Teaching English through Drama: Breathe in – and go for it!
In one of my previous activity sheets I took ‘breathing’ as a subject for a lesson or even for an entire unit. This time I want to concentrate on a specific technique that is used by actors and by singers to protect their vocal cords and enhance their vocal output, the so-called diaphragm breathing technique.
For professional singers and actors, this technique takes a long time to acquire properly.
But I will give you a simplified version; keep in mind as well that breathing is something most of us are able to do without even thinking about it.
In order for this activity to include language, I have added other exercises so you can have fun with the basics of the breathing technique you’ve just learned.
Reflections are, as always, optional for the lesson and can be written in workbooks or on computers, or communicated as discussions – for this activity it is good to ask how students have experienced it on a personal level.
It also lends itself well for making creative hand-outs with vocab lists that suit your learners’ level of English.
Maybe you think that this diaphragm technique is not necessary for your students or too difficult to get your head around; think again – it’s a fantastic way to focus and relax, and it will teach the students many new words if they haven’t mastered the vocabulary yet.
This activity is suitable for all ages, even young learners. You can also decide to use the beginning part of this exercise as a starting point for more of your lessons, as evidence is coming out recently that focus and meditational exercises at the beginning of classes help the students get more out of their learning.
So why wait? Once you’ve tried it out yourself, you will want to pass it on to others!
TOPIC – diaphragm breathing technique
For professional singers and actors, this technique takes a long time to acquire properly.
But I will give you a simplified version; keep in mind as well that breathing is something most of us are able to do without even thinking about it!
However, this technique makes sure that you use your lung capacity to the fullest, and that you support your voice by using this air in a measured way so you don’t damage your voice. For singers and actors this is obviously necessary, but even if you don’t sing or are on stage every night, you and your students can benefit from this technique.
If your students are only starting with English, go through a vocab list with them first, so they will understand your instructions. This list can include the names of body parts, and verbs that are associated with breathing and our breathing apparatus.
If the space in which you teach allows it, ask students to lie on the floor, otherwise they can do this sitting down or standing up. When lying down they can lie on a coat, or tuck their bag under their heads – or maybe your room has yoga-mats or cushions they can use. Tell your students that this exercise is very easy, but that they should listen carefully to your instructions to get the most out of this exercise. Some might fall asleep, as it can be very relaxing; I’ve had some snoring their way through the lesson…
They might get cold during the exercise, so ask them to put enough clothes on to keep warm – you don’t want anyone getting up in the middle of the exercise as this might distract others. The best thing is to take shoes off, but again, if this is not an option then allow them to keep shoes on.
Make sure they are not lying too close to each other, being able to make a ‘snow-angel’ on the floor is the best distance to have to your neighbour. If you have a short lesson it is better to do half of the technique than rush through the process. Take your time.
- Your students are lying down on the floor with their eyes closed. Legs should be slightly apart and not crossed, arms next to your body, but with a bit of space between body and arm. Some age groups need a bit of time to settle down and stop the giggling.
Start with the following instructions:
- Close your eyes and sense where your body is touching the floor. If you had paint on the back of your body, what would the painting look like if you were to get up.
- Check where there is any tension in your body: start with the feet. In order to relax first put tension into the feet: point them, hold, and relax. Calves, knees, thighs, buttocks, torso, upper arms, elbows, wrists, hands, finger by finger – see if they can find a way to slowly work up their body by putting stress in that part of the body, and then relaxing it. Last part of this exercise: the shoulders (pull them up next to your ears, then down again), the neck and the head (move head sideways, then make a face using all kinds of silly expressions). After this give them about 30 secs to re-establish their bodies and realise that they are nicely relaxed – and that perhaps the paint on the back of their bodies has now spread a bit!
- Now ask your students to listen to what they can hear in this silent room; sounds from outside, light-fittings making a sound, etc. This focuses them in order to start the next phase.
- Focus on Breathing.
- Tell your students to pay attention to how they’re breathing now, and after a few seconds, ask them to breath in through their nose, and out through their mouths – as if they’re gently blowing out a candle. If you have any students with breathing problems, like asthma or other problems, tell them to do as much as they can, but not push themselves. If anyone wants to take a deep breath, this is the time to do so.
- The inhalation should only come when it’s natural to do so, which usually means a slight pause between the exhalation and the next inhalation.
- Once you see that the students are breathing in and out in a calm fashion, go on to the next step.
- Beginning of the technique
- Imagine the air that you take in, is coloured red, or blue, or whatever colour you like. This stream of colour goes inside your nose, down to your lungs, but imagine it also going to your legs and your arms. Keep trying this and make sure the ‘coloured’ breath of air reaches the tips of your toes and fingers, and even the roots of your hair. It fills your entire body.
