April 30, 2012

A Breathing Meditation

Breathing. Short, deep breaths in. Long, slow breaths out. This is how wind players breathe. Faster air exhaling means shorter, less musical phrases. Many students think they don’t have the lung capacity to play long phrases but in reality, what they need is more control. Flute is described as taking the most air to play as a beginner. There is no mouth piece to catch or direct the air, so most students use too much air at first. This means they get dizzy and think they need to “stretch” their lungs. As their embouchures improve and less air escapes, they are able to play longer between breaths and their tone gets better, becomes less “breathy.” A tight embouchure is not what I am talking about here, but a controlled one that directs the air as precisely as possible. It takes time and experience to learn this but the benefits don’t stop at music making.
The attention runners and swimmers give their breath is the same kind needed for wind players. It is about using the breath you have efficiently so that you will not need to stop before you reach the end of the track or score. People with asthma often discover they do in fact have more than enough breath to play wind instruments, but they are using their air too fast. Deep and gentle breaths get you to the end of the piece, while shallow and frantic breaths prevent you from making music.
There are a number of yoga breathing techniques that can help you learn to control your breath. One is to breathe in and slowly fill your lungs from top to bottom all in one breath. Let your upper chest and shoulders fill completely with air, then fill the middle of your lungs and finally let your lower lungs and belly expand. Then exhale in the reverse order, emptying your belly of air, then the middle of your lungs and finally your upper chest. See just how slowly you can do this without getting dizzy. After doing this several times, try filling and emptying your lungs from bottom to top. Learning all the different ways your lungs can fill with air can show you just how much air you truly have and teach you to slow your exhalations down. The technique itself calms you down, which gives you more control over your breath on its own.
Another old flute teacher’s trick is to light a candle and exhale so that the flame bends and dances but does not go out. See just how little breath it takes to make the flame spin and how long you can keep it twisting before you breathe in. Use as small a stream of air as you can, then release a large, loose, uncontrolled gust and experience the difference in the breath, and watch the flame, your breath made visible.
In early spring I like to go outside and breathe in. The smell of hyacinths fills my mouth and lungs and echoes in my senses as I exhale slowly, savoring. Lilacs sneak up on me, like a canonic duet.

Later, when the roses and sweet rocket bloom, I reach for the more delicate scent, breathing in gently, controlling how long the rich smells touch my nose. Then breathe out, allowing all the different scents to roll and mix, forming harmonies.
Sweet Rocket-Butterfly

Green Mantle Rose

The scent of lemon balm tea makes me breathe so that each rib rises, expands and relaxes until it feels as if my entire midsection is made of air. Control and delight. This is how I think about breathing when playing the flute.

Lemonbalm, Melissa

April 4, 2012

Trivia About Perfect and Relative Pitch

Perfect pitch is the ability to identify a note or key without any other musical reference. Only about 1 in 10,000 people have perfect pitch although that number is higher among musicians. In my classes it was something like 1 in 60-100. It is generally associated with musical skill but it does not seem to be a result of training, at least not exclusively, and turns up in people with little or no musical experience as well as musicians. It does make some aspects of music easier (such as writing down music by ear) but it can get in the way of others (such as when a group plays a piece in a different tuning or key than a person with perfect pitch is used to hearing). Some people speculate that it is inherited and some that it is a result of an early musical environment. It is more common for children raised with tonal languages (languages were the pitch changes have meaning) to have perfect pitch but only if they are raised speaking the language. In "The Singing Neanderthals", Steven Mithen mentions a study that suggests all humans are in fact born with perfect pitch but most of us lose the ability as we age. Also when people sing, they usually sing within a whole-step of the key they originally learned the song, with or without musical training. The suggestion he makes is that perfect pitch actually gets in the way of learning languages (all of them, but less for tonal languages) so most of us become more flexible and switch to using some form of relative pitch with a few hanging onto the perfect pitch ability for some reason.

Relative pitch is not the same thing as perfect pitch but at its most refined levels can seem similar. It is the ability to take one note as a starting point and identify or play other notes accurately related to it. This CAN be learned to varying degrees and is part of the focus of ear training classes. One student in a theory class I assisted with had almost never sung in his life, just played instruments. When he began the class, he had a terrible time sight singing and was in danger of failing the class but he could hear that he wasn’t singing things right. He spent a great deal of time practicing, studying and improving his relative pitch sense. By the end of the year, he was almost at the same level as the top 5 students in terms of accuracy which was the point. People with perfect pitch may have good relative pitch without trying but also may have to struggle to learn relative pitch. A friend of mine from college with perfect pitch said that identifying notes on the slightly out of tune piano used in our ear training class was incredibly difficult and showed him that he needed to develop his relative pitch more.