I've just got back from a wonderful five days in Las Vegas. But I wasn't there to play. I was there for the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) Conference. This biennial event is a must for any teacher who is committed to professional development.
There were so many sessions to learn from. It runs the gamut from really geeky voice science talks to more spiritual aspects such and mindfulness and yoga for singers. There is also so much wonderful singing! The guests artist this year were Christine Brewer and Stephanie Blythe with Craig Terry at the piano. All I can say is WOW!!!
It's also a great opportunity to network with other teachers, exchanging ideas and making new friends.
One of the highlights of the NATS conference this year was to interview Claudia Friedlander about her newly released book "Complete Vocal Fitness - A singer's Guide to Physical Training, Anatomy, and Biomechanics".
Grab a cup of tea, sit back and watch our interview here, then scroll down to find out how you can get your copy with a 30% discount!
You can get "Complete Vocal Fitness" at most major booksellers and Amazon. However, Claudia is giving The Fit Singer readers a special 30% discount by ordering directly from the publisher Rowman & Littlefield. Click here to order and then enter your promo code: 4eNATS18. This offer is good until September 26, 2018.
Also check out Claudia's blog The Liberated Voice at claudiafriedlander.com
And don't forget to join our online community dedicated to singers' health and fitness - Vibrant Body Vibrant Voice.
If you don't have time or the background chatter of the conference is too much for you then have a glance through the transcript (you may want to look at the video from 14:30 onward as Claudia give a demonstration of a couple of exercises):
FS: Hi Claudia, So happy to have you here with us.
Claudia: Oh, I'm so excited to be talking to you about fitness.
FS: It's a passion, right?
Claudia: Well, yeah and one of the nice things about having the book out is that I have more opportunities to just nerd out about anatomy of fitness with other people who are interested in singing and body issues.
FS: Can you tell us a bit about your background; what brought you to this?
Claudia: I became interesting in singing and fitness at around the same time. I always wanted to be a singer, but when I was a kid nobody wanted to hear me sing because I had a sort of harsh disorganized voice. I couldn't get cast in any of the school musicals, it was very heartbreaking, so picked up clarinet and became very good at that. Everybody wanted me to play the clarinet, so I just settled for that.
It was around the time that I finished my undergraduate degree that I had the opportunity to do some body work with a therapist who was really good at helping to relieve chronic muscle tension and I found I had all this muscular tension around my breathing, my throat and my articulators that had been keeping me from being able to sing freely and so all this tensions started to go down and I was able to have access to my body and I discovered I did have a pleasing voice.
So I started taking singing lessons and began formal study and I was surprised to discover when I went to graduate school that not everybody had the same expectation that I did, which is that it is possible to affect structural changes in your own anatomy that would then make your voice better. And I found out most voice teachers expect that the voice that the student brings into the room is the instrument that they have, that they will teach them how to use that instrument when I knew that it's possible to improve upon your instrument. In my case it had made the difference between not being able to sing at all to singing well.
As I became more interested in vocal technique I became really interested in finding out ways that I could help singers improve their own instruments, so that they could really optimize their bodies for peak performance in singing the way athletes do for peak performance.
FS: How do you view singers as vocal athletes? It's a very physical, demanding thing that we do with our voices that involves the whole body, so do you feel we need to train more like athletes?
Claudia: We need to train both more like athletes and more like instrumentalists. Instrumentalists learn things about repetitions, motor learning, self-habitualization skills because they have to integrate an external object to coordinate well with their own bodies, so they learn some things about that. They also...instrumentalists generally learn about how their instrument functions and how it's constructed so they know if there's a problem with the instrument they know how to repair it. If I have a missing pad on my clarinet It's not going to play, but I know either how to do that myself or take it someplace where it can be repaired. So I think we have a lot to learn from instrumentalists and we also have a lot to learn from athletes and fitness trainers because we are athletes, what we do is so similar to what elite athletes do because an athlete doesn't stop being an athlete once they step off the court. They view their bodies as an athletic tool at all times, so how you care for your physical health, how you eat, how you sleep is all going to have an impact on how you do your job.
FS: So being a singer is a lifestyle.
Claudia: It's a lifestyle choice.
FS: If you want to optimize performance you do need to make that... I know for myself when I started training for triathlons all the triathletes would say "This is a lifestyle, it's not just the training and doing races, we live it". So similarly singers should be approaching...that we are living it...our instrument is a living instrument, too, so it needs that extra care.
