This is the second in a two part series on lifestyle factors that may be contributing to anxiety.
In part one we discussed what anxiety disorders are. We also talked about performance anxiety and how many of these strategies are helpful for that, as well. And finally we explored the role of nutrition in anxiety and what foods may be exacerbating anxiety and what foods can help relieve it. If you haven’t read it yet you can find it here: Beating Anxiety - Part One: Nutrition
This week our focus will be on the role of exercise in relieving anxiety.
How Does Exercise Help?
There have been numerous studies on the beneficial effects of exercise on anxiety and depression. Exercising can be as effective as drugs for the treatment of anxiety. Why it works is still under consideration, but there seem to be many possible contributing factors
One possible explanation is that the stress pathway called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, undergoes changes that affect stress reactivity and anxiety under the influence of exercise.
Another possibility is that exercise increases serotonin synthesis, metabolism, and release. Serotonin being one of the major mood hormones necessary to our well being.
There is evidence that exercise stress can affect gene expression that affects the area of the brain rich in neurons that produce norepinephrine – a neuro-transmitter that plays a vital role in the fight or flight response.
Another possible mechanism for the anxiety relieving effects of exercise is by the body’s production of natural opioids and endocannaboids, which have a role in the regulation of mood and emotional responses. Exercise may induce a euphoric state with the release of these naturally occurring chemicals in the body and reduce pain – no weed necessary.
Aside from these physiological explanations, there are also some psychological reasons for the role of exercise in reducing anxiety.
Exposing someone with high anxiety sensitivity to the physiological symptoms they fear, such as rapid heartbeat, in the context of physical exercise may increase their tolerance for such symptoms as the brain soon realizes that there is no serious threat Repeated exposures through regular aerobic exercise may also help in getting used to the feared sensation.
Distraction is often a technique used to help those with anxiety and depress, so it’s another reason why exercise is effective at reducing anxiety.
Likely, it’s a combination of many of these reasons that help reduce anxiety. Whatever the reason may be, it’s clear that exercise is helpful.
How much exercise do you need to get the effects?
Regular exercise is important, so aiming for 3 to 5 times a week.
In a study on college musicians with musical performance anxiety, it was found that those who exercised regularly had lower performance anxiety scores than their more sedentary counterparts.
On a daily basis, it’s been shown that 30 minutes or more of aerobic exercise has more benefit than less than 30 minutes, but there didn’t seem to be any more benefit past 45 minutes. However, even 10 minutes daily to start will start providing some relief.
And what are the best exercises?
As I like to say, the exercise you are willing to do is the best exercise. However, a study from the University of Missouri suggests that high intensity interval training seems to have the greatest anxiety-relieving effect compared to steady state cardio.
As always, it’s important to check with your physician before starting any new exercise program and work up the intensity gradually to avoid injury.
If you want exercise ideas and more anxiety busting tips, join our Vibrant Body Vibrant Voice Facebook group.
My voice teacher used to always say to me, “A tree only grows tall if it has deep roots, and your voice will only flourish if you connect deep in your body.” For me that connection to the body always felt tenuous. I had to really think about it.
That is until I started working out in an efficient way that developed my deep core muscles to the point that it wasn’t such a conscious effort any more. When that core connection is there my breathing becomes more efficient and my sound floats freely and effortlessly. I could sing all day!
First of all lets review some of the major core muscles involved in breathing.
If you’ve been going to the gym knocking out crunches and planks and still don’t feel the magical quality of that connection, it’s because these aren’t the most efficient exercises to activate the desired muscles.
Crunches really only work the rectus abdominus, a very superficial muscle. It’s the one that can give you a great six-pack, but can actually hinder your breathing if too tight. The movement of crunches and sit-ups may also put undue strain on neck and shoulders.
Planks can be great, but are really an advanced move. They can be difficult to do without proper guidance to achieve the proper muscle activation, plus they have other limitations and may not be for everyone. I’ve addressed it before here.
The following five exercises in the video will hit all the muscles that you need to get great stabilization and activation of the core muscles that will have you singing freely throughout your range in no time.
