Voice. Lessons. (a blog about singing and lessons learned)

You, Your Voice and What You Believe.

There are some that say that the use of the word believe should be eliminated for our vernacular.  I will not go so far as to agree with that, but I do think looking into our belief system and how it serves, or doesn’t serve us is a worthwhile venture.

Years ago, I was invited to conduct a few workshop/masterclasses at the San Fransisco Conservatory.  This, to me at the time, was the pinnacle of opportunities in my world.  I was a lowly voice coach in San Fransisco and the conservatory was THE conservatory.  I remember preparing my class and being excited to give my knowledge to the students.  While this ended up being a very positive experience (actually I think I did 3 different classes), I was surprised at a couple of student comments to me.  I remember one particular students saying “My teacher says that as long as I can work out my breathing, I don’t have to worry about anything else.  Correct breath will fix all other vocal issues…”.

That struck me as odd.  The reason that it was so odd to me, was that I was learning many other aspects of vocal development.  Breathing was just one of a handful of items to be addressed and dealt with.  However, there was no explaining to this student any further.  The conversation was over before it had begun.

Since that experience I have spent years observing the process of the human belief system and learning.  I am still surprised at the power of this.

My most recent expedition was back to Japan. I have been to Japan a few times on teaching tours, and as with any experience of traveling, there is always something new to learn.  This trip has re-ignited my interest in the human belief system and how it affects growth and learning, due to resistance that is happening with some of the teacher training.  The administration at one of the schools made a comment about the difference between the voice department and the guitar department.  The guitar teachers all just teach a common methodology, while the voice teachers have “their way” and are resistant to a universal process.

But, before I dig into vocal training, let’s explore the actual process of the belief system.  

How many of you know someone who believe something you consider odd or nutty?  Why do they believe it?  Have you ever asked them or had a discussion about the topic?  How does this usually end?  Do you ever present logical information to them, and in the face of that knowledge, they change their mind, or do they usually stick with whatever it is they believe?

Humans believe some pretty crazy things sometimes.  The further to the edge of normal the easier it is to see this, but even with mainstream beliefs, the process for which we deiced what to believe is the same.  It’s only the content of the system that changes.  Believing my neighbor is an alien or believing coke a cola is bad for me, is a system, often, of irrational feelings that lead to a “belief”.

The big question then is, why?  What makes the human experience so susceptible to beliefs that don’t serve us, or limit our ability to grow or learn?

Much of the research around why has to do with survival.  Unquestioning following of beliefs keep us from being killed or harmed as when we are young.  There might not be time to question the one giving us guidance when we are young, for us to survive a situation.  It’s a key element of our existence to have such a unwavering ability to “just believe”.  The second part of this system is the human mind’s to resist change, which also serves a purpose in our survival.  Changing our beliefs to quickly or frequently could cause harm or death.  We need to take time to analyze why we would change our beliefs and instincts, otherwise we run the risk of making fatal choices.   

Ok, so we have a built in, hardwired system for why we believe things.  Let’s accept that it’s part of all of us and it’s probably not going away anytime soon.  

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The big question then becomes, does it serve us?  Do we reach our greatest levels of growth with it?

Einstein, whom I’m sure we all can agree, was one who lived a very full and productive life, could not accept quantum physics.  He limited his ability to continue growing, because it didn’t fit his belief system, so he created the theory of super strings.  Which, by the way, has produced nothing other than a dead end theory.  Most of us would be happy to leave this world with our mark being on the level of Einstein, I’m sure, however, the point is that he stopped learning, due to a belief system.

We are all at the mercy of this human condition UNLESS we are able to recognize it in ourselves and control it, rather than it controlling us.

So, let’s move on to vocal training and how this ties together.

I hesitate to talk about religion or politics…  most of the time.  But, let’s use them to as an analogy to voice and vocal training.  

Religion is the ultimate example of a belief system (otherwise it would not be called faith) and politics might be a close second.  In third place comes the belief process about vocal training.  Not because vocal training lacks a verifiable system, but rather there are so many factors (many are invisible to the naked eye) and because it’s an emotional experience.  The human experience of singing brings up everything from fear, to elation, to euphoria, to an over developed sense of ego, to empathy and many other emotions. The singing instrument is also changing while it’s being played, making it somewhat elusive at times.  Add to this the effect hormones have on the body, and there is a recipe for a manic experience.