Claudia: It does. I mean we're also hedonists. We're not going to have anything to sing about if we don't have full lives, as well. There is a chapter on nutrition in the book, but I'm not advocating that people adhere to some really stringent diet, so they're always able to... it's not quite what you need to do if your in training. We do need to be mindful of using food as fuel the same as athletes do and making sure we are fuelling appropriately and tending to the health and development of our bodies and our instruments, but we also need to have...
FS: We have to let our hair down...
Claudia: have some crazy experiences.
FS: There are also limits we need to draw, too. Like post-performance going out drinking with your cast-mates when you know you have to perform the next day is probably not a good idea. You need your sleep, you need to make sure your re-fuelled so that you can recover well for the next thing that's coming up.
Claudia: Absolutely! We need to be mindful of what our bodies need to do and I've discuss this in the chapter on nutrition and what best practices are for singers. They moderate what they're eating and drinking. We're in NATS in LAS VEGAS, so...
FS: Of course, Vegas, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.
Claudia: There's a section in the chapter on how to drink reasonably and how to avoid a hangover and I thought about printing out a "Here's a PSA on what to about a hangover" that I thought about leaving in my publisher's booth, but you know, you don't want to presume that your colleagues will be drinking and maybe we won't go there so I didn't...but there's some good advice on how to make sure you're not drinking too much and what to do about it the next day.
FS: Most singers when they talk about fitness, they usually hear, from so many teacher, that they should limit it to yoga and I know there are singers out there are training more and are running marathons and stuff, too, but it still seems to be there's a stigma about working out to hard. What are your views on that?
Claudia: Traditionally voice teachers have been very concerned about having there students workout to much, and I think the reason for that is because when, especially performers, they want to look good on stage. they want to look good in HD, as there are more and more opera broadcasts, and if you have a workout regimen that is limited to pumping up your glamour muscles, you're probably going to throw your whole instrument out of balance because when we think about the muscles that are usually most aesthetic, we're talking about wanting six-pack abs, we want nice well-defined pecs, women want to define their arms, but if you just focus on those parts, rather than looking at the body as a whole and asking how can I optimize my physical structure for peak performance in singing what you end up doing is over-developing the glamour muscles, under-developing the muscles that need to stabilize them and your going to throw things out of whack. For example, if I want to go just pump up my chest a lot, the pectoral muscles are going to get tight and it's going to push my shoulder in like this [rounds shoulder] and my heads going to come forward like that [juts head forward]. and then where is my larynx, right? Whereas, if you go about developing strength in a way that's balanced I can build up my pecs and stabilize my shoulders and I'm going to have a better base of support for displaying my glamour muscles and I'm going to be able to maintain alignment. So what I've tried to do with this book is to explain how sports scientists go about assessing an athlete and noting where do you have some weaknesses, where do you have some overactive muscles, where are there imbalances and then just assigning a program to bring the entire musculature in balance. So the aesthetics are something that you can pursue within a program that is achieving balance and the kind of strength and stability we need as singers, but if you pursue a fitness regimen for the purpose of only aesthetics you might do damage to the voice, if you pursue an athletic regimen with the purpose to optimize your body for peak performance in singing you can also reach your aesthetic goals.
FS: The aesthetics are the icing on the cake. Actually pursuing a healthy lifestyle and balance in the workouts, it's [the body] going to get there, so you don't have to focus on particular things. If you focus on the whole - it's like any other athlete, too, they do cross-training because they need to have that balance. You're going to overwork certain muscles and be more prone to injury, of course for singers, throwing off alignment, it's going to throw off your whole voice.
Claudia: One of my mantras is form follows function, which is that if you do everything you need to do to be a spectacular highly functional vocal athlete, you're going to look the way that someone who was striving to be an athlete looks. It's going to be different for each one of us. Our bodies and our voices are so incredibly unique. This is why I encourage people to really just pursue what they feel is important for their own balance, their own strength and find out what is the aesthetic that will evolve into because if we just take some sort of aesthetic ideal or make ourselves look like "that" is no more useful than saying this is my favourite singer I'm going to try and sound exactly like her. You might be able to mimic that, but you'll never be as amazing as developing your own individual voice.
FS: That's so important, your own individuality involved in all aspects of your instrument. How do you feel that yoga and other somatic bodywork can fit in or complement weight training or resistance training?
Claudia: Yoga's fantastic! Yoga is wonderful. We have yoga teachers out there who are specializing in helping singers, connecting what they're doing with their yoga practice with what they're doing with their singing. Shout out to Mark Moliterno and Sarah Whitten, who are both doing wonderful work in this area. It's not instead or in addition to, it's just another modality. I found yoga to be a wonderful practice. I need to get back to do more of it. It's just a fantastic whole ancient practice that's also good, not only strength and flexibility, but also body-mind integration. It's a wonderful practice for singers to engage in.