So try them out an let me know how you do with them.
Looking for more exercises designed specifically for singers? Then join our Facebook group Vibrant Body Vibrant Voice.
This is a question that comes up often.
A big reason many teachers site as for discouraging students from trying to achieve those six-pack abs is the fact that there is too much tension which interferes with freedom of breath, but it's not really true. (If you don't want explanations and just examples involving shirtless men, then just scroll down now.)
Ok, this can be true in an untrained singer who already has developed a bad habit of clenching their abs tightly. Dancers and body-builders are usually the worst offenders. A lot of work needs to be done to re-educate their breathing, but not really much more than the average new student who tends to breath in a shallow manner.
What about experienced singers? Really all it takes is to inform them that they should continue to practice their singing breath when they workout.
Honestly that’s all it takes if they already have good breathing patterns. In fact, most athletes do practice good breathing technique. My triathlon coach used to tell us that as we rode our bikes. “Breath into your belly!” he’d yell, “Those Tour de France guys look like they’re pregnant when they breathe!!!”
And it’s not just on bikes. Running, swimming; they all require that deep breathing that we use for singing. And these athletes hit the gym for strength training as well, so it’s not just about the weights. It about how you breathe when you lift the weights.
Let’s take a look at a few examples. I know this is going to be difficult for you ladies, but let’s make the effort to look at the breathing patterns of Chris Helmsworth (as Thor) and Michael Phelps. Try not to get too distracted.
Notice how Thor lifts his shoulders with every breath. He is concerned with maintaining his glamour muscles. The tension may be dramatic, but it’s going to affect his fighting capabilities with poor oxygen exchange. Good thing he has a magic hammer.
Now take a look at Michael Phelps. This is the way you breathe to win! Look at those ribs and abs move. You can have those abs and breath with complete freedom too.
But I’m not going to leave it there. We also want to see whether a SINGER can have a six-pack and still breathe for singing. So here is your proof with William Burden and Nathan Gunn in the Pearl Fischers duet. You can especially see the working abs at 2 minutes.
So yes, singers, you can have awesome abs and breathe freely. We don’t necessarily build tension from creating those abs, we just have to learn how to keep them flexible.
After all our abdominal muscles are important to maintaining our posture – good alignment is always encouraged for singing and those abdominal muscles are part of the recipe for achieving that. They will protect your back and allow you to move athletically while on the stage (or off).
Just remember that as you sing you cannot maintain the lean magazine-cover look. Your belly will expand as you inhale deeply.
It’s also good to note that to be really ripped also requires a low body fat percentage that just is not sustainable and may not be compatible with singing. Bodybuilders and fitness models often get dehydrated to make the muscles pop, so it’s not a look I’d recommend singers go after.
If you want to find out more about how you can get your abs and still sing with freedom, join the FREE Vibrant Body Vibrant Voice Facebook group where I share exercises every week.
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.
There is one exercise that seems to be VERY popular with singers. It’s the plank. This isometric exercise is supposed to engage all your muscles of posture.
If you’ve been looking at fitness challenges, you may have seen the now ubiquitous plank challenge where you progressively hold it longer and longer.
There is even a plank challenge for singers to sing while planking.
However, the plank may not be all that it’s cracked up to be. Staring down at the floor while up on your hands and toes at the top of a push up for five minutes may not have the benefits you are hoping for.
Is the Plank the right exercise for you?
Let’s start by examining who should not be doing the plank. Anyone who fits the following criteria risks injury.
If you have diastasis recti you should avoid the plank. This is a separation of the muscles of the mid abdomen usually associated with post-partum women, but really can affect anyone man or woman. It can be caused by obesity, rapid weight loss, weight lifting and improper form in abdominal exercises. Planks can exacerbate the problem.
If you are in the final trimester of pregnancy.
If you suffer from back pain you should avoid planks, though short interval holds may be possible with correct form. More on form later.
If you are obese, aside from the possibility of diastasis recti, the extra weight on the back, shoulders and wrists may be too much and can cause injury.
Watch the short video to find out alternative exercises to strengthen your abs.
How long should I hold it?
