Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Breathing..the nuts and bolts. With cool pictures.

It's comforting to know that at the unconscious level,  we're all expert breathers. Or,  at least we're good enough breathers because...we're alive. In most circumstances, our bodies complete our breathing cycles with an involuntary respiratory system initiated in the brain stem, so we're usually not even aware of what we're doing.  This is pretty cool stuff!

However,  to play the oboe (and any other wind instrument or to speak, swim, etc), we must use conscious control of our breathing. The air is the mechanism for our sound,  so we must discipline our bodies to breathe at specific intervals to play phrases and to initiate proper air support to create our desired sounds. The anatomical parts engaged in consciously controlled breathing include the lungs, intercostal muscles,  and muscles of the abdominal wall, and the diaphragm is engaged but involuntarily controlled.

Let's take a field trip trip to your body to figure out where all of these parts are and learn what they do, to see how we might improve with this knowledge. First,  your lungs. Find your collar bone and put one hand on it,  then put your other hand on the bottom of your rib cage. The top of your lungs extend to the top of your collar bone and when you breath in,  your lungs expand all the way to the bottom of your rib cage. The ribs essentially function as a protective "armor" for the lungs and heart, some of our most important organs.

Take a few deep breaths and notice how your rib cage expands and contracts as you breathe in and out. The ribs expand and contract thanks to our intercostal muscles, which run between the ribs. Now put your hand on the rib cage in the back and breathe deeply. Does your back expand as you breathe in? It should. If it doesn't you may be "holding" or unnecessarily tensing your back muscles.  This would be an example of TOO MUCH tension that you can learn to release.  Think of your body as being round, like an apple, instead of two dimensional with a "front" and "back." As you breathe in and out,  your entire ribcage should expand and contract your entire chest area.
Graphic of the intercostal muscles thanks to Gray's Anatomy and Wikipedia

By now  you've likely noticed that as you breathe in and out deeply, your rib cage expands and your abdomen also expands or enlarges. The skeletal muscle called the diaphragm, which is attached to the bottom of your ribcage,  pushes your abdominal organs downward as you breathe in to make way for the lung expansion. Note that our diaphragm is an involuntary muscle--you can't consciously move it; it expands or contracts as a result of the actions of the intercostal or abdominal wall muscles that expand and contract as you breathe.  (One of only times the diaphragm works on its own is when you hiccup,  which is a spasm of the diaphragm muscle.) As you breathe in, your lungs fill with air as the abdominal wall expands and the diaphragm contracts and moves the abdominal organs down into your abdomen. Over time I've heard so many well-intentioned music teachers say, "when you breathe in, breathe into your belly."  But they couldn't be further from the truth!!! Let me repeat: as you breathe in, your lungs fill with air as the abdominal wall expands and the diaphragm contracts and pushes the abdominal organs down into your abdomen to make room for the lung expansion. Anyone who says that you should breath into your "belly" is misinformed. Air can't go there...and if it does,  you have a serious medical problem!
Here's a really cool graphic, thanks to Wikipedia. This shows the lungs (in pink) and the diaphragm muscle (in green) that pushes abdominal organs down as the lungs expand and contract.

Graphic of the abdomen  (again, thanks to Wikipedia)

Here's a side view of the abdominal wall. When we breath deeply,  this area extends outward to make way for the organs that have been displaced by lung expansion. The lower muscles in the abdominal wall also play a key role in air support.


Now that you know what happens when we breathe,  let's explore the idea of air support. Take a big breath and blow it out quickly,  like you have lots of birthday candles to blow out. The act of consciously forcing your air out engages your abdominal wall to push air out of your lungs. Allow your throat to always remain unconstricted throughout this action.  Now extend your arm out and imagine you are holding a lit candle (or,  actually find and light a candle for the exercise if you wish). Try to blow air to the "candle" for 10 full seconds, but only enough to bend the flame--but not blow it out. To do this, you still need abdominal air support, and also more "focused" air,  likely from a smaller mouth opening and consistent abdominal support. Again, bring awareness to your throat and make sure that it is not constricted.  For a test of what NOT to do,  tighten your throat and try the same exercise. Not a good feeling, right? Realize that air support comes only from the lower portions of the abdominal wall. If you try to engage the muscles closest your ribcage (the top of your beautiful "six-pack" abs), it will also tighten the throat, as if you are coughing. This feeling of throat tightness should always be avoided.  Think of your lungs and wind pipe being an open column for your air, using the lower abdominal muscles to support the air moving out of your lungs.

Another exercise: Find a balloon.  Take in a quick, big breath and blow up the balloon.  Keep the muscles around the cheeks and lips firm, like when you play the oboe, so no "puffy" cheeks.  As you blow up the balloon,  place a hand on your lower abdominal wall to feel the muscles engaging. Now pick up your oboe and play some long tones with the same abdominal muscles engaged.  Is your sound bigger than usual?  If so, keep some balloons near your practice space and blow them up as a daily warm up to feel the correct muscle engagement for good air support.

It seems that 99.9% of my students consistently do not blow enough air through their instruments.  That .1% sound MARVELOUS though!  Using MORE AIR  through their instrument often fixes pitch and response issues and allows the player to utilize a wider dynamic range with more ease.
If I had a dollar for every time that I asked a student to play a phrase again, but with 10X (or 100X or 1000X!) more air and was amazed at the improved results,  I'd be rich!

 Notice that I mentioned blowing air through the instrument, not just at the reed. Take in a fair amount of air with an unconstricted inhalation, then put a lot of air through the instrument using consistent lower abdominal wall support. Support the sound all the way to the end of the bell.  Some teachers describe this is using "fast" air or "spinning" the air through the reed/instrument. In each case, there should be a lot of well-supported air volume that is moving through the instrument. I encourage you to go back to the Pavarotti Sing Along post to practice using a lot of air support and air volume. Then play some of the songs on the oboe. This is a simple concept, but takes a lot a awareness on the part of the oboist to develop better air support and use more air volume over time. 

Ok,  we've covered a lot so I'll let you work with these ideas before I continue in the next post.

In the meantime,  I wish you unconstricted, deep breathing coupled with great air support and air volume in your playing. Breathe easy, my friends!

Oboe and out,

The Oboist


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  2. Hi Christa,
    I loved reading this piece! Well written! :)

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  3. Bom dia - from Brasil. I am writing an article about Breath Support and Alexander Technique. Thahks for yourd indications,
    Pierre Descaves

  4. thank you

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