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I had my end of the semester jury performance today (I'm currenly studying flute actually- graduate level). I got good scores, but all three commented on my breathing not being steady/following through. This has been a problem for me- when I record myself (saxophone, flute, voice) I really notice that I have to breathe before finishing phrases sometimes, which obviously affects the performance. I actually don't usually notice it as I'm playing- I feel like I'm being sneaky and clever and grabbing breaths when no one will notice or something! Sometimes I wonder if I'm just out of shape physically- literally- like being out of breath when you climb stairs and you just need to go to the gym more! On saxophone it feels like too much resistance sometimes (like a reed issue or something, or MP), but actually I don't think so, because I run out of breath on flute and vocals also sometimes. I try to take really deep breaths- I don't have asthma or anything. Any thoughts?
 

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Flute requires more air than sax, likely because part of the stream doesn’t go into the instrument....have you done diaphragm excercises?
 

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In my opinion I believe proper breathing and breath support is a never ending pursuit. Some are better at it than others. Plenty of hope for you and others. I found a good book on proper breathing for horn players that I would like to recommend. The title of the book says “Also Sprach Arnold Jacobs”........ A Developmental Guide for Brass Wind Musicians compiled by Bruce Nelson. By Polymnia Press. Its Very Good! I believe it can really help you. Sorry...but I can’t remember what website purchased it from. Maybe Amazon.
 

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I had my end of the semester jury performance today (I'm currenly studying flute actually- graduate level). I got good scores, but all three commented on my breathing not being steady/following through. This has been a problem for me- when I record myself (saxophone, flute, voice) I really notice that I have to breathe before finishing phrases sometimes, which obviously affects the performance. I actually don't usually notice it as I'm playing- I feel like I'm being sneaky and clever and grabbing breaths when no one will notice or something! Sometimes I wonder if I'm just out of shape physically- literally- like being out of breath when you climb stairs and you just need to go to the gym more! On saxophone it feels like too much resistance sometimes (like a reed issue or something, or MP), but actually I don't think so, because I run out of breath on flute and vocals also sometimes. I try to take really deep breaths- I don't have asthma or anything. Any thoughts?
Do you breathe from the abdomen?
 

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This is an interesting question. A quick literature review suggests that woodwind and brass musicians don't really have much more lung capacity than the general population. However, studies based on populations don't apply to an individual, so without actual spirometry, lung volume, etc type of testing you can't really know if perhaps you as an individual are deficient in those areas.

So you have developed some breathing habits that seem to work for you as you interpret how you sound as you are playing, but not for listeners that matter to you at this point. I'm not sure how you feel about recording of yourself; it would be good for you to do some of that. It is possible that the stress of performance-- particularly when being formally evaluated,--changes your breathing patterns due to s sympathetic nervous system response tightening and shortening your breaths.. So maybe try to record when you are relaxed and when you you are being evaluated; perhaps this will give you further insight.
 

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I was taught to focus on diaphragm control by inhaling and exhaling in steady 4 second intervals. It’s more about regulation of your airstream than increasing capacity. Walking up and down decently large flights of stairs is good exercise too if one can manage it.
 

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The last air is hard to control because the volume is diminishing so you have to push faster which makes for control issues.
At the end of long tones keep pushing until you can't make a sound and you feel like an empty balloon.
Especially true for flute, don't want the dreaded drop in pitch at the end of the phrase.
 

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Changing the air angle on flute changes the pitch, so that is a useful technique for playing soft or tapering a phrase.
 

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As a former Masters swimmer I'd recommend swimming if you find you're actually short of air. At the end of workout we used to do breathing exercises where we would take 1 breath per length of the pool, or no breaths. Or we'd do an exercise where we would swim underwater the length of the pool without a breath. I'm not sure if it was intended to build lung capacity or to learn to control the urge to breathe. I'm not sure if it transfers over to playing flute but swimming would probably give you more lung capacity.

https://www.usms.org/
 

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As a former Masters swimmer I'd recommend swimming if you find you're actually short of air. At the end of workout we used to do breathing exercises where we would take 1 breath per length of the pool, or no breaths. Or we'd do an exercise where we would swim underwater the length of the pool without a breath. I'm not sure if it was intended to build lung capacity or to learn to control the urge to breathe. I'm not sure if it transfers over to playing flute but swimming would probably give you more lung capacity.

https://www.usms.org/
As a swimmer, musician, and diver (instructor), I am confident in saying that you won’t increase your lung capacity. However, you can learn to use it more effectively. And if you don’t breathe from the abdomen, you’ll never learn the kind of support that is necessary to reach your musical potential.
 

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The diaphram is a muscle....by doing diaphram exercises, you increase your capacity to move air....it won’t increase your lung capacity, it will help you control the airflow....when you bring air in, your stomach will expand, your chest will not move....
 

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....my breathing not being steady/following through. This has been a problem for me- when I record myself (saxophone, flute, voice) I really notice that I have to breathe before finishing phrases sometimes....Sometimes I wonder if I'm just out of shape physically- literally- like being out of breath when you climb stairs and you just need to go to the gym more! On saxophone it feels like too much resistance sometimes (like a reed issue or something, or MP), but actually I don't think so, because I run out of breath on flute and vocals also sometimes. I try to take really deep breaths- I don't have asthma or anything. Any thoughts?
As somebody who has dealt with patients with difficult to diagnose asthma, you may want to consider having this possibility excluded. Spirometry or even just measuring peak (air) flow is not sensitive for detecting asthma, and advanced testing like bronchoprovocation testing (spirometry with exercise or methacholine challenge) can be considered, but these tests are not readily accessible. So maybe you can discuss this with your health care provider first, then proceed with further evaluation, if needed.

