Jen Cluff ~ Breathing for Flutists

Canadian Flutist and Teacher


Easier Flute Breathing:

New (2012)  Teaching Easier Flute Breathing


2005 General Questions

 about breathing easily and quietly


Breathing Question I:

I can sustain most notes for at most eight seconds only. I seem to have to blow a lot of air to produce sound, hence the air finishes off soon. Is there any way to determine if I have a low lung volume?
Can you provide some pointers or information on suitable books to improve breathing techniques, minimize airflow, embouchure shaping and such? I am in my 40s.

Low lung volume can be determined through an appointment with your doctor for a respiratory test (if this is covered by your medical plan) ---- or , and this is way more could simply blow up plastic bags from the local grocery store (the kind you put fruit in), attached to a straw with an elastic, and have contests with your flute teacher. As you progress, you can attach the bag to the flute's headjoint and watch how quickly it fills, or how slowly it fills as you play a long note on the headjoint. The bag full of air allows you to physically see and witness the amount of air your teacher takes in and blows out while playing the flute, and the amount of air that YOU take in and blow out while playing the flute. Chances are you are wasting alot more air than the teacher, and it is pouring out into the atmosphere instead of getting converted into a flute sound.

And, of course, it depends how serious you want to get about your 'lung volume.' There are people just over five feet tall who play flute beautifully, and obviously have child-sized lungs. Unless you're over 70 or have a lung disease, most people just need a flute teacher to help them utilize their natural lung size well.

Most commonly, beginning flute students show signs of being typical 'shallow' breathers. These folk simply need to learn how to fill the BOTTOM of their lungs up first, *before* filling up the middle and top of the lungs.
This can be learned from any book on Yoga, where a detailed exercise in the "yoga deep breath" will help the self-teaching person.

The bottom of the lungs is "pear-shaped" and much larger in volume than the tops of the lungs, which are small, and high up under the collar bones. Learn to fill and use the bottom of the lungs, pushing the gut viscera out of the way as the large, lower lobes expand. The top of the lungs rarely even need to be referenced.

Breathing deeply for beginners:

What you do is to fill up the bottom 1/3rd of the lungs on a long, slow inhale. Feel your tummy area expand fully (as all the viscera get pushed outward to make room for the large, pear-shaped base of the lungs as they expand. Exhale slowly, and relax.

Next: Fill up the bottom 1/3rd of your lungs, and then consciously fill the middle third of the lungs. Feel your tummy and ribs expand fully outward in a 360 degree circle. Exhale slowly, and relax (rest longer if getting dizzy.)

Next: Fill up each third of the lungs in sequence; bottom 1/3rd, middle and top 1/3rd of the lungs, slowly filling up with air. It may help, if you are tense and out-of-shape, to slowly raise and open your arms in a "Waving, hello! I'm over here!!" gesture, on either side of your head as you slowly inhale:

\ o /

The above is a picture of your head with your arms up and opening your chest area. You can raise your arms very slowly as you inhale, and lower them as you exhale to stretch out the breathing apparatus.

Always proceed slowly and surely and be sure to fully exhale and relax comfortably before proceding (the rush of oxygen is refreshing but may take getting used to.)

Additionallly, you will zoom ahead in breath control if you practice the exercise called: "Blow from the belt." Way back in the old days, flute teachers would often effet this exercise by getting students to lie down on the floor with a flute case (or other weight) on their stomachs, and ask them to breathe in, making the book or flute case rise first (stomach fills with air before chest does) and then when exhaling, leaving the stomach extended as much as possible to create control over teh exhale.

But the "blowing from the belt trick" is much easier:

Pretend there's a belt done up two notches too loose around your waist. When you breath in expand the floating ribs (bottom three ribs) in a 360 degree circle, the stomach and the back, in order to make the imaginary belt tight around your stomach. When you then blow the air evenly out, as though blowing the flute (you can use your flute embouchure) make a point of keeping the stomach/back-lower ribs expanded outward as if you're trying to keep the belt taut around your waist. (try with a real belt to see if you're doing it right.) This really works!!! It allows the torso muscles to control the speed at which the air is leaving the body through a light muscular involvement of all the abdominal and intercostal muscles.

