Puff away

Another popular discussion in the flute community is the issue of puffing one’s cheeks when playing. This is something I have experience of myself, having been a “puffer” in my formative years. I would like to discuss this and try to find pros and cons of letting one’s cheeks puff!  Please note this is a discussion and I’m not wishing to polarise opinion.

My experience

As a young student, I was always trying to improve and take my playing to the next level. Part of that was getting a big sound to match those around me in youth orchestras. Rather misguidedly, I did this by blowing more. I knew that relaxing helped me find a bigger sound than tightening and this is when the cheeks puffed. Being told to “relax” encouraged a full, round sound, but it also caused my cheeks to puff. I don’t think I was so aware of it at the time. I did notice that quiet playing was difficult and the sound was somewhat raw. Indeed, my first teacher in London, Sebastian Bell, noted “You have a raw energy, which you mustn’t lose. But we can refine it!” I hadn’t really seriously worked on tone and intonation until I started working with Sebastian and this is when I became conscious of the cheeks. During one lesson, Bas noticed my vibrato was quite wide and automatic and this was where my cheeks were filling with air and, being completely relaxed, they were moving in waves, affecting (or rather dictating) my vibrato. Later, when I studied at the Royal Academy of Music, my teachers Wibb and Kate, as well as visiting teachers including Emmanuel Pahud and Paul Edmund Davies all mentioned it in the first year. So, it was something that was getting in the way of my expression and I made it my project to do away with puffing and find a way to sound relaxed but with more control and varied expression.

What happens when our cheeks puff?

Here is an interesting video of the muscles of facial expression. Notice how all these muscles are connected, so anything we do with our face has a reaction in the other muscle groups.

The muscle group that is responsible for forming and controlling our embouchure is the circular muscle: Orbicularis oris. The muscle group associated with puffing one’s cheeks, or conversely sucking them in, is the buccinator muscle.

Knowledge of these muscles is very useful since we can then see how tension in the jaw area can cause quite a significant change in our blowing muscles. Other expressions which some of us do when playing are muscle contractions: closing one’s tightly, frowning, smiling.  These are just the visible things we can do.  There are so many expressions we do internally, particularly in relation to the nasal muscle group.  Then of course, changes in these muscles affect the throat, shoulders etc.  Everything is connected!

But looking again at the two muscle groups: buccinator and orbicularis oris. Notice how the fibres of these muscles blend. There is a direct result in the lip muscles when we puff our cheeks: it relaxes them. Try blowing on your hand with tight cheeks and the with puffy cheeks. You can feel more freedom of air when the cheeks are puffed out.

So what are the pros and cons?

Drawbacks

  • The sound is rather coarse. Lack of tone in the lip muscles means a lack of focus to the airstream and therefore the sound.
  • Slow vibrato when the cheeks flap in and out.

Benefits

  • Loosens embouchure. If you find your embouchure or lip muscles getting tight, a bit of puffing can be a good idea.
  • It adds a different dimension to one’s sound.  I’ve seen many professional players puff their cheeks at times and it works for them.
  • High register has more openness and sounds less harsh.

Practical uses:

  • Circular breathing – allowing air into the cheeks and using this as a reservoir to inhale while still blowing out.
  • Warm up/cool down- loosening any muscular tension and warming up muscles around the lips and face.

As for playing with puffed cheeks, I have now steered away from this as I prefer playing with good control and just enough use of the facial muscles. I try to think of the lip and cheek muscles working together in creating a good embouchure, but with a good balance of use. Too floppy and the sound lacks focus; too tight and the sound becomes harsh. But I definitely puff my cheeks before and after playing as a little stretch, much like an athlete would stretch their hamstrings before and after a race.

Let me know your comments! Are you a puffer? What benefits or drawbacks have you observed?

Thanks for reading and Happy Fluting!

5 thoughts on “Puff away

  1. I used to play trumpet; I consciously avoided any puffing, as I needed all the lip tension I could muster in order to get decent sound with my somewhat full lips. Also because I’d seen Dizzy Gillespie play, and thought it looked pretty silly 😉 .

    As a flute player, I don’t need nearly the same degree of lip tension, and in a way wish I was a puffer, so I could learn circular breathing. Breathing is probably my no 1 problem on flute, as I cannot seem to fill my lungs fast enough. I’ve always breathed slowly and to full capacity, and although I have excellent lung capacity, I suspect my bronchia are undersized, and often more so than usual due to allergies, chronic congestion, etc. It takes me just about a full measure to properly fill my lungs and be able to last 8 measures; breath marks just won’t cut it for me :/

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is great!!! Somehow not as controversial as pressing, it seems!!! Though I think it is just as fascinating.

    I watched the whole video on facial muscles (inc. part 2). Interesting that the orbicularis oris contracts when the corners of the mouth come in (extreme result is fish face!). If I puff my cheeks out as I blow the corners of my mouth also move in. It seems to me that the muscles around the lips actually contract more in response to the air stream if the cheeks are floppy. That may not happen for everyone, but it does for me. Given a preference, I would tend to choose to have freedom in the muscles closest to the embouchure hole, rather than in the cheeks.

    Did some experimenting today. If I avoid muscle work in the orbicularis oris area (I sort of just imagined that the circumference of my lips was floating out in all directions rather than in!) my cheeks do move slightly – but barely. What I do with the air stream translates better into the actual sound. Soft playing is less work. I get a slightly different sound, which feels less, but sounds more resonant.

    I was taught floppy everything as a student. I now feel that might be as misdirecting as the smile embouchure . It works wonderfully for some, but it also has limitations.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, definitely less controversial! Lol

      Had a lesson with gaby yesterday. We worked on just using what is needed. She agreed puffing isn’t needed!

      Yes, floppy is equally as useless as too tight. It’s finding that balance and maintaining it through a recital that is tricky, for me at least.

      Liked by 1 person

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