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.


*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

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