Speaking as a flute teacher, though:
Most novice flutists also need to learn not to let air out through their nose while they're blowing and to make a more refined lip opening. Flute students, under the direction of a good private teacher, slowly and gradually learn to make the lip-hole (aperture) smaller and more focused, thus saving tons of wasted air.

Over time, flute novices learn to learn to inhale so that they expand the lower lungs first, expanding the three 'floating' ribs at the base of the rib cage, taking in *more* air, and then gradually improving their air capacity over time, taking in appropriate breaths for planned "sentences" and metering it out more economically, so that almost NO air is wasted.
This comes with focusing the tone by doing daily longtones, gradually strengthening and becoming familiar with, the facial muscles around the embouchure, and better sensing the lips so they become more poised and reliable.

There are exercises on longtones and holding long notes during crescendos and diminuendos in most flute method books, and most are as simple as counting how long you can hold a longtone at various dynamics, etc. Trevor Wye's "Practice Books for the Flute - Volume ONE, Tone" is a great book to start out with for all ages.

And of course, your private flute teacher will help given more specifics, where they can see you playing "live".

So for self-evaluation, until your next lesson, for example:
1. Do you sense your lip aperture is too big and too much air is wasted?
2. Can you sense air leaking out your nose as you're blowing?
These are both so common that "lung capacity" becomes almost moot in my honest opinioin.

 Good breath control usually comes with time and helpful exercises done in the prescence of a good flute teacher.
Best, Jen 

More questions: Why would my nose leak air 'unconsiously'?

When air leaks through the nose it is usually a "survival technique" of the human body that's being asked to do something novel such as breathe in very deeply for no apparent "survival" reason (unlike a GOOD reason, like being chased by a cougar.)

As a flute novice, you've just filled up your lungs to capacity, and your head starts to swim (dizzyness from either too much O2 or too much CO2 is common at first) and as you blow a soft low note, the brain triggers the nose to let off some of the air to "save" the brain from this strange new mixture of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

To combat this, don't feel you need to fill up over and over again, making yourself dizzier and dizzier. Just slowly fill up once, and then play a longtone, and then rest for a few seconds, and fill up again and play a longtone.

Learn to feel as if you are gently blowing on a candle flame so that the flame bends over, but doesn't go out.
The flame should stay bent over, as you gently exhale at it, for a full lungful of air. Then rest and take in another deep, slow breath, and bend the candle flame again for a full lungful.

After a few times you can sense your abdominal usage, your lip precision, your mental focus, the relaxedness of your throat and face.
This is very like holding a long flute note.

Another way to stop the nose from leaking unconsciously is to gently
bend a piece of paper backwards for a full lungful of air.
Choose a very lightweight paper such as piece of tissue. Dangle it in the air in front of your lips, and bend the hanging end of it back gently for a full slow lungful. If you want to use a regular piece of paper, simply hold it up so one small triangle of it is in front of your lips and experiment with bending that triangle backwards.

If you try to bend the paper SHARPLY backwards with your air, then your nose will definitely close off by itself--as the brain now understands the reason for the big lungful of air having been taken, and directs the outflow more purposely through the mouth.

I've often used the example that follows:
"Sustained notes in flute playing are most similar to the idea of blowing a ping-pong ball down a shiny, 70 foot dining room table, with poise and control so that the ball goes right down the middle of the table, all the way to the end, even when your lungs are half-full, keep blowing that ball.

Loud playing can be akin to making the ball go faster.
Soft playing is akin to letting the ball go steadily no matter how far away from you it gets."

Can you suggest any exercises to facilitate making the lip's aperture smaller?
If working without a teacher, you may want to use a mirror to center the lip aperture over the blow hole of the flute so that no air escapes the fine edges of the blow hole.

