Pedagogy Happy Hour for September: Singing for those with chronic breathing problems

Singing in front of other people can be incredibly intimidating. Sometimes when I'm starting out with a new client, I have to consciously remind myself just how terrifying it can be for them to be vulnerable with a really important but often self-conscious part of themselves. And when that client has an underlying problem that is completely out of their control, whether it be a physical disability, a chronic illness, or any other kind of situation that affects their singing, it can be doubly difficult to trust me. After all, I haven't had the experience of having asthma, or scoliosis, or *insert thing here* that gives me all the insight I need to immediately work with that problem. I have my own set of things that come with my unique history, and I have experienced the frustration that comes when a teacher in my past flat out didn't believe me when I told her about it. She meant well, but she didn't know. I don't want to be that kind of teacher, and so I try to ask a lot of questions of my clients when I'm learning about their own history and how they experience singing in their bodies. After all, they are the expert at living in their bodies, and I am not. The best I can do is let them describe their own experiences, and listen. Then while we work together, I adjust my advice to fit their needs. It's a very dynamic relationship between singing teacher and singing student.

Breathing issues can be particularly tricky for singers. Our breath is essential to life, and if you've ever had the experience of being short of breath, it can be terrifying. Singing is asking folks to elongate their exhale in such a way that is almost unnatural in some respects. Most people don't care about singing super long phrases like we sometimes need to do in opera. And most people can just stop singing and take a breath whenever they want to, unlike singers who need to think about phrasing and breath in strategic ways. If your breath is hindered in some way by illness or by the way your body is made, it can make that part of your technique more difficult to manage, and much more scary to work on. We as singing teachers may unintentionally cause our clients anxiety if we ask them to specifically work on breathing without fully knowing what they are experiencing in their own bodies. But there are things we can do to better understand how to address it in a compassionate way.

Coming up Tuesday, September 28th at 7:00 p.m. Central time, I'm so pleased to host my friend and colleague Dr. Leanne Wade, MT-BC for Pedagogy Happy Hour, and this is a really important topic. We're going to talk about her research focused on how adults with COPD were effected by singing, specifically how their breathing changed after singing for a while. In this time of COVID, chances are that many of us will have clients with changes in their breathing after having an infection. While there is still so much to learn, this conversation can get us started with knowing some of the resources available to us through music therapist colleagues and others.


Dr. Wade is a certified music therapist in Stockton, California who has worked in various capacities with adults to use music to achieve non-musical outcomes. That's a fancy way of saying that while singing teachers tend to focus on the voice and the musicality of singing, music therapists use singing (or drumming or playing) to get the client closer to a goal that likely has little to do with their actual singing. For example, Dr. Wade used singing and kazoos to help clients with COPD increase their breath capacity and feel more at ease in their breathing. Music therapists also use music to ease anxiety and depression, assist in mobility for those who have had strokes or other neurological disorders, and reduce pain, among many other things.


Engaging in breathing exercises can be difficult for some people, for a variety of reasons. Like I mentioned above, for those with chronic breathing issues, there can be a great deal of anxiety related to trying new breathing exercises, but one fascinating part of Dr. Wade's research is that she found when clients were given the autonomy to choose the exercise and how many times they repeated the exercise, they were more likely to try. Many breathing disorders can be progressive, and she found that when this type of autonomy is given before symptoms become overwhelming or limiting, it could lead to better coping skills later on.


For singing teachers, the process of building trust with a client and also leading them to greater ownership of their own singing can take a while. Ideally, we want that trusting relationship to be built before there are challenges that come up for the client, but that might now always happen. We'll talk about some of these trust-building and confidence issues during Pedagogy Happy Hour. We'll also get into some of the ways you can assist your clients that might have chronic breathing troubles. (Hint: much of that might be referring to a more qualified colleague, but it's very helpful to know where your boundaries are and who can help.) Registration is open now, and you can save your spot by clicking the button below.



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