 THIS IS what makes singing magic.  

As singers we all want three things from our singing:  Freedom, Empowerment, Joy

Yet, our instrument does not always cooperate with us, so we look for ways to get this.  Enter the voice teacher…

Voice teachers are generally pretty emotionally driven people.  They are artists who are also mentors and guides, and have emotional connections with those they instruct.  It would be safe to say that a voice teacher/singer relationship is more intimate than that of a guitar teacher/student relationship.  This is where it gets tricky and the human belief system can trip us up.

Let me step back for a minute here and address “my beliefs” about vocal training.  Here is rule #1:  No one person has ALL the answers.

There are many ways to achieve freedom, empowerment, and joy with singing.  There are techniques that work wonders for you now and in time are less effective and vise-a-versa.  There may be something that someone says or explains that sets off a light bulb in a singer’s thinking and makes a HUGE difference.  That something might even come from another “less developed” singer.  One never can tell where it might come from.

Which is why a rigid belief system is the enemy of growth.  

The most powerful words you, your voice teacher, or for that matter, anyone can say is “I don’t know.”.  The person who says this will most likely be your best teacher.  They have shown you they are not locked into a rigid belief system.

However, we want our mentors or teachers to be infallible and have absolutes.  So, they often start to play that role for us, and we begin to believe that they are an absolute, meaning always right.  When they say “I don’t know”, it flies in the face of what we are comfortable with and is counter to what we’ve decided we believe.  Our mentors often feel that from us and they in-turn begin to stop saying they don’t know, and play the role we impose on them as absolutists.

Welcome to the world of limited growth.

We need to lower our beliefs about what we know and what we expect our mentors and teachers to know.  Notice I didn’t say lower the bar or standards, but merely our BELIEFS.

If what I am saying is lower our beliefs, we can actually raise our standards and increase our ability to grow.

If our minds are continually looking for the criticism of what we are hearing and learning, then ALL of what we learn is up for re-evaluation always.  If something that is serving us now stops serving us, we will recognize that right away and find what does serve us.  Additionally it keeps us from being caught in the cult of personality – the confused state of combining information with the messenger.  Charisma and charm can sometimes cloud our ability to filter the information.  It makes it easier to accept the information as a truth we should believe in, even when it is verifiably inaccurate.

Then how can we rely on anything if it’s always up for criticism?

Well, there are some parts of this that can be placed in the “Most likely outcome” section, and some that are placed in the “extremely variable” section.

Consider this:

There are 4 houses or areas of essential knowledge for voice teachers and singers.  They are the science of voice and singing, the pedagogy and synapsis of singing, uniqueness and style development, and the psychology of singing.


The former fall in the realm of testable knowledge and the latter in the subjective zones of belief.  While we have clear understanding of formants and harmonics, muscular function and myelin development via synapsis, we have an artistic approach to the use of this information.  With the latter two houses we don’t even have a testable knowledge of them, but rather experiential and anecdotal knowledge.  This, by the way, is the reason there are more problems with belief and cult of personality when it comes to the latter 2 houses.


You will reach your best and highest potential if you begin with an understanding of the testable information and then always relate back to that as you move into the more subjective and variable areas.  When working with a vocal instructor, you should always feel they know how vowels, consonants and arpeggios move the voice towards different muscular coordinations and when working with a vocal coach you should always feel that they will step back when they don’t know enough about technique to guide you on the physical aspects.  

It takes a great coach to say “I don’t know…” and will make sure you have the best information.  

Recommended reading for more information:

Vocology – Titze

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Science for singers – Luchuck

12 tips for ’15

  1. Be Grateful
  2. Train like a professional athlete- healthy diet, plenty of rest, enough water, make a routine
  3. Discover your own style- can’t recreate what someone else is doing because they have already mastered it
  4. Be calm- yelling is bad for the vocal cords
  5. Wash hands to avoid getting sick, if you do get sick take the time to rest- don’t strain yourself
  6. Wake up and have a game plan
  7. Set specific goals for yourself- short term and long term
  8. Work on your mind as well as your voice- happy thoughts and positive thinking
  9. Schedule personal time to relax, song write, work on technique- etc.
  10. Make connections with other singers, musicians, and people in business
  11. Work with an accompanist to get used to that or perform at open mic nights- set up your own gigs
  12. Be Grateful


The Fame Brain

Some of the posts here will not always deal with voice directly, but rather look at the whole picture of support for artists.  The following blog is one that I carry a lot of passion for.  I look forward to input from as many of you that feel you can contribute ideas to this.




