Wind players with too much wind? Is that possible?
Do you ever take a deep breath to play - a really good one, where you can feel your lungs expand all the way around - and then immediately feel like you are about to run out of air?
Have you had a moment of panic in performance when you can feel the sensation of breathlessness setting in and then run out of air even faster than you might have otherwise?
Many famous flutists have taught the concept of only breathing for the phrase, meaning taking in only the amount of air the phrase dictates rather than as much as you possibly can. Of course this makes sense as it creates a natural phrase and enables an organic breath in at the end of the phrase before beginning another.
Only in recent years are we seeing scientific studies that explain why this teaching concept is correct and how we can actually be over-saturated with oxygen. This can even happen (and does frequently for a large number of people) during completely mundane activities like watching tv and sleeping.
If it’s possible to have too much oxygen in our system when we are doing something as inactive as binging Netflix, it stands to reason that we could certainly be over-breathing without even realizing it while playing our instruments.
There is no way to provide the broad picture of how beneficial both efficient, anatomically correct natural breathing and structured breathwork are for all of us in this blog. However, a little knowledge of some foundational basics of breath are important. I really believe that most of us would map how our breath works in the body incorrectly if we had to describe it.
Oxygen keeps us alive. It helps our body circulate many of the nutrients it needs. Breathing, when done correctly, can stimulate the vagus nerve and calm our nervous system (or the opposite if we are truly in danger). Our breath removes toxins from the body, with the big one being CO2. In fact, when you lose weight, you lose most of it in the CO2 of your out-breath.
Amazed yet? Our breath does incredible things in the body on its own when it is working properly. When we take it a step further and practice breathwork techniques like pranayama (one of the eight limbs of yoga) or conscious breathwork we can learn to calm, soothe and ground ourselves. We can even begin to rewrite neural patterns that have been created by traumatic events or just plan bad habits.
Now that we have some background, let’s get back to CO2.
Most of us habitually over-breathe. Check yourself right now: is your mouth open? Are you breathing in and out of your mouth while you read?
Notice if there is anyone around you. Are they breathing through their mouth right now?
When we breathe through our mouths, not only do we miss out on the crucial passage of air through our nose and sinuses, we breathe more and more shallowly. This continued shallow breathing builds up the oxygen in our system and creates not only a lack of CO2, but also an intolerance to it.
A lack of tolerance to CO2 means that as we come to the end of an exhale, hold our breath, or breathe out for a long phrase while playing a wind instrument, we can’t sit with the discomfort of having more CO2 present and breathe in rapidly or immediately.
As wind players, we interact with our CO2 tolerance every day, usually without ever learning about it.
When playing our instruments we are often expelling air to the point of discomfort. In addition, we deal with nervousness, which can cause shallow breathing and bring the discomfort of CO2 intolerance to the forefront.
If we are breathing in more often then we need to when playing or breathing in a fast shallow way when we’re nervous, then we are actively bringing a greater and greater amount of oxygen into our system. In turn, our lack discomfort with CO2 grows.
I think it’s worth emphasizing that CO2 is not just a waste gas, but an important part of the cycle of breath and rejuvenation of the complex systems in our body.
One of the most practical ways to improve our breath control and capacity in our playing is not through fancy breathing exercises, but rather by paying attention to our every day habits and behaviors.
A remarkable number of us are mouth breathers. Again, check right now - are you breathing through the nose or the mouth?
Just by increasing the amount of time you spend breathing in through the nose you can feel more calm, increase your CO2 tolerance, and strengthen the systems in your body that are built around breathing.
Some practical ways you can increase your nose breathing (Please note that I am not a doctor and if you have contraindications like a heart or lung issue, you should talk to your doctor before trying any of these exercises):
These are changes we can implement every day to help ourselves feel more calm, feel more “comfortable” with that low-on-air feeling, and to have a healthier relationship with our breath.
