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!
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.
Image: Petar Milošević [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]