Keith Underwood (Part 2): On Breathing, and the Problem With Thinking of Air as the Solution to Everything.

Even as a young child, I remember my very thoughtful and forward-thinking violin teacher encouraging me to learn as much from singers as I could.

I think she meant for me to listen and watch recordings, but for a time, I actually took voice lessons. That said, my only aspiration vocally was to be able to sing The Chipmunks Christmas song , so my enthusiasm waned pretty quickly once I found out that I wasn’t going to learn how to sing like the Chipmunks…

And then there was opera…

My parents also tried to get me interested in opera, but that did not spark much joy in 12-year-old me. All I remember is how long the productions felt…especially the ones where there were no subtitles (I’m guessing that’s not the correct term for the translations that were projected above the stage, but I assume you know what I’m talking about. 😅)

I think the idea was to learn from singers’ breathing and phrasing. But I don’t think I really grasped what I should be listening for, or how to incorporate any of this into my playing.

How to breathe…?

Because anytime I thought about breathing, my breathing would become forced and unnatural. And if I tried to think about breathing while playing, not only would I suddenly forget how to breathe like a normal person, but my arms and fingers would start to get all jumbled up and forget how to do their job too.

Fortunately, breathing isn’t critical to playing the violin. But for wind players, breathing is of course rather essential (err…duh, Captain Obvious 🤪).

Yet as automatic and natural a thing as breathing is, it can be a real challenge to do it in the most efficient and effective way, especially as it relates to producing a beautifully resonant sound, articulation, phrasing, etc.

A continuation of last week’s chat

In last week’s chat with flutist Keith Underwood (you can check it out here if you missed it), we talked a lot about the art of imitation, and how to improve one’s playing by “stealing” secrets that we can glean from observing other musicians. 

We got so into this topic, that we didn’t even talk about breathing, which is one of the things that Keith is most known for! So in this week’s episode, we do a deeper dive into the art of breathing.

Today’s chat is definitely more flute-y and wind-centric, but I found it to be pretty fascinating even as a string player. And in the spirit of learning how to be a more attentive observer of subtle details and nuances and learning from all musicians, I hope you’ll enjoy today’s episode no matter what instrument you play, and benefit from the various takeaways and principles that can be translated and applied to your own practice and performing!

IMPORTANT NOTE: In this episode, Keith does quite a bit of demonstrating on the flute, and used a lot of physical gestures to explain or illustrate various concepts. It’s one of those situations where a picture is worth a thousand words, because many of the ideas Keith shares are difficult to communicate through words or audio alone. And I think you do lose quite a bit without the visuals to go along with the explanation.

We hadn’t planned on sharing video (so I have my glasses on, a favorite old hoodie, and a few days worth of stubble), but fortunately we do have it available, so if at all possible, I’d strongly encourage you to watch the video version of the episode below, even though the audio and transcript are also available below.

In this episode we’ll explore…

  • 7:40 – What flutists can learn about breathing and effective, efficient use of air from playing baroque flutes. And how producing a great sound isn’t about replacing the air that’s already in the flute, but getting that air to vibrate.
  • 12:33 – Why Keith doesn’t love the word “support,” why he likes to think of the flute as being more a “compression” instrument than a wind instrument, and why he likes the word “suspension.”
  • 14:11 – Keith describes what he sees and hears in one of his favorite videos of a flute player on YouTube. Which takes place on The Muppet Show, believe it or not. =)
  • 17:22 – The problem with focusing too much on support in the belly or diaphragm area, and how this can create unhelpful tension. And how imagining one’s lungs extending above one’s head can help facilitate an easier and more effortless breath that stays “fresh.”
  • 22:59 – Thinking about breathing like bowing a string instrument, and “retaking” the bow with your breath, to better communicate the character of the music.
  • 24:24 – The problem with trying to use too much air to play loud, and how the goal is really to play “on the breath, not with the breath.” Which Keith explains alongside extensive before/after demonstrations on the flute (this is where the video will help convey these concepts more clearly than the audio alone).
  • 36:40 – The problem with “good posture” and how this negatively affects sound production.
  • 40:43 – An example of the sort of exercise Keith created for himself just by observing Jean-Pierre Rampal play a bunch of times (on how to play with less hesitation).
  • 45:36 – The choreography of Keith’s hands, and the idea of a more fluid and less static approach to the flute.
  • 47:12 – Using the flute to change your embouchure rather than controlling your embouchure with your lips.
  • 48:10 – How it all comes back to observing more keenly what others are doing, and experimenting with and testing these observations out, to see what comes of them, and if they help to make our playing more easy, more effortless, and more beautiful.

