Klarinet Archive - Posting 000785.txt from 1999/04
From: "John Gates" <cadenza1@-----.com>
Subj: Re: [kl] "All that stuff about the diaphragm" (long)
Date: Sat, 17 Apr 1999 02:54:30 -0400
what do you mean when you use the letter T, which appears throughout the
----- Original Message -----
From: Tony Pay <Tony@-----.uk>
Subject: [kl] "All that stuff about the diaphragm" (long)
> As a contribution to the discussion of the diaphragm and our control of
> it that I see going on, I thought I would reproduce here an essay I
> wrote several years ago. It was published in the Clarinet and Saxophone
> magazine in Britain, and then later elsewhere a couple of times. The
> central point is also put forward in my chapter in 'The Cambridge
> Companion to the Clarinet'.
> In essence, the essay is a description of a discovery I made for
> myself -- in the process of giving a lesson, actually -- rather than a
> statement of anything that anyone taught me. (Of course, this may
> reflect my lack of understanding of what was said to me while I was a
> student, but I think not.) And as I say, I haven't found the central
> point put this way anywhere else in the literature. It will be
> interesting to see whether anyone here has.
> I've also found that the essay seems to provoke rather a strange
> response among players. I'd expected people either to say, well, of
> course everyone knows that -- or, to say that it isn't true, and why.
> But what occurs instead is a sort of embarrassed silence....
> With regard to what scientific content there is, I'd be interested to
> have a professional evaluation. But for reasons that I try to make
> clear during the article itself, I don't think that really matters all
> that much.
> Anyway, here it is. I haven't edited it, though perhaps it could do
> with some editing.
> ALL THAT STUFF ABOUT THE DIAPHRAGM
> Books about how to play wind instruments often talk rather vaguely about
> the diaphragm, and teachers of wind instruments seem to be agreed about
> its importance in playing. However, in my view it is not so often
> related to a player's actual experience, nor indeed explained to a
> student's satisfaction. This essay suggests a reason why this is so,
> and makes a connection between the action of the muscle and our
> experience of playing, via the ideas of 'opposition' and 'support'.
> If we fully understand the paradox that the action of the diaphragm is
> in a sense outside our experience, yet nevertheless under our control,
> our playng becomes simpler, and we are better able to trust ourselves.
> CAN WE FEEL OUR DIAPHRAGM?
> It seems that we don't have a direct experience of our diaphragm, the
> muscle that we use whenever we take a breath. Anatomists tell us this
> is because the diaphragm contains no efferent nerves. That is, no
> sensory nerves run from the diaphragm itself to the brain, so we don't
> know when we're using it except by noticing the things it does; and the
> muscle can't feel tired to us, for example.
> But we can get a bit closer to it if we flex our abdominal muscles and
> try taking a breath whilst keeping them flexed. (By the expression
> 'flex the abdominal muscles' I mean the act of making the lower front of
> the body hard, as if to protect ourselves against a gentle punch in the
> middle T but without pulling our bellies in.)
> Normally, when we flex our abdominal muscles, we prevent the air in our
> lungs from escaping outwards by a blocking action somewhere in the
> throat. In order to breathe in with our abdominal muscles flexed, we
> have first to lift this block. When we do so, we may find (as my friend
> and colleague Phillip Eastop recently pointed out to me) that the
> experience of breathing in is very close to the experience of yawning.
> We are breathing in against the resistance of our abdominal muscles, so
> the diaphragm has to work a bit harder than usual in order to overcome
> the resistance. It still isn't quite true to say that we can feel the
> diaphragm working T we can feel working, and a bit of discomfort
> perhaps, but this is mostly the sensation of the flexed abdominal
> muscles and the solar plexus being pushed downwards and outwards; the
> diaphragm, which is what is doing the pushing, is still not directly
> accessible to our experience. Anyway, the anatomists tell us it can't
> Most of the important actions of our bodies T important for survival,
> that is T occur by themselves without our conscious control, so perhaps
> it shouldn't be surprising that our diaphragm can't be felt directly.
