Sports-Specific Training for the Vocal Athlete, Part 1: : How Exercise can Support your Vocal Technique

If you are a classical singer, you are an elite athlete. Your art requires exceptional coordination, endurance, grace, exquisitely fine motor control, total mind-body integration, and the ability to perform highly skilled maneuvers in real time. You must remain calm but energized while delivering peak performances, often in competitive situations. You must maintain optimum physical health. The careers of singers and athletes have far more similarities than they have differences.

Articles abound recommending exercise to singers for stress reduction, weight management and overall wellness. We are usually encouraged, however, to exercise only as a remedial process in our vocal training, rather than as an essential part of that training.

Singers know that proper alignment is a prerequisite for full breathing and neck mobility, yet our techniques for achieving it are limited to verbal cues and a referral to an Alexander or Feldenkreis teacher. The ability to take a full breath and release air steadily is central to singing technique, but we lack a practical means for creating flexibility in the rib cage and stabilizing the muscles of respiration.

As a voice teacher, I was frustrated by my inability to help students just stand up straight and take a deep breath. I knew from personal experience that Alexander lessons improve alignment and breathing—but I also knew that without constant reinforcement the old problematic patterns of use eventually return. So, two years ago, I became certified as a personal trainer, with the goal of learning how to create the optimal physical foundation for meeting the demands of classical vocal technique.

Athletic trainers study human anatomy and physiology in great detail. They understand how the body responds to various stimuli, and how it learns new motor skills. They know that the skeletal, muscular, and nervous systems are completely interdependent and that a problem in one of these systems causes problems for the whole. And they know the importance of training fundamental movement skills before training the highly specialized skills of a given sport. A golf player, for example, who can execute a spectacular drive but can’t stabilize his spine, hips and legs while rotating his torso, risks injuring his lower back.

This knowledge is of immense potential benefit to singers. Bringing our teaching and practice strategies in line with the way the brain learns new motor skills can accelerate technical progress. If we know how the various systems of the body and mind support one another, we gain a better understanding of the impact of alignment on vocal technique, and of the effect breathing has on phonation and stamina. With that knowledge, we can trace most extraneous movement, unstable breath support and jaw tension back to deficits in the fundamental movement patterns that form the foundation for any athletic pursuit.

Generations of voice professionals, however, have warned singers against vigorous exercise.

“While it is urgent for a boxer or a fencer to keep his muscles in continual training, it is hardly necessary for a thinker, a writer, or anybody who is devoted to a purely intellectual form of activity to overtax his physical strength,” wrote P. Mario Marafioti, Enrico Caruso’s laryngologist. “As singing belongs to this latter class of activities, all books and methods advocating physical training for singers seem to consider singing more as a muscular action than as an intellectual achievement. …We would suggest that singers take care of their health just by following the normal rules of all intelligent people, without exerting themselves in any form of physical training.”1

Noted tenor and voice teacher Richard Miller assents to athletic activities that: “ensure excellent, general physical condition and if they are not strenuously carried out past the age when physical exercise should be cut back.” But he also comments that: “Even in the prime years, it is questionable that muscular development, including those muscles directly related to singing, need attain special dimensions for singing.”2

Barbara Doscher and Meribeth Bunch agree that light forms of exercise, particularly swimming, are beneficial, but both of these authors and voice experts say heavy weightlifting should be discouraged. Pedagogy books typically include an entire chapter on the singer’s formant, but devote a mere paragraph to exercise, and the tone is usually cautionary.

The truth is that singers who exercise with good form will help, not hurt, their voices. Activities that improve alignment, coordination, and stamina are just as vital to our success as the things we do to train a clean onset and clear vowel definition. Our approach to singing technique should consider the needs of the whole body.

Exercise and alignment

Proper alignment depends on optimal length-tension relationships between the muscle groups that operate each joint. An imbalance in any of these relationships will result in a postural distortion, which will have some sort of limiting impact on the voice, such as interfering with breathing, for example, or entangling the muscles that affect the head and neck.

Joints rely on their surrounding muscles for stability and movement. Consider the muscles that affect the elbow, a simple hinge joint. We flex, or bend the elbow by contracting the biceps, on the inside of the upper arm, and allowing the muscles on the outside of the arm—the triceps—to relax and lengthen. We extend, or straighten out the elbow by contracting the triceps and allowing the biceps to relax and lengthen. If the strength and flexibility in our biceps and triceps are well balanced, these muscles enjoy a good length-tension relationship. Our elbow will be stable and capable of a full range of motion. If, however, we have strong, inflexible biceps and weak, overstretched triceps, it is difficult to straighten out the elbow and the joint is slightly bent when at rest.

The elbow is an easier joint to analyze than the complicated joints that determine overall alignment, such as the hips and shoulders, but well-balanced length-tension relationships are even more important for the muscle groups surrounding these joints. Singers whose shoulders round forward, and whose chests collapse as they exhale, demonstrate an imbalance that probably includes tight chest muscles and weak back muscles. This is an over-simplification—the joint and muscle relationships that create good alignment and movement through the torso are quite complex—but this is an example of how good posture depends on bringing these muscle groups into balanced relationships.