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IMPORTANT NOTE: Keith does quite a bit of demonstrating on the flute, and used a lot of physical gestures to explain or illustrate various concepts. It’s one of those situations where a picture is worth a thousand words, because many of the ideas Keith shares are difficult to communicate through words or audio alone. And I think you do lose quite a bit without the visuals to go along with the explanation.

We hadn’t planned on sharing video (so I have my glasses on, a favorite old hoodie, and a few days worth of stubble), but fortunately we do have video available, so if at all possible, I’d strongly encourage you to watch the video version of the episode instead, even if the transcript is available below.

* * *

I wanted to ask about breathing. I also wanted to ask about things that you wish more flutists knew. And if there’s time for it, you know, challenges of the flute that you wish more musicians in general were aware of. For instance, I probably should have realized this, but I didn’t realize that different notes have different demands in terms of intonation. And there’s all sorts of embouchure challenges that I couldn’t begin to even imagine. And even this notion of how sound is produced with a flute, I just assumed you blow into the hole as hard as you can. And that sound comes out. You know, watching some of your videos helped me understand that that’s actually not the case. It’s actually pretty fascinating what happens. And I don’t know if we’ll get to those sorts of things, but is breathing maybe a good place to start? So there’s one thing that kind of made my ears perk up, that you said earlier, something about how there’s a problem if one is thinking of air as the solution to everything. And I wondered if you could expand on that and, and help me understand more what you might have meant by that.

I think if there are flute players out there listening, I think one of the most cool things a flute player can do who plays a flute that has keys is try…I’ve learned so much by playing early flutes, like Baroque, I love the [unclear] pieces. And I love the way people wrote about playing the flute in the 18th century, like Quantz and you know, like 18th century musicians. There are several different how to play the flute books from from the 18th century and an 18th century flute is kind of fantastic. Because in the Renaissance, flutes only had six finger holes. And in about 1690s, somebody decided to add one key to a flute, because I think because they – I wish I had a Baroque flute here – but basically a six hole flute plays like [flute playing] a major scale. And then if you’re playing a minor melody [flute playing]

You kind of want to [flute playing], you want a leading tone. So I think I think people added a key just to get a leading tone, for like minor key melodies. I think they just said, because you can sort of half hold that note. And then within 20 years or less, people discover the addition of one key probably to get that note. They worked out the fingerings that in addition to that one key suddenly allows you to play an every key. And so through the 18th century, they added other keys to correct certain notes. But basically the addition of this one key and 1690 allowed you to play every single key. Some of the most complicated pieces for the flute that we still play like the Bach, B minor flute Sonata, and the Bach E minor, flute Sonata, those are pieces that were written 1720, 1715 or something. So it’s like 20 or 30 years after somebody added one key to the flute to get one note, people were writing an every key on the flute, and they wrote some of the most complicated flute pieces ever. So like there’s a kind of an interesting, I think what technique on instruments, there are innovations that instrument makers made, you know, like harpsichord or fortepiano. There are mechanical innovations that people made in instrument design. And then there are composers throughout music history that exploited these innovations. And they usually exploited the innovations within a few years. So like here’s like one of the most amazing flute pieces ever written being written like 20 or 25 years after one key is added to a flute. And then through the 18th century, Mozart into Haydn era, even into Beethoven, they still were playing a flute that had one key, and they changed the pitch level, climbed like, early 18th century pitch was like 390, were like a whole step low. And then over time, it sort of climbed up to sort of 440 area by the beginning of the 19th century. But all this amazing music was written for these instruments that were very simple and also the instrument, the hole you blow into on a flute has a certain dimension, but the dimension of an 18th century flute like the hole that you blow into is like about a quarter of the size of this hole. It’s tiny. I’ve had the privilege of playing real 18th century flutes, a guy in New Jersey has an amazing collection. And I did a concert at the Met museum a few years ago, on flutes from his collection with all these great players, mainly flutes from the early 19th century and the 18th century. And the 18th century flutes when you play an 18th century flute, wow. It’s amazing. And the tiny embouchure holes, like how can you project on this thing? Like did everybody just listen in quiet settings? But there’s a way you can get those instruments to have a kind of beauty and depth to the sound blowing through a tiny [???], you can’t blow a lot of air, you’re using air to play, but you have to get the instrument to vibrate. And when the instrument vibrates, and really produces what I think is its real sound, it has a feeling like a sort of magic lantern feeling where the sound sounds like it feels like it’s glowing from the inside. You’re using your air, but it feels like you’re rubbing a wineglass with your finger than something produced like that. And probably the greatest Baroque flute player, a traverso player of the last 50 years, the first great figure in traverso playing was Bart Kuijken. I’ve taken a few lessons from him, he basically taught himself to play traverso. And he has many, many recordings out, Telemann Fantasy, and things like that. And this whole issue of breathing is kind of interesting and the whole issue of using air to play a wind instrument is really interesting also, which is he had a big change occur in his playing that helped him play Baroque flute. When, at his conservatory, he was going to, I think he was studying in Holland and his teacher was the principal flute in the Concertgebouw Orchestra. And I guess his teacher was a big fan of like, air will solve all your problems. You know, like, if you’re not projecting, you’re not blowing enough air. blow that air across that canal, you know, that that windmill, and he said a French flute player came to his conservatory gave a class one day and felt like everybody was blowing their heads off to play the flute and the guy said, your flute already has air in it. The air you blow at the flute or into the flute, the purpose of the air that you’re blowing into the flute is to get the air that’s already there to vibrate. Don’t use your own air to replace the air that’s in the flute, the air is already there, you just need to get the air to vibrate. And then Bart said that the tone was so different when he just thought of it that way. And then when he was playing early flutes, that’s when the early flute came along. So, I think teaching on wind instruments goes through sorts of fads. Like over the course of the 20th century, I think people associated big sound with the amount of air that you were blowing into the flute. People would say, wow, what a big sound that guy puts a lot of air through the horn.

