5.16 Breath support...
Breath support in playing wind instruments and singing; a stress sensitive mechanism.
K.H.Woldendorp, rehabilitation physician, ‘Revalidatie Friesland’
Breath support is a crucial phenomenon in both playing wind instruments and singing. The abdominal and thoracic region determine the process of breath support. Singers are more aware of the importance of the lower parts of their body than wind players, but, despite of this awareness we often see professional singers with serious non-control in this area.
When singers and wind players don’t have enough control of their breath support a lot of unfortunate compensation mechanisms occur at the level of the throat and/or mouth; these are necessary in order to overcome their shortcomings in producing sufficient sound over a wide range. Embouchure problems and overuse syndromes of the vocal tracts are the logical result.
Musicianship is difficult with a lot of stressful influences in bio-psycho-social respects. Wind instrumentalists and singers often report that their technical presentation is decreased to a more or less undesirable level during performances. One of the reasons for this phenomenon is that breath support in particular is very sensitive to stress influences.
At the centre for ‘music and rehabilitation’ of ‘Revalidatie Friesland’ we pay much attention to the topic of breath support during the rehabilitation of the injured musicians; the treatment is often successful. A positive side effect is that the treated singers and wind instrumentalists often perform better than ever before.
In this presentation the physiology of breath support and the influence of stress will be described consecutively. A practical homework training advice will be given at the end of this article.
Wind playing and singing; the physical difference.
Wind players and singers don’t have much in common within, for example, their educational training. We think that this is a missed opportunity because there are many shared characteristics in the way they physically produce sound by voice or with their instruments. The physical difference between both groups of musicians is less pronounced than is generally believed. The fundaments for making sound is caused by the use of an airstream from the lungs in an up and outward direction to the mouth. This airstream use is called ‘breath support’. The only physical difference between wind players and singers is the place where the airstream will be put to use; in singers the vocal tract and in wind players the facial embouchure related structures such as the lips, tongue and the incisors.
In the case of ‘multi vocalization techniques’ the wind instrument player produces sounds with the vocal tract. It is not fully understand if the wind instrument players use the same techniques as that of singers. At IEPE a special composition of multiphony-vocalization for trombone, by Henri Gerrits, will be presented to give the audience of wind musicians a practical example.
Both wind players and singers (in this article called ‘wind musicians’) need an air stream to produce sound for music, as was stated earlier. This air column has to be supplied by the lungs. With inhalation the lungs are filled up with air and with expiration this air passes as a column through the bronchi, the throat (with the vocal tracts), the mouth cavity and the lips out of the body. It seems logical that during deep inhalation more air can be inhaled. The wind musician can use this extra air column during a controlled expiration to produce a longer melody line.
A clear metaphor for the process of breath support is the ‘garden hose’. One regulates the volume of the water stream produced by the garden hose by changing the size of tap opening. The water stream will be powerful if you partly close off the opening and the water pressure remains equal. The water column will therefore be narrow and forceful; it can travel many meters in distance (see picture 2). When the opening of the garden hose is left totally open, the water stream will be wider and less forceful (see picture 1).
Figure 1: wide opening. figure 2: narrow opening
In the playing of a wind instrument the air column acts as the water stream from the tap. In brass playing the mouth opening changes depending on the pitch and loudness of the tone. In woodwind playing (for example the reed instruments like the clarinet) the reed trills with a certain frequency which shapes the air column. This air column flows from the body into the instrument and provokes, via the rim, a ‘standing’ wave/vibration into the bore of the instrument itself which then produces a certain tone.
The most air (breath support) is needed for playing low notes with sufficient strength because the mouth opening must be wide and the air stream should have enough impact on the instrument to create a strong standing wave in a very controlled way. Nearly as difficult is playing notes of a very high pitch because the air column must be pressed through a very narrow mouth opening.
In the case of singing the throat area, together with the mouth cavity around the vocal tracts, narrows or widens in the same way as described above for wind instrument players.
The abdominal area as the source of breath support
As mentioned before, breath support means that the wind musician must breath in a very controlled way. Control is therefore needed over both the lungs and the abdominal area.
The lungs unfold themselves with inhalation. This occurs with the activity of the small muscles between the ribs and the diaphragm (a sheet of internal skeletal muscle).
Figure 3; changes in the shape of the belly area due to normal breathing
Normal breathing causes the bowels to be pressed downwards to create enough space for the expanding lungs. The belly moves forward, this is often called ‘belly breathing’ (see figure 3).
This area must be very relaxed in order to accommodate the lung movements. Stressed bowels or a full bladder will hinder this process. The wind musician can then only breath superficially and the breath support will diminish seriously with obstruction by bowels or bladder. The wind musician must compensate this with extensive tension in the mouth or vocal tract area. This results in embouchure problems such as dystonia.
