By Henry Robertson
Photo courtesy of FaceMePLS.
The act of singing in itself is a highly physical activity. Voice teachers emphasize the importance of warming up with vocal exercises to help train the voice and expand musical possibilities.
Beyond what goes on during the music lessons, voice professionals and coaches found that engaging in typical “gym” routines–aerobic, muscular conditioning, and neuro-muscular coordination activities–can help singers tremendously in maintaining and improving their voices. Bruce Schoonmaker, professional baritone/voice teacher at Furman University, made a fundamental point in an essay entitled, “Physical Exercise for Singers”: “You are your instrument. Whatever improves the instrument helps the voice.”
A professional guitarist wouldn’t settle for playing a cheaply made, muddy sounding guitar that could go out of tune at any time. A shoddy tool would hinder the creative potential. A professional musician should play a worthy instrument and a vocalist is no exception. Because properly conducting physical exercises can help improve the physical self (or the said “instrument”), exercising must not be overlooked.
What constitutes appropriate exercises is a contested subject, but generally voice professionals agree that singers should strive to attain balance, stamina, strength, and flexibility through their work-out regimens. Marta Woodhull–a voice professional, author of the book, Singing For A Living, and coach to several genre-defining vocalists such as Paula Abdul, Brian McKnight, and Anthony Kiedis–is keenly attune to the nuances of singing.
Woodhull tells BTR that the “physical components of good singing” are “posture, breath control, impulse, power, and relaxation.” She confirms that “workouts should enhance all of these elements,” and elaborates on each of these points with references to particular exercise categories. Like most vocal professionals who have explored the correlation between physical exercise and singing, Woodhull stresses the importance of aerobic exercise.
“One element of working out before you sing is that if you push your cardiovascular system harder than is needed to perform singing, singing is easier,” she explains.
A high cardio capability translates to a low pulse rate, which “helps with anxiety and stage fright.” Woodull recommends “extreme bursts of cardio for all singers” since “working out at high intensities gets you familiar with adrenaline rushes and you learn the mechanisms’ ability to harness and control the excitement.”
While there are merits to all forms of cardio, Marta sheds light on two specific examples: swimming and jumping on a trampoline. Though most sports follow the typical bodily exercise of breathing in and out continuously, swimming resembles the breath patterns of singing, of taking breaths and releasing long extensions.
“You learn how to compress the air over a longer phrase and your body gets used to the oxygen ratio,” Woodhull reasons.
When executing her unique trampoline exercise, Woodhull instructs her students to jump in time with music and practice breathing. Doing so trains them to gradually reduce the time they inhale and lengthen the time they exhale.
The logic of the trampoline exercise is to develop “supple, flexible ribs and learning to use your breath in different ratios so it’s not like the same amount of breath for every phrase.” The practice lends itself well to singing phrases.
In addition to tuning singers’ breathing patterns with appropriate exercise, Woodhull recommends two to three high intensity cardio workouts a week. That said, she doesn’t advocate over-exhausting the body, and suggests two weekly low-intensity, flexibility workouts to complement the high intensity ones.
Similarly, Bruce Schoonmaker notes in his essay that overtraining can be detrimental. Too much exercise can increase “your risk of injury or illness” plus “the likelihood that you exhaust yourself instead of increasing your available energy.”
While aerobic exercise is highly agreed among vocal experts to aid singing, muscular conditioning, or weight training, is another story. Excessive weight training can harm a singer’s voice especially if the exercises are not conducted in a proper manner.
“Power lifting can cause curved shoulders, a sloping head and the chin moved forward,” Woodhall relays. “This causes a lot of vocal strain because the neck is not straight and aligned.”
Woodhull doesn’t advocate a lot of shoulder or neck work for singers. She does not dismiss weight training altogether, though. In fact, weight training can help align the spine and lead to greater balance and better posture, which helps open up the throat muscles.
Balancing the muscle groups is paramount for singers, and circuit training is a great way to “fill in the gaps of what’s missing.” As with singing, Woodhull explains working out “has to be back and forth with strength and flexibility and rest.”
Jeannie Deva, celebrity voice and performance coach, offers a useful rule of thumb to guide weight training: “Never hold your breath as you move the weight–continuously inhale and exhale.”
Deva recommends increasing reps and the number of sets over increasing weights in order to build a supple, toned body, which is the ideal for singing.
“Bulky muscles tend to limit your range of motion and in the worse case, they can tense your vocal muscles,” she warns.
Bruce Schoonmaker postulates that weight training has gained more validity among voice professionals over time. Woodhull offers a possible explanation to the evolution in thinking.
“There are many more balanced workouts in gyms now, and so many more choices even in types of strength,” she reasons.
While Woodhull is a notable proponent of TRX and bootcamp workouts, she believes that “any workout that combines stretching and power and posture and alignment will be fine.”
Further, exercising the core is essential. Many body builders who lift with the intent to bulk up tend to ignore the core. Woodhull is adamant that core strength has a huge impact on singing as it affects pitch precision, power, and range. Singing from the diaphragm is key in preserving the voice.
Good singers exhibit core awareness. They become conscious of limitations and what needs to be worked on more and less. Singing and breath control are meditative activities and some exercises that hone in on this concept are neuro-coordinative in nature such as yoga, tai chi, and other martial arts forms.
These activities promote awareness of breathing and posture, can increase flexibility, and may help reduce anxiety–a state of mind common for singers who experience stage fright. Woodhull explains that when people become anxious or nervous, that affects their sense of timing, and thus their breathing patterns. Engaging in meditative, neuro-coordinative activities like yoga can help a singer overcome mental blocks and center the whole being.
The most important aspects for singers to keep in mind when exercising are attaining balance, compensating for what’s lacking, and growing in self-awareness. The goal of working out regularly is training the body so that it can become, in Woodhull’s words “a responsive machine that doesn’t get in the way of our creative ideas.”
There’s no secret, set-in-stone algorithm for attaining the perfect singer’s body. Everyone’s body responds differently to exercises. But by exercising and experimenting with the right types of physical activities, singers can gain greater awareness of themselves and adjust accordingly–fine-tuning their “instrument” to exhibit the best possible condition.