Our world has never had the visibility portals it has now. YouTube, Facebook, Vimeo, and other online outlets, as well as T.V. shows such as The Voice, American Idol, America’s Got Talent, and other spectator/talent shows provide the ability for anyone to become talent du jour.

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Certainly there are positives to this democratization of talent and leveling of the playing field, but as with any changes in social behaviors, there are negatives.  The general public’s desire to be famous has grown immensely.  Collectively as a society, we have not prepared those entering the world of fame properly. 

Preliminary studies show that fame and intense adoration produce the same effects on the brain as cocaine.  When cocaine is used intensely and over a long period of time there are reductions in dopamine receptors and overall brain activity. The hardwiring of the brain is also changed. 

These preliminary studies along with the anecdotal accounts and individual case studies point to the seriousness of the possible side effects of fame.  Further research is needed to more fully understand these effects and changes and to suggest preventative and treatment measures. 

An in-comprehensive list of questions that arise from this are: 

How can we help those entering the entertainment business educate themselves about the possible effects of fame?

What are better ways to manage fame?

How can parents of young artists be more prepared for the effects of fame on their child and themselves?

What are the behavioral early warning signs of fame changing the brain? 

What environments can families and communities provide that might attenuate these effects and offer more stability for the artist? 

What is the threshold for being supportive to a developing artist and feeding the fame brain? 

How can we help artists who go through cycles of fame as a normal part of releasing products?

How can we help artists who experience a natural decline in fame over a period of time?

Like any substance abuse, fame affects different people in different ways.  Not everyone has an addictive personality, and not everyone needs to continually feed the addiction.  However, we need to be honest about the allure of fame and what it does, not only to the artist, but also to those around the artist.  Friends and family can also be affected by the fame created by an artist, and their brains can change as well.  There are numerous examples of entertainers whose lives grew into a vortex of dysfunction the more famous they became.  We can also point to multiple examples of entertainers’ families that became proportionately dysfunctional as the fame grew.

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At this point, the study of fame is very similar to  the fact that we know there are more red cars in accidents than any other color of car.  Does that tell us that red cars are more likely to get in accidents just because they are red?  Or is it that reckless drivers prefer the color red?  Or are there more red cars on the road,than any other color, leading to more red cars being in accidents than a less dominant color? 

There are so many factors that contribute to the negative affects of someone who goes from obscurity to fame.  It is unclear exactly what triggers the resulting behavior.  

Drugs and alcohol become a familiar topic when discussing celebrity and fame.  We quickly treat individuals who become addicted to these substances through rehab and support, but those who suffer from the affects of fame are ridiculed and blasted.  Drugs and alcohol are actually ways to escape from the effects of fame.  Treating substance abuse without addressing the aspects of fame that led to the abuse is simply treating some of the symptoms while ignoring the root problem.

Yet, unlike substance, fame is necessary to be commercially successful and financially stable.   Entertaining is, in the end, a job. Selling music, giving shows, making appearances, etc. is directly related to the artist’s level of recognition and fame. This must not be overlooked.  Fame needs to be managed, not eliminated..  Honesty in this area is the only way to truly help artists who are affected by fame. Recognizing that there is potential for disaster and knowing when and how to initiate a plan to counter or eliminate the possible negative consequences must concern all of us who work with artists.  I separate this as fame vs the fame brain.

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20 years ago or more, those suffering from substance abuse were viewed as less than human.  The drunk or the alcoholic was somehow less than the rest of us.  Through study of how addiction works, we have learned that it’s a disease and can be managed and treated. Those with addiction can be treated and their suffering diminished or eliminated. They are no less than we; they are one of us. Why have we not spent any time and resources along the same lines regarding fame?