Really, I don’t hear much of a sound I’m putting, I don’t hear anything. So I think if you get a feeling for playing a flute that’s difference is that feeling is going to be that you are using air to produce the sound. But you’re using air to cause the air in the flute to vibrate. You’re not just throwing air at the thing, just like you’re not playing the violin by [sound] bearing into the string, but a certain point you’re going to choke that string by force. So I think there’s a huge amount you can learn with a flute. And then I learned about things from different teachers. One great teacher that I learned a lot from was a trumpet player who passed away recently, Jerry Callet. He had a whole theory about brass playing that was related to this. He felt that brass players took breaths that are too deep and threw too much air at their brass instruments and they developed embouchure problems and things because they were over breathing and over blowing. And he felt that you need to get your lips to vibrate but you don’t do that by throwing a ton of air through them. And then I remember having a discussion with a great trumpet player who was a student of Jerry’s who said, the more I hang out with Jerry the more I feel like, are we playing wind instruments I know like a trumpet is a wind instrument and flute is a wind instrument but if I do the right thing, I don’t feel wind and I feel like I’m manipulating air, I feel the air inside my body. I feel the air passing through my lips lightly but I don’t feel quantity is quality necessarily. And I don’t love the word support, I don’t love the word blow more air. Jerry’s favorite word was compression. And then the guy I was talking to said, yeah, I think we don’t play wind instruments, we play compression instruments. It’s the way you have a certain amount of air behind your lips, or in your mouth, and you compress that air. And that produces a small amount of air at high velocity. And then that excites that to the flute, and then you get this kind of ring in the sound. But breathing factors into this in a kind of an interesting way, which is, I don’t feel like I’m breathing. I don’t think there’s a value in always taking gigantic breath, storing up air inside of my body. I think that if you want one breathing thing, if you put your fingers lightly underneath your collarbone and lightly breathe into this area, and then play any wind instrument off of a breath like this, you’ll hear a difference in the sound. You also hear a difference in your violin playing, or your piano playing. If you breathe a couple of times, and then take the instrument and play, you’ll probably feel your bowing differently, or your left hand fingering differently.

What’s interesting just watching you breathe even and I know nobody can see this. But when I see you breathing in, sort of demonstrating what you’re describing, you seem lighter. Like I see you kind of lift up in a way that looks effortless. I don’t know how to describe it, you just look lighter, almost as if you’re floating a little bit.

And you could hear that in the sound too. One of my favorite videos of a flute player playing on YouTube is Jean-Pierre Rampal playing Debussy, The Little Shepherd on The Muppet Show. If you look up Rampal, Muppet Show, Debussy, The Little Shepherd, that’s one of the most beautiful recordings of his flute playing. I like it so much better than a concert recording. I’m sure you have that with violin records. I kind of don’t love concert recordings of violin players because it’s in a hall, and the hall has all this resonance or something like that. I love when somebody is playing in like a television studio. If somebody has a great sound, you hear the direct sound. That’s one of the best great sounds of Rampal, although the version of it they have up on YouTube, sometimes they’re not paying attention to the pitch level so it’s sort of like a quarter tone, or a half tone flat. But it sounds super amazing. And you can see and like you’re talking about, if I’m having a conversation with you about breathing, and I’m talking about ribs, articulately opening up, then by having the conversation with you and saying well, you know, they do this. And then if I’m speaking to you, you know, I’m speaking in my normal voice, but my normal voice has a kind of like flow to it. Whereas if you’re saying [demonstrates different voice], hey Noa I’ve got something else to tell you, you can hear it like it’s kind of choked. And if I suspend myself – I don’t love to use the word support – I like to use the word suspension. Because I feel like when my body feels like it’s suspended, and when the breathing is right, then everything feels more articulate. But you can see, he’s talking to a bird puppet at the beginning. He plays a great scale then the bird puppet says, boy, if you don’t mind, I’d like to listen to you. I’d like to listen to you play while you rehearse. Is that okay? He says birds love flute music. And Rampal says, well, you know, flutists love birds too. And he’s talking to this puppet that’s down here as well. You know, flutist love birds too. And then he just takes his flute. He has his flute in his hands and then he takes a breath and he goes and plays. He looks like he’s six feet taller. It’s not because it’s a deep breath but it’s because you think well, okay, I’m gonna play for you. And then he sort of floats up towards the ceiling. Amazing.

How does one cultivate that sort of breathing ability? Or like, how does one practice that? Or how does one know if they’re doing it? Because I’m still curious about this idea of of compression as opposed to volume or, you know, quality of air versus quality. And I’m wondering if this relates to – I don’t remember if this is something we talked about earlier, or if I just saw this in a video of yours – but this idea of breathing from low to high and blowing from high to low. Oh, and keeping things fresh and breathing from different places. And so all these things together, I don’t know how they connect necessarily because I don’t need to breathe in order to play the violin. But yeah, I wonder if you could expand on some of those things or tie those together in some way.

I mean, it’s very standard thing for wind player to say, the diaphragm is the wind players’ bow. We make bowing analogies all the time. So you say like [singing] and you want to feel like [singing]. You don’t want to feel like [singing]. You don’t want to be sort of squishy with it. So people point to their stomachs and they say, well, you have to keep the support. And not bump the air, and it’s like a bow. But the problem with that a little bit is that if you point to the stomach, and you say you have to keep the air even from your stomach, and then you tighten your stomach, oh, I shouldn’t bump the air [singing]. Now you start to choke on the air. I learned so much from Alexander Technique teachers. But I also learned when I was subbing in New York Philharmonic, back in the early 80s, I had the great fortune to like talk breathing with Vince Penzarella who was a trumpet player in the Philharmonic and who had studied breathing with famous breathing guru Arnold Jacobs, who was a tuba player in Chicago Symphony. And Vince was the first person who told me about that breathing from low to high and blowing from high to low. That was an Arnold Jacobs thing and the person who explained that to me. You could sing a note or a scale but you could say, well, I’m going to imagine that when I’m taking a breath that you can tell there’s a low component to breathing, but that as you inhale, you could feel like [air sound]. The air is coming in to you but there’s a feeling that you’re rising, in order to draw the air into you. It’s kind of an oppositional thing. You’re not like, oh, I better breathe deeply. You have to rise in order to feel the air come down deep. And then you can see what I’m saying I’m breathing from low to high. If I take my hand and I raise my hand as I take that breath, and I raise it over my head, obviously, I don’t have lungs that my lungs are here, but it really helps to include my head and the back, my neck, my mouth, the back of my sinuses. It really helps to imagine my lungs extend to above my head, not because I’m going to breathe like the hugest breath. And even if I took a light breath, and I go like, if I want to play a phrase, and not sound like [sound], have a beautiful attack and stuff like that come out of nowhere. If I raised my hand over my head, and then play [singing]. The feeling is like I could sing one note and I could go like [singing]. It feels like my note is starting from the ceiling. And then as it progresses, it feels like it’s being, I call it fresh to keep the sound fresh. It feels like a note is being produced from a different place. Three, that’s what you guys have is like, you have the same note, but it’s being produced from different parts of the bow. So I feel like there’s a bowing analogy to be made about wind instruments. It’s not like there’s this like magic muscles down low of it’s the bow. It’s more like your body is the bow. Your stomach is like the frog of the bow. And then your head is like the tip of the bow and then you’re feeling like [singing].

