Understanding Diaphragm Breathing

(or how I stopped worrying and learned to love the Diaphragm)

Breathe from your diaphragm,” my flute teacher told me. “OK, will do,” I said. But I didn’t really know she meant. I didn’t really understand where it was, even, or how to use it. I didn’t even know there was a ‘g’ in it! I thought, “It’s breathing, isn’t it? Pretty sure I’m already doing that”. 
The only other place I had heard of a diaphragm was in relation to some kind of contraception. I certainly didn’t know where that was located. 
-excerpt from The Anals of Szifris, Volume IX

Well, now I do! (The breathing one, not the other one). 


Going about our everyday lives, we rarely need to use much air, mostly using shallow breaths from the top of our lungs. However, going about playing a wind instrument is different. It requires a lot more air. This is where the diaphragm comes in. It’s a ‘parachute shaped fibrous muscle’* underneath your lungs that separates your thoracic and abdominal cavities. 


Imagine the ‘parachute’ contracting downward, pulling the lungs down with it. It greatly increases your thoracic capacity,** filling your lungs with air. You would notice your tummy having to extend out a little as the lungs fill that space.  A pregnant lady, for example, toward the end of their pregnancy won’t be able to take a very deep breath. They can’t fully contract their diaphragm and open their lungs – there’s a baby in the way! 

This increase in air volume, whilst using our diaphragm for woodwind or flute playing, helps us to get a consistent tone; one that doesn’t waiver; one that doesn’t change when we go from quiet to loud. It is the best way to regulate air flow to your instrument and is the foundation of all professional players’ amazing tone. 
I tell my students to breath into/from your tummy, then squeeze the muscles you would use if someone was about to gently poke you. It’s a nice analogy and is relatable. You know when you’re breathing into your tummy when you place your hand on your chest and breathe in. It shouldn’t move, or your shoulders. The first time I did this I felt embarrassed about my tummy coming out, but I sounded good though!
The next thing is breathing out consistently. 


It’s very easy to regulate your airflow without using your diaphragm. It’s what many of us do when we begin on the flute, and was a bad habit I got into. Imagine, if you can, the effect of being strangled on your breathing. This is what I’d call ‘constricting your throat’. It does work as a method to change your air pressure at the aperture, but the volume of air you need will be greatly reduced, impacting on your tone.*** 


Instead, you’ll have to get used to relaxing your throat at all times, and using your diaphragm for everything. It’ll mean getting used to the feeling of different pressures which you’ll need to supply air from your diaphragm for things like jumping octaves.

Another way of increasing the pressure is tightening your lips. This is very, very common, and definitely to be avoided. Some may use the back of their tongue – the same bit you use when saying the last bit of the Scottish word “loch”. Open your throat to avoid this.


Now we’ve got rid of all the constrictions in our air stream and are using the diaphragm for tone production – time for starting notes!

To get that clean start to a note, we need to treat our tongue like a valve that we can turn on or off, whilst having consistent air pressure behind it. The closer to the sound production place – reed, aperture etc., the cleaner the tone. So, try the tip of the tongue behind your teeth for flute and say “tuh” or “duh”. **** 


Interestingly, there are styles of playing where you close your throat for articulation. Sam Partridge told me that that is what they recommend at the University of Limerick Folk Degree for Irish Traditional flute playing. Try saying “ah” or “oo” without voicing it, and you’ll get the idea of the technique. They sound great! I guess you’d have to learn to do this whilst relaxing it the rest of the time. I’ll ask around.

You’ve got all that air pressure built up by your diaphragm. It’s going all the way up to your lungs, all the way up your throat – which isn’t constricted – and it comes to a stop at your tongue. Then you can have instant pressure for your note. Kicking in your diaphragm, and tonguing the note, gets you a lovely clean start to a note. Then, stopping a note with your tongue, maintaining pressure like this will give you a lovely clean end.
The only thing you need to worry about now is your embouchure…..easy………


Lastly, why would you ever use the last bit of breath to squeak out a thin dry note? I’m going to keep as much air in my lungs at all times. I’ll let you know how I get on…

Practice Tip

Try octave jumps using only a ‘kick” from your diaphragm AND your embouchure! Remember completely relax your throat and your lips.

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*Lynne Eldridge, MD. **Thanks Elly Crozier. ***When I stopped doing this I realised that it had been causeing physical problems – a lump in the throat sensation. **** This will also help you open your throat.