It is now time to start talking about the consequences of fame in a constructive way.  I am advocating that we begin discussions and create support and educational programs for those who want to enter the entertainment world. I feel passionately that those who nurture talent and those who benefit from other’s talent become part of an education and support network for the famous and fame seekers.  We need to make talking about fame management as common as talking about channels of marketing or product development.  

Until now, few have looked at education about fame and managing the effects of fame on a person as a foundational component for talent development.  There are plenty of “Fame Coaches” out there, but these individuals are ignoring the negative effects of what they sell.  In fact some of what they teach is a direct feed to the fame brain:  the negative feed to the brain that creates a decrease in dopamine receptors and other issues.

Even though a discussion of the negative consequences of fame may fall upon some deaf ears, I feel strongly that it is a banner that those of us who work with famous people need to pick up and carry. 

As nourishers of talent, why have we ignored this?  One reason could be that it feels like a waste of resources to offer support to the rich and famous.  They have plenty of resources, don’t they? Yet, this is obviously not true.  A quick reference to the German word schadenfreude gives a bit of insight to why?  Schadenfreude means to derive pleasure from the misfortunes of others.  Cultures love to deify entertainers and then take great pleasure in watching them fall from the peak of their career. 


My objective is not to change how cultures deal with fame, but how entertainers deal with culture and fame.  We may never be able to stop the toxic cultural desire to watch someone fall apart any more than we can stop gossip or envy, but we can support and prepare artists and entertainers to manage what happens to them through fame. As a result we can help them deal with possible toxic cultural behaviors or the side effects of massive success.  

I have read many books and articles regarding the fame brain, yet none seem to suggest a plan to address the problem.  They tend to only point out the problem.  If indeed the brain is being affected and possibly re-wired, we need to dig into real solutions for helping those who choose to become an entertainer.  We love our heroes of music, acting, sports, or any other area of visibility.  We owe it to them to help support and protect them.  We need more information and we need honest discussions.

Below are what I consider sub-topics to be addressed:

Sport/Athletes vs. Entertainer – Why is there a difference?  All of the current research is in the area of sports, seemingly due to the fact there is a cycle down with sports and entertainment there is not. 

How are fame and mental illness connected or correlated?  Are there artists who are predisposed towards mental illness that fame enhances?  Or, does the artist experience mental illness from the affects of fame? 

What is the relationship between fame and power?

Are child stars more likely to experience negative effects from fame than adult stars? 

Can the negative effects of fame on a child entertainer be reversed?      

This article is not proposing answers.  I wrote this to motivate discussion, to generate ideas and to begin to consider solutions.  I welcome input and replies; I only ask our discussions remain focused on finding answers and asking questions that are respectful of the famous and those suffering from the ill effects of fame.  We will not venture into bashing or tabloid style discussions. 

Email-  Dave@dsvocology.com

Below are links that I encourage you to read or watch.









The Athlete, the Singer and the Brain.

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Why do some voice instructors call their singers athletes?  Is there some legitimacy to this statement?  Is training the voice similar to training other muscles in the body?

I personally find working out to be one of the most important parts of my day.  I find the hour a day I workout to be the foundation to a productive day; one that is a focused, clear-minded, efficient.  With the amount of time I have spent time in different training routines, I have found there is some analogies to singing, but I also have found some mis-conceptions regarding voice too.

Let’s start with the idea of stamina.

I recently had a discussion with a voice instructor who liked to call his singers athletes.  His idea of training a voice was one of hitting muscle fatigue, so that the vocal muscles would grow back stronger.  I have also had discussion with an instructor who’s training was one of getting the student to sing a note “correctly” once and moves on.  I think I land somewhere in the middle of this and here’s my reasoning.

Stamina, to me, is the ability to do something effectively and efficiently, so that the singer spends less energy to produce the same result.  Here is where there is some comparison to working out.  There is a concept in the fitness world called Muscle Confusion. The theory behind this is that the body needs constant switching up to continue building lean body mass and burning fat.  If one does the same workout routine over and over the nuero system gets efficiently programmed and the body burns fewer calories to complete the same routine.  Additionally the body plateaus and not only stops moving toward leanness, but begins to lose it’s effective fitness.  So, fitness trainers use 3 things to keep an athlete moving forward – muscle confusion, periodization, and progressive overload.