That sounds a little bit like I went like this towards from the tip to the frog. And my favorite wind players, like I mentioned before, one of them is Julius Baker, the former principal flutist for the New York Philharmonic. Every time I listened to a recording of him, he sounds like he’s in touch with this. So it sounds like there’s a really great recording of Bach Arioso. So from you know [singing].

Everybody plays that. He plays that on a Music Minus One recording that sounds like it was recorded in a closet somewhere in midtown. I mean there’s like no reverb effect. And his sound sounds totally like he’s going like this [singing].

It sounds like it to his bow changed… he direct sounds like… he went… he shows power in the sound [singing]. You can hear the power increasing the sound in that way the violin has power. And he used violin terms that I feel like are so applicable to flute that it’s nuts. You know, like retake. One of my students was taking lessons with him on a Bach Sonata and he was playing [singing] and he said, well, you know, you played a long phrase, you need breath, but it’s more than a breath, the character of the breath is like retaking the bow. So you have lots of stuff on wind playing that’s like [singing] but those aren’t breaths like, I need a breath. Those are breaths that are taken with the character of the music. And if you imagine your bow is lengthwise, that’s the only thing it’s a little bit off. But it’s like [singing]. But the phrase has a way, from the way you’re breathing and from the way you’re using the breathing from low to high, low from high to low, it has a way of developing naturally. There’s like a kind of a natural phrasing things like bow control. It’s really easy, I think, easier under these circumstances to produce the right amount of air to get the fluid to vibrate and not overload the flute were there. I feel like when you say wow, I got to play loud here [singing], I feel like you overload flute with air when you do that stuff. And singing teachers who I admire, say things that are similar. I think singing teaching changed to a certain extent over the last couple of decades, because people started realizing people were throwing too much air at their vocal cords. And that, the so called vibrant supported sound means actually using you’re using breathing, alright, to open up your body, which gives you like a better supply of air. But unsung aspect of the good breathing is that the breathing actually allows you to keep the air out of the way of your vocal cord. It’s like you have a gas tank. You don’t want to flood the engine, there’s only a tiny amount of fuel being fed into the engine. So the fact that the gas tank has like a 25 gallon capacity doesn’t mean you’re going to use five gallons a minute. So I love this one teacher, I watched his singing. And he was saying like, here’s my philosophy, what is breath support? Where is the support? You know what Italian call appoggio, like, where’s the support? He says the support is in the voice in the vocal cords. Because what is the purpose of the breathing, to keep the air out of the way of the vocal cords and only give them enough to vibrate. Sort of like there’s already air in your flute. The purpose of your air is to get the flute to vibrate. Well the purpose of the air you’re using when you’re singing is to is to help the vocal cords vibrate, not to flood them. His simple thing that he says is really great. It’s like you have breath, you take a breath. And then when you sing, he says sing on the breath, not with the breath. And I think that’s a thing that happens tons. People [singing], people do [singing] and on a flule basically that’s just ton. So the air has like sort of bumps because they associate register changes with more or less air less, more or less less are more or less. So playing on the breath and not with the breath means like, you’re more or less keeping a constant airspeed, but you’re finding faster and smaller air speeds with your lips, or your vocal track, like all these things in your vocal tract that can narrow and accelerate the air without you bumping.

You might already have explained this and my violin brain didn’t pick up on it. But what happens if there’s too much air? Like if you’re overflowing, or whatever the correct term for that is?

If there’s too much air, you could kind of make it hard for you to shape the air with your lips. Like my wonderful teacher, Tom Nyfenger at Yale said, use your lips to direct the air into the flute. Don’t use your lips to hold the air back. Like if you’ve taken too much air and you start to go like [singing]. I take less air in, when the air is gentler, I have more flexibility of where I aim the air. When I take more air, and then I start to like, choke the air back with my lips, or choke through your back with my muscles in my throat, to try to play long in one breath or to try to not disturb this stuff. That’s a big problem.

So does it become like an intonation issue or a sound quality issue? Or the length of phrase or articulation?

Yeah, articulation. How long you can play a phrase. You can play a phrase really long off of very little air. You want me to play a note long on a flute, should I do that?

