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April 22, 2011 / Angela McCuiston

De-Mystifying Support and the Diaphragm

As a wind instrumentalist, and especially as a flutist, I hear this question a lot:

“What is support?” which is usually followed by this statement

“Make sure you breathe/support from the diaphragm“.

I hate to tell you, but that is absolutely impossible.  The intentions, when this statement is said, are good, but let’s talk about the diaphragm for a minute.

First, what IS the diaphragm?  Well, looks like it’s time for a little body mapping. 🙂

The diaphragm is a thin, dome-shaped muscle that  attaches to the bottom of the breast bone, the front of the chest wall, the inside of the cartilage of the bottom 6 ribs, the end of the 12th rib, ligaments and also to the lumbar (lower) spine.  It’s HUGE, as you can see – does it look how you thought it would look.  Think about yourself, touch the parts where it connects, this will correct your own body map.

Why is it impossible to “breathe from the diaphragm”?  The diaphragm is an involuntary muscle – meaning that it cannot (in most circumstances) be consciously controlled.  You breathe in and out and it is regulated by your subconscious.  What is meant when well-meaning teachers tell you to “breathe FROM the diaphragm” is really that you should not breathe shallowly but rather breathe low.  My favorite image being “breathe through the bottom of the chair”.  In any case, I’ll show you more about what support really means and how to breathe well.

Why should I care how I breathe?

Mark, over at Mark’s Daily Apple wrote a great article about breathing properly – and as far as I know, he’s not a musician!

Patrick Ward has written a great series of articles on breathing and the role of the diaphragm in lifting.  He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist AND a Massage Therapist.  I highly recommend checking out his articles if you want more information:

Breathing 101

We are all basically saying the same thing – there is a “correct” and “incorrect” way to breathe.  Whether you are breathing for lifting, for playing an instrument or just in general, correct breathing involves the abdomen extending and the shoulders remaining mostly stable.

Try this: put one hand on your shoulders or upper chest and the other on your abdomen.  Take in a deep breath.  What moves?  If you are breathing correctly, your abdomen should move and your shoulders should not.

Keep your hands there and do it again, this time, concentrating on breathing low and letting your abdomen move.  Notice I said LETTING your abdomen move, not moving your abdomen.  There is a big difference.  Once you’ve done this, and if you were breathing shallowly before (aka: your shoulders were moving before) you should feel a little weird.

Let’s move the experiment further.  Put one hand on your abdomen and the other on your low back.  Take in a deep breath and you should feel expansion all the way around, including your low back!

Here’s Patrick Ward demonstrating the above:

What is happening when I breathe?

When you breathe, the diaphragm moves down, pulling the lungs down so they can suck in air.  When this happens, your guts have to go somewhere and so, the act of inhaling actually causes your internal organs to shift downward, creating internal tension.  When you exhale, the diaphragm moves upward, causing the air to be pushed out of the lungs and the internal organs return to their original position.  What you are feeling in your low back is the same as what you are feeling in the front: your internal organs being shifted all around!

How do I translate this to “support”….and what does that mean, anyway?

I’m glad you asked. 🙂

If you can’t “breathe from the diaphragm”, what CAN you do and how is support really achieved?

Amazingly enough, it took me till I was 25 and in graduate school before this was actually explained to me and I really understood it.  It took some change and getting used to it, but once I was able to implement proper support, my sound improved dramatically, and so did the tension levels in my body.

To understand support, let’s go back to the original exercise involving breathing with your hands placed on your abdomen.  This time I want you to place your hand on your lower abdomen, the spot below your belly button, and inhale.  You SHOULD feel this area expand outward.  In fact, if you wear low-rise pants, this is probably where your waistband falls.  Feel the tension that is created there.  It is not a huge thing, and you probably never noticed it till now.

This is the key to support (at least for flutists): while keeping your hand on your lower abdomen, exhale and keep the tension under your hand.  Only when you are almost completely out of air should you let the tension go and your abdomen retract.  Try it again: hold the tension as you breathe out, meaning, hold your abdomen against your hand or the waistband of your pants.

This is very important: DO NOT PUSH against your hand, merely hold the tension that is naturally there.  If you push you run the danger of incurring a hernia!  This should not be harsh or painful, but there will be a good chance of a few things 1) you feeling strange and 2) your stomach making gurgling noises. 🙂

To apply this to playing your flute:

Play a G, this allows your right hand to remain on your lower abdomen.  Be very gentle with yourself and notice how you feel all over: throat, tongue, stomach, etc.  As you play your G, make a conscious effort to hold the tension out under your hand.

Pay attention to your sound – do you sound more open?  Louder?  Fuller? Stronger?

Pay attention to your throat – if you were used to playing with an involved throat, it may be at a loss for what to do.  Let it relax and get out of the way.  You do not need your throat to play the flute.   If what you are doing currently causes your throat to hurt and feel tight when you play, this will solve that problem.  What you are doing is shifting the support from your throat to your abdomen, where it belongs.  This creates that elusive and confusing “air column” that we have heard so much about. 🙂

Pay attention to your tongue – if you let your throat go, very likely your tongue will want to compensate and try to support. Keep your tongue resting in the bottom of your jaw.  This creates an open cavity in your mouth, through your throat, all the way down.  You very likely will find the back of your tongue rising to try to “support” the air.  When the air is supported from down low, where it should be, the tongue does not need to help.  When the air is unencumbered by a tight throat or tongue, the sound will soar!

Supporting from your lower abdomen is very strange and takes some getting used to.  Don’t be surprised if you find your body resisting and other body parts trying to take over the job.  Most likely your throat will try it, when you let your throat remain uninvolved, your tongue will want to do it.   Be prepared for this and aware of it.

Helpful Exercises for Musicians AND Fitness Enthusiasts

If you find yourself shallow breathing and actually having a difficult time with breathing correctly, you can implement these exercises to help you improve your breathing.  This will make proper support much easier.

These exercises are also good for all you lifters!  Proper breathing technique is essential to help you maintain form and lift more weight.

I should also mention my post awhile back about exercises for the core.  There are a LOT but these are just a few that will help you with a strong core.  When your core (read: muscles of the entire trunk) are strong and working together, learning how to “support” will come much easier to you.  Article: 3 Core Exericses + 1 for Core Strength and Stability

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