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All three are designed to increase stamina for the athlete. The singer needs to use some of this, but in reverse.

To understand this more, let’s examine one more term: Myelin. The main purpose of a myelin layer (or sheath) is to increase the speed at which impulses propagate along the myelinated fiber. In other words, one becomes faster at any muscular function the more myelinated the nuero pathway has become.  We create a more myelinated pathway through deep, focused practicing.  Short, concentrated repetition of any action.  While we develop myelin faster when we are younger, we can continue to maintain myelin as we age by effective practice and overall health (being healthy through diet and exercise… so fitness and singing are related).

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Vocalizing through pedagogy is the process for this. Through different arpeggios, scales and regularity, a singer can develop the ability to be very efficient with their voice, using less energy to produce a stronger sound, but it’s the opposite philosophy of the fitness process (this is the methodology of VocalizeU workouts). We WANT to use less energy while maintaining a nice full voice.  That’s how stamina works. A singer can sing for  2 or 3 hours a show for 4 or 5 shows a week and keep that up for a 12 month tour because the body and brain have learned to communicate effectively.  Even to the point that the set list is programmed into the nuero system. This is the opposite of muscle confusion. Rather than confuse the body with a new experience, we repeat the same process again and again until it’s an extension of us and we can produce more and expend less.

For example, a few years ago I was asked to help a singer prepare for a tour.  I was concerned because as opening night approached her voice wasn’t strong and she was having some trouble hitting particular notes.  My worry was that if she was not 100% at the start how was she going to be by the end of the 12 month long tour?  Tours can be incredibly taxing on a singers voice.  So I gave her some specific ways to work the lines that were giving her trouble.  The exercises married pedagogy to specific lines of her song.  The tour started despite her being at her best.   As the tour progressed, I was pleasantly surprised to see that she was getting better and more efficient with the process.  Show after show, her voice was getting stronger and more efficient instead of getting worn down and stressed.  She was getting the nuero programming dialed in, and by the end of the tour we were both surprised by how easy and expressive the tour had become.

She also was very diligent in warming up before every show and doing a 10 minute warm down after.  All of this is a process for becoming more effective and using less energy to get more power and sound.  Stamina.

When I work with singers on a regular basis, I like them to work their voice 2 time a day for around 20 minutes.  Once before noon and once after 5 or so each day.  The idea of shorter but more frequent vocal calisthenics will not only give the singer the fastest speed of growth, but the most myelinated pathways.  Of course what one singer needs as a vocal workout is different from another’s as it’s very personalized training.

In summary, I guess we can call singers athletes, but we need to be careful about the analogy.  We do not want to try to “build” the vocal muscles, they don’t work that way, but we do want to help singers have more stamina via a repetition process.  Straining the voice does not build it or build stamina.  Building the voice is more of a process of spending less energy and getting a lot more out of it.

To learn more about focused practicing and developing myelin read The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle

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For more information about effective singing and getting more power out of your voice with less effort, read Vocology by Ingo Titze

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(This blog is information from house 2.  Each blog will be drawn from one or more of these houses)


Singers and Airplanes – How do you fly your singing machine?

“Why can’t I sing like __________?”  Over my years of teaching singers I’ve heard that question hundreds of times. The asker is directly comparing their singing abilities and sound to whichever singer they are impressed with and admire. Often the comparison is to a singer who can blast like nobody’s business. Whether or not that singer has had vocal injury from the way they sing seems to be of no concern to the asker of the question.  So, let’s dig into this question a little deeper and examine the bigger picture of the long term effects.

While we LOVE a singer who can blast and live on the edge of what we might call healthy, we also need to examine how much of this can be done.  I am, like many of you, drawn to a singer who can belt right to the edge of healthy without falling off.  More recent singers of this sound would be ones like Idina Menzel and ones of years gone by might be someone like Chris Cornell, although there are many more names we could list.  This sound is raw and on the edge.  It’s hard not to give attention to the voice.

During the 90s, I can’t tell you how many male and female singers asked me about Chris’ voice.  “How can he do that?”  “How can I do that?”  And, “It doesn’t seem to be hurting his voice, I saw him at a show in Oakland and he kept it up the whole show.”