> We can't feel the working of our heart directly either, and rather
> fortunately it beats without requiring us to remind it to. Choosing an
> even more extreme example, we would obviously have absolutely no chance
> at all of carrying out the incredibly intricate processes of our
> biochemistry with our conscious intellects, even if we understood these
> processes and could by some magic interfere directly. There's no
> advantage for us to be able to feel ourselves consciously doing all the
> things that get done in our bodies, so evolution just hasn't set it up
> that way.
> LEARNING WITHOUT 'KNOWING HOW'
> Of course it is still an open question how much we can, by various sorts
> of self-training, come to be able to influence these actions. Experiment
> shows that, surprisingly, we can learn to control the speed of our
> heartbeat, and even the surface temperature and electrical conductivity
> of our skin; some would say that even our biochemistry is not as
> inaccessible as it would appear.
> This sort of learning, however, doesn't conform to our normal model of
> what it's like to learn to do things. Mostly, when we learn a
> technique, we have a direct experience of doing something. But there is
> no direct experience associated with a change in the electrical
> conductivity of our skin, for example. To be aware of such changes we
> have to connect ourselves to a meter, and then we can learn to control
> them and see the effect of our learning T the needle on the dial moves.
> But we can't feel any change in our body.
> I think most people feel, or would feel, uncomfortable learning in this
> way. Somehow it seems strange, almost creepy. But it is important for
> us to have a frame of mind which will accept this sort of strangeness.
> An insistence on knowing exactly how we are doing something can
> interfere with our learning to do it better. Quite independently of
> whether we have an actual experience of performing a task, it is often
> best to proceed as though our conscious minds were independent observers
> of our actions, and to let those actions occur according to their own
> logic. This is especially true if the task is a complex one. As
> musical performers, we are frequently concerned with preventing our
> minds from interfering with our abilities.
> Breath control doesn't quite come into this category, you might think.
> We simply have to learn how to blow the instrument effectively. Although
> we use our diaphragm to breathe in, we don't need to experience it, and
> anyway we only know about it in the first place because we've been told
> about it, so T why not just forget it? Indeed many excellent teachers
> and performers you speak to would say just that. And so would I have
> done, until recently.
> However, I then discovered a more useful metaphor to apply to breathing
> and blowing the instrument; which metaphor is what I want to explain
> In this essay, I shall say that we are 'using a metaphor' whenever we
> give a picture or description of what we do on the instrument that is
> not technically specific T in other words, a description that does not
> tell us in detail what we should do. A metaphor says, rather: while
> playing the instrument at this point, think of the situation as if it
> were like something else. For example, I was taught as a very young
> player to imagine the sound of the instrument as a smooth, solid tube
> that began deep inside me, passed through the clarinet and stretched out
> into the room. I still think this is a very good image for a beginning
> Good teachers have always been aware that the transmission of subtle
> skills involves the creation of suitable metaphors for a student, even
> if only as an interim device. These metaphors work better than explicit
> instruction. In fact, fully explicit instruction is actually
> impossible, because even the best teacher cannot say in detail exactly
> what he or she does. Indeed, usually the teacher too is operating out of
> a personal metaphor. It is a question of leading the student into a
> successful experience by describing the situation in such a way as to
> help with a particular difficulty.
> So metaphors constitute an indispensable tool for a teacher. They vary
> in generality, from those designed to address the student's attitude to
> her whole being with the instrument, to those concerned with the
> character of a particular phrase or note. In fact, given the great
> complexity and multi-levelled nature of what we do when we play, you
> would have to say that even the most careful scientific description is
> metaphorical too, being necessarily a simplified model of the situation.
> We may not always notice that we simplify in this way. (Sometimes it is
> surprising that someone else fails to understand us T after all, we find
> the matter perfectly clear.) On the other hand, adopting the
> metaphorical attitude allows us, if we wish, deliberately to go against
> scientific description. It may be a better tactic to allow a student to
> discover the physical solution to his problem whilst trying to do
> something which is literally impossible.