- Ask them to put one hand on their lower tummy: they can let their thumb rest in their belly-button, and let the rest of the hand spread out over their lower tummy.
- The ‘coloured’ air stream (if you want to get rid of the colour now, that’s fine too) needs to be directed towards the hand. Let them try this a few times: on the inhalation, imagine the stream of air going all the way to your hand and pushing it up. Your lower tummy can be like a balloon, getting rounder when more air comes in.
- On the exhalation, the air directs itself away from the hand, and exits the body through the mouth – a nice ‘pfffffffuh’ sound should be heard, but if the students are too shy, it’s alright without the sound.
- Just a bit of theory – Connecting this beginning to the Diaphragm Technique.
Your diaphragm separates the organs in your upper torso from the digestive organs in the lower body – it is a kind of strip of tissue attached to the insides of your body. Air can never go lower than the lungs, let alone lower than the diaphragm, so this technique is about imagination. We want to imagine we can fill the entire torso with air.
- Second step of the technique.
Now that you know how to direct your breath in towards your lower abdomen, you have taken the first step in this technique.
- On the next inhalation, ask your students to put the other hand next to their ribcage, not on the top but on the side, the flanks. Focus on the second step, so forget the lower abdomen for now.
- Allow the stream of air taken in to fill your ribcage – this is a sideways movement and never, ever should the shoulders go up in this part of the exercise.
- Now combine these two, so you extend the inhalation space in your body in two directions: first, down to the abdomen – fill that balloon outwards; secondly you get more air and fill your ribcage sideways, as if your ribcage is a big box that grows wider.
- Inhale – towards the hand on the lower abdomen – extend your tummy. Keep inhaling and breathe towards the hand next to your flanks, your ribcage – extend the ribcage sideways.
- Exhale: push the air out of your lower abdomen first, slowly (hand goes down) – then push the air out of your ribcage (hand goes in), and relax, wait until your body tells you to breathe in again.
- Repeat this way of breathing until it starts happening quite naturally.
- If you don’t get any further than this point, you’ve done a great job already in relaxing the mind and focusing on breathing, and even getting across some new vocabulary!
- You now have the following options:
- Ask your students to focus on how much more air they can hold in their body, and how much longer they are able to exhale, to blow out that imaginary candle.
- Making a sound – this is only for the very courageous students as most of the time people become quite shy when they have to made a sound when it’s not done together with the whole group. When they exhale, first start with a humming sound – just ‘Hmmmmm’ at a tone that’s most convenient for each individual.
- Extend the sound: if the humming sound has been successful for a good few exhalations, they can ‘open up’ the sound, which means start with the hum, but then open up to an ‘Ah’, or ‘Oh’, or ‘Eeh’. Humming first means that the vocal cords get a moment to prepare for the vowels, rather than blasting out a vowel, through which you can damage your voice.
- You could also ask you student to sit upright on a chair or stand up, and repeat the technique. Now that they’re not lying down anymore this should be a little different, but soon it will feel the same. Now they can continue with the steps mentioned above under 6.
- After this amount of concentration ask them to run around, or jump on the spot, and then sit down. This is a good moment to ask students what they experienced. They can do this while talking to their neighbour, or by answering your questions.
- Using this technique. For some fun, and to try out how it supports your voice, ask students to stand anywhere in the room with enough space around them, and focus on a far corner of the room, or even a point outside the room if they can see that point through the windows. Let them imagine there is a dog, a cat or a bird in that particular spot far away, and they need to call it: ‘Hey, come here!’. Doing this without proper voice preparation could strain the voice, but with a good breath in that fills the entire torso up with air, you support the voice and sometimes the difference in volume can be amazing, without it sounding like a screechy yell or anything. Always take time to do the proper inhalation before making a sound.
- Call the animal with a big voice
- Call the animal with a whisper that should still be heard by the animal, but maybe you’re calling the animal while you don’t want to wake up the neighbours, etc.
- Now imagine the animal being closer, but you still want your voice to be heard properly – experience what your voice does.
- You can add exercises like the ‘Hohoho’ of Father Christmas, or saying ‘Hello’ with different intentions (to a friend, to a little baby, to a giant, to someone who just broke your bike, etc.). Try ‘Welcome Ladies and Gentlemen!’ for different sizes rooms and halls and even football stadiums!
- If you have a group of students that likes to sing – this is your chance to try it out with the diaphragm technique! Do it line by line so they get a chance to really breathe in properly. With any luck they should feel more comfortable with the high notes, and the low notes. When they get the technique right, they can sing the entire song like they never sang it before.