What I'm promoting with my book is just more of a sports specific approach to training. What fitness trainers do when they've got an elite athlete that their trying to prepare to win that gold medal or do better for their team of their sport and that's just taking a step back and looking at what are the assets that an athlete needs to do their job well. What movements do they need to excel at, what do they need for strength and flexibility. Do an assessment of that athlete to know where they've got some strengths and some weaknesses, what they need to bring them into better balance, what you need to focus on to make them excel at the movements they need to engage when they're playing their sport. So a bit of an analysis of that for the vocal athlete in the studio and there's a collection of exercises and directions in the book, but you don't need to use these exercises. You can go to a yoga studio or work with a fitness trainer. What I want the readers to understand is that these are the things that I need to work at, these are my goals and so what's the modality, what's the routine, that's going to be the most enjoyable to stick to in order to achieve those goals.
FS: Great! Now I know you said we need to look at the WHOLE body, but if you had to give just three exercises that a singer should include in their workout routine, what would they be?
Claudia: Well as I said in the book, I was reluctant to say this is "the singer workout" because everbody needs such individual special things for the same reason that the voice lesson you get from your voice teacher is not necessarily the same lesson as your other colleagues in the studio are going to get from that teacher. That said, one of the things that I think is most important for singers is to be able to stabilize their shoulders so that they can maintain an open and relaxed ribcage, a dynamically engaged ribcage while they're singing. A common problem I see in singers of all stripes is that sometimes the chest collapses, so it's pressing down to drive air out of the lungs as you sing and this is not going to be great for the biomechanics of the larynx and that's one of the reasons I got into this because I would see students doing this and I would say, "No you need to let your sternum stay high". Well how do you do that?
Having high sternum means that you are able to stabilize your shoulders [brings out resistance band, 14:30 on the video], the rhomboids, the middle and lower trapezius are those muscles that are between the scapula and stabilize your shoulders. You can try this yourself. Slump forward a little bit then bring yourself back up into good alignment. You're going to feel how those muscles between your shoulder do that. Though I don't recommend doing exercises in isolation this is one I do in the studio, which is to engage those muscles and I would put my hands on a student's shoulders to feel it going. [Holds resistance band out in front with both hands shoulder width apart]. And have them exhale and vocalize while pulling on the resistance band so that those muscles in the back stay engaged. My sternum actually gets pulled up as I do this. So focusing on engaging, strengthening, stabilizing the scapula the muscles between the shoulder blades, the rhomboids, the mid and lower trapezius and also massaging the upper trapezius. There's another thing I can recommend. We all tend to be overactive with our upper trapezius and if I'm elevating my shoulders all of this is encroaching on space that I need around my neck for my vocalizing, so being able to release that muscle is important. One good way to do that is take a small massager and I can hold this on my trapezius [demonstrates massager on trapezius], going around to the back and I'm going to elevate my shoulder a roll it to the back and down and then straight up, I'm not going to come forward, while I'm massaging it. That's going to help the trapezius release so it will be easier for me to engage my shoulder stabilizers and avoid having the shoulders come up to my ears.
I think that's a pretty good example. These are a couple of things I think are important for most singers. I don't think you have a teacher who wants you to elevate your shoulders while you're singing. If they do that's ok, I can help you strengthen that too, but I rather that we didn't. [Laugther] Just being able to release that muscle and stabilize the shoulders, there are certain things I can't really help you to do withing the context of a voice lesson, but if I take you to the gym I can show you how to work on these muscles and do things that can keep your sternum elevated very easily while you sing so you don't have to think "keep the sternum up, keep the sternum up", it will just stay there.
FS: Thank you so much for being here this has been a lot of great information.
Want to work on your vocal fitness? Then join our online community at Vibrant Body Vibrant Voice.
All singers have experienced the effects of hormones on the voice. We know they are involved during puberty and the dramatic change in the male voice. Women may continue to experience the effect through their monthly cycle and through menopause.
What exactly are hormones?
Hormones are chemical messengers that travel through the blood stream delivering the message from one group of cells to another. The hormones and the organs that produce them are call the endocrine system. There are about 50 known hormones active in the human body. They are responsible for just about every physiological process in our bodies.
The hormones that I mentioned in the opening paragraph above are just the reproductive hormones, but there are so many other hormones in the body and they can likewise affect the voice.
Keeping our hormones is balance is crucial for our health and will help protect our vocal health, as well. The problem is that the Western lifestyle is one that is prone to putting our hormones out of balance and this can lead to serious problems. In fact, experts in endocrinology estimate that more that half the people in Western societies will develop hormone related diseases in their lifetime, diseases such as diabetes, polycystic ovarian syndrome, osteoporosis and hypothyroidism.
