There are some moments that you remember for no good reason. I remember being in fourth grade and stabbing myself with a pencil which broke off, and I thought that I would be a cyborg from that day forward. I remember my sixth grade teacher’s white blouses which were just sheer enough to be interesting to a sixth grader, but not sheer enough to get her fired.
There are other moments that you remember because of the impact they had on the way you look at life. There was a particular Thursday night children’s choir rehearsal, and the director, Mr. May, stood in front of us kids and hollered, “Breathe like a baby!” Mr. May was a fairly effeminate man who had been a choir teacher when my mother and my uncles were in school. My uncle joked that he smoked Virginia Slims (I later found out this was true). That same uncle, upon learning that Mr. May had given me a ride home laughed hysterically and went on a tear about “not getting into white vans just because shriveled old Nancies offer you candy.” He said some other things that I’ll not repeat, not really because they were obscene, which they were, but more because they were too on the nose, and you can probably come up with better on your own.
The “Breathe like a baby!” moment sticks out for me, because it was the first time I’d ever really thought about singing having a technique. Now, having been through a music conservatory, and spent years since college singing, I’ve since had a LOT of time to think about technique and to perfect some of mine, but back then, singing was just singing. You opened your mouth and words came out.
Here was Mr. May telling us we needed to breathe like a baby. What did that even mean?
He illustrated by lying down on the floor.
“if you watch a baby in a crib, they aren’t raising their shoulders when they breathe. You can see their tummy move with every breath, and that’s what I want from you. When I say, ‘take a deep breath,’ I’m seeing a lot of you breathing with your shoulders.” With this he took an exaggerated gulp of air and his shoulders went up to touch his ears. “I want you to breathe like a choir full of babies, and I want you to do it every time you breathe so you can get rid of this crazy habit of shoulder-breathing. There are no lung muscles in your shoulders!”
He went on to teach us about our diaphragm, and then he lay back on the floor and rested a book on his belly, so we could see just how far the book raised every time he took a deep breath. As silly as it was, he really did make a lasting impression on me, and the lesson was learned. When my baby was born, I remembered Mr. May as I lay in the almost dark of the morning watching our brand new little girl sleeping in her crib. Her tiny tummy rising and falling brought me back to a long-past Thursday night rehearsal, and brought a smile to my face. And then I checked my posture, turned on the shower and sang a quiet thankful tune for my life and how awesome it’s been so far.