When we sleep or walk around doing non-flutey things, we commonly breathe through our noses. So, is it a good idea to do this when we play the flute? Of course, one doesn’t always have time, but I was talking recently to a student about this and here are my thoughts on the matter.
The advantages of nose breathing
When we inhale through the nose, as opposed to the mouth, it takes longer and encourages a “deeper” breath. The air needs to travel through the nasal passages, where there are millions of tiny hairs that act as an air filtration system. The air that travels to the lungs arrives cleaner, moister and warmer. When we breathe through the mouth, the air is colder, less clean and drier, which can cause irritation of the throat among other things. When I was younger, I would often get a sore throat after practising, but since improving my breathing habits, I’ve managed to avoid getting sore throats.
- Calmness – Think of a flute solo in orchestra or your first note in an audition- feeling nervous?! Breathing through the nose and focusing on blowing out will help greatly calm your nerves. When you have 4 bars rest, breathe through the nose and you will likely sound better on your entry and inspire a sense of calmness in your section or to your audience. Careful not to take loud sniffs, but slow full breaths.
- Improved circulation and oxygenation – More focus and better movement. Often I will do some calm breathing before practice, lying down. It gives me a much more productive practice session.
- Opens nasal cavities- improves resonance. Feeling the sensation of the air opening the nasal cavities can help open up the tone. Thinking of a nice smell helps open the nasal cavities and mouth and encourages a full, deep breath.
An important point about breathing is that we don’t literally put air into the stomach!! When one encourages “belly breathing” or “diaphragmatic breathing”, this sets up a mis-map of how the respiratory system works. The abdominal area will move, but the air itself isn’t going into the organ of the stomach! Jessica Wolf’s Art of Breathing is a great resource to understand how we actually breathe.
Of course, when we play the flute, we don’t always have time for a nose breath. But where one has a whole bar/measure’s rest (or more), it can be a great way to calm one’s nerves or release tension. Hyper-ventilation (breathing too often through the mouth) is often observed in young students who then complain about getting dizzy. I will often get students to fill in a breathing chart, working on playing notes longer each day which encourages them to breathe less frequently.
Another useful aspect of nose breathing is letting the air out through the nose before one plays, which encourages a soft attack of the note. This is something Michel Debost, Emmanuel Pahud and others encourage. I personally prefer to get a soft attack in another way (blowing above the flute and lowering the airstream using the jaw to find the speaking point), but both have the intention of getting the air moving before the sound is made, releasing any tension when we hold the breath.
Some think they can’t get enough air when they breathe through the nose, but this is a common misconception. It raises the question, “How much air do you think you need?” If you sing a phrase before playing it, how much air do you use? Can you get to the end of the phrase easily? Try to emulate that when you bring the flute up instead of reverting to the habit of forcing a lot of air in through the mouth. It helps me to think instead of
“breathing” to think of “Being breathed”, something I learnt from my Alexander Technique teacher. In other words, take away the effort of trying to breathe, but just let the body do what it does naturally (just as we breathe when we are asleep). Then the in breath becomes passive and automatic, as it should be.
If you breathe through your nose before playing, do you find it helps? If not, have a go and let me know if it helps in any way.
Thanks for reading and Happy Fluting!