Yeah, to illustrate would be awesome.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. So if I take [flute playing], if I am too muscular with my breath, and I take the biggest breath I possibly can, and you know, when people say expand your ribs, if I’m like, now I feel like I have a tiger in my tank. And I feel like my sound is [flute playing] I feel over muscular and I feel like I have to hold the air back.

But when I play a phrase [flute playing], I’m trying to make the air even but I can’t distribute it. If I raised my hand over my head, like I showed you, like that, seems like a minor issue. And now I’m imagining that [singing], I’m singing the music and watch, I raise my hand over my head and as I sing my music, I lower my hand gradually. [singing] I finished from the floor, I started from the ceiling. If I play one note, here, I’m playing that one note and I’m raising my hand over my head and I’m going to lower my hand gradually [flute playing].

This has been a test of the Emergency Broadcast System (jokes). Like it’s very stable in a way that I can’t, [flute playing] that’s unstable because my body’s not working for me. So when I play the phrase, if I imagine that the notes are distributed from high to low, I raised my hand over my head [flute playing] and I imagined that those notes were just created from high to low. That is such a simple thing. And I think I had people win auditions, playing behind screens, putting your hands over their head behind the screen and playing whatever X or you play long phrases, no rest [flute playing].

I feel like I need a breath after I play two bars. You raise your hand over your head. You play the same thing. Maybe you play along beat [flute playing].

Then you get this feeling of poise in your sound, then you raise your hand over your head [flute playing], then it’s really easy to play a lot of bars. In fact, so easy to play a lot of bars, I’m raising my hand over my head and I’m hardly taking any air in at all. I know how’s it going [flute playing]. That wasn’t bad either, right? It’s really the way of distributing my attention that’s doing it. I can also say, this is a really large breath [flute playing].

That sounds good too, whatever you want. But there is this kind of like, articulate feeling, and it’s also kind of relaxing. I feel like for a violin player or a string player, if you guys played like [singing], if you played that, you said, okay, this weird guy that I watched on this podcast said, you know, sing anything and raise your hand over your head and [singing],

whatever, then when you play, I’m not saying necessarily, although you might, you might take a breath that feels like you’re breathing from low to high [singing]. You might feel like you’re exhaling gently through your nose, but you feel like [singing].

You guys can breathe in while you’re playing, you lucky, you know. So you could breathe from low to high, or you can go like, you could change directions while you’re playing. But you could feel like you’re changing directions on this sort of like, vertical axis. Like I’m doing.

This seems sort of magical to sort of observe and hopefully it comes across through audio and not just visually, but I’m going to try to wrap my mind around what is actually happening. Because physiologically, it sounds like you’re taking in an easier breath. And it’s not so much the volume of breath, that you’re taking, there’s a mental component as well. And what you said about distribution of attention, made my ears perk up. I mean, is that kind of the key to this or just want to be able to make sure that those listening especially if they’re flutists, woodwind players, that they feel like they have a tangible grasp on what exactly you’re doing differently.

Mr. Amato, my first fantastic teacher said…he didn’t speak verbosely about this stuff. That’s what he said, when you play, to bring, even though the air is going to your lungs, you could bring the air to your mouth. And then play from your mouth, you know, and he made a sort of an upward gesture with his hand, like this [flute playing]. So it’s not breathing the air to your stomach, play from your stomach [flute plyaing].

Like bring the air to you [flute playing]. You hear the sort of wineglass the sort of thing [flute playing].

You can play quite loud like that [flute playing]. It doesn’t sound like a gusher of air. So hopefully, people will understand a little bit of what I’m talking about. But I’m saying that when you’re playing a stringed instrument, if you listen to us talk and you fool around with that, just you’re singing something, you know, off a breath like that. Or even when you’re stressed out, sitting in a practice room or reading something, you could say, oh, I saw this weird guy talked about breathing from low to high. I’m breathing through my nose.

I started making [pause] you started hear my breath, right? What I’m feeling like [pause]

Then when you go back to your instrument, I love the term that Alexander teachers use, where they say your body feels more organized. I feel like you know, when you’re slumping over your, not just slumping, but you could you could say, well, I, I want to put quality time in with my instruments. So I’m going to have good posture, then your back winds up going red, then your fingers, you can hear it in my fingers like, you guys can’t see me, but I’m, I’m sitting up as if I’m watching a conductor in a pit and my back is kind of tightened up. And when I play a scale [flute playing], you can hear all these little jumpy things happening. If I open up my back, my back is a little bit more rounded. And then I’m breathing. If my back is relaxed, and I breathe from low to high, this is a light breath. But now I’m going to play my scale and you’ll hear my fingers [flute playing].