The only way to restore balance is to strengthen the weak muscles and stretch the tight ones. The whole-body movements required for swimming and yoga can move you toward this goal, but it may take a while, because there is no way to focus on a specific imbalance for which you’ve been compensating for years. An Alexander teacher can stimulate the neuromuscular system to restore healthy joint function by releasing chronically contracted muscles. It is wonderfully liberating to feel these muscles lengthen—but this is only half of the equation. We must strengthen the weak, underused partner muscles whose job it is to help the newly released muscles maintain their length and mobility. A program of resistance and flexibility training tailored to an individual singer’s body can retrain patterns of movement to establish and reinforce optimal alignment daily.

Exercise and breathing

All breathing strategies rely on the ability to inhale a substantial quantity of air and release it steadily. Singers may be concerned that building abdominal strength will restrict breath capacity and reinforce a tendency to “push” with the breath. I would like to address both of these concerns, and discuss the ways that a well-designed exercise program promotes good breathing.

First, abdominal strength will not diminish breath capacity if it develops in a balanced fashion. As with the postural muscles, you need to build strength and flexibility throughout the torso, so that your abs do not become chronically tight. Overstretched abs that let your belly pooch out do not help breath technique. On the contrary, excessive weakness in the abs leads to excessive tightness in the muscles of the spine and lower ribs, which will cause you to arch your lower back and restrict rib movement—and this will significantly decrease your breath capacity and create a plethora of other problems.

Second, abdominal strength will not by itself encourage “pushing.” Pushing results when a singer squeezes the vocal folds together with such force that only excessive breath pressure will get them to vibrate. If a singer tends to push, perhaps stronger abs will make it possible to push a little harder, but the increased neuromuscular control learned through exercise may give him or her the option not to engage the muscles involved in pushing.

In my own teaching, I think of breath management as reactive: When your vocal folds are set to vibrate at the desired pitch and volume, a well-coordinated breathing system passively supplies precisely as much air as you need, and there is no temptation to push additional breath through.

The more supple and resilient our muscles of respiration, the better they respond to the demands of singing. Core strength and stability is of tremendous benefit for breathing, as Pilates fans can testify. The muscles of the “core” go way beyond the rectus abdominis, or “six pack,” that we usually think of when discussing abdominal exercise. The core encompasses all the muscles that coordinate the joints of the lower spine, pelvis and hips and stabilize the lower torso, and most of these muscles also assist with respiration. Therefore, training the muscles involved in diaphragmatic or “low” breathing helps singers maintain stability in the breathing mechanism during stage movement.

Establishing balanced length-tension relationships in the muscles of the upper body is also wonderful for breathing. When strength and flexibility are distributed appropriately among the chest, back, and shoulder muscles, the ribs are free to expand fully during inspiration and are unlikely to collapse prematurely during expiration. The strength and coordination required to stabilize the shoulders for upper-body exercise usually removes any temptation to elevate the shoulders during inhalation, making strength training an effective way to cure a singer of clavicular breathing.

Oxygen consumption and vocal stamina

“Cardiovascular fitness” means having a healthy heart and lungs, providing efficient circulation of oxygen throughout the body and the ability to make good use of it.
Cardiovascular training serves two major goals: higher “stroke volume”—the quantity of blood your heart pumps every time it beats—and increased oxygen consumption, because for average sedentary people, most of the oxygen we take in just gets exhaled again.

If your heart pumps more blood per stroke, it won’t have to beat as frequently or work as hard, so you’ll feel more relaxed and calm. If you consume oxygen more efficiently, you’ll sleep more soundly, feel more energetic, and enjoy a higher level of stamina.

But the real benefit for your singing technique lies in the fact that if you consume oxygen more efficiently, you will be able to sustain longer phrases. If you’ve ever had the sensation that you were out of breath when there was still plenty of air in your lungs, this is why: You weren’t out of breath, but you used up all the oxygen you were capable of consuming from your last breath, so your body sent you a desperate signal to inhale.

Any activity that temporarily elevates your heart rate improves your cardiovascular fitness, but a skilled trainer can help you employ strategies that cause your body to make these desirable adaptations faster. By setting a pace for exercise that systematically elevates your heart rate, allows for brief recovery, and then repeats the process within as challenging a range as you can safely manage, a trainer can help you increase your stroke volume. Oxygen consumption will increase, thanks to your improved muscle tone and increased cardio fitness.

Exercise and phonation

Free phonation also relies on balanced muscular development, because tightness or over-activity in the chest and shoulders compromises mobility of the neck and larynx. Tension at the larynx creates resistance that requires “pushing” with the breath to create phonation, so strength training can indirectly help create a freer neck and larynx.

