When I was teaching in a classroom I was always on the lookout for fun and interesting ways to teach my bands and really engage the students. While team teaching a middle school band we were trying to figure out a fun and new way to teach our kids about breathing and some breathing exercises that would be really memorable and really get the kids engaged. I thought about my college marching band experience and the breathing we would do to warm up for practice. Our drum major called it “Hans and Frans” because we were getting “pumped up.” With this in mind one of my partner teachers and I decided that the kids would enjoy a visit from Hans and Franz. Here’s how to recreate this lesson for yourself: If possible, find another teacher to do this with you, it really works best with two, but it is doable with just you. Think about combining with your choir (or other musical or performing arts groups). Wear some baggy sweats, or a muscle suit, and use your best German, “tough-guy” accent. Choose 4-6 breathing exercises you want to teach and practice with the kids. Enter the classroom in a disruptive manner and announce “I am Hans” “Und I am Franz” (together) “Und ve are here to pump *clap* you up.” Follow this up with an explanation about shallow and deep breathing and by demonstrating it, making sure to exaggerate moving your shoulders for shallow breathing and your stomach for deep breathing. Then have the students stand and go through the exercises you have chosen with them. Take time to watch the students do the breathing exercises and be sure to help them feel and understand the difference between deep breathing and shallow breathing. Remind them to allow their stomachs to move, not their shoulders. This is when it comes in handy to have two of you teaching. One teacher can be demonstrating the exercises and doing them with the kids while the other is roaming the room and pointing out any issues students may be having. Some ways to help students recognize when they are breathing incorrectly are having them place their hands on their stomachs, laying on the floor (on their backs or face down) and feeling the movement, or partnering them up and having one student gently place their hands on the others’ shoulders as a reminder not to move them. Some of my favorite breathing exercises to use with this lesson are as follows:
- Rag Doll: This exercise can be done both standing and sitting. It is performed by bending at the waist (if sitting the torso should touch the tops of the legs, standing one only needs to bend as far as they can without hurting themselves or feeling any kind of stretch, 90-degrees is usually a good benchmark). Then one takes in four sips of air. After each ship the person(s) raises the torso one quarter of the way to being upright– thus after the first breath the person is still mostly bent over, after two breaths the person is half way up, after 3 breaths most of the way up, and after 4 breaths the person is fully upright. Upon becoming fully upright the person(s) exhale all their air and flop over like a rag doll. This exercise tends to be somewhat more effective when sitting because it allows the person(s) to feel if they are breathing correctly as their stomach will touch their thighs as they inhale the first and second sips of air. It also provides a sort of measuring stick for how full one should feel after breathing deeply and after exhaling well.
- Measured breathing: This is another exercise that provides a sort of measuring stick for a good, deep breath. This is done in sets of eight beats, seven beats, and six beats and must be performed standing with plenty of space between people. The person(s) doing this exercise should use a metronome set at 60-70 bpm. The person(s) then inhale for six beats while raising the arms to meet above the head in a smooth motion, then exhales for six beats while lowering the arms. Repeat this same motion for seven beats and eight beats, then reverse (eight, seven, six). The trick is to not move the arms in a jerky or clock-like motion, but to keep the movement continuous and smooth.
- Dynamic breathing: This exercise can be performed sitting, but is best done while standing. Person(s) performing this exercise try to create a forte (loud) stream of air, a mezzo forte (medium) stream of air, and a piano (soft) stream of air with different visualizations for each. For forte the person visualizes shooting a bow and arrow and the steady stream of air is what keeps the arrow on target. The person puts both arms up in front of them right hand on top of left hand and, while keeping the left hand steady, pulls the right arm band as if drawing the arrow back. When the right hand gets near the person’s face the right hand releases the “arrow” and exhales a fast, voluminous, and steady stream of air that will keep the arrow flying straight. For mezzo forte the visualization is a dart. This is done by placing the person’s throwing hand about ear or shoulder height, pulling it back, and quickly flinging it forward, as if throwing a dart. The air stream should be less voluminous than the arrow, but strong and steady enough to carry the “dart.” Lastly is the piano air and the visualization is a paper air plane. The motion is the same as that of the dart, but with a more gentle release. Again, the exhale needs to be steady, but gentle to carry the paper air plane on a straight course. With each exercise the exhale can be measured by setting a count goal such as having all the air out in 8 counts, or by having a contest to see who can sustain a steady stream of air longest.
- Resisted breathing: This is an excellent exercise to teach students about back-pressure and wind resistance from their instruments. This exercise is begun by pushing out all air from the lungs, this will require use of the abdominal muscles to push the diaphragm up and all the air out. Then students immediately inhale for a predetermined number of beats (60-70 bpm), four is a good place to start. This inhale should fill the lungs to their full capacity. Then the person(s) performing the exercise should take four more sips of air, in time, then hold the air for four beats. At the end of the four beats the air is expelled in a hiss with the teeth together to produce resistance. The exhale can be done to a set number of beats or as a contest to see who can exhale longest.
There are many more breathing exercises that can be found online or in the excellent book, “Breathing Gym,” these arejust a few that are very effective and fun for kids. The students really enjoy a change in pace and getting up out of their seats for a few minutes out of a long day of sitting. Hans and Franz can really take the formal feeling out of a classroom and make learning to breathe well a lot of fun. Plus, students remember Hans and Frans well, so the lesson sticks with them longer than a boring lecture.