My answer then was, “I don’t know.” That is still a part of my answer today. But today we have more information than we had back then. After years of listening to those voices and knowing some of what has gone on behind the scenes, I can say that each of us has a certain amount of energy to expend in the short term as well as the long term. We can either spend our energy efficiently or inefficiently.

Let me give you and analogy.

I love flying airplanes.  I love riding in airplanes.  I love looking at pictures of airplanes.

I recently flew to one of my client’s gigs in their private Gulfstream jet and while everyone else was busy with the in-flight amenities, I was obsessing over the plane with the pilot and learning all of the features of the communication and navigation systems of this tech marvel.  While in-flight, I had a set of com headphones on and was monitoring communications with ATC.  I love the whole thing, and flying and singing are pretty similar to me.  Let me explain.

When I got my pilots license I trained, like everyone else, in a Cessna.  It’s small and more like a VW Bug with wings than you’d think.  However, it’s really an efficient machine.  Part of emergency training is the “engine out” procedure.  This is the process for landing this plane on a smooth surface with no engine.  I won’t say it’s easy, but you do have about 15 minutes, depending on your altitude, to land this plane because it will stay afloat for a while if you handle it right.

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The Cessna is designed to fly easily. With the prop running, you can go a long way for very little fuel.  You won’t break any speed records, but you will make it from point A to point B very efficiently.  It’s just not very exciting to watch.  

On the flip side is the experience of watching a rocket take off.  It is exciting!  The rumble, the flames, the earth scattering explosion of it all is awesome.  Rockets will fall back to the earth instantly if the blast is not happening and it will burn more fuel in the first mile than a Cessna will in a year of continual flying.  But it’s impressive and fun. 

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The two laws that govern flying are Lift and Thrust.  The Cessna is all about exploiting the lift side and rockets are all thrust. The combination of these laws can make a really fast efficient plane.

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Comparably, in singing terms, we have source and filter.  

The source is the raw activity of the vocal cords; the sub-glottal pressure that opens and closes them called PTP (phonation threshold pressure).  PTP requires energy from our system to keep active and we are dealing with a finite amount of this energy, both short term and long term.  This is basically the thrust of the voice. 

The filter is everything that takes place above the vocal cords, which include the Epi-larynx and the vocal tract.  The filter, like the law of lift, can enhance the singing process, make it more efficient and help us expend less energy if used properly.  It’s like lift.

There is a law of singing called Inertive Reactance that decreases the amount of energy used to produce PTP and have a strong “chest voice” like sound. There is a law called Compliant Reactance that increases the amount of energy it takes to produces PTP.  

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Some singers rely on pure energy output to produce PTP and do not try to use the filter process to gain more from this. The truth is, there is a certain sound that this process produces that many find appealing.  It’s just going to deplete the singer of energy quickly.  (stay tuned for the next blog on the myths of support for more on this…)

This type of singer usually has an outlier type instrument that most singers can’t keep up with.  However, even this singer will run out of energy at some point. The question is how much damage will occur before this happens. 

Other singers learn to use strategies of vowel usage that use less energy to produce a strong PTP through harmonic alignment. This can give their sound more volume and presence.  

In turn, this allows them to sing longer in both terms of a single performance and a life time of singing. The combination of using both thrust and lift will give the result of a very strong AND efficient voice.

So, back to the original question of “Can I do that?” from the many students.  Now, after all the years of experience and training my answer is still, “I don’t know”.   Each singer is different and can deal with complete thrust or not, depending on their instrument.  This is similar to someone who smokes their entire life but somehow ends up with no ill effects.

But, I do know we all have a finite amount of energy to put towards producing sound.  Your fuel tank is a different size than another singer’s and you might run out of fuel faster than they do. Each singer’s fuel tank is made from their individual genetic make-up and contains unique coding that dictates it’s capacity. 

I also know that if you learn to use your vowels more strategically, you’ll get more perceived power from your voice with less energy spent. Lining up the harmonics just off to the Inertive Reactance side will give you a lot more power with less effort.

If you’d like to learn more about this I recommend you pick up Vocolocgy by Ingo Titze.  It’s probably the most complete work on this subject and includes a ton of great information. 

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(This blog is information from houses 1 and 2.  Each blog will be drawn from one or more of these houses)