I also have the same problem, only when playing soprano (not alto or tenor), and my teacher and I concluded that it's more to do with the mechanics of breathing, subconsciously taking a breath while there is still significant air volume in the lung.
 

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Any thoughts?
Yes. Here's what you need to do. Stand up and pretend someone is going to punch you right in the gut. Seriously. Now for a guy, this isn't too hard to imagine... but for a woman, well... I'm hoping you don't get hit too often. But I digress... So you want to tighten up your lower abdomen to brace for taking a punch; and you need to get used to doing this as you play each and every note.

Skeptical? Well, here's a quick test to do while you're sitting at your computer. Hold your hands out in front of you and pretend you're blowing a note through your horn (or your flute). The air escapes pretty quickly, doesn't it? Now tighten your lower abdomen as if you're about to take a punch. With your gut tight, now expel air pretending to blow through your horn. Voila! Breath support.
 

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What I've done is develop the ability to breathe with one lung only. In practice, I alternate each breath... first one lung, then the other for the next breath.
When walking around, I also use only one lung at a time. This has given me huge "reserve capacity" that is my secret weapon when breathing normally in auditions, performances.
 

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Had ya going there, didn't I?

Anyway, in all seriousness, check out the book Song and Wind by Arnold Jacobs. Apparently he was THE GUY to teach players breathing. In his absence, the book is very informative.
 

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My band / marching band teacher in high school had us do an exercise that really illustrates the use of the diaphragm - say the word "RUM" a couple of times, now shout it as loud as you can. Be aware of your abdominal area when you shout... when playing, those muscles should be tight and pushed out.

Grumps advice is spot on. I was taught to breathe in using only my belly, absolutely not letting my shoulders do any of the work, letting my lungs fill from bottom to top, then push out my stomach when playing. The tensed belly acts like a piston, driving air from the bottom and is much easier to control.

Another technique to really help with your specific problem is to play a series of very short notes, but spaced far apart. Like a staccato 8th note every 2 beats or something. Stop the note with your air, not your tongue (this is obviously mostly for saxophone). That is, say "tah" rather than "tut". This gives a nice "round" end to the note, letting it tail off gracefully. Play several of these short notes in one breath.
 

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The term "breath support" to me has always been too vague to clearly convey the intended meaning. There is a marked difference between taking a "breath" in and out and blowing an air stream that provides the "wind" to make a sound on a "wind instrument. Supporting your breath? What exactly does that mean? How is your "breath" actually supported and how does one do it?

A friend who is a university tuba instructor taught me that he doesn't ever talk about "breath support", he demonstrates what it is by having the student hold a half sheet of paper against a mirror and then release the paper and hold it in place as long as possible by blowing. This led me to the term "pressurized air" which accurately describes what holds the paper up. When my students would get lazy with their airstream all I had to do was remind them to make their abdomen feel the was it did when they were holding the paper up with their air stream.

My university choir instructor taught me another concept I found useful in my playing and teaching. His contention was that when we take a breath to sing or play an instrument, we don't really fill our lungs with air even when we think we are full. Also when we use all the air till we feel we are empty, we have not used all the air. To learn the feeling of getting our lungs completely full of air, he instructed the class to take the biggest breath possible and then hold it. While holding the air, he has us "gulp some more" five or six times. That showed how it feels to be completely full. Then he had the class exhale all of the air in our lungs, and then whisper the alphabet twice using the remaining air. That showed how it feels to completely use all of our air.

An excellent approach to "abdominal breathing" was taught to me by Dr. Ray Smith at BYU. The method he teaches is to sit or stand completely erect with good posture and while relaxing the shoulders, raise the rib cage and sternum as high as possible. You then fill the lungs with air without raising the shoulders. The rib cage cannot go up since it is as high as it can be already. Breathing takes play by expanding the abdomen automatically without even calling attention to those muscles or that part of the anatomy.
 

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Discussion Starter · #20 ·
These are great responses.

My teacher has talked to me about some of these ideas, and it is helpful and moving me in the right direction. I run out of air and it's hard to keep a consistent stream of air for a long enough time. Plus, it does seem like physical fitness would help with more efficient breathing- maybe just getting more in touch with my own breathing with exercise as one of you suggested- as silly as it seems since we have all takens millions of breaths since birth! I mean, do people with six pack abs who can run marathons have better saxophone sounds? But I'm sure it's true that lungs only have so much capacity and it's a matter of using it, kind of like we only use 10% of our brains!

When I play flute a lot my right shoulder blade really hurts, and my jaw always hurts after gigs whether I play mostly flute or saxophone, so I feel like maybe there are lots of changes I should make so that I'm not hurting and that might be affecting my breathing. Next time I go to the doctor I do think it might be a good idea to ask about his thoughts and see if there's anything I could do like one of you suggested. The dentist told me I have jaws of steel, possibly because of playing, but I wonder if it's because I'm doing something wrong.
 
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