> A good example is what is called in brass teaching 'the no-pressure
> embouchure system', which is a very helpful metaphor. This is so
> despite the fact that the magazine New Scientist was able to show a few
> years ago, by careful experiment using strain guages, that no
> professional actually played using this system, even though some of them
> said they did. The fact is that you play better by thinking of what you
> are doing as not pressing the mouthpiece against your lips than you do
> otherwise. This is true whether or not you actually are pressing
> slightly, as shown by a strain guage attached to the instrument. Though
> the 'no-pressure system' is in one sense a lie, it is what we might call
> a useful lie; one that is worth telling oneself when playing, and worth
> transmitting to students.
> Another example would be my 'smooth tube of sound'. This tube of sound
> doesn't really come from deep inside me, even though I may be better off
> imagining that it does.
> Yet clearly, when we use a metaphor, there is a danger of saying
> something that is both wrong and not useful.
> 'PLAYING FROM THE DIAPHRAGM'
> In fact, I believe that there are some people who talk about the
> diaphragm in their teaching both inaccurately and unhelpfully. The
> central fact that must not be obscured is that the diaphragm is a muscle
> that can only exert force downwards, i.e. to draw air into the lungs.
> As a passive membrane dividing the abdomen from the thoracic cavity it
> is pushed up by the abdominal muscles in the usual action of blowing an
> instrument (as contrasted with the universally condemned method of
> pulling down the previously raised ribcage), and perhaps this is what is
> meant when many people speak of 'playing from the diaphragm'. But this
> is not the same as using your diaphragm as a muscle in order to blow,
> which is a physical impossibility.
> What I want to bring out in this essay is one aspect of breathing and
> blowing which does have surprising and unusual experiential
> characteristics when we compare it to most of the rest of our actions as
> we play an instrument. The technique itself is mentioned in wind
> instrument methods, and certainly employed by able players, who
> communicate it with varying success in their teaching, but it is rarely
> discussed in such a way as to make the situation usefully clear, at any
> rate to me; and it hasn't been approached exactly from the position I
> propose to take, as far as I know. Moreover I think the 'surprise'
> connected with it has been almost universally overlooked.
> I always liked, and often repeated to students, Paul Harvey's advice to
> 'keep your trousers up' when playing. He told the story of how he
> forgot his belt (or was it braces?) one day when he had to play a
> concert, and found that his performance was improved as a side effect of
> his effort to make his abdomen as large as possible. I've also found
> this a useful metaphor in practice. But there is another variable we
> can control whilst we have our attention on our abdomen, which is to
> what degree the abdominal muscles are flexed as we are blowing.
> When muscles are working against very little resistance, we don't
> experience tension in them. They work smoothly, and the resultant
> motions look relaxed and fluid. But if I flex the opposing muscles in
> my arm, both sets of muscles become hard, and my biceps stand out if the
> effort in both is sufficiently large. If my arm is motionless, I can
> tell without looking that my triceps are flexed by the fact that my
> biceps are flexed in this way. (The triceps are the ones on the back of
> the upper arm.) So it is with the opposition abdomen/diaphragm. I know
> (if my airway is open) that if no air is going in or out, and my
> abdominal muscles are flexed, that my diaphragm is also flexed.
> (Indeed, this is the only way I can know it! After all, it's inside, so
> I can't see it, and I can't feel it directly, as we've said.)
> When we want to make precise and controlled movements, we do generally
> use opposing sets of muscles, and here a danger is that we will use too
> much force in both sets, since the output is unaffected by an equal
> increase in tension in both. But this danger is well understood. We
> may use metaphors in our teaching to avoid this danger: 'Float the
> sound...imagine that your arms and instrument are balloons filled with a
> light gas ...' etc. etc.
> Precise and controlled movements are of course central to any art, just
> as much as freely expressive ones. A perfectly executed trill, a fine
> piece of handwriting, an elegant pirouette T all these require the
> delicate balance of pairs of opposing forces, each supporting its
> counterpart, under the overall orchestration of a guiding intelligence
> and expressive impulse. And the word 'support' is crucial, both for
> precision of adjustment and speed of response. It's why we push our
> hand against a surface when we write on it (or use a special
> signwriter's support stick), and why we poise ourselves ready to spring
> when we wait for the serve at tennis.
