by Patricia George
Even though you are in the middle of marching season, these five exercises will not only improve your band’s competition scores but will prepare your ensemble for the concert season. These exercises are designed to take only a few minutes of rehearsal time but the payoff will be huge. It may take one rehearsal to teach all these concepts, but you will find that once learned they may be practiced in a very short period of time.
Breathing is the most natural thing we do. If we did not do it properly, we would not be alive. Become aware of what natural breathing is and how tension-free it can be is a skill we want to bring to our instrumental performance. The goal is learn to organize the breath so that we can make a beautiful sound and play expressively. Good alignment (notice I did not say posture as the word posture implies a stiffness a la marching soldiers to some students) is necessary for good breathing. When standing, the shoulders should be aligned over hips and the hips aligned over ankles. When sitting, the shoulders are aligned over the hips and in both cases the head is balanced on the spine.
Students who play instruments which are in front of them (oboe, clarinet, trumpet) sit with the back of their chairs parallel to the music stand. Students who play instruments off to one side (flute, bassoon, horn, trombone, tuba) turn their chairs 45 degrees to the right. Once seated normally in the chair they will torque the upper body to the left. In the case of the flute the alignment will be player’s nose, aperture, embouchure hole of flute, the crease in left elbow, left knee, and left big toe pointing to the center of the music stand with the lower body and right leg off to the right. If standing, the left foot is placed toward 12:00 and the right foot toward 2:30-3:00. In a perfect bandroom setting, each musician should have his own music stand and ample space around him to have good alignment.
Borrow a skeleton from the anatomy lab or purchase a set of anatomical drawings for your classroom. As you teach the breathing process, refer to the skeleton or drawings so the students know exactly where everything is in their bodies. We breathe by taking in through the nose and the mouth. The air passes through the pharynx which is also a passage way for food. Then the air passes through the larynx or voice box on into the lungs. If you are eating, the epiglottis closes off the larynx and the food bypasses the larynx and goes into the stomach rather than the lungs. You can remember this cross-section of the neck in alphabetical order: air, food, and spine. Many musicians breathe more naturally when they realize that the breath is traveling just under the skin in the front of the neck on its way through the larynx, the trachea and on into the lungs. The rib cage is formed by the spine, the ribs, and the sternum. Each pair of ribs is joined at the vertebrae of the spine. The lungs are located just above the collarbone on the top and at the floating ribs on the bottom. Most students are surprised at how high the lungs are placed in their bodies.
The intercostal muscles lay between the ribs and help move the rib cage. The diaphragm is a bell-shaped sheet of muscle that separates the lungs from the abdomen. As the diaphragm contracts, it moves down allowing the size of the chest cavity to increase. This added space reduces the air pressure in the chest. Air then rushes into the lungs to equalize the pressure. The diaphragm then relaxes and moves up. Then the chest cavity contracts and the air pressure in the lungs is increased. Remember though that breathing is controlled subconsciously by the respiratory center at the base of the brain. You cannot voluntarily move your diaphragm. The diaphragm moves involuntarily. For this reason, I would not say, “Breathe from your diaphragm to a student” because this is incorrect.
For years I have heard band directors tell students, “Open your throat.” Perhaps the better, more accurate instruction should be, “Separate your vocal folds (larynx).” To teach this concept, have the student pant. Notice the vocal folds are separated on both the intake and the exhale of air. This is the position the vocal folds should be in when playing in order to produce a beautiful, full sound. So, exchange the words "open your throat" with "separate your vocal folds."