Dance + Physics = Better Flutists

On a recent February afternoon, anyone entering the dance building would have encountered a puzzling scene: a dozen Academy flutists wearing exercise clothes and working with Academy dance instructor Nicola Conraths while the Academy physics instructor, Taoufik Nadji, stood nearby with a microphone and laptop. Nancy Stagnitta, instructor of flute at the Academy, watched the scene with great interest. The effort was one part flute lesson, one part wellness exercise and one part physics experiment. But everyone in the room was trying to answer the same question: just exactly how does body alignment and proper breath control affect a flute’s sound quality?

The question first came up during a lunchtime conversation between Stagnitta and Conraths about the connection and interaction between body and instrument. From years of teaching and performing, Stagnitta knew that differences in the body alter the sound quality of the flute. A yoga student herself for many years, it was while working with a physical therapist after an automobile accident that she serendipitously realized just how much even the slightest adjustments to alignment and playing posture effect sound and breath control. This idea has remained a focus of Stagnitta’s teaching, as well as her own playing. “A great flutist uses the body as an instrument, and must connect to the flute itself with a balance of appropriate strength and natural ease.”

The topic of body-instrument connection also held special interest for Conraths who taught a wellness class for musicians and had published articles in the Journal of Medical Problems of Performing Artists. During her work with musicians, she noticed how rigorous practice could take physical toll on musicians, causing them to perform beneath their potential. “The musicians I work with often have shoulder pain and injuries associated with muscle fatigue,” she explained. “Many instrumentalists hunch over and compress their chest and lungs. It must have adverse effects on their playing”

With their interests piqued, the two Academy instructors began to consider collaborating. If Conraths could do a postural analysis with each flute student and lead them through a series of specific exercises, perhaps students would understand more fully that the most effective flute practice does not always involve the flute. While they both liked the idea, they were eager for verification; if only there was a way to approach the effort more like an experiment with hard data, as opposed to a subjective idea like tone quality.

Stagnitta and Conraths took their question to Taoufik Nadji who quickly and enthusiastically joined the effort. Because he is surrounded by musicians, Nadji invests more time, effort and resources to the study of sound than a typical physics teacher. Whenever possible, he scoops up new scientific instruments and software to analyze sound and uses these tools to teach musicians about their medium of sound. Because the characteristics of sound are indeed measureable, Nadji hoped that he could help design an experiment that would generate, compare, and analyze the sonograms and spectra of each student’s recorded flute pieces before and after a prescribed regime of physical exercises. He also hypothesized that richer color, finer timbre, and higher quality in the tone would be associated with either the presence of more harmonics or higher intensity of the already present harmonics. With Nadji’s guidance the group began to design a scientific experiment that would test their hypotheses.

On the day of the experiment, all the students gathered and Conraths examined students’ posture. As she expected, most of the flutists’ left shoulders were higher. After a group warm-up, three students then recorded playing octave slurs, first without vibrato and then with vibrato, both in seated and standing positions. Then the students underwent a carefully designed and timed “treatment” of exercises focusing on chest expansion, spinal articulation and elongation, and core strengthening among activities. Nadji recorded the same group of students after the treatment.

The early results were promising. Conraths observed that the treatments made a visually noticeable difference to the students’ posture and alignment. And while Stagnitta expected the students to feel more open and relaxed while playing, she was surprised when they immediately noticed a difference in the sound, even without referring to the sound measurements. “It was so enlightening to see how posture and balance go hand in hand with flute playing,” one student later wrote. “I was surprised to see how long term flute playing affects our bodies.”

“While we still have analysis to do on our experiment, many of the benefits of this collaboration to the flute students at Interlochen are already perfectly clear,” said Stagnitta. “They have a much deeper understanding that proper body alignment results in greater lung capacity and breath control, more varied tone color, more solid resonance through the effective use of internal resonating chambers, and more ease in the execution of technique. Ultimately all these elements lead to greater artistic freedom.”

Beyond the artistic benefits, both Conraths and Stagnitta see health benefits. Conraths noted that these exercises prevent injuries that sometimes come with long hours in the practice room. “Techniques like these have been used for years to prevent injuries in sports and dance. They can do the same in music. And based on what we have seen, we know that they can actually improve performance too.”

Although Nadji is still analyzing more of the acoustic data he gathered, students and faculty have walked away with many valuable lessons. It is also clear that there are few places in the world, certainly at the high school level, where students and faculty could successfully pull off such an experiment. As Nadji explained: “only at Interlochen could you find a dance instructor, a flute instructor, and a physics instructor analyzing sonograms and spectra of recorded music for three hours … and having a blast while doing so!”

Share: