The Flute Show - flute expert

The Importance of Breathing in Music

Learn to breathe and improve your musical playing

In this video, Florence and Robert talk about "breathing in music" and its importance for a perfect musical approach.

Released on April 2, 2014

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Robert: Welcome to The Flute Show here on I'm Robert Estrin, your host, with our special guest, Florence Estrin. Now, today's show is the importance of breathing in music. And breathing is unbelievably important, even on instruments where you don't need to breathe, like on the piano or string instruments. Why is that? Well, breathing is such a natural part of life and part of music that you have to have a sense of breath in all music. But certainly on a wind instrument, you absolutely need it, just as in singing.

A little bit of background, I also play the French horn. And I was lucky enough to have a phenomenal French horn teacher, Hugh Cowden, who played with the Chicago Symphony, and New York Philharmonic, and Boston Symphony. And he would show me, and put his hand right here, and have me take a deep breath. And I would do it first on him, and I would notice he would fill up not just in the front, but all the way around to his back. And he would insist every single breath I took had to fill up completely. And boy, what a difference that makes on a wind instrument you have no idea.

So Florence is an expert at teaching breathing. She teaches it, not to her flute students, but also to other instrumentalists. So, so good to bring up this important subject, Florence. What can you tell us about this?

Florence: Well, I just wanted to talk about our history with our students. For many years, when he was also teaching French horn, we would go with them when they would go for their solo and ensemble auditions, and the last thing we'd say to them before they'd go in to play was, "Don't forget to breathe." And it was kind of like a joke, "Don't forget to breathe" because of course we have to breathe to live. But to think consciously when you're playing, and you're nervous about playing, to really open up and breathe and allow the air to come in.

One thing I want to start with is that you should always breathe through your mouth when you're playing a wind instrument, because you can get more air through your mouth than you can through your nose. And then, also, to keep your throat open, because when you take in a breath and your throat is open, it's nice and quiet. You can get a lot of air. But if I close my throat, it might even make a little squeak like that. So that's very, very important, and I'm sure we've all heard from time to time somebody in the middle of a performance going, "Huh." And it's very annoying to listen to anyway when you're listening to a performance.

So first of all, when you're playing an instrument like the flute, especially because you have to hold it, it's a little bit cumbersome compared to a lot of instruments. Like French horn is just sitting in your lap. A lot of flute players will...when they go to breathe, they raise their shoulders. Because they're thinking about filling up with air and they fill up. And your shoulders don't help you at all. Only keeping them relaxed so that there's more room for the air. And the other thing is to make sure, as you were talking about filling up all the way around, your back. We always focus on the lungs being here, but if somebody came up behind you and smacked you on the back, they'd knock the wind out of you, because your lungs are right there. So really filling up everywhere.

Now, when you wanna take a breath on wind instrument, you also want to be able to hold on to that air and control it as it's coming out. So what you do as you're breathing in is to actually push out with your abdominal muscles. And push out and let all the air fill up then, and then hold that position while you're playing and you have all the control over the air then. And then when it's time to take the next breath, you let it out and then do the same thing again, and push out those abdominals again. And then you'll have much more control of your air.

Robert: You know, a lot of people will take breaths and they feel like they fill up here. And I've had people sometimes describe it as...they imagine filling a glass and you fill the bottom first. So a good breath, you kind of fill from the bottom up. Making sure everything's filled up down here and the last little bit is up here. And so a lot of people mistake that, and they take this little breath up here, they think they're taking a huge breath, but really they're missing the lion's share of the air capacity.

Florence: Right, and one last thing I want to point out is that when you're starting a piece of music and you have all the time in the world, don't just take a quick like a small amount of breath. In some cases, I might take an entire measure or two, depending on how quickly the piece is going, so that I can slowly really fill up with air. And that will help sustain me, even on the second page of the piece. Not that I haven't taken more breaths, but having a really great first breath makes all the difference.
And one last thing is when you're playing by yourself without an accompanist, don't start breathing before you're ready to play. I've seen many, many students start breathing in, and their flute's not on their face yet. And then they get it set, and they've got their air in there and they're holding on to it. And it's already losing oxygen. So it's not a very good breath that way.

Robert: These are great tips. And of course, the lesson for today, everybody, is, "Don't forget to breathe" and "Life is breath." So thanks for joining us. This is a great lesson for everyone. Thanks, Florence. We'll see you next time here at and The Flute Show.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Anne-Marie * VSM MEMBER * on January 7, 2015 @10:26 am PST
Thank you for a great lesson that I will always refer back to. Your instructions are simple yet profound.
Vern on May 28, 2014 @2:33 pm PST
These tips have helped me tremendously and I always reflect back on the information I have received from the video.
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