Begin with your daily habits. Awareness is key, and by simply becoming more aware you can create huge health benefits for yourself.
When you feel ready to go beyond the daily habits, there are few basic exercises we can start with to build and grow our CO2 tolerance:
Many professional athletes have seen huge improvements in their performance through breathwork and exercises for CO2 tolerance. Doesn’t it make sense that we might also benefit as wind players who work with oxygen and CO2 every time we pick up our instrument?
I want to include a snippet of my personal experience since I started exploring breathwork in the last year as a testament to the impact it can have.
One of the things I have always struggled with in performance is the feeling of breathlessness. Some of this comes from nervous shallow breathing, which I have done my whole life. That habit was amplified during a period of time when I had a B12 deficiency (which can lead to breathlessness) and created even more subconscious poor breathing habits.
Recently, when I was away for an orchestra festival I used a large hill on the campus where we were staying to build on my nose breathing walks. Every day we had rehearsal over the three weeks, I walked up this (VERY!) steep hill to rehearsal slowly enough that I could continue breathing through my nose. If I started breathing through my mouth or feeling like I needed to, I stopped until I could continue on breathing only through the nose.
Not only did my pace improve (admittedly it started out pretty slow - that hill is big!), but my feelings of breathlessness due to nerves in rehearsal and performance became more manageable and notably different. I was shocked at the rapidity of the change. It certainly inspired me to continue exploring all the many ways breathwork can improve my quality of life and my flute playing.
I hope you are feeling inspired to explore what your breath can do! If you are interested in the topic, I highly recommend the follow books:
Breath, by James Nestor
The Oxygen Advantage, by Patrick McKeown
A Practical Guide to Breathwork, by Jesse Coomer
Let me know - was this all new information? Are you reconsidering how you might approach your breath in play and your daily life?
The body is the home of our creativity.
I have explored this concept in writing before - that the physical space we create is directly related to our ability to clear mental space, and also to our ability to create musically.
This idea that our awareness of the physical body and its subtleties directly impact our musical expression is under-addressed and often overlooked. Of course we talk about things like hand position and posture, but it’s often done in a way that emphasizes a rigidity and a singular “correct” way of doing things. This black and white, stringent approach creates even more tension and self judgement which often leads to physical pain and injury from practice.
What if there was a different, more natural and neutral way for us to address the physicality of playing?
There is so much discussion in music about expression - phrasing, musicality, sound quality. We talk about these things for our entire musical journey.
How, exactly, are we supposed to access that expression?
For years, I thought it was sheerly mental - an intelligence gained from years of studying musical styles, practices, and the physical act of playing my instrument. Perhaps it was an understanding I did not yet posses and I would some day have enough knowledge to suddenly unlock the next level of self expression.
The ability to express yourself is, of course, a mental practice. It does require an understanding of musical styles, standard practices, and your instrument.
But what if it was also an advanced physical understanding? An advanced awareness of our physical body?
I’m not just talking about hand position and posture. What I mean by a physical understanding is an advanced connection to the subtle experiences of being in your own body and mind, which is what truly translates to “staying on you” or being yourself. By creating this understanding, we open a new door to both physical freedom and mental freedom of expression.
Exploring the chakras as a path to musical expression
Looking at this from the perspective of yoga, we can consider the chakras. There are seven chakras, which are energy centers that act as the links between our energetic and physical bodies and the universal life force energy (prana) that connects us to everything around us.
All seven chakras work together, and if a lower chakra is block, unbalanced, or even ignored, we will overexert in the upper chakras. The same is true in reverse. Lower chakras tend to be more physical and upper chakras more related to the mind, so the outcome is that if we overexert physically we block our expression and mental clarity, and if we overthink and overwork the mind we loose our awareness and ability to ground in the physical body.
The connection here to playing a musical instrument seems obvious to me. I bet we can all think of performances where we were so in our heads that it seemed our fingers wouldn’t do anything we asked. Alternatively, most of us have probably experienced times when we were so tense we just couldn’t focus on anything else.