In her book Dynamics of the Singing Voice, Meribeth Bunch raises the concern that: “Weightlifting could be detrimental because it tends to overdevelop the muscles of the neck and the adductors of the vocal folds. When closed the latter increase intra-thoracic pressure which is used to support the spine during initial phases of heavy lifting.”3

This leads to the stereotypical grunting associated with weightlifting. In the gym, this is known as the Valsalva maneuver: The vocal folds forcibly hold the glottis shut, creating a build-up of subglottic pressure and preventing exhalation. It’s a quick and dirty way to stabilize the torso, and it gives weightlifters some extra leverage. This wreaks havoc on the vocal folds, and trainers now know that it is extremely bad for the rest of the body as well. The buildup of pressure caused by holding the breath this way is dangerous for your heart, and the Valsalva maneuver is of limited use for strength training because it is far better for athletes to stabilize the torso by developing adequate strength in the muscles of the core.

It may take constant harping for the first few weeks of training, but a responsible trainer will teach every client to lift without holding his or her breath like this. For singers, it is well worth taking the time to learn to stabilize the torso with the core muscles, not with the vocal folds. If you have this habit when you exercise, it is probably a problem in the studio as well: You may be stabilizing your voice by over-adducting your vocal folds rather than allowing a steady release of air modulated by the core musculature to do the work for you. If you over-adduct your vocal folds, you’ll have to push with your breath to get them to vibrate. So, while it is true that working out with poor form can exacerbate a tendency to push, learning to exercise with perfect form can help eliminate this same tendency.

Movement and the singer

Developing a singing technique that works reliably in the practice room is tricky enough. Then this technique must be put to the test when, burdened by a heavy costume, you’re climbing stairs, fencing, carrying a 50-pound child, or bending at the waist and shuffling around for hours with a Rigoletto hump on your back. We need a sense of overall balance and coordination that will enable us to work our technique and express ourselves while extraordinary physical requirements are placed upon us.

This year, the Metropolitan Opera asked Andrew Robinson, a full-time member of the Met’s dance corps, to offer movement classes to singers in the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. Andrew emphasizes how small adjustments to the singer’s habitual posture and style of walking can have a powerful impact on their comfort and confidence with stage movement. By guiding them through stretching exercises and simple dance phrases, he helps the singers to, “create a shorter distance between the brain and the body, a greater awareness of what the body is doing, and a stronger concept of movement: how it goes from being an idea to getting the body to respond to that idea.”

Andrew finds that singers frequently forget to breathe when they begin to focus on movement patterns. His goals for them include the ability to perform even movements that might look ugly or feel strange without feeling self-conscious about it.

“Self-consciousness has dramatic negative consequences for movement because it immediately makes everything tighten up!” he says.

Because this is the first year that such classes have been offered to the Met’s young artists, it is too soon to predict the impact this training will have on their overall performance, but it may lead to benefits for their singing as well as for their movement skills. Training the body to be more coordinated stimulates the nervous system and enhances our ability to make fine movement changes with greater speed and specificity.

Most of us have had the experience of figuring out how to do something years after a teacher first suggested it to us. It is possible to understand a direction intellectually without having adequate neuromuscular control to put it into effect. Strength and coordination training improve your overall kinesthetic sense in a way that complements Alexander lessons. By becoming accustomed to making frequent global adaptations, the body and mind develop a greater sense of malleability. Like Andrew Robinson’s work with the Met’s young artists, athletic training enhances your ability to focus on physical movement and deepens your understanding of how new habits are formed and new skills mastered.

Enhanced physical coordination has a profound impact on vocal technical work. The skill of adaptation—the ability to observe and analyze movement and establish a new movement pattern—is a primary skill of learning to sing. I believe this is the single biggest reason some singers make faster progress than others. This skill is independent of any natural vocal talent. It can be globally cultivated through athletic training and then accessed in the studio. Mastering large movement patterns that are easy to see and feel is a lot easier than mastering the fine adjustments we want to make with the aspects of our voice that are nearly impossible to monitor. Building skill in movement makes it easier to make those fine adjustments to the muscles that control the movement of our vocal folds and the shape of our resonating spaces.

The right exercise program can perfect our alignment, enhance our breath support and stamina, and improve our motor skills so that we learn technique faster—and it can help us to feel and look our best.

Part 2 of this two-part series will discuss the components of an exercise regimen, collaborating with a trainer, and aesthetic and dietary issues.

1. P. Mario Marafioti, Caruso’s Method of Voice Production (New York: Dover Publications, 1922), 305-306.

2. Richard Miller, The Structure of Singing: System and Art in Vocal Technique (New York: Schirmer Books, 1996), 238.

3. Meribeth Bunch, Dynamics of the Singing Voice, 4th ed. (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1997), 124.

Claudia Friedlander

Claudia Friedlander is a voice teacher and certified personal trainer with a studio in New York. Find her on the Web at www.claudiafriedlander.com.