So you’ve decided to get on the floor and plank. How long should you hold it for? Well, that depends. The current consensus is that 10 to 60 seconds is sufficient and no more than 120 seconds. What really matters is: HOW LONG CAN YOUR KEEP GOOD FORM?
As singers we are mainly doing planks to improve our alignment and core strength. There is a difference between alignment and posture. As singers we usually like to talk of good alignment over posture because posture implies holding statically, which can mean tension.
Guess what? We hold planks statically. When we sing or for that matter in anything we do in day to day living, we seldom hold ourselves statically, so a long duration plank really does not fit the bill as a transferable skill.
Shorter bursts of 10 to 30 seconds of holding with 5 second rests in between are more representative of what you would do in life. So if you can't hold a full minute, then go with 6 sets or 10 second planks or 3 sets of 20 seconds, etc.
Long duration planks are more about mental toughness and bragging rights, though the longer you hold the plank, the more likely you are to relax form and end up hurting your back.
For the record, before I knew any better, I once held a 6 minute and 20 second plank and had a very sore back for days afterwards, though my triathlete friends were duly impressed. Longer does not necessarily mean stronger.
What is good form?
The common advice given for planking is to keep a straight line from head to heels, keeping alignment. Instead of thinking a straight line from head to heels, think more of keeping your back flat, with a slight incline, so a ball could roll all the way down from head to heel without getting caught in a curved back.
The usual straight line cue can result in hyperextension of the back or a slight dip in the hips for many people. Of course, a flat back may cause a table top surface, which isn't desirable either.
Here are a few more tips to add to the checklist:
IT can sound pretty convoluted and it is actually quite technical. Without seeing yourself and/or having a trainer help you with your form, it can be very difficult to get the proper form and contract the abdominal muscles correctly.
Watch the short video on plank form to see how to get the form you need.
Remember, when doing planks, only hold as long as you can maintain good form and keep the abdominal muscles engaged.
If you do want to sing while planking, doing it as a short warm-up or as a tool to find the correct engagement of the abdominal muscles will be helpful, but holding it for the full duration of a song is not recommended, as form is likely to suffer.
Beyonce said that when she was 10 years old her father would make her sing while running on a treadmill to build stamina for her stage performances as part of the group Destiny’s Child. Apparently she still does it and so do many other pop, rock, musical theatre performers and even some opera singers.
There was an interesting thread on this subject recently in the Professional Voice Teachers Facebook group - some espousing it and some dubious of the health of undertaking such a vocal training regimen.
Singing while running is not new. The military does it with their running cadences. However, as a training tool for singers it seems to be taking off.
Today I’m going to discuss the pros and cons of this form of training, how to decide if it’s right for you and steps to implement it.
Pros and Cons of Running and Singing
From my own personal experience, when I took up triathlon my vocal stamina and power increased tremendously and I was already a fairly active person going to the gym 2 – 3 times a week and taking 3 dance classes a week, but the cardio training of triathlon made a significant difference.
And that brings me to:
Is It Right for YOU?
Yes you need to be already physically fit. If you can not run, I mean JUST run, for at least 30 minutes, you should not attempt to run and sing as part of your training. This holds true of any cardio and singing – ellipticals, bikes.
However, you may be able to WALK and sing and this can have some of the same benefits if you don’t need to do much movement, which brings me to the second point in deciding if this is right for you.
Does your singing require a lot of stamina and involve moving while singing? If you are a show choir singer, a musical theatre performer, have an active stage performance of any kind, then YES, you need to develop the stamina and the sound stability that this will provide.
My first taste of the necessity for this control came when I was in my high school musical production of Anything Goes and I had to tap dance and belt out my solo over orchestra and chorus (this was before headset sound systems, so no adjusting sound balance). I’ve since had to deal with this many times from dancing and cartwheeling through the Can-Can while singing in Orpheus in the Underworld, to sustaining a high B while being lifted up and perching on a dancer’s shoulder for the big finish after singing and dancing my way through Not Since Nineveh in Kismet.
If you just stand and deliver (or sit and deliver) then probably you don’t need to do this type of training.
