Flute/Air Support

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Question
Hi Denise. My name is Jennifer and I have been the playing the flute since my sixth grade year and I am in tenth currently. I would say that I am a decent player seeing as how I am second chair in the wind ensemble. However, one thing that I have always struggled with is my air support. Any tips on how to improve this or any warm ups on breathing that would help?

Answer
Hi, Jennifer.
At this point in your career, it may be good to assess breath technique in a more refined way.  When we first begin to play flute, we are happy just to start and stop a note.  But of course, by now there is much more to it than we originally thought.  Here is a sort of "checklist" that may help.

#1.  POSTURE.  Sit up straight, feet placed flat on the floor in front of you.  Excellent posture helps you to fill your lungs more, and allows the various muscles to work efficiently in distributing the air as needed.  (Also remember.  Keep your shoulders parallel to the floor.  Do not tilt the shoulders on an angle, with one higher than the other.)

#2.  BIG BREATH IN.  Learn to breath deeply.  Then, only blow out what is needed.  Try to find that spot in the lip plate, where you blow pure note, with no extra "fuzzy" or "airy" sound to it.  The better your tone quality, the less "wasted air," so you don't run out before the end of a phrase.  (You can practice this, even without your flute.  If you are sitting somewhere, and have little to do, practice sitting up straight, and breathing in deeply, then exhaling by blowing out slowly, a little at a time.)

#3.  ABDOMINAL MUSCLES.  When we are beginners, we often just "blow harder" to play louder, or to accent certain notes. Of course, that makes us run out of air more quickly.  Then, we find ourselves struggling to blow those last few notes in the phrase, before taking another breath. Now that we are discussing a more advanced way of doing things, we have to mention "pushing" the sound, using our tummy muscles.  I have told many students, it is like having a soccer ball on your lap, and somebody pushing it into your tummy as you blow.  You get a kind of "oooooffff!" or a "push" to the air stream.  This is the way to "support" the tones without using as much air.  It's kind of a trade-off.  A bit less air, coming out with a bit more pressure.  Crazy, but this "push" from the tummy muscles makes high notes easier to get as well, and you can play them softer when necessary.  You'll know if you are doing it right when you first start to do it, because you will feel like you just did a bunch of sit-ups or crunches, after about a half-hour of practice.

#4.  INTONATION.  When we are running out of air, we notice that our notes go flat.  If we play a long note, even if we start out on pitch, as we run lower on air, the note goes flatter and flatter.  Now, beginning to push the tones with our abdominal muscles, we may find that we are blowing our notes much sharper.  So we of course will have to practice to perfect this technique, and guarantee that we play in tune.  And that any extended pitch starts in tune, stays in tune, and ends in tune.  

#5.  PRACTICE.  A chromatic scale, holding each note for 8 slow counts, is a good exercise for air support.  Follow all of the advice in #1 through #4.  Try to play at least 2 notes before you breathe.  More if you can, or are counting faster than I do.  Use a cheap guitar tuner, for example, to tell you if you are "in tune."  Watch as you begin, play, and end each note.  Try to keep exactly on pitch.  Make a game out of it.  As you do this, listen, listen, LISTEN.  Try to hear the difference if you see the pitch changing on the tuner.  Then apply this to everything else you are playing.  It's amazing to feel and hear the difference.

Jennifer, sweetie, this technique will not be perfect for you in a day, or a week, or a month.  It takes regular practice, and it just has to "grow" on you.  So I wish you good practice, and great performances, and real joy in the beautiful music that you create!

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Denise J. Sipe

Expertise

These are the topics I CAN answer... How to play, from beginner to professional. Tips and tricks, breathing, auxilliary fingering techniques Tone Quality Listening--Developing your ears Technique --Bringing the notes up and off of the page, and making them "your own music". Playing solo, small groups, bands, orchestras Digitally reproduced, vs live accompaniment Accompanying vocalists, dancers, other instrumentals.

Experience

Soloist, small groups, large marching bands, symphony orchestras, stage bands and orchestras, theater, church music, jazz, classical, folk music

Organizations
I'm independent. But professionals have often hired me to play in their groups. Giving back to the community where I played in the High School Band, I am a former member of Williamsport, MD Community Band, a current member of New Horizons Band in Hagerstown, MD, and Bass Flute Player for the TOOT UNCOMMON FLUTES flute choir of Williamsport, MD. I often perform solo as "Toot Uncommon" and had a web-based business where I sold flutes of all sizes, shapes, and colors. The show is uncommon. The locations are often uncommon. And the variety of musical instruments is definitely uncommon! I am a member of NFA, the National Flute Association.

Publications
I didn't write for any publications. I leave that up to the more elite musicians.

Education/Credentials
This should have been my career. I am an engineer,and a trained professional clown. But my music is my passion. Flute is my favorite, though I also play many woodwinds and some brass. I am currently playing percussion in a volunteer concert band, and have drum corps experience, where I often played marching bass drum. I am totally self-taught. But I have often played in groups made up mostly of professionals. All in all I am still the area's best-kept secret.

Awards and Honors
Biggest honor of my career was playing an emotional piece, and looking out over the audience. Two big, tough construction workers had tears rolling down their cheeks.

Past/Present Clients
I've been teaching beginning and intermediate flute/piccolo students of all ages in MD and PA since the early 1970s.

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