Hormones and the voice
There are hormones that will have a direct impact on the voice and have been studied. There are likewise many hormones that have a more indirect effect.
Let’s start by having a look at the direct effects that have been studied:
As already mentioned the sex hormones have their drastic effect on the voice during puberty. Ask just about any female singer and she can tell you that it’s tied to her monthly cycle, as well. In fact, we do know that there are estrogen, progesterone and androgen receptors in the laryngeal tissue. When estrogen levels are high, as part of premenstrual syndrom (PMS), the vocal fold can thicken due to fluid retention. This can affect range and effort of singing.
The other drastic change for women comes at menopause when estrogen levels fall drastically. This can leave higher levels of androgens, which can cause a drop in the voice.
The thryroid gland, located, right under your larynx, is central to regulating your metabolism. It controls virtually every function of your body and interacts with all the other hormones. About 12 % of the American population suffers from a thyroid disease.
Hypothryroidism is the most prevelant, that is the under-production of thyroid hormones. Up to 80% of those with hypothyroidism have vocal complaints. Effects on the voice include hoarseness, vocal fatigue, a feeling of a lump in the throat and loss of range. Many of these symptoms are likely caused by thickening of the vocal folds due to fluid retention.
Hyperthyroidism, and over-production of thyroid hormones is much less common, but can have similar effects on the voice.
Insulin resistance can lead to Diabetes, which can have effects on the voice. Dry mouth (a common problem with diabetics) may cause difficulty in phonation due to decreased lubrication. Neuropathy, a weakening of peripheral nerves, may lead to weakening of the phonation muscles and loss of control. Diabetes can also cause hearing loss, so important for a singer.
Indirect effects on the voice:
There are so many hormones in the body that control so much that can affect our ability to sing well.
The hormones of our adrenal glands, like cortisol and adrenaline, if not in balance, can cause us to be in a state of chronic stress (elevated cortisol levels) or can fail us and drop production to a point of burnout, sometimes called adrenal fatigue.
Our mood, which can have an affect on our performance is reliant on hormones such as dopamine and seratonin. If the hormones are out of balance we can be left with mood disorders that can disrupt our life and our singing.
There are hormones that regulate our appetite. A rise in ghrelin signals us to eat. Leptin is an appetite suppressant and rises as we eat, so that we don’t overeat. When these hormones are out of balance it can cause unwanted weight gain that can have an affect on our breath control and stamina.
Acid reflux may be affected by estrogen levels and by melatonin. Melatonin is also responsible for preparing our bodies for sleep. Lack of sleep will definitely affect your voice.
Keeping it all in balance
Hormonal balance is largely based on our lifestyle.
Diet plays a huge role. The Standard American Diet (SAD) is high in processed foods, refined sugars, conventional meat and dairy that is pumped with antibiotics and hormones. These foods are low in nutritional value. For your body to function properly it’s vital to have a healthy diet.
There have been studies that show that the hormonal levels during PMS and menopause can be better balanced so as to not have such a drastic effect. In one study women with very painful periods and PMS were placed on a plant-based diet and had significant reduction in duration and severity of the pain. Another study looked at using vitamin D, which was also effective.
For singers, these are certainly better options than NSAIDs like asprin and ibuprofen, which can put you at risk of vocal fold hemorrhages.
In general, a plant-based diet (high in vegetables, lignans, omega 3 fatty acid, healthy fats and fibre) has been associated with prevention of many diseases, including some protection against thyroid disease.
Other lifestyle factors that can affect hormonal balance are:
Exercise – too little or too much can both disrupt balance
Sleep - Make sure to get 7 – 9 hours a night
Stress – Learning stress management techniques is important.
Toxins – many toxins are endocrine disruptors that block hormones from delivering their message.
The functioning of our bodies are vastly complex and many hormones work in cascades, that is, a number of hormones are released by various organs in turn to get a specific outcome. For example, our stress response (fight or flight) starts with the hypothalamus in the brain releasing hormones to the pituitary gland, which signals a release of another hormone to the thyroid, which then send it’s messenger to the adrenal gland to release the “stress hormones”, which in turn go to various other parts of the body, such as cortisol going to the liver to release glucose.
An imbalance along any part of this cascade can have repercussions. So it is important for us to try to balance our hormones by making the appropriate lifestyle changes - for your health, for your voice.
Stay on top of your hormonal balance by joining our free Vibrant Body Vibrant Voice community.