Breath support is fundamental to good vocal practice in the classroom. Without sufficient breath support many teachers find that they can’t be heard as they literally cannot make a big enough sound for the space they are in or additional background sounds they are competing with. Many teachers then find themselves compensating by increasing the tension in their neck in order to ‘push’ out more sound – this can put pressure on the larynx which houses the vocal folds, and damage them leading to soreness or loss of the voice, or even long term complications.
Good breath support is also vital for projection and it’s well documented that increasing the air intake can naturally lower our stress levels: therefore, breath support can help us sound less emotional as well as actually becoming less emotional!
The parts of the body involved in breath support are the diaphragm (the band of muscle underneath the lungs) and the intercostal muscles (which run around the lungs, in between our ribs).
Freeing the breath and connecting with the diaphragm (belly breathing) is vital for breath support. Many people carry so much tension in their stomachs that they cannot access their diaphragm at all.
Here are some exercises for releasing tension in the diaphragm and intercostal muscles, as well as to strengthen them in preparation for classroom practice.
Lie on your back (feet flat on floor, knees pointing to the ceiling, arms by the sides or resting on your belly) for 20-30 mins. If your neck feels uncomfortable try putting something underneath it – a small cushion or a folded-up jumper. Allow tension to release from your body as you lie – bring your attention mindfully to different areas in the body where you might store tension. Allow your hand to rest on your tummy and feel the movement up and down of your breath. Don’t force your breath or try to make it do anything special, just allow gravity to naturally let the tension melt out of your lower back, shoulders and belly. By the end you might find your belly rising and falling naturally as your diaphragm releases. Aim to do this several times a week.
Stand up, weight evenly over your feet. Lift one arm up and over and stay here for a few breaths – really breath into the ribs. Then come to centre and repeat on the other side.
Bend the knees and wrap your hand around so you can feel your back. Lean forward slightly and breathe deeply into your back ribs.
Aim to do these rib stretches every day.
Standing, weight evenly over your feet, breathe deeply into your stomach. Breathe in for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, out for 4 counts on an ‘s’ sound. Keep repeating, building the outbreath in measures of 4:
In for 4, hold for 4, out for 4.
In for 4, hold for 4, out for 8.
In for 4, hold for 4, out for 12.
Practice this a few times a week. Aim to increase slowly as you feel your breath capacity strengthening.
By Sarah Bedi and Catherine Bailey, co-Artistic Directors of BAZ Productions
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