> How does all this apply to the diaphragm?
> Normally, when we breathe in, the diaphragm encounters no opposition
> other than the elasticity of the viscera. This elasticity causes the
> diaphragm to return to its normal position when it relaxes. Similarly,
> when we blow out air using the abdominal muscles, the diaphragm is
> relaxed, and so the only opposition is the inertia of the lungs and the
> outgoing air. Opposition occurs when the diaphragm and abdominal
> muscles are both working at the same time.
> The characteristic of muscles balanced in opposition is that both are
> slightly flexed. So, if you perform the experiment of breathing in with
> your abdominal muscles flexed (not too much), you will find that you can
> achieve a point of equilibrium where the air isn't moving. And then,
> putting your clarinet in your mouth, you can play a note, still with
> your abdominal muscles flexed. (If you prefer, and indeed this is the
> more usual way of proceeding, you need not breathe in with your
> abdominal muscles flexed T you can flex them afterwards. As we said
> before, being aware of our abdominal muscles working is the only way we
> can know that our diaphragm is also working.) Now, you will find you
> can perform a crescendo, and a diminuendo, still with your abdominal
> muscles flexed to the same degree.
> SUPPORT, AND THE 'MAGIC DIMINUENDO'
> So what? you might ask.
> Here's the point I never noticed, and which I now find makes such a
> difference, not to begin with to what I do, but to how I imagine what I
> do (i.e. to my personal metaphor), and therefore, in the end, to almost
> everything. It is that the crescendo, and perhaps even more clearly,
> the diminuendo, can occur in this situation without anything else at all
> happening in your experience. You imagine a diminuendo T hey presto, a
> diminuendo. You want a faster diminuendo? T no problem.
> I don't just mean that the process of doing it has been submerged, in
> the same way that the actions of driving a car, say, in the end become
> automatic. In this case you can call up the experience into
> consciousness by paying attention, even though you weren't aware of it
> before. No, I mean that you can't call up any physical experience
> corresponding to the change in dynamic. Everything stays the same.
> Perhaps you can feel a slightly different movement of air in the mouth
> as the dynamic changes, or a different embouchure. But nothing in the
> blowing process.
> You don't do anything T you just imagine it. The only change is in the
> sound. You shouldn't take my word for this T you have to try it
> yourself. Play about with it for a bit. Convince yourself that you
> really are keeping everything else the same in your experience.
> Remember the 'no-pressure system' T well, this is the 'no-doing system'!
> The strangeness of all this is rather like the strangeness of the
> experiment with the electrical conductivity of your skin. There, you
> couldn't be sure what you were doing to produce the required result. In
> this case, equally, you're no longer listening to whether it's coming
> out the way you think you did it. Now it seems you're not doing
> anything; once you've set it up, there isn't anything else to do but
> listen to the result.
> In other words, to imagine it (and listen to it), is to do it.
> The explanation for this, of course, is that the diaphragm is resisting
> the abdominal muscles (which remain at constant tension) to a varying
> degree. But that is inaccessible to experience. So our only feedback
> is to listen to the result, and thus we establish a direct link with our
> own sound.
> How did I (we?) miss this? I suppose, like most things, by not paying
> close enough attention at the crucial moment. Also, it's very much not
> what you'd expect, and you have to be very careful to hold everything
> constant to appreciate it. But, as I shall spell out in a bit more
> detail later, it explains lots, like how passagework becomes even by
> itself, if we listen to it, and why we can play fast dotted rhythms
> seemingly without effort if we support T and here's the magic word!
> Have you been confused, like me, by the way different people use this
> term? Doesn't it help to know it means the exact opposite of blowing?
> or rather that it's an opposition or complement to blowing T part of a
> magic technique which works by your setting the only variable you leave
> available to yourself (the flexion in your abdomen), at one strength and
> then allowing the result to change according to your whim? T a sort of
> black box that you can't fiddle with, only use? T dealer only service?
> Isn't that wonderful? (Doesn't it make you want to sing and shout?)
