Fall is the time of year when young musicians in school band programs select instruments and begin learning the very basics of posture, sound production and fingerings. Several years ago when I was one of these wide-eyed, energetic youngsters, I discovered the flute to be a logical and fun choice of instrument (and was determined to be a better flutist than my best friend). I had no idea how to play it or even if I would enjoy exploring something so time consuming, but I soon found myself engrossed in the instrument and wanting to learn more about music in general. The first few band rehearsal meetings were fairly fun and quite interesting but to a 12 year old with a highly curious mind, I found the pace to move too slow. My family did not have enough money to pay for a private flute teacher in the beginning stages of my musical development so I was often left to my own devices to learn things more advanced than the rest of the group. This is when I developed the Clock Exercise.
I spent most of my practice time in my parent’s bedroom where I had ample space to move around and experiment with various sitting and standing postures. There was a large analog wall clock located in far left corner of this room. Each day I would select one low note and one high note and, beginning with the low note, stare at the analog clock counting the number of seconds I could sustain the sound using a single breath. This became somewhat of a game. Each day I would try to beat the number of seconds I was able to hold each note from the day before. What I did not realize at the time was that I was, as the experts says, building breath capacity and increasing performance stamina. I was teaching myself tricks to control the sound of the instrument, save air by playing softer dynamics and take long, effective breaths without nervous tension.
I use this same exercise with beginning flute students in my studio today and have found it to be a very effective way of introducing numerous breathing techniques such as using a soft yet supported dynamics to conserve air, finger breaths (I will go into more detail on a future blog regarding these but simply put, by making an “L” with the index finger and thumb of your right hand and placing your lips wide against the vertical line formed between the two fingers, one can take an incredibly large, focused and measurable breath), postural techniques to enhance the ease of taking a breath and so on. I keep an analog clock in my bookshelf and prop it up on the music stand when it is time to test our weekly goals. Young students find the Clock Exercise to be very helpful as it allows them to work on breathing outside of the pressure of learning new notes and reading music. This ultimately helps them plan appropriate places to breathe in their music based on how many seconds that can reach in a particular range.
I urge you to try the Clock Exercise with your students or in your own practice. Deconstructing how we breathe and what limits our air capacity helps us to expand our limitations by developing daily and weekly breathing goals.
Do you use a variation of the Clock Exercise that you find effective? Have you experimented with similar exercises? Please comment below!