How to teach breath control – tips and tricks!

By Jade Bultitude
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breathe, breathing, music practice

Breathing is the most important technique to get right when you play the flute, or any wind instrument! So let’s explore how to teach breath control effectively!

I mean, if you cannot breathe or control the air, you cannot make a sound and playing your instrument will be infinitely harder! But what exactly do we mean when we say ‘breathe correctly’? How does breathing correctly help us when it comes to playing our instruments? Read below to find out how to teach breath control!

What is breathing?

Breathing is the process of taking air into and expelling from the lungs. Wow, what a fancy way to explain what breathing is!

Let’s break this down and simplify. We breathe in and expel the air over the lip plate or into the mouth piece to create the sound. Easy as that!

why is breath control difficult to master? 

Breathing is something that we all must do to stay alive and I bet during the day you don’t consciously think about the process…

However, when we play the flute we end up over-thinking… This is where as a teacher we can step in, it is really important to know how to teach breath control.

I have had many students with a huge misconception over breathing. This is usually in relation to what should be happening in the body when you play. Perhaps the biggest misconception is that when you breathe in, your shoulders should come up.

This is incorrect, in actual fact, you should find your shoulders stay in the same position but that your abdomen expands outwards. In other words, you want to get fatter and wider!

Why is it important that my shoulders don’t come up?

If you find that your shoulders come up when you breathe in, you will be causing tension. By causing extra tension you will find that you are restricting yourself with the breath. You will also find that you only breathe into the top section of your lungs. Your lungs surface area is huge and if you only use a tiny portion of this you definitely won’t be able to play those long phrases! You need a lot of air to play a wind instrument, so why restrict yourself?!

How can I visualise what is happening? 

A good way of practising this is to lie on the floor with some books on your stomach and see if you can push them up and down.

books, breath control, teaching

Another way is to use your flute case. Lean up against a wall with your flute case length ways on your stomach. Now see if you can push yourself away from the wall!

There are many different things you can do to practice, it is just important that you get the visual of expanding. Remember, wider not taller!

How can I practice breath control?

I love to get my students to practice breathing without the instrument. This will usually look something like this: Breathe in for a certain number of counts, hold for a certain amount of counts and exhale for a certain number of counts.

For example, with a beginner student we would breathe in for 3 counts, hold for 3 counts and then exhale for 6 counts. It is important to remember to exhale using the flute embouchure. Ask your students to keep a daily diary of how many counts they breathe in for, hold for and exhale for, so you can see the progress.

Often students will rapidly improve and this will be hugely motivating, even if they cannot yet play more than one note at a time! We will also experiment with holding a piece of paper onto a wall. This is surprisingly difficult but it will be another visual for the student as well as a motivating aim to keep them focused on the breathing. 

Later on, I begin introducing long tones on notes that the students find easy. A good note to start with is B in the middle of the stave. Keep a diary of how many beats you were able to hold it for. This is very motivating for students!

It is also a great idea to have competitions for who can hold their note for the longest length of time. This works particularly well if you teach in groups or run an ensemble.

Remember to think about your phrases – make music!

The aim is for your students to eventually be able to play whole entire phrases in one breath. I always believe it’s important to think of each piece of music in terms of it’s phrases. Too often I see students who are just playing notes for the sake of notes. Music is far more enjoyable if you are telling a story, and this can only be done if you speak in coherent ideas. Imagine if in the middle of a sentence you just randomly took a breath… now that wouldn’t make much sense! 

Applying breath control practice to the music

Once a student’s breath capacity and breath control has improved, it is important to apply this to pieces. How many bars can we play? How does that make sense for our musical sentence?

I usually have my students playing very simple pieces from their beginner book but encourage them to breathe at the end of each bar. We then further this by breathing at the end of every two bars and then at the end of every four bars etc. Working in this way makes my students feel a sense of achievement, as things are accomplished in bitesize chunks. It also gets them thinking about the phrases and how they want their pieces to sound. It’s not just about the notes! 

Remember to mark in your breaths!

In our pieces it is important to mark in the breathes. Having the visual reminder on the music can do wonders. Practising in the mirror will also make a huge difference. Seeing themselves in the mirror will make it very clear when they are taking unnecessary breaths! I often refer to this as ‘goldfish’ breathing, as when you breathe after every note your mouth opens and closes all the time, giving you the appearance of a fish! We definitely don’t want that!

These are just a few ideas that I like to use with my students – What is your favourite way to tackle the problem ‘how to teach breath control’? I would love to hear!

Be sure to check out my other blog posts!

Have a great week!

Jade xx

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Jade is a flute player and music educator with a passion for educating the next generation of musicians. She is a Masters Graduate from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. Jade has been helping people learn music theory for more than 10 years from pre school children all the way to degree level studies.