> You can see that looking at it this way is a reversal of how support is
> normally envisaged. Normally, support is what stays constant while
> action varies. If we assign the role of support to the diaphragm, then
> here it's the support that varies, whilst the action stays constant. We
> could of course say that you support with your abdomen and act with your
> diaphragm outside your experience, in the opposite direction, and people
> who are really clear about all this already (perhaps there are lots, I
> don't know) may speak about it that way round.
> At any rate, the situation is strange enough to be worthy of more
> informed discussion than it gets.
> Perhaps we can tie in here a well-known phenomenon on voice and flute,
> looked at from this slightly different perspective. Most singers and
> flute players (though few clarinettists) have what is called a
> 'diaphragm vibrato', which they acquire and then refine, many of them
> without really knowing how they do it. Vibrato is spoken of in much the
> same way as I have been speaking of support T as a rather mysterious and
> even magical part of playing which seems very closely connected with the
> innermost being of the performer. Teaching it seems to be largely a
> question of setting up circumstances in which the student will "catch
> on. physically to the idea. It seems plausible to conjecture that this
> is because the mechanism is a periodic variation of diaphragm flexion
> outside awareness, and I find it possible to imagine that this sort of
> vibrato occurs most naturally in circumstances where the opposition
> abdomen/diaphragm is relatively small. (Intuitively, when our movements
> are larger, or faster and more free, we want to be as relaxed as
> possible for best effect. The forces 'tied up' in the oppositions
> simply generate heat and tire us.) Clarinet players have a slower
> airstream, need more precise control, and so tend to play with stronger
> support than flautists or singers; my guess is that this minimises the
> chance that a diaphragm oscillation will arise and be developed as an
> expressive device. Notice that diaphragm vibrato is not unknown on the
> more free-blowing saxophone, though of course stylistic considerations
> enter considerably here. Clarinet players who want to use vibrato
> usually employ other means to achieve it.
> THE PROS AND CONS OF USING SUPPORT
> When your abdominal muscles are flexed more than is required simply to
> play at the dynamic you are delivering, you're using diaphragm support.
> Your diaphragm is resisting your blowing, but you have the advantage of
> very precise control over dynamics. However, you still have to judge
> whether the effect is what the music requires. The rather 'careful'
> quality of such dynamic control has a way of spilling over into other
> aspects of one's playing, and this can need guarding against. I am
> thinking in particular of the sort of restrictions we can make in the
> air column, limiting the resonance of our playing by, for example,
> closing the throat. It is easier to do this by mistake if we are
> already committed to the diaphragm/abdomen opposition. So it's worth
> while practising keeping the air column as open as possible with maximum
> support, rather as we sometimes practise playing fortissimo with a most
> delicate finger action, and vice-versa.
> But it has to be said that a very valid musical effect can be obtained
> by precisely controlled resistance all along the line. Debussy's doux
> et pénétrant in the Rhapsodie, for example, can be played in this way.
> And I've always felt that it isn't enough to play the solo in
> Tschaikovsky's Pathétique merely beautifully. It must represent the
> loneliness that comes from expression through reluctance to express,
> which reluctance has also to find expression.
> Of course, you don't have to play with support. Often, playing without
> it has a light quality in low dynamics, suitable for short, floaty
> phrases, and a grand, gestural quality when loud. All the other
> variables of tone-colour, resonance are still available. The
> appropriateness in the context of the music is always what counts.
> MORE ON WHY IT WORKS
> I mentioned before that tennis players use opposition when they are
> waiting for the serve. Another way of describing what they are doing is
> to say that they are storing energy so that it can be delivered fast,
> and in the required direction, immediately they find out what that
> direction is. It is as though they are springing both to the left and
> to the right at the moment the other player serves, but because the
> muscles that would drive them to the left exactly balance the muscles
> that would drive them to the right, there is no overall effect. When it
> turns out that the serve goes to the right, they simultaneously relax
> the muscles driving them to the left, and begin to work harder with the
> opposing set. But they have a flying start, because of the initial
> working of the muscles driving them to the right.