There are two chakras that play off of each other in a way that is especially relevant to our musical expression and the use of both mind and body to create the message we’re intending to share through music.
The second chakra
“Emotion always has its roots in the unconscious and manifests itself in the body” - Irene Claremont de Castillejo
The sacral chakra (or Svadhisthana in Sanskrit, meaning “the dwelling place of self”) is located two inches below the navel. A balanced second chakra leads to feelings of abundance and creativity. When the second chakra is blocked, we can experience feelings of fear and overwhelm, loss of imagination or creativity, and pain or stiffness in the lower back and hips.
A blocked second chakra literally locks up our creativity in a stiff lower body that physically blocks the production of a resonant sound.
To connect to this chakra, we should consider its element, water, and the ability to be fluid. Even the simple act of drinking more water can be helpful to a blocked second chakra.
Water is both subtle and strong - it can destroy whatever is in its path, or gently meander around rocks and obstacles. This is reminiscent of the different attitudes and approaches required to navigate our way through life and musical expression.
To loosen up the second chakra, create just for fun. Do your favorite creative activity that is not playing your instrument. Write, read, draw, dance, cook, garden, or try something new, but whatever you do make sure it is purely for the joy of doing and not with any pressure of succeeding or doing it the “right” way.
Physically, the second chakra is related to our hips, so hip-opening yoga poses can help us to get in touch with this part of our physical body and lead us to a better understanding of the habits, sensations, and limitations we may be experiencing.
There are a few simple exercises in this printable to explore the second chakra.
The fifth chakra
“The truest expression of a people is in its dance and in its music. Bodies never lie.” - Agnes de Mille
The throat chakra (or Vishuddha in Sanskrit, meaning “especially pure”) is located in the area of the throat - the jaw, the neck, the mouth, and the thyroid. When it is balanced we are able to express ourselves authentically with ease. A blocked fifth chakra may cause us to experience difficulty listening to others without interrupting, trouble tuning in to ourselves, and neck or jaw pain.
Although this chakra is related to the ability to express ourselves clearly, which we might consider a mental task, it can physically block us from comfortable expression through the voice or throat.
The element of this chakra is ether - the space that forms the essence of emptiness. Our true self exists in the space between the clutter of our thoughts and emotions.
To connect with the throat chakra and the ability to express ourselves authentically, it can help to speak positive affirmations out loud, like “I communicate with ease” or “I express my true emotions with ease.”
Mindfulness meditation can also help open the throat chakra through the practice of observing our mind and connecting with our inner truth. (I highly recommend mindfulness meditation for musicians - there are lots of excellent books and apps to help get you started!)
Physically, there are yoga poses that can help us explore this chakra as well, allowing us the space to understand what our unique and individual physical experience is.
Here are some simple ways to begin exploring.
Bringing it all together
Our mind and body are continually changing, and will do so throughout our lives. Whatever balance or imbalance you may feel now will not last forever, and a new one may take its place. Building an attentiveness to both our mind and physical body is important to be able to continue to express ourselves freely.
I have personally experienced the benefits of exploring the connection between my mental and physical state. When I am stressed, I often experience an inability to deal with performance anxiety that stems from overthinking. If I leave that mental pattern unchecked, it will increase until I can no longer sustain the mental strain of overthinking and it becomes a physical discomfort of overexertion to make up for my blocked expression.
All of our thoughts and actions are connected, and when I am attentive to both my mental health and physical wellbeing I can create a more consistent spacious neutral ground to work from that allows for depth and expression.
If you improve the balance of your sacral and throat chakras now, you may come to find in six months, a year, or even a week, that you notice yourself overexerting in a physical or mental way again. That’s life, and it doesn’t mean you have failed in any way.
By developing a truer understanding of our experience in the world we become adept at helping ourselves adjust to the changes and challenges that will certainly come.
Check out my free resource with exercises to explore both the second and fifth chakras.