Steps to Safe and Effective Run/Sing Training
Now that you’ve decided you want to attempt this type of training. Here’s what you need to know:
Just like any other training, if you do it in a slow progressive manner, you will reduce your chance of injury and soon enough will have the stamina, endurance and vocal power that you require for the most demanding vocal athletics required of you.
You are a vocal ATHLETE!
Need support and guidance, then join our community at Vibrant Body Vibrant Voice.
The Fit Singer is not a medical service. All physical activity carries the inherent risk of injury. It is your responsibility to choose which activities are right for you and to consult with medical professionals as you deem prudent or necessary. You are solely responsible for your health care and activity choices.
As singers we are always striving to release tension for a freer singing voice. Jaw tension, tongue tension, shoulder tension, breath tension...
What exactly do we mean by tension? According to the Oxford English Dictionary:
1. the state of being stretched tight.
"the parachute keeps the cable under tension as it drops"
tightness, tautness, rigidity; More
"a mind that is affected by stress or tension cannot think as clearly"
Though stretched muscles and mental and emotional strain can play a part (more on that later), this is NOT the tension we are usually talking about. What we usually mean by tension in terms of the body and singing is MUSCULAR tension:
Etymology: L, musculus + tendere, to stretch
the force that results from muscular contractions. Internal tension is produced when cross-bridges form between the actinand myosin filaments within each muscle fiber. The force generated by these contractile elements is transmitted to the bones via tendons and connective tissue. The bones move and produce external tension.
Mosby's Medical Dictionary, 9th edition. © 2009, Elsevier.
So we are looking at muscles in a state of contraction that impede the freedom of other muscles, movement of joints, and breath flow.
So let’s start with muscular tension and look at some of the causes and solutions.
1. Improper alignment and muscle imbalance. Our day-to-day lives leave us ripe for poor alignment and muscle imbalances. Sitting too much shortens our hip flexors. Hunching over computers, desks or even pianos allows our shoulders to round. Phones and computers cause text neck. Wearing heels affects the whole body shortening calves and throwing our hips forward, cause hyperextension of the back, and all the way up to your neck.
The typical solution in a voice studio is the teacher sees the misalignment and instructs the students to pull themselves into alignment. Let’s take rounded shoulders for example. The usual instruction is to pull the shoulders back. Unfortunately, this may cause more problems than it solves or at best is a momentary fix. You have now crossed into the Oxford definition of tension as you have elongated and stretched muscles, which is not correct medical term that we want to use. The contracted pectorals and neck muscles are now being stretched out beyond their current capability, which will cause discomfort to the student and have limited influence on the sound in this state.
The teacher may have advised to undergo a course of stretching exercises for the pectoralis major (chest muscle), but that is of limited use unless strengthening of the antagonistic muscles (Infraspinatus, teres minor, middle and posterior deltoid, latissimus dorsi, teres major) is also undertaken. Joint alignment of the shoulder must be taken into consideration, too.
Solution: If possible see a personal trainer or physical therapist proficient in postural assessment. They will be able to target where imbalances are and give corrective exercises. Do full body- conditioning exercises – do not focus on just one body part or muscle group. The Total Singer Challenge offers programs that can help with better alignment and strengthening, I am also trained in postural assessment.
2. Injury: If you have an injury, whether a broken bone or a sprained finger, it can affect your whole body, which can affect alignment and cause tension. Even the smallest injury can make you compensate with other muscles. Also the pain mechanism can cause clenching of muscles. Let’s take a not so obvious injury and see how it can affect the body – a sprained index finger of the dominant hand. The pain may cause tension in the shoulder, neck and jaw from clenching. You will be favouring use of other fingers that are not as strong, so the unfamiliar grip will cause fatigue of muscles not usually used, which can lead to more tension.
Solution: If it is a newer injury then you should be under the care of a physical therapist to aid with recovery. When singing try to position yourself in a way that will minimize tension. If you have a lower body injury, this may mean sitting (always observing good sitting practices). If it’s an older injury that has scar tissue involved you may need to seek other forms of therapy such as deep tissue massage or active release technique. Also see the solution to point 1.