> A bow-and-arrow is an energy storage system. We do all the work of
> bending the bow before we shoot, storing the energy that will be
> released over a much shorter interval in order to throw the arrow far
> faster and farther than we could by hand alone.
> There is a useful analogy between the bent bow, which embodies a bow/arm
> opposition, and playing with support, which embodies an
> abdomen/diaphragm opposition.
> In this analogy, the abdominal muscles correspond to the bow, and the
> diaphragm to the arm. The sudden delivery of energy common to both
> would in the case of playing a wind instrument be what is required
> either for a sudden change of dynamic between an adjacent pair of notes
> (a sforzando or subito piano); or for a precisely controlled change of
> air pressure to equalise the dynamic of an adjacent pair of notes with
> different responses on the instrument. Support enables us to do both of
> these things easily and elegantly, and moreover without knowing
> precisely how, so that it seems an automatic and natural ability.
> Support is also useful for taking a fast, inconspicuous breath. In the
> bow-and-arrow analogy this would be like letting go the bow rather than
> the arrow, which wouldn't be very useful T but clearly relaxing the
> abdominal muscles with the diaphragm already strongly flexed would
> result in a maximum delivery of energy to draw in air over a short
> timespan, which is precisely what we want. And so it proves: to play
> with support just before taking a breath guarantees both maximum
> air-intake and precision of return to the playing position. How? We
> simply bring our abdominal muscles back to the state of flexion they
> were in just before the breath, and continue with the phrase.
> The usefulness of this little discovery for me is that I find I'm now
> much more able to accept and trust as rational what I often did before
> instinctively, and to simplify my actions so that they have more chance
> of success. The support mechanism can be calibrated at the beginning of
> a difficulty (translated: you decide how hard your abdomen should be)
> and the calibration then changed until the setting that produces the
> best effect is reached. After practising in this way I find I often
> need to do, and compute, less than I'd thought. When teaching, it's
> still difficult to stop people sticking to one way of playing which
> isn't working, and now some of them think you should flex your abdomen
> all the time, but T 'twas ever thus.
> A few more things to try: what we mostly did already for an upward leap
> T support on the low note T then, imagine the upper note as clearly as
> possible, but concentrate on keeping the support constant.
> Before a 'difficult' entry: breathe in against opposition, rather like
> yawning, and time the top of the yawn to coincide with the moment of
> entry. As well as guaranteeing precise control, this tactic gives you
> something to think about other than the thought that you may miss the
> In medium speed articulation (like Beethoven's Fifth Symphony: repeated
> pianissimo 'A's in the clarinet register) T where it's often difficult
> to guarantee an even response T support, and then ask your diaphragm to
> help! The quality of this 'request' is important. I don't mean you
> actually do anything, in fact, quite the opposite, as I've explained.
> It's more like letting go of the worry about having it be even,
> realising that there's an inaccessible mechanism at work which may know
> or learn what's necessary. If you like, imagine writing your request on
> a small piece of paper and swallowing it! You have to realise that you,
> consciously, have really no control over it. I think this realisation
> is most powerful. The idea of giving in to a wiser self has often been
> held out as the key to mastery in all sorts of traditions. The
> relinquishing of the idea of control is often all that's needed in this
> I hope this little essay may stimulate some people to make discoveries
> for themselves. As I said before, I think the subject hasn't been well
> served. I've outlined one particular metaphor for playing that I find
> useful, but anyone who wants to extend that metaphor is welcome to do
> so, with the proviso that it should be a helpful extension. There are
> many connections to be made with other aspects of playing, and the
> possibility of technical detachment going hand in hand with expressive
> involvement is an ongoing project for all of us.
> The creation of metaphors is arguably what we are about in all aspects
> of music, but it's important to bear in mind that whilst these must have
> some coherence, they are above all personal.
> © Antony Pay 1996
> An earlier version of this essay appeared in Clarinet and Saxophone, the
> magazine of CASS, the Clarinet and Saxophone Society, in 1993.
> _________ Tony Pay
> |ony:-) 79 Southmoor Rd Tony@-----.uk
> | |ay Oxford OX2 6RE GMN family artist: www.gmn.com
> tel/fax 01865 553339
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