Here that? That’s from the breathing. And then you want to play you want to play fast, fast, wrong breathing. This isn’t even bad, wrong breathing, it’s just bracing [flute playing]. This is, you know, at length. That doesn’t look like a big change, does it? But that’s what makes this happened [flute playing].

And then when you have like, complicated thirds, bad breathing [flute playing], might sound slightly crappy and my fingers so jumpy. Good breathing [flute playing], you hear this detail.

And it does look different, too. There’s a sense of ease. I mean, from the moment you breathe differently, there’s a sense of ease and lightness and effortlessness that you can just tell it’s coming.

Yeah, you can put people at ease when they’re listening to you just by doing this before you even played, you can play like, you can put people not at ease.

By doing this [flute playing], you know. But you can you can do this [flute playing].

Before you even play, that’s like a kind of a thought experiment, you should have a masterclass, you should say you’re not even allowed to play. Breathe like this [pause], and then watch the audience when you breathe, right? Like you could raise your hand over your head and you’ll see the audience going, oh, yeah, okay, I’m ready for this. And then you could put a tiger in your tank and like, breathe really deep. Hold that air down. And you could go like, and you’ll feel the audience go like, uh-oh. It’s very creaturely you know? So like, I feel like when you get in touch with that, you can create different expectations depending upon how you use your breathing, so the breathing is wildly expressive.

Is it something that you would practice away from the instrument looking into a mirror? Or like how would one start to become more comfortable or familiar with being able to breathe that way?

I felt like I learned like, we were talking about the last time, I literally, by seeing Jean-Pierre Rampal play a bunch of times, I made up exercises that were based on what I saw him do, because I saw like, wait a minute, first time I saw him play Mozart concerto, I always tell people why he was here [singing]. He was standing and he was he was holding his flute down around his waist. And it was like one bar before he was supposed to come in. I thought like, he’s not gonna come in. Is he asleep? And then the string section’s like [singing]. They played like the four, eighth notes before he came in and he went like [flute playing]. He breathed as he picked the flute up in the course of two beats. He went like, pick the flute up as he breathed. Sounded amazing and played this super long phrase. Like, if it was me, ten bars before my entrance, I would be like fidgeting with my flute and like trying to have the right position. And another time I saw him play amazing tonguing, amazing, perfect sound. And it was the first piece he played in a recital that he played with harpsichord. Did he tune to the harpsichord? No. The audience applauded and he came out, applause, applause and he go [flute playing] and he just played this beautiful tonguing really, really fast entrance with the perfect sound. With no test notes, no nothing. The effect on the audience was like he goes, clap, clap, clap, clap, [singing], you could feel the audience go, oh, you know, it’s just a simple little sonata that Mozart wrote when he was like, eight, supposedly, but it was such a wild sound, to hear the flute sound that perfect out of nowhere. So 18 year old me, 20 year old or 19, something like that. I just thought like, oh, man, I have to be able to do that. So I would leave my flute out on a table. And I would just walk by my flute, doo doo doo doo doo doo doo [flute playing]. I taught myself to pick the flute up and play immediately, rather than play, you know, 45 minutes of long tones in order to get that sound. And when I saw a great musician, playing other instruments, who I admired, I felt they had this sort of amazing, great detachment from their instruments. They didn’t look like they were strapping themselves into their instruments to play, so I learned to like [flute playing] you see me breathing? I’m doing my breathing as I’m picking the flute up, see this? I’m playing the Poulenc Sonata.

Did I do this? Nope. I lifted the flute up. I tried to play with no hesitation. I tried to breathe with me picking the flute up. And I think that’s just such an amazing thing. You can even do things like this. I bet you, you can do this in an audition. I bet you can go like, why if you teach yourself to do that, and you’re playing like [flute playing], some long phrase like that, you could probably go [pause], you could be counting, you could say may we hear William Tell? [flute playing]

