The Athlete, the Singer and the Brain.
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.
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).
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
For more information about effective singing and getting more power out of your voice with less effort, read Vocology by Ingo Titze
(This blog is information from house 2. Each blog will be drawn from one or more of these houses)