PT on the Net Research

Breath Control and Wind Instruments


Question:

I am looking for information on exercises for the aspiring concert flutist! Do you have any programming suggestions to help develop her lung capacity and breath control?

Answer:

When it comes to lung capacity and control, there are a couple of people you should see. First, you should contact a physical therapist to work on your client's structural alignment/nutrition, as well as a singing coach or Tai Chi/Qi Gong instructor to teach her how to breathe properly and work on control. I have found posture has a lot to do with increasing lung capacity as does proper nutrition and meditation. This might sound crazy, but I will explain this to you so you can give your client an edge on her fellow flutists.

First off, let’s define posture. Posture is the position from which movement begins and ends. So, no matter if you golf, play an instrument or are an average Joe, if you begin with poor posture, the end result will be poor. How does that correlate to playing the flute? You need to first find out if you are breathing correctly (diaphragmatically) or inverted (using your accessory muscles: chest and neck muscles). Try the following exercise. Sit up straight in a chair, and put one hand on your belly and the other on your upper chest. Take a deep breath in and then exhale. What did your hands do? The one on your belly should have moved out (belly protrusion) on the inhalation and came back in on the exhalation. If your belly or hand did not move at all and the one on your chest went in/out, then you are breathing inverted. This is done by using the second string or accessory muscles as the starting pitchers. This can lead to a number of dysfunctions not only with the respiratory system, but it can also lead to chronic neck pain, headaches, decreased lung capacity, shallower breaths and more breaths per minute, decreased peristalsis (constipation), poor lymphatic movement, varicose veins and so forth!

To start off, your client needs to work on breathing correctly or diaphragmatically. Have her sit up straight once again and put her hand on her belly and one on her chest. The chest will and should move but only during the last third of the breath. Take a deep breath in the nose and concentrate on allowing the belly to fill with air like a balloon and protrude out. On the exhalation through the mouth with pursed lips, have her focus on allowing her belly to empty the air out so her hand goes back in. That is the proper way to breath, and most of society does not do it. If for some reason this is hard for her to do sitting up, have her lie down and do it. She should place her hands on her belly the same way, or she can use something cold (light weight glass, etc.) to give her some sensory stimulation. The respiratory system is one of the most important systems. If you can’t breath right, everything else in your body will not work correctly.

Once proper breathing is mastered, the next step is to get assessed by a local physical therapist. If the body is out of alignment in any direction, you are only as strong as your weakest link. Most of the people I work with have what is called a kyphotic posture (increased curve in the thoracic spine, hunched over). I am assuming since your client reads music a lot and plays the flute, she most likely has adapted this type of posture. If her upper body is flexed forward, this will alter her breathing pattern, decreasing lung capacity and making her breathe shallower and more often.

You can do a quick experiment that will help you understand this better. Sit up straight and take a deep breath in and out. Make sure you breathe correctly and keep that upright posture. How did that feel? Now, do the same thing hunched over. Try to take a deep breathe in and out. Pay attention to what you use to accomplish this task and notice whether your breathing is labored. Also, think of it in relation to water in a hose: if you bend a hose (altered posture), the water will not flow as fast, pressure will build up and everything will have to work harder to get the water to flow. Well, the same goes with a body that is poorly aligned. The body’s air, food, lymphatic fluid, blood, cerebrospinal fluid and waste will be able to flow with ease when the body is upright and in alignment.

Nutrition can assist you in this process. Make sure your client stays clear of the American C.R.A.P diet: Coffee/caffeine, Refined/processed foods, Alcohol/aspartame and Pasteurized milk. All of these foods are considered nonfoods, which take more energy to digest and assimilate than they actually provide you. So if your client's goal is to be the healthiest/best flute player in the bunch, these foods will not help her get there. Also, most of these foods contain sugar, chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, additives and preservatives, which can have a profound effect on your immune (histamine reactions), digestive and respiratory systems. They will eventually cause a sympathetic overload to the system, which will put you in a state of internal and external stress all the time. I am assuming playing the flute while being constipated, dehydrated and having mental fatigue/fogginess is hard to do.

Working with a Tai Chi or Qi Gong specialist will help your client to move and breathe more synergistically. Providing the body with this type of exercise is one very easy way to develop all aspects of our life, with minimal energy involved. It actually provides us with tons of energy, and it can revitalize us. Daily meditation will help to develop breathing skills (by providing the body with life force, energy or Chi), which will aid the entire body towards health and vitality. Here are two links that will give you some insight into Qi Gong and breathing.

  1. http://www.theflow.org/qigong/CD-Breathing.htm
  2. http://www.vitalitymagazine.com/node/view/344

My recommendation for your client at this point is:

  1. Practice daily meditation (Tai Chi, Qi Gong, yoga, etc.).
  2. Practice diaphragmatic breathing in the morning and/or night.
  3. Eliminate C.R.A.P diet foods from the diet.
  4. Find a C.H.E.K Practitioner or Physical Therapist for an assessment and a singing coach to help with breathing.
  5. Buy Paul’s book How to Eat, Move and Be Healthy! to assist with the above process.