As we learn more about the value of physical fitness in quality of life, the question naturally arises, how does fitness affect singing? How important to singing is one's physical condition? Recent advances in how we look at exercise and its importance in maintaining physical vigor throughout life have inspired me to conduct a survey of singers and voice teachers on their attitudes toward exercise.
This study is based on anecdotal evidence, interviews with professional singers and teachers of singing. I have tried to glean a consensus from singers and teachers concerning three areas of physical fitness:
1. aerobic exercise (walking, jogging, swimming, aerobic movement classes...) Exercise that develops heart-lung strength and endurance.
2. muscular conditioning (strength training, weight training, calisthenics...) Non-aerobic exercises for muscle strength and endurance.
3. neuro-muscular coordination exercises (Yoga, Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, Tai Chi, Eurythmics...) Exercises that develop body awareness and the correct relationship of energy and relaxation.
For this survey, I interviewed thirty-two professional musicians. Three teach or coach voice professionally. Seven sing professionally. Twenty-two do both.
To question one: "Do you advocate the use of aerobic type exercise for singers?"
To question three: "Do you advocate the use of neuro-muscular coordination exercises for singers?"
A majority of teachers and singers recommend aerobic type exercise for singers. Customary responses included:
Singing is an athletic activity.
These exercises were recommended most often:
Younger singers and teachers (those under 40 years of age) advocate aerobic exercise much more often than older singers and teachers. For this form of exercise, respondents conveyed a clear sense of enthusiasm and energy.
Many singers use muscular conditioning exercises, particularly sit-ups, push-ups, and weight training. Others warn that these exercises may create tension in the neck or shoulders, thereby creating tension in the voice.
Most often recommended muscle-strengthening exercises:
Weight training in particular received a cold reception from a few of the respondents. This negative response differs greatly from the general attitude among singers fifteen to twenty years ago. The trend toward accepting weight training as suitable for singers is clear: while only 10% of respondents actively encourage the use of weight training, fewer than 10% of respondents recommend avoiding weight training altogether. I believe that, were the same survey conducted 10 years ago, more than 80% of respondents would have recommended avoiding weight training altogether.
Although not as popular as aerobic exercise, neuro-muscular exercises proved favorable among the singers and teachers polled.
Most often recommended neuro-muscular exercises:
Singers strive for greater energy without greater tension. These types of exercises evoked enthusiastic responses and personal testimonials concerning how the exercises helped singers overcome tension and mental blocks to progress.
Many respondents made statements similar to:
No student should consider exercise a substitute for practice. Neither should any student consider vocalizing and singing a substitute for aerobic fitness exercises. Physical exercise, however, proves important to singers in developing the suppleness and strength of the vocal instrument.
Also, because singers appear on stage in dramatic productions, they need to be as physically fit and attractive as possible. Operatic roles demand energy and prowess. The combination of vigorous singing and strenuous physical acting necessitate performers who are fit and energetic. Audiences and stage directors now require that singers look like the characters they portray. It is difficult to land the role of Butterfly if one is overweight. Fitness has become a necessity for success in stage careers.
It is clear that, when you combine
with these statements,
there is no paradox. Heifitz once played a recital on a student violin in order to prove to his critics that his success was not dependent on the Stradivarius that he regularly used. After the recital, he remarked that it was much more difficult to make the kind of sound he wanted on the student violin. While physical exercise cannot ameliorate faulty technique or lack of preparation, its value lies in improving the general quality of the instrument. Almost any musician would prefer a better instrument on which to perform, and now singers recognize that physical exercise improves the instrument.
Although few respondents advocate the use of weight training for singers, few denied their use outright. I believe this marks a significant shift in opinion from twenty years ago, when the clear consensus was, "avoid all weight training." Many respondents gave it a conditional OK, warning to avoid exercises that create tension in the neck or shoulders, tension that carries over into singing.
Having studied weight training and its effects on my singing, I believe much of what is considered problematic about weight training and singing relates to poor technique in weight training or overtraining. With proper technique, especially as it applies to breathing, the gradual increase in reps and sets, and rest between sets, weight training can be extremely beneficial to singers, especially in strengthening the breathing and building physical confidence. See the recommendations that follow.
