there to play some more!

 

Image by Suat Eman,  freedigitalphotos.net