Mapping Breath Support

May 6, 2011

In March I presented a workshop at the Massachusetts Music Educators Association conference in Boston titled, “What Every Music Educator Needs to Know About Breath Support.”  My original idea was to explore the body’s innate physical support but the organizer asked me to be more specific and speak on “Breath Support.”  As I thought about this change and how I could provide useful information to help music teachers teach this effectively, I realized that I needed two parts to the workshop.

      1. Support: Clearly define what support  is and where it is found in the body.
      2. Breathing: Illustrate important movements of breathing and how support enables them.

I found that understanding where to find the natural physical support of the body is an essential element to freeing the breath for music-making.

1. Support

What is support?  What structures provide the support for your playing? Where  are these structures located in the body?  A clear understanding to the answers of these questions allows one to utilize the innate design for support and move more naturally.

Two possibilities for physical support are

    1. muscles
    2. bones

If muscles are engaged for support, the body is kept upright primarily by muscular effort.  This effort results in tension that in turn limits and restricts movement.  For example, if a flutist has tension resulting from muscular support, the embouchure will be more rigid than need be.  Making embouchure adjustments will require effort which will also effect expression, the breath and sound.  The performance will be unnecessarily effortful.

What we need to find is the support that enhances and enables movement.  The anatomical reality of this is that support comes from the large bones of the skeleton.

Where Can We Find Support? 

Barbara Conable’s Body Mapping course, What Every Musician Needs to Know About the Body,” identifies “Six Places of Balance” in the body that when vertically aligned bear and deliver the body’s weight and provide effortless support, this is a balanced body.

Six Places of Balance

  1. Head & Neck Joint /A-O Joint
  2. Arm Structure
  3. Lumbar Spine
  4. Hip Joints
  5. Knee Joints
  6. Ankle Joints

If you consider that the head weighs 9-15 pounds (equivalent to a small bowling ball), having bones available to bear the weight of and support the head is crucial.

In balance, the body’s weight is delivered to the floor through the bony structure.  This same path is also the route of effortless support.  In a balanced body, support can be be felt as sensations of buoyancy and equilibrium.  The good news is that we don’t have to “do” anything to utilize this support, it is natural, we simply need to understand balance and learn to embody the relationship of the six places.  This effortless support enhances movement ease and precision because it leaves the large muscles of the body free to move.

Try this: Stand or sit in your best balance at this moment.  Picture your bones providing the support you need to be upright. What does it feel like?  How is your breathing?  Compare these feelings and sensations to being upright with your muscles “holding you up.”  What is the difference in your physical comfort and breathing? The body’s innate design for support frees the moving muscles as it enhances movement ease and precision.

The Six Places of Balance offer us valuable sensory feedback on the body’s balance, alignment, movement quality and support.  When we learn to include them in our awareness we can fluidly adjust as we perform, which keeps us “in the moment” of music-making.

2. Breathing

The foundation to efficient breathing is whole-body balance, where the bones bear and deliver the weight of the body, and effortless support emanates from the bony structure allowing the movements of breathing to easily and naturally coordinate.

What are the movements of breathing?  How do you regulate inhalation and exhalation volume and speed?

What are the movements of breathing?

There is often confusion about the movements of breathing.  The table below is a simple outline of some of the important breathing movements that take place throughout the torso.

Inhalation Exhalation
ribmovement up & out down & in
diaphragm dome flattens returns to full dome shape
abdominal cylinder moves out in every direction returns to neutral
pelvic floor moves down returns to neutral
spine gathers lengthens

When the movements listed coordinate, breathing is natural and efficient.  Whole-body balance sets the conditions for this natural coordination and ease.  Keep in mind that balance through legs is equally as important as balance at the A-O joint.

How do you regulate air movement for playing? 

Misconceptions on how we regulate air movement compromises the easy coordination of the breath. The reality is that we regulate air movement in and out of the body through rib movement. We decide how much air we need, and use rib movement to inhale the desired volume, and then use rib movement to regulate the rate at which we exhale.   In my yoga class today I was enjoying the movement of my ribs while I was in downward facing dog.  The image of a bird’s wing flapping came to my mind.  The rib movements were fluid and graceful as I inhaled and exhaled just like I see the wings of a bird move as it flies.  As I practice I will look for the same beautiful movement of my ribs as I play.

Examining breath support is a powerful reminder that music-making is a whole-body activity.  It is clear that breath support is the same support we need for being upright, moving our arms etc. Understanding where support emanates form along with the movements of breathing is an essential element of expressive music-making.  Accessing and updating body maps that govern these areas and how they relate to the rest of our body allows movement to become more refined, while eliminating unnecessary tension and elevating music-making to our highest level.

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One Response to “Mapping Breath Support”

  1. Laura Lentz Says:

    Marvelous post Vanessa! The reminder of the weight of the bones is so freeing and immediately brings me back to breathing more naturally. And I LOVE your description of your rib movements while in downward dog being like the wings of a bird as it flies. What a wonderful image. Thank you!


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