Thanks to Pete Thomas for the inspiration for this article http://www.tamingthesaxophone.co.uk

Billy and the Rubber Piccolo

Billy Balatyne was a piccolo player from near where Kathryn Tickell grew up. She spent many hours in his company learning tunes and he was the first musician who’s playing she’d really loved, the foundation of her playing style. She’d spend ages on her tin whistle perfecting all his little flourishes, articulations and ornaments. I wasn’t alone when she told me this for the first time. There was also a capacity audience at the Bath Komedia who she was introducing me to.

Mosstroopers Polka

By Billy Balatyne transcribed by Kathryn Tickell

Articulation is a word wind players use to talk about how a note sounds when using your tongue to stop or start a note. The same way you have to articulate clearly when you’re speaking. If you say ‘Tee’ ,the front of your tongue is on the hard palate behind your upper front teeth, the back and middle of your tongue is raised. Now if you say ‘Duh’ the tip of your tongue is a little flatter and touching more of the hard palate and the back of your tongue is low in your mouth creating a softer sound. These little adjustments of the tongue create different sounds when you play a whistle or flute. If you say Tuh-Kuh-Tuh really fast that’s a style of ornamentation called triple tonguing. Billy’s style came from decades and decades of playing Northumbrian dance tunes at dances in village halls in the early 1900’s, you could only go home when the sun came up when it was light enough to ride your bike. He was a very talented player and his style involved lots of articulation which made his playing sound very crisp, clear and rhythmic – perhaps even a little twee to a modern listener.

During the performance at the Komedia I was to do a solo on Billy Balatynes own piccolo – a piece of folk history. Like in the previous piece I wrote, I was somehow again the sole representative of a centuries old tradition, this time being presented the honour by the nation’s favourite Northumbrian pipes player and doyen of Northumbrian traditional music. I was to play the ‘Moss Troopers Polka’ a tune by Billy to accompany a clog dance by Amy Thatcher. A dancer who’d learned the craft since the age of three with the legendary Stockport youth dance group Fosbrooks. I hadn’t. My folk music education had been spent learning the greatest hits of Altan at Nuneaton Technical College, or was it Technological. I don’t know, I’m not that technical.

After college and getting Grade 8 I continued to study flute eventually to the completion of a degree in traditional folk music, so I’m quite good at it but I did all that on a Boehm system flute. What you might regard as a ‘classical’ or silver flute. It has lots of lovely buttons only a few of which correlate to a simple system, ‘keyless’ or wooden flute.

Boehm was an instrument inventor back in the 1800’s who was responsible for the system with which you can attach four or five keys to one rod with a pin and articulate them all separately. If you think of a flute or a clarinet, oboe or saxophone you’ll remember there are keys and long rods down the length of the instrument. That is the Boehm system bit which later got added to and refined by other makers. Having keys meant you could reorder the way the fingers played the notes. A modern flute is laid out a bit like a piano, all the big keys are the white notes and the smaller black notes are shared out between the various odd little buttons and is contrived in a way that is fairly logical to play. This is not the case with an antiquated wooden piccolo. When Kathryn first gave me Billy’s it felt like she’d given me a magic wand. Someone else’s magic wand and I was not a wizard, Hagrid.

Billy Balatyne

Holey Ha’penny a record featuring Billy and the piccolo from an album my dad has recently come into possession of.

It wasn’t the first time she’d given it to me. I’d received from Kathryn whilst I was at University a few years after Billy had died. There had been a bit of a commotion because Billy was also good friends with Kathryn’s father Mike Tickell – purveyor of Northumbrian folk history, teacher of folklore to Kathryn, explorer of soon to be damed valleys*, keeper of dead North East piccolo players sacred instruments. This was not to be the case though, whether Mike liked it or not, the instrument was given to Kathryn. I was blown away when she told me to “see what you can do with it”. She doesn’t have a clue about flutes and didn’t want it to fall in to disrepair. Unfortunately it was already there so I took it to Bill Mcnaughton, flute maker and part time Elvis impersonator along with an interesting old military fife I’d been given by a flute collector.

If you ever get the chance to visit a luthier or instrument makers shed, do it. There is an amazing smell of sawdust, different oils, metal and dust usually accompanied by un-organised mounds of small tools. Bill’s shed is no different. It was in the back of Norman’s Holmes garden filled with things that spun, wobbled, shaved and split wood. Norman is a fantastic wooden flute player who’d known Bill for years. Bill had owned a music shop where he hand made silver flutes. The music shop eventually closed which is when Norman asked if they might work together on a prototype wooden flute. They worked together producing and selling these wooden flutes for years after. He was the man to fix the piccolo.