The most enthusiastic responses came for the third question, endorsing a variety of neuro-muscular coordination exercises, especially Alexander Technique, Yoga, and Feldenkrais. Singers have long found that gaining greater conscious control over their bodies helps to relax and energize them, lending more suppleness to the body and greater control over the sound produced by their voices.
In any exercise program, avoid exercise that leads to shallow breathing, or to neck or shoulder tension that transfers to your singing. After vigorous exercise, give yourself sufficient time to recover before singing. Most singers will find that they need at least an hour or two between exercise and singing. Avoid strenuous exercise on the day of a performance.
Neuro-muscular coordination exercises can ameliorate tension incurred in aerobic exercise and muscular conditioning. Exercise benefits emotional well-being as much as physical fitness. Performers need ways to "blow off steam" or to release the psychic tension that accrues from the disciplines of singing and acting. Exercise provides a constructive outlet for the stress and strain of these disciplines.
I have not suffered excess tension in my neck or shoulders by participating in weight training. Instead, weight training has helped me to deepen and open my breathing. By building my physical confidence, it has helped increase my concentration and presence on stage.
Fitness experts agree that aerobic exercise is the most important form of exercise for maximizing health. Our survey confirms that singers agree. You do not need to become an athlete in order to be physically fit. Often, the reason people stop exercising is that they overtrain, thereby exhausting themselves, injuring themselves, or making themselves ill.
Aerobic fitness is not difficult to manage. You need to find an enjoyable exercise to perform continuously for 20 to 60 minutes, 3 to 5 times per week. Also, you need to exercise at 60% to 90% of your maximum heart rate. To estimate your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220.
For example, if you are 18 years old, your estimated maximum heart rate is 202, and you need to exercise at a rate of 121 to 182 heart beats per minute. This span forms your training zone.
One of the most common problems in developing an exercise program is overtraining. Overtraining may involve pushing your heart rate beyond the training zone. It can also mean exercising too frequently. Overtraining increases your risk of injury or illness and increases the likelihood that you exhaust yourself instead of increasing your available energy.
While certainly not the only exercises suitable for aerobic fitness, the following constitute popular forms of aerobic exercise. Once again, avoid any exercise that creates shoulder or neck tension.
Walking remains the single most recommended exercise for singers. Maintain a brisk enough pace to reach your training zone.
Swimming has been called the best all around exercise for singers; however, many people develop sinus or ear problems from swimming. Also, be careful not to overtrain.
Certainly one of the most popular aerobic fitness exercises at this time, jogging requires that you be careful of knee and ankle injuries and that you not overtrain.
Excellent exercise. If it creates shoulder and neck tension, experiment with handle bar position or change to a different style of handle bar.
Aerobic Exercise Classes
Excellent exercise. Remember: it looks easy, but be careful not to overtrain.
Fifteen years ago, tennis was highly popular among singers. The problem with tennis is that playing singles usually takes you beyond the training zone and playing doubles doesn't tax the heart and lungs enough.
As in all exercises, avoid muscular conditioning exercises that create bothersome neck or shoulder tension. Carefully follow correct technique in all exercises. Take special care to use:
Remember to emphasize number of repetitions, not the amount of weight lifted: lift nothing with which you cannot complete six repetitions.
If you are beginning a weight-training program, lift weights with which you can perform one set of 12 to 15 repetitions. Exercise each muscle group two or three times a week. Remember that resting the muscle groups is as important as exercising them. Maintain this schedule for two to three weeks, until you acclimate to weight training, then move gradually to two sets of (increasing the weight) 8 to 10 repetitions.
There are several ways to organize weight exercises into programs. One is to work upper body exercises twice a week, and lower body exercises twice a week. For example:
Upper Body Exercises:
Seated Military Press
Tricep Extension Machine
Overhead Tricep Extension
Seated Row Exercise
Double Chest Machine
Lower Body Exercises:
Knee Flexion (Leg Curl)
Knee Extension (Leg Extension)
Exercise physiologists recognize muscular conditioning as an important component in maximizing health and in slowing the aging process.
For the most popular three exercises, Yoga, Alexander Technique, and Feldenkrais, you will need to take classes or follow some of the audio tapes that are available. Classes, with direct training by authorized instructors, provide the best means of learning from these exercises. Alexander is customarily taught one-on-one. Feldenkrais is taught either one-on-one or in classes. Both emphasize moving with freedom and both develop posture that energizes and relaxes the body.
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