Caution! This is nerdy one, but has really important information for singers and teachers about how to best work out, strengthen, and take great care of their voices. For the past seven months I’ve been participating in a Book Club. We’ve been reading and discussing Dr. Ingo Titze’s and Katherine Verdolini Abbott’s book, Vocology: The Science and Practice of Voice Habilitation. Chapter 6 of Dr. Titze’s and Abbott’s book is “Physical Fitness and Exercise Principles.” The authors address the condition of muscles and connective tissue for optimal performance and how biological tissue is influenced by exercise. With a background as a registered nurse and wellness coach, vocal health for singers is right up my alley. With that all said, I offer to you a summary of what I recently learned from my study of Chapter 6 of Vocology: The Science and Practice of Voice Habilitation and our recent Book Club call about that chapter.
Vocal Health for Singers
Physical fitness and exercise are essential to optimal overall health. The same underlying principles that apply to optimal performance in sports may well apply to optimal voice performance. In order to safely help vocalists train and to recover from injury, teachers and coaches need to have an understanding of physical fitness and exercise principles, and of tissue healing,
When any part of the body was injured, in the “old days” we were told to rest it. But more recent research indicates that restoring blood flow, range of motion, and stretching promote healing. Healing can occur even faster with this therapy approach.
Voice conservation in cases of serious trauma is essential. But clinical observations have led to an alternative way of thinking about healing in the larynx. Low-intensity exercise, after the initial swelling, may be advantageous to healing and recovery.
We must also consider the practicalities of treatment and compliance: almost no one completely rests their voice if they are told to go on voice rest. If they are given something to “do” to progress their recovery, compliance might be higher.
Adaptability – flexibility and freedom – is a very important concept for singers. When someone has had a vocal injury they feel constrained and limited. In order to recover and remain vocally healthy the singer may need to change some of their singing, general voice use, and overall health habits. If a singer adopts the mindset of thinking they have to sing like they “used to do” and be like they “used to be” they can get stuck in a negative cycle. The voice is very dynamic. It may never be how it “used to be” after an injury, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a wonderful instrument and the singer have access to new ways of voice use.
There are three categories of exercises we can do for our body which apply to the voice as well: speed, power, and endurance exercises. With beginning students the first priority is coordination of the muscles of the voice. This includes the respiratory system. After that, what category that is most important to develop often depends on the singer’s style, genre, and performance demands.
Power-based exercise is usually brief in duration. In the larynx a shout would be an example. Power is demonstrated in the intensity of the sound. Speed-based exercise is characterized by activity that lasts from 4 to 50 seconds. Singing rapid scales, arpeggios, and rifts are vocal examples. Endurance-based exercises have as their key component, oxygen metabolism. Prolonged speaking and singing are endurance activities.
In athletic training there is a concept called overloading. Overloading a system causes the system to respond and adapt. Adaptation is an increase in the functional capacity of a system due to repeated stress. Incremental increases in stress, over time, will strengthen a system to a point. The art of teaching and coaching is helping the student gain functional capacity while not overtaxing the larynx and respiratory system and while maintaining balance of overall postural alignment.
Flexibility is a very important concept in physical training. Flexibility prevents injuries and soreness that can happen with extended muscle use and it improves athletic performance. A safe and effective way to stretch the vocal folds is to perform pitch glides with a semi-occluded vocal tract. The beauty of semi-occluded exercises is they minimize collisions between the vocal folds while allowing maximal lung pressure and cricothyroid muscle activity.
The realities of the demands placed upon singers may be counter to their optimal vocal health. This is perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of working with professional or frequently performing clients. Singers must figure out how to balance their rehearsal and performance demands with the degree of fitness of their voice. This is a dynamic process, specific to each individual. The concepts of voice fitness, exercise, injury prevention, and injury recovery are not just for the professional voice user, but for any one who wishes to optimize vocal performance and to be healthy.
Helping clients set up their vocal “exercise” plans, customizing them to the demands of genre, their vocal tendencies, their learning styles, their performance schedules, and their other activities requires that we have a broad understanding of best practices within the application of vocal science, human behavior, and human learning. That can sound like an overwhelming challenge as voice educators. All any of us can do is apply what we know, and continue to inquire, observe, interact, and share.