Flute Punch

Archive for the ‘Breathing’ Category

I decided to read Arnold Jacobs: Song and Wind by Brian Frederiksen after attending a workshop given by Lorna McGhee last April in which she mentioned the title and a few of the concepts. It was not exactly what I expected, but a good read nonetheless.

Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998) was a renowned tubist and teacher of all wind players. Jacobs is revered as an expert in breathing due to his extensive studies of breathing as he sought to overcome his own reduced lung capacity due to frequent respiratory illnesses. Portions of the book discuss Jacob’s history and discography, and there is some information that is specific to brass instruments, but a good portion of the book is devoted to breathing concepts and techniques, and Jacob’s methods for teaching them. Following are the concepts which most stood out to me:

Jacobs believed in practicing correct respiratory function away from the instrument, then transferring the new patterns back to the instrument, so that “the brain is free to concentrate on the musical message.” The book includes a section discussing the various equipment Jacobs used in his studio to demonstrate breathing concepts.

There is a time to analyze and a time to play. That is, performance is not the time to be analyzing our technique; it is the time to “just play,” as one of my teachers once said to me.

the abdominal muscles are capable of exerting enough pressure to support 100 pounds of weight or more, but playing an instrument requires only a few pounds of pressure, give or take. When we use too much abdominal pressure, it activates the Valsalva maneuver, which closes off the throat. This is the most common cause of restricted air flow. Optionally, in this instance, if the throat is not closing off, the tongue might be used to hold back the pressurized air — also not good.

The vital capacity of a person (ie, the size their lungs can hold), which peaks around the age of 20, varies depending on the size and sex of a person. Jacobs notes that the tuba and the flute require low pressure but high air flow rate (vs. the oboe at the other end of the spectrum, which requires higher pressure but a lower flow rate). But because the flute is a small instrument, women of small frame are frequently directed to it, only to be more frustrated with it than they would be with a different instrument.

Do not think of blowing more air, or of blowing it harder; think of blowing a thicker column of air.

The tongue is not a valve to stop the air; it is only a focusing tool for the sound.

Quality of tone should be established before working towards playing longer phrases.

And last but not least, possibly my favorite quote from the whole book: “Challenge precedes development.”


I just finished Arnold Jacobs: Song and Wind, which discusses Arnold Jacob’s renowned philosophy on breathing (stay tuned for more posts on that). I thought I’d see if there were any videos out there of Arnold Jacobs teaching. A search on YouTube turned up this video, which is not the most well done, but it does introduce a few basic concepts of breathing. The concept that stood out to me the most was Jacob’s mention of the “old school” method, which asks the player to tighten many abdominal muscles and exert far more pressure than is required to play wind instruments.

Courtesy of Ann Yasinitsky, Clinical Assistant Professor of Music, Washington State University

To produce a beautiful tone, it is absolutely necessary to breathe and support from the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a muscle under the lungs. Stand or sit up straight, relax stomach muscles, open your throat and breathe in deeply as though yawning. Do not raise the shoulders. If the stomach moves out gently while inhaling, that is correct! Now that you have properly inhaled, you must be sure to release the air correctly. While playing (blowing out), resist the natural tendency to let the stomach muscles collapse inward. This is done by pushing out against your waistband or belt with your stomach muscles. That is breath support from the diaphragm! While there is no secret to achieving a gorgeous sound, the most important key is breath support.

from “A Little Bit About Flute Playing”

I was fortunate to study with both Ann and Greg (saxophone, jazz studies) at WSU. I like to loan her album Intuition to my students as an example of a full, quality sound thoughout all registers.

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