Bill did an amazing job restoring the instrument but I wasn’t really interested in playing it. It was too squeaky, too hard to play. I’d recently found that I loved strummy, twangy things. I was spending all my time learning them, in particular a right-handed copy of an octave mandolin my dad Mike plays made by Rob Armstrong. I’d started the Monsters on it with Amy, Dave and Carly**. Piccolo was just not cool. I regretted not making more of it at the time but I had a load of catching up to do on the mando. Which is what I do in Kathryn’s band these days. Playing the mando that is….and a bit of catching up.

Around ten years later I received the Piccolo a second time at Kathryn’s converted farmsted in the hills of Northmberland. I was actually in her band at this point, It was our first ever few days of rehearsal with the new line-up. Kathryn and I had put together an exciting group of musicians for her idea of a Northumbrian ‘world music’ band. Amy Thatcher on Accordion was the first choice having worked with Kathryn for about eight years at that point. I’d managed to get myself in for being a good performer with the Monsters. I’d recommended Joe Truswell (the Monsters drummer) as he’s a really solid tasty drummer and Kate Young who’s just amazingly musical. Kathryn had brought in Cormac Byrne the Irish pocket rocket to finish the line up on bodrhan. “That’s Bow – like take a bow. Ron, like Ron Burgundy. Bow-Ron. You say it” he’d instructed me in the sound check at the Komedia. I said it.

Cormac, Joe and I had actually met the summer before serendipitously at Lakefest, a festival the Monsters were playing. We had a great late-night drink around a huge metal artwork which looked like a birdcage housing a bonfire. It kept us warm while ‘Cor’ told us the longest story about meeting a notorious angry dolphin. None of us knew the next time we meet we’d be playing together.

Moss Troopers Polka was scrawled on a small A5 piece of parchment we’d found the night before. We had been going through her treasure trove of newspaper scraps and photos her mother had kept. It was an interesting tune, very distinctively Northumbrian; major, bouncy, lots of intricate triplets. (see photo above) I’d heard these types of tunes in sessions but hadn’t ever learned any. It was starting to dawn on me that my solo in the show was on an instrument I didn’t know how to play, playing a type tune I was completely unfamiliar with. This was fine, I like a challenge. Still it was my only solo in the whole show.

Joe in Bristol

Joe probably being funny at St. George’s in Bristol

Joe has these anxiety dreams. He dreams he’ll be playing a gig but sat on the toilet or his drum sticks suddenly turn to rubber and everyone thinks he’s terrible. He’s very funny and the stories are hilarious the way he tells them. My solo was beginning to sound a lot like one of his anxiety dreams. I was reminded of this on stage at the Komedia just after I heard about Kathryn’s fascination with Billy’s playing, her reverence for his style, and just how much of her young life she dedicated to playing just like him.“Oh fuck” I thought and I hoped the piccolo wouldn’t turn to rubber during the next three minutes.

I began the tune with some long notes leading into the A part. The tricky articulation and triple tonguing of the triplets were going well. Amy’s clogs rhythmically beat the wooden stage floor raising years of dust. The dead skin particles of all the performers who’d gone before us illuminated white in the spotlight . The tune was going fine, but my mind was racing I really hope no-one here has heard Billy’s playing before…. hang on…. is this the the A section or is it the repeated A section….I think it’s the repeat. Damn it Kieran concentrate. “Did you get distracted by a butterfly or something?”, shut up imaginary Kirstine (my sister) oh for fuck sake I’m at the end of the B section now – did I do the repeat?…… They’ll know. The audience will know and after the gig they’re going to come up to you and say ‘that didn’t sound like the Moss Troopers Polka I know by Billy Balatyne legendary picollo player you should never play that picollo again. You cant even spell it right’ errrr…. fuck it, A section here we come.”

I hadn’t done the repeat. Did Amy know?

It’s handy having your wife on stage sometimes. Amy switched up the routine quickly and we thankfully ended together with a flourish.……AND THE CROWD WENT APESH*T!!! The headlines in the Bath Chronicle the next morning were “player of ancient piccolo summons the spirits of the past and provokes free buss pass owning crowd into nostalgic frenzy”.

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*see “The Dam” by David Almond

** Amy Thatcher – Accordion, David de la Haye – Bass, Carly Blain – fiddle.  MCB started out as a quartet.

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Here’s Billy playing Mosstroopers Polka

I transcribed a couple of lovely little tunes this week you might like to hear. The first one is a Newcastle session classic called “Asher” By Rodney Miller, named after his son says Colin Nicholson.

