Bucket-list breathing

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This is a dual purpose post. Its first aim is to fulfil a request to explain an approach to breathing taught by Jim Henry at the LABBS Directors Weekend 3 years ago for someone who wasn’t at it. Its second is to reflect on my experience teaching that approach to others, from which I have drawn some wider conclusions about teaching.

So, first to the method. Dr Jim called this 1-2-3 breathing, as it focuses your attention to breathing in 3 stages. First, you breathe in down to the bottom of your lungs, letting your waist and lower ribs expand (1), then to the middle of your chest allowing your ribs and mid-back widen (2), then finally top up beneath your breast-bone (3). So far, so good, you think, this will get a nice full, deep breath and prevent clavicular breathing.

The bit I particularly love about this approach, though, comes next: you let the air out (whether breathing or singing) in the same order it came in. So you use the air at the bottom of your lungs first, squeezing your waist in (1), then your mid-chest, allowing your ribs to contract (2), and then use the top-up under the breast-bone last (3). This guarantees that you keep your support in play right to the end of the breath, and prevents that visible deflation of posture you sometimes see towards the ends of phrases.

Now, like many people who learned this from Dr Jim back in 2015, I had gone straight out and shared with singers I was working with at the time. But it’s not a method that immediately became an integral part of my toolkit as I found quite a few singers responded to it with some confusion. It pulled them into their over-thinking, technical brains in a way that didn’t immediately gel with their experience of singing hitherto.

The method came back to me last year, though, when I was working with a group of children who were singing with quite extreme clavicular breathing, with its usual effect on quality of tone and capacity to sustain a phrase. From a technical perspective, it was exactly what they needed.

These children, however, as well as unhelpful breathing habits, had somewhat unhelpful rehearsal habits. The idea of waiting quietly to receive instruction was not an ingrained part of their culture (mild understatement). They were lovely I hasten add – friendly and keen – but it was clearly going to need a more vivid image than 1-2-3 to hold their attention long enough to get a decent breath into them.

So, in the spontaneity of the moment, my brain suggested I told them that stage 1 was a bucket, stage 2 a cup, and stage 3 a teaspoon. I remain convinced that I got this imagery from someone else, but I have no idea from whom – if it was you make yourself known so that I can thank you!

The concrete imagery had several advantages over simple numbering, not least of which was that it caught the imaginations of the children and thus engaged their willingness to enter into the exercise. The relative size of the receptacles named gives extra information that numbers don’t: not just that you can fit in more air to the bottom of your lungs than then top, but that proportionately the differences are significant. Thus, if someone breathes into the top of the chest, you can point out that they’ve put their bucket on top of the cup and it’s going to fall over. Apparently this is very funny.

The thing that stayed with me afterwards was this: I used this imagery because it was clear the more abstract approach wasn’t going to connect with this group of children. But actually, it’s also really useful for working with adults, and I have used it considerably more often since then than I did before. Indeed, I find it easier to apply the technique myself since recasting it in this form.

This is partly about finding your own teaching style. I’m good with imagery; it makes sense that recasting something abstract into something more metaphorical is going help me be more successful in using it. But I don’t think it’s just me. Even if you are someone who likes sequential labels, the extra information that the images convey are salient and useful in applying the technique.

Either way, though, it is a reminder that if someone teaches you something and it doesn’t immediately work for you, it is always worth parking it in the back of your head for later. You never know when it may come in handy.

(I realise I have now validated all those people who keep boxes full of random clutter against future necessity. Having recently embarked on the task of clearing out my parents’ home, I’d add the caveat that if you’ve had it since 1976 and not used it yet, you can probably get rid of it.)

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