How to cure unintentional vibrato 2: running out of breath

In March I posted an article about how to cure unintentional vibrato when playing recorder. I talked about the misconceptions people have about how to breathe. In this post, I want to take that a step further, and discuss length of breath. Fear of running out of breath is a major concern for a lot of players, but you may be surprised to learn that the solution to it is a little counterintuitive. Almost as counterintuitive as putting water all over the wind way on your recorder!

We shouldn't think of ourselves like this fuel gauge - running out of breath is normal.

Fear of running out of breath

If you have a long phrase ahead of you, do you worry that you’ll run out of breath? What does that do to you physically? I’m willing to bet that it causes you to feel anxious. You may feel your heart rate spike. Your chest and shoulder muscles may well tense up, and your shoulders might raise. And I’m fairly certain that you’ll try to take a truly MASSIVE breath.

As you play the phrase, it’s likely that you’ll not really be thinking about the notes you’re playing; you’re thinking about your breath. It’s almost as if you have a little ‘breath gauge’ – like the fuel gauge in a car – and you can see it slipping down towards zero. And the one thing I bet you really don’t want to do is run down to zero on the end of the phrase.

This form of thinking is going to have some negative effects on your sound. It is going to be less resonant, because of the physical tension. An audience will hear that you’re not really thinking about the phrasing. And by the final notes of the phrase (especially if they are long), you’re likely to be suffering from an unintentional vibrato.

Obviously we don’t want to negatively impact our sound and musicality as we play. So what’s the solution?

Run out of breath!

It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s the desperate desire to store breath away that is causing much of the trouble. Our lungs are not designed to store breath – we are not squirrels storing nuts for the winter! The respiratory system is both complexly designed and stunningly simple, in that when we reach empty, the pressure difference between inside our body and the outside environment will cause our system to switch from exhalation to inhalation. The musculature is designed to go from empty to full, and back to empty. 

Running out of breath isn’t scary. It’s normal.

Think in phrase lengths

The other issue that contributes to a player running out of breath is a mismatch in air taken in, compared to the phrase length. What do I mean? Well, if you come across a longish phrase and you’re worried about running out of breath, it’s very likely that you start thinking about taking a BIG breath. You’re not thinking about the phrase you’re about to play.

One thing I’ve learned from my time as an Alexander Technique teacher is that the human body is a truly remarkable thing. FM Alexander talked about having an idea or a goal, and then leaving the details up to the “subordinate controls of the body.” In other words, if you want to walk, you don’t need to think about every specific muscle that’s going to be involved. You have a concept of what you want to do (and where you want to go), and you let the motor centres in your brain get on with the job of organising the specific muscles.

What if recorder playing was similar? What if you could look at the phrase you’re about to play, think about the end of the phrase, and then trust that your body will breathe in just enough to cover what you intend?

Doing it in practice

It can take a little while to break out of the grip of the fear of running out of breath. It can also take a little while to get to know your lung capacity and know just what your maximum phrase length is likely to be. So I suggest the following:

  • Pick a piece of music that has challenging phrase lengths.
  • Look at a phrase. Notice the end of the phrase.
  • As you’re thinking about the end, breathe in.
  • Play the phrase. As you get to the end, notice if you start to feel anxious.
  • Once you’ve played it, breathe in again, but don’t keep playing. Stop and analyse how things went.

You’ll either make it to the end of the phrase, or you won’t. It may take a little while to get an accurate assessment of your true lung capacity, and to marry that up with playing. It may also take a little while to get used to the feeling of empty lungs. But if you work on this a little every day, your ability to judge breathing and phrase length will improve, and you’ll be able to trust your system to do the job for you.

Final point: play to the end of the phrase

Sometimes it is also tempting to stop thinking and breathing once you reach the final note. But as with football, it’s not over till it’s over! You haven’t finished the phrase until you’ve played right to the end of the final note. So work on maintaining your focus.

Good luck!

Image: Petar Milošević [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

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.