Sometime toward the beginning of each year I give my intermediate classes a voice lesson, which I will then reference and reinforce throughout the rest of the year. I always begin with breathing. You will probably want to be wearing slacks for this lesson. You will need a book.
1. Have the students sit in a large circle. Explain to them that “many people seem to have the idea that the best way to take a deep breath is to expand the chest while sucking in the stomach. But did you know that your lungs don’t just sit in your chest? They extend all the way down into your upper abdomen, so that to get the most air possible you actually need to relax your abdominal muscles instead of constricting them. Think of your lungs as balloons. When the air goes into a balloon it needs to get bigger, but if you’re sucking in your stomach, your lungs can’t expand. Let me show you what I mean. I’m going to lie on my back with a book on my abdomen, and I would like you to keep your eye on the book and see how it moves when I inhale and exhale.”
There is a big push on vocabulary this year in our school district. I’ve always used correct vocabulary with the kids: abdomen, expand, constrict, inhale, exhale, breath support. I guess maybe this year my vocab usage might be extra helpful. Anyway, once you’ve given the explanation and the demonstration, ask for a few volunteers to try it. The book should rise when the student inhales, and recede when he/she exhales. I like to hold my hand above the book so they can see when the book touches my palm that it actually is rising and falling as they breathe. I allow as many students as I can the opportunity to try it, one at a time, as the others watch. ( This is our version of displaying student work.). Eventually the group will start to get antsy. At that point I instruct them to find their own spot on the floor where they can lie on their back without touching or bothering anyone else. Here they can take a moment to lay one hand gently on their abdomens and practice correct breathing technique.
2. Still lying on their backs, the students should raise their arms above their heads. This will pull their chest up far enough to make it difficult for them to chest breathe. Have them take an abdominal breath or two from this position. Be careful to leave time between breaths. Hyperventilating wouldn’t be a good thing. :0)
3. Have the students stand up and raise their arms over their heads, just as they did when they were lying on their backs, then bring their arms down so that their chest remains lifted, but their shoulders are relaxed. I demonstrate at this point how strangulating chest breathing can be, by showing them what not to do, with a bit of exaggeration. In college I was always warned not to show kids the wrong way of doing something, but I have found it quite useful as a way of helping them know what mistakes to watch out for. Of course, I show them the right way to do it immediately.
4. Now the students need to put their new knowledge to use, by singing an extended phrase in one breath. The warm up, “red leather, yellow leather” can be used for this purpose.
5. The next thing we tackle is breath support. I place my palm on my abdomen and again ask the students to watch it, just as they watched the book. On “ah” I sing 5 quick middle C’s, each time using my abdominal muscles to visibly support the sound. ( Lots of giggles when they see this.) This exercise will take quite a bit of practice for some, and they might not all get it right away.
6. Sustained support. I take a good singers breath, palm on my abdomen so they can see what I’m doing, and sing ” O’er the land of the free” from the Star Spangled Banner. I also have them take note of how wide I open my mouth. One way to give them an idea how far they need to open is to have them place 3 fingers between their teeth. Take note that as you sing the phrase your hand should visibly move in toward your spine, showing how the abdominal muscles support the sound. This is a great time to teach or review The Star Spangled Banner, since it takes good vocal technique to sing it well.
All of this may well take most to all of your class period. I haven’t even touched on head voice and chest voice. From the time they are little they constantly hear me saying “Don’t yell!”, “Use your higher, lighter voice.”. I give regular demonstrations of the difference between head and chest voice. They hear so many performers that belt, that some of them automatically try to sing that way, and need to be taught to recognize where their voice breaks and respect it. By 3rd grade I stop using the description, ” higher, lighter voice”, and calling it by its name: head voice.