Pictures of this abound in Mellersh/Soldan's
Illustrated Flute Playing (excellent!) and for almost insane amounts of rigourous detail, in Roger Mather's three volume bookset "The Art of Playing the Flute".
I found all three volumes using "Interlibrary loan" at the public library.

But when using the mirror and self-observation, note that the aperture should only be big enough to accurately hit the "sweet spot" on the far side of the flute's blowing hole.
The "spot" is the exact center of the far side of the edge that splits the airstream, and rewards you, when you find it, by giving the clearest, most un-breathy tone quality. This is why we practice 'lontones''; It is in order to locate and remember where this "sweet spot" is for each note on teh flute.
Also note:
For low notes the lip aperture will be long thin oval shape, like a grain of rice lying on its side.
For high notes the aperture will be like the "o" in the center of a cheerio.

If I reduce the aperture, the low notes do not sound. However, my notes are very breathy, hence I must be wasting air while blowing notes - I just don't know where the problem is.

Low notes need you to remain fairly loose and experimental.
Look in the mirror.
When you "reduce" the aperture is it possible that could be doing something extra like -over-squishing the lips into a useless too-kissy shape? ( :>x)
- over-tightening or "squeezing" the lips so that they are no longer cushiony and flexible?
- pulling the top lip down onto the bottom lip so that the air angle is unuseable? The air is actually hampered?
- jutting your chin out or pulling your chin suddenly back?
-ducking your head down?
- twitching your lips off-center?
- missing the blow hole completely?
- making a pin-hole so small that you can't aim with it.?

None of these "extra" motions is needed.
Reduce the lip aperture by 360 degrees, but very very loosely.
Center the aperture across from the center of the flute's blowing edge. Get extra help from your private teacher.
And hey, here's an idea.

Coffe Stir-stik immiation embouchure:
Next time you pass a coffee shop, go in and get a free brown plastic stir-stik (for stirring coffees).
Place this between your lips so that the butt end of the stir stik is hitting your front teeth, and hold it very gently with your fingers experimenting with the circle of muscles that surround the mouth.
The lips themselves should remain as cushy and soft as they can. The muscles AROUND the lips actually operate the lips themselves. Gradually as you sense the slightly flat, slightly oval shape of the stir-stik...


(turn head to view this almond-shape sideways)

...sensitize and conform your inner lip membrane to the slightly oval shape of the stir stik. The inner lip membrane is the wet part of the inside, red, portion of your lips.

The INNER lips need to be as long an aiming device as possible. You may find that when you use this position on your flute, that you need to roll the flute away from you slightly to get your normal tone, because your inner lips are now lifted away slightly from the fronts of your teeth.

A teacher could show you this in 10 minutes, so I highly advise a live demonstration.

Then blow a longtone while finding the "sweet spot" and thinking that
you are blowing the piece of paper backwards against the music stand, or that you are blowing a ping pong ball down a 70 foot table, very gradually.

Hope all these crazy images work. Sometimes images help more than anything. :>)

Jen Cluff July 2004

Breathing Question II:

I am currently working towards my grade 7 exam, and I am finding my biggest problem in everything i play is my breathing. It has really let me down and I don't seem to be improving as much as I could because of it. I cannot hold a note longer than 20 seconds at mf, and in fast pieces like my Koehler study, I cannot breathe fast enough and get enough air into my lungs to play the next phrase. I also have trouble with high notes, as an example, in an orchestra, we're playing
Adagio, by Tchaikovsky, in the last 11 bars they have really high long phrases inclusing a LONG high Bflat, and I simply cannot hold the phrases and the B flat note for that long, i run out of air and have to breath between phrases, and it is really letting me down.
I really need some help, and any tips would be so great. I am a small person, and my lung capacity isnt that great, but it must be possible for me to breathe correctly without trouble? Please HELP anyone, this is really holding me back!


Dear W.,
What does your teacher say about your breathing?
Knowing what they've already suggested would help us "see" what the problem is.

Obviously, there are some basic factors:

- You must have your posture checked to insure that your air-way is free and unhindered, (good neck and head position will be helped greatly by specifically asking about this from a good private flute teacher) and that your ribcage is up and lifted  free and open (to assist in rapid inhalation.)

- You must breathe deeply enough that you fill the bottom of the lungs
to capacity (not just the upper lungs.)

- You must blow all the air through your mouth, and not allow the nose
to unconsciously open up and let air leak out nasally

- You must make a small , yet loose and poised, and eventually, a very focused embouchure hole in your lips so that the air doesn't flow out too quickly

- You must be able, through experimentation, to control the speed at which the rib-cage collapses as the air leaves the body. If the lip opening is so large that the air just WHOOSHES out, then doing daily tone work will help. (Longtones). If the air wafts out too slowly and too weakly, learning to play with a fuller sound, working toward a more robust tone will help. For high register playing, often experiments with "pushing down against the floor with the feet while blowing" can help engage muscles below the lungs to aid more control. Posture and daily practice can both make a huge differencte.Ask your private teacher for help with the specifics of learning how to control the amount of air you'll need to use for sustaining a singing sound. It is almost impossible to teach in words as the lung effort, the embouchure poise, the volume, intensity and the quality of sound cannot be easily learned without live demonstration or daily experimentation.

- You must find the "sweet spot" on the mouthpiece to aim for, so that
no air is wasted by missing the perfect place for the best sound to be
- You must avoid using up all your air, so that your rib cage drops or you feel 'collapsed' at the end of playing. You want to have the rib-cage raised and ready for the next inhale. If you let yourself get completely out of air, it will take too long to fill the torso up with air again, so learn to breathe before you feel all panicky and out-of-breath.

- You must be able stay poised and ready at the end of blowing so that your lungs can fill up again quickly, and with no counter-productive tension. Your teacher will have shorter breath-length exercises for you to do in order to get you to sense any tension while holding longer and longer phrases of music.

- You must play longtones until you can control your air stream by hearing the sound of a well-placed column of air aimed at the "sweetspot" of the headjoint.

- You may want to learn to crescendo through longtones to gain control over the abdominal muscles that assist in long passages.
Get your teacher's help in these areas, and let us know what you think it is that's causing the problem.

Jen Cluff


Breathing Question III:

What does it mean to take a breathe with a open throat? What does it mean to breathe from the back of your throat?

When I take a breath I consistently gasp. It's like an asthmatic sound almost but not as bad.

Also, I have a bad habit of breathing through my nose, not from the diaphragm. My teacher told me, I need to work on taking breathes as quietly as possible. She demonstrated and gave exercises. She said, "I'm still trying to hard, relax, relax everything, relax the throat, I'm constricting the air when I take a breathe getting ready to play".

Answer: On William Bennett's website there's a great interview that, for me, holds the KEY to breathing quickly and quietly, and filling your lower lungs easily. See:


William Bennett said that during his conversation with singer, Janet Baker she said:

'Another thing I do when I sing is try to bounce the sound off the soft palate'. And I said, 'What's that?', and she said, 'Oh that's the bit at the back of your throat that feels cold when you breathe in'. She taught me how to breathe! If you take in a breath that strikes the air cold on your throat, the apparatus of your stomach works without thinking about it. 'Don't think about the diaphragm, it thinks for itself!'. Taste the air as it goes in and cools the throat, without making any noise, and you have breathed well. People have terrible trouble with breathing because they think about the stomach. People also have terrible trouble because they hold themselves so badly, of which I'm also guilty, but at least I'm fighting it!' ------------end quote

Jen continues: Do you catch the bit about the soft pallet and the trigger response that it seems to have to easier breathing?

I was taught to expand the lower 1/3 of the lungs first, then next 1/3, and finally the top third (without tensing the shoulders or raising them.) Then we experimented with YAWNING while breathing in, for awhile, to teach the throat to go really wide and open. Then to say "Ho" backwards while breathing in to make the air go in quickly.

However the above description manages to surpass and surplant all of these instructions. Works like a charm. Give it a go and see for yourself.


Posture helps breathing!!!