Asher by Rodney Miller

Transcribed from the playing of Sophie Lynch

 

I’ve heard it for years – It’s on a Sharon Shannon album actually simply tilled “Rodney Miller’s Reel”. Recently I’ve heard Sophie Lynch playing it one time at Kathryn’s party and at Bar Loco in toon. She’s training to be a dentist currently but has had a fantastic upbringing in folk music having been to folkworks summer schools and a part of Kathryn’s Super Folkus older musicians group. At the party she was playing it with Erin Rae and Scott Turnbull both brilliant players. I played it yesterday with Stu Finden of Whapweasel in Guitar Guitar where they have a Eastman with nice sounding top end.

The other tune is called “Do You Want To Fly” by  Flying Sofa Quartet.

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Transcribed from Flying Sofa Quartet video

They were recommended to me by Sam Partridge. In fact it was recommended to a pupil of mine called Lucy Marsh she’s recently been accepted in to the National Youth Folk Ensemble by him. I helped her prepare for the audition and she got a great review from Sam. He mentioned the flying Sofa Quartet as the flute player from the band is particularly good. I nicked the tune from a youtube video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FB63OT7gsc8&t=814s

NB. Originally there was a mention of the piccolo being left in a will – KT has told me this isn’t technically the case and its “a long story”. Billy had a couple of piccolos one went to his son and the other was given to KT. The transcription is not KT’s handwriting but she can’t remember whose it is.

Bromyard Folk Festival – Real, cross-dressing, morris dancing English with bells on.

image1Never been to Bromyard Folk Festival, it’s morris drenched banks have never been somewhere I’ve set my festival canoe down. Though many good friends have been. Mainly for the morrising. Something which I haven’t got much experience with. My friends that do do morris seem to enjoy it immensely and I have seen some really impressive stuff. Sidmouth Solo Jig competition for example is worth a look for some lads that can really jump around and make a hanky look sort of cool. In my first year at  university I played for a competition winner called Chris Taylor.

Red hair, ear piercings, nail polish (nothing so gauche as black darling), band tee, baggy trousers big industrial bike chain. I wear the standard uniform of a 1990’s ‘non-conformist’ metal kid. Standing next to me is a washing powder scented, crisp, white, rossetted young morris dancer called Chris Taylor. We’re back stage at the now defunct Alnwick Playhouse about to play flute and dance a solo jig in front of a sat down audience. I’d never done anything like this before.

We’d spent weeks playing together in the quiet meeting rooms of the university accommodation. Chris had taught me the subtly of playing with a dancer. When someone jumps up in this type of English traditional dancing its a display of their suitability as a suitor or general health I guess. So you jump as high as possible. Which momentarily puts any accompaniment out of time so a good player watches the the jump and waits for the landing. This creates a lovely feeling in the tune, a nice big pregnant pause; a lovely bit of tension.

The Audience claps, we look at each other and I walk out  on stage. This is the biggest stage I’ve ever been on. Other students had been to Folkworks summer schools all their life and this was par for the course. I hadn’t. My folks were folk singers who played mostly in pubs by the time I started playing with them. I knew a handful of tunes that I’d been given to learn for ceilidhs – mostly English, mostly jigs and hornpipes and mostly read off the dots. I didn’t really have the tune repertoire that a proper instrumental focused trad tune player has. My dad can knock out a good tune on his mando don’t get me wrong but he’s from Coventry and was raised with no traditional tune playing Just Stax O’ Soul! So there I was, sole exponent of traditional flute playing on stage.

The lights were so bright I could only see the stage and a shadowy hint of a raked seated audience. I wasn’t scared I don’t think – just excited and nervous. I threw all that energy at the audience as I announced Chris with a bow and a smile. I enjoyed being the guy who introduced the talent, energetically promoting the act to come that I was glad to be a part of. I still like doing this, being not exactly centre of attention but off to one side. And the dance began. Chris had taught me a tune called the Princess Royal I think. Still a very popular tune you’ll hear at any folky festival or event down south. The A part went OK, just me on me little flute as Chris’ hankys yanked through the air. His arms extended high above his head then circling up and down as his foot work described a dance that had been done for at least a couple of centuries. The slows now, the part of the tune which pauses….and boom – land, boom land…. ddedededdeeee boom. And repeat.  The set ends and we, the tune player and dancer bow triumphantly toward the audience, who go fucking ape shit. The next morning the Alnwick Chronicle reads ‘STUDENT MORRIS DANCE DUO LIGHT UP ALNWICK PLAYHOUSE AND CHANGE THE LANDSCAPE OF FOLK MUSIC FOREVER’ I think. something like that. if not, at least Katie Doherty’s mum came up to us at the end and said we were her favourite bit in the whole student show, coincidentally Katie’s bit was my favourite bit.