In the short time I have been studying to teach yoga, I have learned so much about the history of yoga and the spiritual practice and beliefs that are the basis for the physical practice we are all so familiar with.
The poses that we practice in what you would picture as a typical yoga class are called "asana." This term refers to the physical postures that we take when doing yoga. While asana is often the only part of a yoga practice many of us are familiar with, it is one of the eight limbs of yoga that make up the spiritual and physical practice.
You may already notice that there is often a focus on the breath in yoga classes you have taken. If you've never tried yoga, it is common for a teacher to help you sync your breath to your movements, cueing you to inhale and exhale when it makes sense with your physical movements.
The breath is an integral part of yoga, and as I am learning more about the foundations of yoga I am fascinated by the way this ties in with my perception of the breath as a wind player, and specifically as a flutist.
Prana is the life force energy, a universal energy which flows in currents in and around the body. Yoga often divides it into five distinct vayus. In Sanskrit, vayu means "wind", while the root of the word (va) translates to "that which flows." Vayus are also thought of as energies.
Already, you may sense the connection to playing your instrument - we are often trying to communicate something about ourselves or connect through our sound as made by our own wind.
There are distinct differences between the five vayus, and a familiarity with them can allow us to be more perceptive to subtleties of the body - something musicians are used to doing and need to be quite skilled at.
Prana-vayu is inward moving breath which flows in and up from the heart through the head.
Take a breath in and notice how you can feel opened, lifted and energized by this energy going up through your body.
Apana-vayu is downward moving breath, which flows down and out through the body taking toxins or unwanted substances like carbon dioxide with it.
Breathe in and notice how you can feel opened, grounded, and rooted as the breath travels down through the body.
Now. take a moment to breathe with your focus on prana and apana, allowing yourself to be energized by each breath in and releasing anything that is not serving you on each out-breath.
Samana-vayu translates to "balancing air" and unites the upward and downward energy of prana and apana. Samana energy swirls around your midsection where it brings us balance.
Take a moment to breathe in and out, noticing the way you expand through the front, back, and sides of your midsection.
Vyana-vayu is outward moving and travels from the center of the body through the limbs at the borders of the body.
Breathe and notice how you can feel your breath reach your arms and legs, hands and feet.
Take several long breaths in and out, noticing how you can feel expansion and release in your midsection as the air travels in to the center of the body and out through your limbs.
Udana-vayu is "that which travels upward" and is centered around the neck and head. It's expression is verbal (or, in the case of a musician, based in our tone or musical voice).
Breathe in and out, noticing the way you feel the breath move through your throat - try sighing audibly on the out-breath.
Now that you've given yourself a moment to consider all the ways the breath energizes us, and helps us release and verbalize, consider how this relates to your use of air when playing your instrument.
Our air energizes us to play (prana and apana), allowing us to feel both the energy to create sound and the grounding that we need to resonate. Our air also opens us to being resonant while carrying our sound away from us (samana and viyana).
Finally, our air carries our true expression as we communicate through the sound of our instrument (udana). It radiates out from our heart with the messages we hope our music will project.
There is a Buddhist scripture titled Udana that is translated as "inspired utterances," and I love the connotation of that translation in relation to music.
The next time you warm up on your instrument, use some long tones to consider the five vayus:
- Spend time focusing on each vayu individually as you do your long tone exercise.
- Do you notice anything new about the breath moving through your body or your perception of the breath?
- Does focusing on the breath in this way make you more aware of subtle movements or changes in the body? What about subtle changes in your sound or resonance?
The five vayus can help us balance ourselves in life, but I believe they can help us balance ourselves especially while playing our instruments where our attention often gets swept away as we overexert ourselves in the musical task at hand.
I had a bit of a technology melt down last week.
