I’ve been ranting on about breathing for a few weeks here and have yet to mention posture and its effects on breathing and learning.  So, let’s talk posture.

First, picture a typical kid and how they sit.  I bet you’re picturing something that looks a bit like one of these…

kid photos.demandstudios.com_getty_article_81_68_78036358_XS

Am I right?  Now, take away the desk and maybe put a noisemaker in the kids’ hands…  You get a music student, especially the image on the left.  So how does slouching affect breathing, and learning?  Let me tell you…

Poor posture restricts air movement through the body by restricting the lungs’ ability to properly expand, the trachea’s ability to let air in and out, and the blood vessels’ ability to move oxygenated air through the body.

So first off we must ask what good posture is.  One of the best references to figuring this out is to take a look at babies and toddlers.  Why is it that the youngest among us seem to be the best references for healthy behavior?  Because they don’t know anything else.  Babies and toddlers breathe, sit, stand, walk, and eat in the way their bodies, and ours, are designed to do all these things.  They have not been taught that good posture is “uncomfortable” or “tense.”  No one has told them to suck in their tummy so as to not look fat when they breathe.  They just do what comes naturally and the slouching and shallow breathing are taught to them later by our bad examples.  Check out the comparison…

toddler-with-innate-natural-posture 2014-11-27_18-04-33_328

See how the standing baby’s spine and hips are aligned?  See how straight the seated baby’s back is?  They are both demonstrating good, natural posture.  These are both ideal learning and breathing positions.  This is what we’re shooting for– well aligned spine and pelvis for optimum alertness and lung/abdomen expansion without tension in the neck and shoulders.

So how does bad posture affect breathing?  Poor posture such as seen in the first two pictures compress the lungs, throat, and abdominal areas.  This is obviously bad for breathing because that’s where good breathing takes place.  With the chest and abdomials compressed the balloons that are your lungs can’t expand properly because they are limited.  With the throat compressed it is more difficult for air to even get down to the lungs to fill and empty them.  But when in a natural upright position, either seated or standing, the lungs and abdominals are free to expand to the fullest of their capacity and with no kinks in the throat and trachea air is able to move freely in and out.  When students are in an upright position and breathing well their minds are clearer and they are less prone to day dreaming and dstudent-chairrowsiness thus increasing attention spans and involvement in learning.

I think it’s obvious how this helps in the music classroom, but the resounding question is how to teach and enforce proper posture to support breathing.  Many music classrooms are equipped with “posture chairs” that are made to enforce upright posture when seated with the back and bottom against the back of the chair and the feet on the floor, but do these really promote the best posture for breathing?  The answer is sometimes.  If students sit in them properly and have their music stands at a proper height they can help promote better posture and therefore better breathing.  But there’s a lot of “if’s” in there, IF they sit properly, IF their stand is at a proper height, IF, IF, IF…

As a teacher one of the best tools in your toolbox is your example.  If you sit while you conduct demonstrate good posture.  If your students ever see you sitting at a desk, sit properly, when you are standing stand upright, not hunched.  if your students ever see you play demonstrate good posture and music stand height.  While teaching enforce good posture rigorously.  Insist that students sit properly in their posture chairs, or if you don’t have those insist that they not slouch.  Make sure they are placing their feet flat on the floor, no crossed legs or ankles, and help them find proper stand height and position so they don’t have to hunch to read their music.  Teach students stretches that help improve posture as well.  These can be done as brain breaks, just like breathing exercises.

Here are some great stretches:

While seated extend one leg forward and lean the torso forward at about a 45-degree angle with the spine straight, hold for 30 seconds and switch legs.
While standing turn the palms forward and stretch the arms downward.Standing or seated clasp the hands behind the back and stretch the arms upwards to feel a stretch in the chest and arms, hold for 30 seconds.
There are many more stretches that are excellent for posture, but some aren’t exactly easy to do in a classroom, unless your classroom is a gym.  These are just a few that are easy to do with limited space.

Good posture leads to better breathing, better attention, less drowsiness, and less day dreaming thus creating a better learning environment and more music making in your music classroom.


Brain Breaks

Brain-Break_4529620_lrgBrain breaks are a concept familiar to elementary school teachers, but not exactly something in the toolbox of high school and junior high teachers.  With so many tests and so little time we seem to get it into our heads that we don’t have enough time to teach our content, let alone take breaks.  But what if there was a way to teach content and have breaks?

Breathing instruction can take on this task. In classrooms with younger students brain breaks are used to refresh the brain, allow students time to move, and can make transitioning from one subject to another easier.  Brain breaks are scientific and research proven to be good for students and improve learning.

Did you know that the average attention span for a child can be determined by using their age?  Science has found a formula to determine an average attention span for learning activities.  This formula is the students’ age+1.  So a kid in kindergarten that is 6-years-old has an attention span of 7 minutes.  Or, for middle school and high school purposes  The attention span ranges from about 12 minutes to roughly 20 minutes.