I saw Katie at Cambridge this year playing with her new outfit ‘The Navigators’ a trio with the inimitable David Grey and Shona Mooney. I also caught up with her at a party at Kathyn’s. She’s an all round awesome person both musically and socially. She told me her plan was to give her band a year to get off the ground and then see how it went. She’d been a little disconcerted that her efforts so far hadn’t been as fruitful as she’d hope and she was thinking of winding it down. I think I spent about 3 hours telling her she was amazing and trying to persuade her that she should give it at last three years for anything to properly get going.

I also Saw Chris Taylor as I was heading away after the gig at Bromyard. Main stage. Headlining with KT&TD (brag). We said hello and that’d we’d not seen each other for years. He’s got a camper van (new!), two little dogs and is an electrician. All grown up. He said the gig we’d played ending at midnight was alright as his eyes crossed and he gently swayed away from me back to his camper. Nice to catch up.

Never been to Bromyard Folk Festival. It’s basically a campsite with food stalls a few large marquees. One for traditional dance things like ceilidhs and morris spots, the main stage and a sociable beer tent where local acts play like the enthusiastic ukulele group. I watched them with my mum. ‘Whats that song?’ said mum. ‘Come Up and See me’. ‘We could do that one in the pub set’. ‘yeah it’d go down well’. Despite a long career in education and special education my parents still do pub gigs every holiday period when they travel up to Scotland in the van. We watched the elderly Wizard at the back end the ukulele set with a flourish of his baggily sleeved hands. Was that the same chord the wizard was playing as all the others were playing? No? Top marks for effort though. There were no other wizards there, with or without a Ukulele.

We’d been marking time watching them until the MAIN EVENT. My mate Ruth Ball and Becky had informed me of a spectacular morris display. I’d even bumped into festival promoter Dick Dickson (hired my band 5 or so times and other projects of mine at least 4 or more times – didn’t recognise me!) who also informed me of the spectacular morris display.

We filed into the trad dance tent, whispers of ‘they’ve been working very hard’ and ‘meant to be amazing’ coming from the obviously very excited capacity audience. Mum and I shuffled past some more clammy, cross-dressed men into the thick of the hot tent. The quartet on stage ‘Contrasaurus’ finished their spirited ‘festival-finisher’ set for the packed-in ceilidh-ers on the dance floor. Crackin’ little raised wooden dance floor in there which emptied of dancers and filled with expectant morris fans. This was it. the dance floor fell into darkness. My mate Nic on the lights started their CD. Queen? We Will Rock You? That would explain the sofa, inflatable guitars and scene from…. oh god… there are now at least 10 different era Freddy Mecurys morris dancing. This is the most English thing I’ve ever seen. Not like poncy proms English. Real, cross-dressing, morris dancing English with bells on. The troupe did two dance numbers increasing in difficulty until the walk off to ‘We Are The Champions’. Notable mention goes to the one morris dancer who dressed as someone from Kiss. That’s 1 out of say 20? He was loving life. The crowd was loving life too. They were ecstatic which kind of really sums up Bromyard Folk Festival. I think that will be the highlight for many of the people that went, or the dance lovers anyway. The music heads obviously thought we were mint.

mum took a piccie of the Freddys –

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here’s us being mint-

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The gig went great. It was a relief as it’s been a hard slog getting this band together. It involved a lot of effort on everyone’s part. Not least Kathryn, who has had a lot to contend with recently. She’s a truly impressive person, and it doesn’t really change when you get to know her. I’ve been hanging around with Kathryn since I was pals with her brother Peter back in uni. People often wonder how Kathryn is so popular still after all these years. I know the answer. She doesn’t sleep, she doesn’t give up on a project, she works like a beast, she has an untiring love of music and laser guided idea of what she wants out of her music. She’s also extraordinarily talented on her pipes. I guess that helps too.

Welcome

I’m Kieran,

Have a look around the site, you’ll find things to see and listen to and find information about my teaching etc. My biog etc is all in third person but I wrote it … it’s what you do apparently.

I enjoy making music and often do little home recordings for fun which you can listen to or there are links to some of the lovely bands I’m in.

Cheers,

K

MCB eden 2018