It was spurred on by several things that coalesced into slight (major) loss of calm. I don't think it should have surprised me - months of learning or using new skills you're not necessarily interested in can be tough, and then when things don't come together because you're not quite good enough at editing yet or that microphone wasn't in the right spot, etc., we're bound to feel a little defeated.
Alas, my technological struggles are not the point here.
We have some options when we get frustrated. We can wallow in our sorrows (sometimes, a good therapeutic wallow is good for the soul). We can keep banging our head against the wall (this would be an example of efforting in the wrong way) and try to hash something, anything, out of our frustrations. Or, we can put it down and come back later.
I have long been an advocate of "bad practice is worse than no practice." If you are fighting yourself, then you are definitely not getting anything done and you might be creating some nasty habits.
So, my usual reaction, when I am thinking clearly, is to walk away, cool off, and come back to it.
But, beyond giving the task space, we need to make space.
Perhaps even if you give yourself some time to cool off you may have residual frustration when you come back to the task. You may sit down to a flood of emotions remembering how peeved you were at the problem when you stopped.
To bring yourself back around from the space you gave to your task, you now need to create space in and around yourself so you can work.
This will likely mean:
- Giving yourself room to focus (no phone in the room, not cramming the activity in between other tasks, picking a productive time of day to work)
- Checking in with yourself before you get started: What do you want to accomplish? How are you feeling? (It's hard to work when you are hungry, for example.)
- How are you sitting? Find your feet on the floor and your sit bones, check in with your spine.
- What is the most specific thing you could focus on that would help fix your problem? If I'm practicing, that could be just my stance, just my air, just one note that will resonate the way I want. If I am working on the computer, that could be figuring out how to create a template from an effect I want to reuse in a video
- Taking some deep breaths. Have you ever caught yourself holding your breath when you are concentrating? Yeah, me too. Make sure you are breathing (and blinking if you're working at the computer).
- Reevaluating your task entirely. Are you making things too complicated? We usually are.
I definitely wallowed a bit last week. Once I got it out of my system, though, I came up with a plan. I adjusted some goals to make things more reasonable. bought a pair of bluelight glasses (who knows if they actually work, but even if the relief I'm noticing is all in my mind, sign me up!), AND found a way to make space for myself.
If I'm being honest, making space did mean some time completely unrelated to the problem playing as many meditative long tones and technique exercises as I wanted, but I know that will allow me to come back open to my work. Making space for yourself will look different for everyone.
As you approach your next big task, how can you give and make space to/for yourself?
When in your musical journey did you first learn to be attentive to your whole body as you played your instrument?
When was the first time you realized you needed to be mindful of how you were breathing? When did you realize that the way you stood and distributed your weight through your legs and feet mattered?
Most of us were young when we learned how to play, and so our self awareness was limited. I have yet to meet a beginner that doesn't need at least some time to focus on each element independently - the placement of the head joint, the way they are blowing, the exact spots where the flute will rest in their hands, which keys belong to which fingers, etc..
We pick up bits and pieces of the whole picture as our playing matures, but most of us are slow to put together the image of our whole body as it relates to our instrument.
My first bigger glimpse of this was in high school as a student at the Flute Workshop at The Ohio State University, taught by Katherine Borst Jones (who would later become my undergraduate teacher and a dear mentor and friend).
KBJ showed us how the whole rib cage and upper body is involved in breathing by having us breathe while hugging an enormous exercise ball. She taught us to ground our feet but stay flexible, "like a tree," and to find the strength of our legs and body in a warrior pose.
I learned even more as my time in KBJ's studio continued, I played in masterclasses for a variety of teachers, and went on to grad school. I ran with this knowledge for quite some time, knowing that I could always learn more but feeling like I had a pretty good foundation.
Then I met Jean Ferrandis, and a completely different vision of how the body influences flute playing came to light. My first lesson with Jean was spent learning about his approach to freeing the whole body in order to focus on the air. One of the first things I remember learning from him in that lesson is that if you lock your hips, it cuts off the freedom, resonance, and movement of your upper body.