Stress reactions of the body
Musicianship is the most stressful of jobs. This is to be expected because musicians suffer from extreme physical stress due to playing many hours a day in non-ergonomic postures to the limit of human capacity. Musicians continuously try to improve their performances and must therefore have a high level of self criticism. The audience (and colleagues!) is also as critical of the recital as the musician himself; this poses an extra threat because the performance itself is an expression of the musician’s personal artistic feelings.
Stress occurrence is therefore common to musicians and often interferes with their performances. In table 1 a summery is given of the different physical reactions which occur with acute stress. These ancient, intuitive mechanisms are necessary to combat stressful situations. One can understand this easily, think of what would happen if a big hungry tiger suddenly would appear in front of you. You could choose between 3 different actions to deal with this situation; ‘fight’, ‘flight’ or ‘frozen posture’ (you disappear into the back ground like a bittern [brown heron] in a fringe of reed. In the fight and flight situations you need a lot of oxygen to allow your brain to think as clearly as possible and to provide for the hard working muscles. The heart beats faster in order to meet these extra demands. Flight or fight is less possible if one must urgently empty his bladder or bowels at this particular moment. Large amount of adrenaline and cortisol are released because of the activation of the orthosympathetic nerve system.
Table 1: The influence of acute stress on different organs and its effect on musical performance. ?
Wind musicianship and stress
In table 1 the different effects of acute stress on wind musicianship are summarized. It will be clear that the musical performance is influenced negatively in many ways. In this presentation the focus is laid on the abdominal region, in particular the bladder and bowel function. If the urge is great during a performance on stage this is comparable to that of ‘the hungry tiger’ because it is not desirable to urinate or defecate on stage; your audience won’t return for a next performance; the listeners with special interest for this kind of performance are not those whom wish to see again…
The parasympathetic neurological system is more activated after a stress moment and all the mechanisms described above act contrarily. It is for this reason that many musicians visit the toilet before and/or after their performance.
Another metaphor for breath support is the bellows. In figure 4 you can be seen how the bellows blow air in and out just as breath is blown along the vocal tract or the instrument.
Figure 4: a bellow as metaphor for breath support.
The ‘belly’ of the bellow in the human is situated in the abdominal area (see fig.3). The airstream must be forced in an up- and outward direction towards the lips. The basis of this breath support is formed by the contraction and upward pressure of the pelvic floor. This muscle activity must be combined with the muscle at the sides of the abdominal area. Otherwise the upward force will be laterally diffused and the breath support is less effective.
From a biomechanical point of view there should be counter influence against the upward force of the airstream. If not, the whole body is pressed upwards. By pushing the feet or buttock onto the floor/chair, one can stabilize the posture into the right position.
Finally, there are many connections in the whole breathing system; for example: in hyperventilation a lowering of the CO2- percentage in the blood provokes a reflective muscle action of the bowel and bladder. As a result one can’t breath as deeply as before, a superficial high pattern of breathing starts, which easily causes hyperventilation and a lowering of the CO2- percentage. Another example is the direct neurological connection between the diaphragm, the muscles of the lower jaw and throat (for more details see the information on the poster on IEPE by Miss Ruth Brouwer-Cohen). These connections make it possible to develop highly coordinated teamwork of all the muscles and organs needed for a good breath support, embouchure and singing.
Breath support is a crucial phenomenon for wind musicians (wind instrumentalists and singers). Many parts of the abdominal and thoracic area are important in the creation of a sufficient airstream. In the case of diminished effectiveness compensation must occur in the mouth or vocal tract area. This results in specific difficulties such as embouchure or voice problems. Most wind musicians aren’t aware of this mechanism and pay no attention to the abdominal area. It can be very valuable to pay more attention to the abdomen and pelvic floor within musical education.
Home work exercise for breath support
For wind musicians it is of crucial importance to have optimal control over the abdominal area. Only then is it possible to perform at the highest level, to overcome the effects of stress and to also perform at stressful events such as competitive music contests.
It is therefore necessary that one be aware of the exact level of tension in the bowel and bladder system. Another requirement is that one actively reduce the increased level of tension. The way to take control of these two issues is to start with a homework exercise twice a day; one can exercise each day upon awaking and before sleeping each evening. The home work exercise should be done every day because it takes some time to learn to manage the abdominal region.
The best way to start the homework is lying down on one’s back on a bed. First one must begin with normal quiet breathing, the hands lie relaxed on the belly (around the navel). The hands move up and down with the belly when one breathes in and out (see figure 5).
When one is able to do this in a relaxed way, the next step is to gradually press the finger tips of both hands deeper into the belly while the breathing pattern is kept the same (see figure 6 (white arrows)). Start with small circular massage movements and ‘cover’ the whole belly (see figure 6 (black arrows)). In the beginning this will be a bit painful as the pain of sore muscles is after sporting effort. It is very important to stay relaxed and breath in the direction of the sore area. In the end the soreness will usually diminish and disappear.
After several days or weeks you will gain control of this process and you can do this before playing during 1-2 minutes as a form of a ‘body exercise’ or ‘power nap’ (after a short warming up without the instrument.