Since I was re-reading "Body Mapping for Flutists" last couple of nights (see below for more on this fab book):

As they've discovered with Alexander Technique, tense and noisy breathers usually have a posture where they polk their chin forwards, retract the back of the neck like a turtle going into his shell, and have pushed their chin quite far forward.

This head angle is from a combination of desk-work-tension, computer work, reading for years, working under high stress from regular life etc. The head is tilted back and the jaw hinge is therefore in a tense place, and can't open easily and effortlessly.

Once the person becomes aware of how to balance their head and release the tension in the back of the neck (see any Alexander book for pictures, or go for several lessons) their breathing noise disappears.

Just adding this in case your teacher doesn't know about this weird "jaw and head tension" factor in all this.

If this might be the case with you, write back and I'll dig out an old post about "QUICK" Alexander Tech. for doing while reading the computer.

Jen :>)


Alexander Technique suggestions for flutists:


R. wrote: > I have a real question too...I'm in about 8 classes/lessons that require "perfect posture". You all know what I mean-straight back-lifted chin that you need to get all the room for the air.

Anyway-my backs been getting kinda on the sore side and all the basic stretches I know don't really help all that much...any ideas?

Dear R,

I liked the ideas of strengthening the stomach muscles, Tai Chi, and Yoga that other listers gave. But don't forget about the book called "The Physical Flute" and the famous posture system called: 'Alexander Technique' for musicians!!!! It will not only help your posture, your holding of the musical instruments you're learning, but will also make incredible improvements to your breathing@@

Here's the simplest version I know of Alexander Technique for flutists:

The true center of your balance and good posture (according to Mr. Alexander) is a spot right on top of your spine: where your skull is attached to your topmost vertebrae.

This spot is actually "between your ears, and behind your nose" and can be located with your "feeling senses" by gently nodding "Yes".

When you nod Yes, your skull is sliding back and forth over the topmost vertebrae of your spine.

Stop and locate this point of balance. (try nodding and feel for the sliding point between your ears at the very center of your head.)

Now that you've located it, put a helium bubble on that sliding point and allow your whole head to feel buoyant and upwardly rising. Feel it lead the stretch as it rises higher and higher.

When your head rises freely upwards in this way, your spine follows as if it's being hung from a string.

If you just *can't* feel this center point in your head, try imagining a string is holding up the crown of your head from the ceiling and lifting it up and away from your body.

Imagine tieing helium balloons to THAT string and letting your head float upwards. Your spine (being attached) will follow.

Let all the rising feelings be gentle and soft. Don't yank the head up, or stiffen any muscles. Just float it up milimeter by milimeter, while remaining comfortable.

This can also be done while seated as long as you're angled forward on the chair, and not leaning into the chair back.

While standing:

Keep your knees flexible (not locked) and your hips flexible (don't arch your back or stick your bum out or anything that'll tighten you up again.)

Just gently follow your floating head up and up.

Look in the mirror.

Do you not feel tall and straight yet bouncy, flexible, and resilient?

Like you could move continuously and flowingly into ANY posture?

Do you not feel more stretchy and relaxed than you do when "force" your muscles to create "good posture"?

As you forget this and lose it again (about every 40 seconds or so, just let your head rise up again and again. Don't "hold" it, let it be flexible in all directions like a bobbing balloon.)


I just *love* Alexander Technique, and the author of The Physical Flute for explaining it so well as it relates to flute. She manages to give releasing instructions to all aspects of the body too (loose ribcage so it can expand better for breathing, loose abs, so they respond quickly to a breath intake etc.)

For more info. on this check out Alexander books at your college library. Also, look into "Body Mapping for Flutists" and "The Physical Flute". The former gives all sorts of info. on how our bodies actually work, and "The Physical Flute" gives all sorts of warm ups and exercises that you can do while releasing unnecessary tension.

To order "The Physical flute" go to my fave repertoire page for the 800 number that will connect you with the order desk for "Physical Flute", and also search online for the excellent book Body Mapping, by Lea Pearson. Both books will really make you 'breathe easier.' :>D

Best, Jen Cluff 2002

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