You can test this freedom of movement in yourself by miming tossing a ball gently underhand:
- Stepping forward, gently underhand toss your imaginary ball with the opposite hand as you continue to step through the movement.
- Do it with the left and the right no matter which is your dominant hand.
- Feel the way the movement connects (or maybe, doesn't connect) from your hips to your shoulders as you step into the toss.
- What do you notice?
- Where is it fluid and natural? Where could it improve?
(I should note that we did this for at least 30 minutes in my first lesson with Jean - none of us are as aware as we think!)
Jean's teaching expanded my view of the physicality of playing. He always made sure we were aware of the ways we blocked fluidity, or when we made movements a habit that were not natural.
This year, with a little extra time on my hands (an actual silver lining of the pandemic) I invested in expanding my interest in the whole body as it relates to being a musician and enrolled in a 200 hour yoga teacher training. Yoga has made a tremendous impact for me when I practice it regularly - the focus on correct body alignment, muscle and joint movement, and the attention to patience and mindfulness are so incredibly beneficial to performance and practice of a musical instrument.
During a recent training weekend, I heard something that instantly struck a chord:
"The body is the home of your creativity."
I knew immediately how true this is from the way my own sense of embodiment has developed through my musical journey. I know from experience how small bad habits can grow into difficult physical blocks, and how small amounts of awareness in the right places can create tremendous freedom.
Yet even though I know how to care for my creative home when playing the flute, I don't always do a good job. And if all of my eye opening experiences of finding new awareness have taught me anything, it's that we are always learning. We can always have a better or more detailed mental image of our whole self, whether we're just sitting or doing something as athletic (yes, athletic!) as playing our instrument.
I often wonder how all of this would have sunk in when I was first learning to be self aware in my playing and how it might have changed my abilities and opened up creativity.
From teaching, I know that it can be difficult for my students to retain awareness, even if they are able to find and identify it. If we lock in on loosening the knees and distributing the weight evenly between the feet, that attention often vanishes in a few minutes.
Some of that awareness develops along with maturity and skill, but what I think works against us ALL is the disembodiment created by staring at a phone (and the way we hold it!) or a computer screen constantly.
How often do you think about the way you are sitting when you work at the computer for an hour or two?
When was the last time you were aware of the space around you as you worked?
Do you find yourself craning your neck afterward and desperately stretching?
What about the last time you practiced - were you trying to stretch out all the stiffness afterward?
Here's a simple exercise to try the next time you are sitting at a desk and typing (or looking at your phone when you should be typing):
- Start by noticing your shape, and where you feel curves in your spine and weight distributed in your seat.
- Locate your sit bones (also known as the ischial tuberosity, or the two pointy bones in your seat that you can feel against the chair) . Are they pointing forward?
- Tilt your sit bones back and widen them. Notice what changes. Now where does your spine curve? Where is the weight distributed in your seat?
- Take a deep breath and exhale, allowing gravity to work. Make sure you are not using your upper body to hold yourself up - allow your shoulder blades to slide down your back.
- Move between your two postures slowly, noting the sensations that follow and how unconsciously you can slip into the first posture.
At first it may feel awkward and rigid to widen your sit bones back because it will change the way you are curving your spine. It should bring the curve of your spine at the sacrum in to the midline and a more anatomically neutral position, allowing you to stack your ribs and head over your hips while you sit. Make sure you are not lifting yourself up with your upper body (lower your shoulders, please!) and it will feel a lot less rigid.
Once you feel good doing this seated, try doing it the next time you are preparing to practice. Even standing, we can all allow gravity to gently work while widening the lower back and sit bones to find openness in our stance and a natural curve of the spine. Can you keep that posture when you pick your instrument up?
This is just one small way to clean your creative house. The more physical space you create, the more mental space you will find.
Hi, I'm Morgann! Flutist, teacher, aspiring yogini, and life long learner figuring out how to create my way through life one crazy idea at a time.