That means that, during an average class time of 60 minutes even the oldest student in your classroom will lose their attention up to three times!  It can take up to 5 minutes to gain back that attention once its gone.  You know you’ve seen it happen, you rehearse a piece, stopping several times to correct issues, replay, fix more issues, and after about ten minutes the talking and fidgeting seem to increase exponentially and you hit a brick wall with the piece.  So what do you do?  You switch pieces, you give up.

I submit that there is a way to combat the brick wall and get more done on a single piece (or multiple pieces) in one class period, breathing brain breaks!

So how can we combat this with breathing?  Simple, take brain breaks with breathing exercises.  I know it sounds crazy, and maybe even counter productive, but stick with me.  Proper breathing and movement help refresh the brain.  So for these brain breaks it is best to use exercises that allow the students a chance to get up out of their chairs.  Some great exercises for this are the Ragdoll, Measured Breathing, and dynamic breathing, but any exercise can be incredibly effective while standing.

Time it, rehearse for 15 minutes, then take a 3 minute brain break with some breathing.  Have students place their instruments somewhere safe, on or under their chair is usually good, then stand and spread a little.  Do a quick breathing exercise, get some wiggles out, then sit them back down and go back to what you were doing before.  You will be amazed at the difference in productivity.  This is also great for between pieces, one of the best ways to use brain breaks as a transition is to instruct students before the break on what will be coming next, this way they can sit down and retrieve anything necessary for the next song or subject.

This teaching strategy can be used in general ed classrooms as well.  Good breathing clears the mind and supports clearer and more productive thinking.  Imagine if you taught your 7th-grade algebra class to breathe properly and took short breathing breaks between subjects of instruction and work.  It would increase understanding, engagement, and productivity, not to mention wake up the sleepers.  In an elementary classroom this would help release some of the notorious wiggles and wake up those cute little kiddos to engage their minds more fully.

Try it, it works. Get those kids up and breathing every 15 minutes and teach them so much more.  Teach them proper breathing and teach them more music.  Use their average attention spans to your advantage and get more done!  It can’t hurt to try it, but you can’t try it just once and expect results, you have to try it for at least two weeks to really see the difference.  It can’t hurt to give it a try.bc764ac41a4ec4cfca7c75b3e720ec68

Hans und Franz

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 anhans-and-franznounce “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:

  1. Rag Doll:  This exercise cafull_4200_6981_SarahClothRagDollPatternSoftToy_1n 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Dynamic breathing:  This exercise can be performed sitting, but is best done while standing.  Person(s) performing unnamedthis 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.
  4. 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.


Oxygen.  We all need it, we all know how important it is, and it is particularly vital to musicians (if you’re a string player or percussionist you can tune out now, though proper breathing is good for your health in general).  As music teachers we preach about the importance of proper breathing and air support, but are we really teaching it?

Keep-calm-and-BreatheI submit that many of us are not.

Every brass player needs air to make their horn work.  Every woodwind instrument needs air to make their horn work too.  And guess what, every singer needs air to make their instrument work just as much as the brass and winds.  Now voices work a little differently than instruments, but many of these principles will still apply.

First and foremost we need to get “skinny breathing” out of kids heads, especially the girls.  I call it this because kids feel pressure to look good and being “skinny” is one of the ways kids feel they can look good, girls especially struggle with this thinking.  “Skinny breathing” is the shallow breathing that only utilizes the top part of the lungs and moves the shoulders when you breathe.  Give it a try, Think about how you take a breath and pay attention to the parts of your anatomy that move when you do so.  If your shoulders and upper chest are the primary movers you are “skinny breathing,” if your abdomen expands, followed by your chest you are breathing much deeper, using more of your lung capacity, and causing your diaphragm to move.  This is a much better way to breathe.  Breathing this way fills the lungs, supplies more oxygen to the brain and the blood stream, and provides significantly more air for playing an instrument or singing.  Watch a baby breathe, this is how they do it.  Unfortunately, somewhere along the way we forget how to breathe this way, or maybe it is taught to us, either way it is a shame.

PUL_diaphragm_breathingGood breathing can not only improve instrumental playing and singing, but health as well.  Proper breathing has been found to decrease stress and anxiety, improve brain function, balance, digestion, and so much more. 1

So how do we teach this to our students?  It’s simple…  breathing exercises.

Teaching breathing exercises can provide necessary movement for kinesthetic learners, improve student playing (singing), provide “brain breaks” for tired or disengaged students, and cross-curriculum teaching opportunities (P.E./health).  There are so many resources for breathing exercises, but one of my all-time favorites is Breathing Gym.  There is a book and DVD set available on amazon or through many other sources, but you can also find videos for Breathing Gym on YouTube (like the one below).

Stick around over the next few weeks for more on breathing, breathing exercises, and suggestions for how to incorporate this into your teaching.

1- Breathing properly

2- Breathing like a baby

3-Exercises:  Calming , Flute, Fitness