You see what I did, I breathed as I was picking the flute up, and I sort of counted [singing], like that. I was counting and you could hear in my breathing, you can hear this. Then it sounds like the flute sound comes out of nowhere. So that’s the kind of like, detachment you have from instrument. I feel like what happens a lot is people say, well, you know, you have to be like ready for anything. So being ready means there’s a perfect position for holding your instrument. And then, okay, yeah, then you’re building into you’re playing, a kind of static position. That’s what I love with string players so much. It’s like you guys have, and pianists, but string player, you guys have built in, not static position. You know, there’s this spatial aspect to point during instruments is so good. And I think there’s a weirdly spatial aspect to playing even these instruments that have buttons on them. You know, like, it looks like wow, you don’t have to worry about shifting or anything like that. You just use the button. But actually, if you watch my hands [flute playing]

My hands have a sort of like choreography through them as I’m playing. One thing of one group violin player I know, told me was, I think her teacher was Oscar Shumsky or somebody, do you know him? He was saying, here’s the violin, here’s the bow and I’m bowing the violin. This is up-bow and this is down-bow, but there’s an aspect of violin playing, it’s like you’re down-bowing, and then the violin could be going away as you down-bow and then you’re up-bowing and the violin could be coming towards you, right? So you’re bowing partially with the violin against the bow, not the bow against the violin. And I think on a flute, I would say flutes more related to violin than you would imagine, wouldn’t you say? How would that be? What? My right hand looks very distinctly like a bow arm doesn’t that. And then I actually think the flute, there’s a way, the way the things you want to do with your air or the things you want to do with your lips [flute playing].

Do you see me pulling a flute, you can see my lip changing. So am I moving my lips? Not really. I’m moving my lips with my flute. My flute is kind of pulling my lip across my face [flute playing].

You could say that that’s some sort of embouchure control, but there’s an aspect of controlling my embouchure. I’m controlling my embouchure with flute itself, not simply, embouchure ???.

You know, in a way it sounds like I mean, even with this question of how to practice breathing, sounds like a lot of it comes back to what we started talking about, which is observing, and trying to emulate and really borrowing and stealing aspects of skills that other people are doing. And being more keenly aware, therefore, as we try to emulate what we are doing and what results we’re getting, and how it feels and so forth. And, and yeah, I mean, nowadays, with, with everything that’s available on YouTube…

The amount of video, I mean, I felt super lucky that I got to see Rampal play, like I don’t know how many times because he was playing tons of concerts, and I went through every one I could. But once I started to be able to buy a video cassette of him playing and I could see him on video, I was like, oh my God, I don’t know whether I would have learned many things I’m showing that I’m talking about. I didn’t learn that from like, I have wonderful teachers, but even then, I think what I learned from my teacher, I think what I learned from Nyfenger so much was that he had a huge record collection. And he was very observant about what he heard on recordings, and he would imitate people so beautifully on the flute. And I think he taught me how to hear music, and how to emulate people. So I think that’s what I’m trying to do 2022 style with all this video information. I feel like people hear recordings, or they watch people play, but they don’t necessarily pick out, you know. I feel like I can help them observe things. My so-called techniques are their techniques, but they’re kind of observations of what people do. And once you start putting the pieces together, you say, whoa, you know, this person is doing this with a flute, but this person’s also doing a similar thing with a violin. And this person is going out with a piano with hands or going into the piano but his back is opening up the way like that. And then you might like a different type of sounds than another person, that’s great. But just to have the idea that you, by observation, can create your own understanding of technique.



14:11 – Here’s that Jean-Pierre Rampal performance on The Muppet Show that Keith mentioned: Jean-Pierre Rampal – The Little Shepherd

More insights from Keith

There are lots of interviews and master classes with Keith online, but below are two videos that I enjoyed, with particularly relevant insights for flutists and other wind/brass players, but non-flutists like Glenn Gould also come up, so I think you’ll find that there are principles that are applicable to other instruments as well. And if nothing else, it’ll increase your appreciation and empathy for the unique challenges that your flute colleagues face, which can be a really good thing too. 😅

  • Keith Underwood – Flute Perspectives & Exercises – Part 1 (more conceptual)
  • Keith Underwood – Flute Perspectives & Exercises – Part 2 (more specific and applied)

Where to find Keith

You can contact Keith via his Mannes or NYU faculty pages. And also find him via Facebook or Instagram.

Photo credit for header photo: Marcos Kiehl; street signs by Stephanie McNabb.

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4 Responses

  1. Thank you for share the video. Its probably my favorite interview of yours, and one of all that I’ve readed about music. Period. When I was reading and listening I was thinking tha Id love to see Underwood explaining diferent things.
    Thank you!!!

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