Just Breathe

“..thanks to faulty sensory awareness, what singers (and others) think that they do is often different from what they actually do.” -Pedro de Alcantara

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What in the world is a breathing bag?

The breathing bag is a tool used by performers to strengthen physical performance capabilities, such as breath control and articulation, away from the instrument. This device presents a visual representation of the maximum amount of air available to each performer and reminds us that the act of moving air back and forth is away from a given performance stimulus (whether that be a performance scenario or the confrontation of the instrument itself) is a relatively simple process. The bag also helps us identify how to best pace our air over a given amount of time or beat duration. As it applies to flute playing, the breathing bag enables greater flexibility in the ribs while inhaling thereby forcing us to examine what exactly happens to our physical body makeup during the entire length of a phrase. Within the context of a group setting, the bag helps to coordinate a collective sense of beat. Most importantly, the bag enables performers to examine the extra-musical tendencies unconsciously employed that inhibit the natural act of breathing.

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The first exercise one may practice using a breathing bag is to simply blow air in and out of the device. This not only calms the nerves through the inhalation of Carbon Dioxide but also delivers more Oxygen to internal capillaries thus opening up the entire body to the standard act of breathing. Here we may examine which, if any, extra-musical elements restrict the natural flow of air. These may include such gestures as breathing with unnecessary movements from the neck or head or employing vocalizations, or whispering, while breathing in new air. In either case, the body should remain poised and the air should remain quiet. The breathing bag also helps us examine the pacing of our air. Fill up the breathing bag with an exhale, breath in the same air, and subsequently breathe out for 4 beats and in for 1. The tempo of the beats is up to you but a simple quarter note = 108 is an appropriate moderate pace. Practice this until the inhale is smooth and silent without any unnecessary muscle tension between inhale and exhale transitions. Continue the exercise by using the same amount of air to breathe out for 6 beats and in for 1 and finally out for 8 and in for 1. When adding beats to this exercise we are forced to pace the same amount of air over longer durations of time. This can be achieved by slowing down the speed of the air or using less air at the beginning of the phrase.

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The breathing bag may also be used to practice taking quicker, and more efficient, breaths, which we often must do when performing with instruments requiring significantly less air intake (or in some cases none at all). Perform the above exercise, this time taking the breath on the “and” (or upbeat) of the last beat, thereby breathing over the course of an eighth note. This exercise may be further expanded by lengthening the phrase to take the breath on the last sixteenth note of each beat duration (for example on the “a” of 4, 6, and 8). What happens to your air over the phrase? Where do you tend to unnecessarily hold your breath? Are you creating any vocalizations or employing any muscle tension to breathe that hinders rather than helps your performance? The breathing bag will help you to identify some of these issues and experiment with various corrective actions.

The breathing bag may be applied directly to flute repertoire to address various musical and technical issues associated with breathing and articulation. As John C. Krell observes in the book Kincaidiana, “All music must breathe. The resourceful wind player will so plan his necessary breathing points that they work to his advantage in punctuating his musical line.” When one constructs a musical blueprint detailing where they intend to breathe, it becomes apparent that certain longer phrases will require more careful pacing of breath than others. As we have already discussed, the breathing bag is a highly useful tool to help performers practice pacing their breath over longer durations of time. In the second movement of the Sonata for Flute and Piano by Jindrich Feld, the flute is required to sustain a single breath over the duration of 6 slow measures in a passage written in the high register at the climax of the opening slow section.

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Practice this section by filling up the breathing bag on an exhale, breathing in for 1 beat and out for the duration of the phrase using a steady stream of slow and directed air. Arrive in the last measure with enough air to complete the phrase without unnecessarily constricting the neck or head. The passage should be “played” again on the breathing bag, this time adding all indicated dynamic changes. Return to play the passage on the flute as written. At this point you will have greater breath control and stronger yet fluent changes of dynamics.

The breathing bag may also help to coordinate shifting time signatures, particularly in compound meters that place the emphasis of the beat on different sections of each measure. An example of this can be found in measures 13-16 in the third movement of the Feld Sonata where a 6/8 pattern based on a standard duple division is proceeded by a measure of eighth note intervallic leaps that outline a triple division of the bar.

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Using the breathing bag, one may practice making this metric shift away from the instrument through simple manipulations of the air stream. As we have practiced in the above exercises, fill the bag with an exhale, breath in the same air, then breath out for 3 eighth notes and again in for 3. Continue this exercise by breathing out for 2 eighths, in for 2, and again out for 2. Repeat the pattern until the ease of metric shift improves between the duple and triple divisions of the meter and the transition between inhalation and exhalation becomes seamless. Return to the playing the figure on the instrument as written. You will notice that the shift in meter is more fluid and the air stream is uninterrupted by unnecessary tensions in the neck and head.

Double tonguing is another technique that can be significantly improved by practicing on the breathing bag. In passages such as those found at measure 264 in the third movement of the Sonata for Flute and Piano by Carl Vine, ease of articulation becomes problematic when considering the tempo marking is set at quarter note = 154.

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There is a tendency to hold one’s breath and not allow enough air to fill each of the notes in this complicated passage thereby making doubling tonguing essentially more difficult than it truly needs to be. To practice double tonguing away from the instrument again fill the bag with air, inhale, and double tongue 4 beats of 16th notes into the bag, breathing on the last quarter note. Does your bag fill sufficiently? Probably not. Repeat the exercise and try to create a “bounce” in the breathing bag by increasing the amount of air behind each note and applying a stronger articulation on the front of each syllable (too-coo, or duc-ky). Return to the score and articulate the notated pattern into the bag concentrating on the techniques established in the previous exercise. Finally, play the passage on the instrument as written. This should yield a greater ease of articulation as well as a more focused sound.

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Finally, in a general sense, the breathing bag is a useful tool to use immediately before a performance to reinforce the separation of air and technique. Without this separation, anxiety may interfere with both elements and inhibit the true technical capacity of the performer. It is always a good practice to “perform” a piece on the bag by holding the bag in one’s mouth while fingering through the music with both hands on the flute, taking breaths where marked. Practicing this method in consultation with a recording may also provide useful in exercising performance stamina, however one must keep in mind that recordings are merely a record of one performer’s interpretation at a given time and may not reflect how one wishes to perform the piece themselves.   Although this technique may “feel” uncomfortable, it no doubt requires the performer to consider two performance techniques separately from one another. When we realize that the trick to playing virtually anything is in how we use our air, our performance improves and our confidence as performers strengthens our music making capabilities.

Do you use the breathing bag in your practice? Have these exercises helped strengthen your performance? Do you have another exercise using the breathing bag that you find particularly effective? Please share your experiences in the comments below.

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