Exercises and Technique to Improve Your Irish Flute Playing
If you listen to any of the great Irish flute players, you’ll notice they all have one thing in common, lung power. Good breath control is absolutely fundamental to good flute or whistle playing.
As an Irish flute or tin whistle player, mastering your breathing is the most important step toward mastering your instrument.
Being a flute and whistle player myself I understand the need for stamina – you need staying power at an Irish session and these tips will have you playing for hours! Irish flutes in particular require a bit more puff than standard Boehm system flutes.
I know you walk around all day breathing just fine without even thinking about it, but the breath control required to play a wind instrument is a bit different. In this blog I’ll explain about good breathing technique, including my top four tips, and how to apply it to your playing.
I’ll also provide three simple breathing exercises that will help you improve your breath control and increase your lung capacity. These tried and tested exercises will help you gain full control of your breathing, your instrument and your playing.
So, follow my recommended regime and you’ll soon have lung power to match the greats.
Good Breathing Technique Explained: The Great Misconception
Singers and wind players alike are frequently told to “breathe from the diaphragm”. This is utter nonsense.
Your diaphragm is a muscle involved in the breathing process, yes, but it’s engaged whether or not you want it to be. What this instruction really means is to take deep breaths that fully fill your lungs.
Think of your lungs as two large balloons. When you breathe in, they expand. To allow enough space in your chest cavity for this to happen, two important things happen:
Your rib cage moves up and out.
Your diaphragm contracts and moves down.
In other words, your body makes room for your lungs to inflate.
An easy way to check that you’re breathing correctly (yes, it is possible to do it wrong) is to gently place your hand on your stomach. When you inhale, you should feel your stomach/abdomen expand, moving outwards.
If you feel your stomach drawing in instead, you’re cutting off potential space for your lungs to expand, meaning they won’t fill with as much air. This is called shallow breathing or clavicular breathing.
Shallow breathing simply means your lungs aren’t filling with enough air. This can leave you feeling weak or dizzy after prolonged periods of playing. It’s also scientifically proven to be bad for your health.
Tips For Good Breathing While Playing the Irish flute
Breathe in and out through your mouth. Breathing through your nose is reserved for circular breathing and that’s a story for another day.
Good posture. If you’re sitting, sit upright. No slouching please! Try not to play with the flute resting on your shoulder, regardless of which brilliant flute player you’ve seen play in this style. Whistle players should avoid playing with your chin turned down or elbows tucked in.
Don’t raise your shoulders when you inhale. Your ears aren’t lonely and don’t need any visitors.
Make sure you feel your stomach expand, like you’ve eaten a big meal. If your stomach is contracting then your lungs aren’t filling with enough air.
The Three Most Powerful Breathing Exercises
So how can you improve your breath control and increase your lung capacity? Exercise. No, I’m not talking about going for a run. Yes, cardio is great for your lungs, but that’s not what I mean.
Breathing exercises will help you to master your breathing technique and bring out the best in your playing. Any Irish flute or whistle player with a great command over their instrument also has excellent command over their breath.
One of the best things about breathing exercise is how accessible they are. They can even be practiced without an instrument. Practiced with flute or whistle in hand however, they’ll also improve your tone, fingering, intonation and just about every aspect of your playing.
1. Counting Exercise
Here’s a simple exercise I like to use myself. It’s guaranteed to improve your breath control. It will also help to develop a good sense of pulse and rhythm. I advise using a metronome to help you out. Select a speed of 60 BPM (beats per minute):
Breathe in slowly through your mouth while counting to 4 in your head.
Exhale slowly for 4 beats, to a prolonged hissing “sss” sound. Yes, like a snake!
Breathe in again for 4 beats.
Exhale slowly to a “sss” sound for 8 beats.
Continue to breathe in for just 4 beats at a time, but increase the exhale count by 4 additional beats each time you exercise, so 12 beats, 16 beats and so on.
See how far you can get and watch as you build breath control.
Once you’ve mastered this, replace the “sss” sound with a “ssh” for a real challenge.
Finally, add your flute and replace the hissing with a single pitch, focusing on producing a clear, even tone. Make sure you’re not pulsing the air and that you’re achieving an even consistent airflow.
2. Octave Exercise
Breathing exercise can also go hand in hand with improving tone. There are countless options and combinations available.
I like to use the following exercise to achieve a balanced, even tone in both registers of the flute and whistle. Set your metronome to 78 BPM and take a quick breath after each bar or set of three notes.
This simple octave exercise is based on a D major scale.
Beginning with the bottom note, you simply play a low D, followed by a high D, and then return to low D, alternating between octaves. Continue this pattern for each note of the scale.
You should blow one continuous breath to play these notes. You’ll want to make sure your breath is even, consistent and that you are not pulsing the individual pitches.
Move cleanly and smoothly between the octaves and make sure you’re not using tonguing, glottal stops, cuts or any other form of articulation to separate the notes.
You’ll need to adjust your embouchure slightly to ensure a clear tone and accurate tuning on the high notes.
Once you’ve reached high D, it’s time to play the descending phrase. Remember to focus on achieving a strong, clear tone. Make sure there’s no fuzziness or a breathy sound.
Try to make sure you’re not gasping. It’s important to learn how to take quick, efficient breaths that will fill your lungs.
3. Advanced Exercise
Once you’ve perfected the airflow between octaves, it’s time to kick it up a notch.
Safety warning: This exercise should be played at a faster tempo to avoid passing out! Set your metronome to 120 BPM.
This exercise turns the whole scale into one flowing phrase with no breath between bars.
The ascending scale is now one flowing phrase to be played using one long breath, and the descending one is another.
Note that this exercise has moved to 3/4 rather than 4/4 as you no longer need to pause on the return to the low note.
Once you’ve perfected it, you can slow down the tempo to give your lungs a real workout. This one needs to be slowed down as you improve, so lower the BPM on your metronome by increments of 10.
Important! If you feel dizzy after playing for a prolonged period of time (which can happen at the beginner stage), make sure to stop and take a break.
How Long Until You’re ‘Fluting’ Fit?
If you practice just the first simple exercise daily, you should see a huge improvement in your lung power in less than three months.
So imagine the progress you’ll make if you practice all three!
With this new skill mastered your playing will accelerate in no time at all and you’ll be able to keep up with the best of them.
If this has inspired you to start a new wind instrument or upgrade your flute or tin whistle. Have a look at my Irish Flute Store and the McNeela Tin Whistle Store. We stock a range of instruments by Irish flute makers and whistle makers as well as our own line of the best student flutes on the market.
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[Image: Ralf Schulze]