3. Unawareness of bad habits: Every singer knows about the “terrible tongue”. It seems to have a mind of it’s own at times; retracting on high notes, tensing, pushing down on the larynx, etc. Most of this happens just because it hasn’t been trained properly. A good teacher can usually bring awareness to this and with diligent training the problem will be solved. There are other bad habits that can occur from no obvious reason. For me, as a young singer, I tended to sickle my foot while I sang. I finally managed to get rid of it, but then discovered the tension had moved to my butt cheek, which liked to clench. My teachers were unaware that this was taking place. It took a while by my own conscious efforts to get rid of it and there was really no obvious technical reason that it should have been happening.
Other areas of tension can be the wrinkling forehead, clenched fists, splayed fingers, and other manifestations or tension. Now some of these may be just a bad habit, trying to help with technique – all sorts of things happen in singers hitting high notes, for example, even singers with good technique have been caught rising on toes or wrinkling foreheads; possibly vestiges of a time before their technique was mastered.
Solution: Constant awareness. If this has been a longstanding problem you may need to address any issues as with point 1. If it is a technical issue see point 5.
4. Stress: Now some of the above types of tension can also be caused by stress. Mental and/or emotional strain is, after all, the second definition of tension listed above. This can manifest itself physically, sometimes as chronic tension when certain muscles in your body stay in a semi-contracted mode for long periods of time. When you are worried about something it can be difficulty to breathe correctly, you may remain in a tense position without realizing it, and find you can't relax and let go. A voice teacher or coach is not necessarily able to help with the root cause, but they can identify that it is impeding the freedom of the voice and advice the singer to get appropriate treatment if they are not already doing so.
Solution: If it is just the stress of daily life a meditation practice, yoga, or a good massage may be all that’s needed. It could be a fear of messing up - "Here comes that high note", which requires work on confidence and secure technique. If it is a more deeply rooted problem, such as anxiety or depression, then the care of a medical or mental health practitioner is recommended. Voice teachers often reflect on how their lessons can sometimes feel like therapy sessions, but it really is outside of our scope of practice and should be deferred to the professionals in this area.
5. Poor technique: Poor technique in breath management will especially have an effect on tension. An insufficiently deep breath and inconsistent airflow can cause throat and jaw tension. Breathing into the wrong area, whether from the incorrect instruction to sing from the diaphragm or over focusing on belly breathing, can throw out alignment. Insufficient lift in the soft palate can cause tension in many parts of the kinetic chain of singing as the body tries to compensate. And of course, there can be other aspects of poor technique.
Solution: A good voice teacher should be able to identify and address issues of poor technique. Your own diligent work must do the rest. Poor technique over many years can cause muscle imbalances, so again, see point 1.
In conclusion, to have a free vibrant singing voice we want a body free of unnecessary muscular tension. Finding the root cause of the tension and giving it the proper treatment is important, otherwise the cycle of tension will continue. However, a daily course of self-massage and foam rolling, plus a good full body workout can go a long way in aiding the management of tension until the root cause is addressed.
If you are looking for ways to improve your alignment and release tension then join our next Total Singer Challenge where you will get one-on-one attention to target your specific needs. Click here for more information.
A voice teaching colleague of mine asked me what could be done for a singing student who was suffering vocal and health issues.. She knew it would be beneficial not only for his singing, but for his overall health. Lifestyle changes can be encouraged in anyone that is not taking care of themselves and putting their health at risk, for example someone who smokes, someone who eats carelessly and suffers from acid reflux or obesity, someone who lacks sleep.
So what can you do when you see someone that definitely needs a lifestyle change? It’s a touchy subject. Many people who are in this condition are already probably feeling low self-esteem on some level. We can’t really know what’s going on in their heads. And voice teachers are often not qualified to help, at the same time it is our job to get them to sing at their full potential. At some point, the truth is that the behaviour may be harming them.
The first thing is to let your student know that her body is her instrument and that it needs to be taken care of to reach it’s full potential. Now some people are just not ready to let this message sink in. They can be like three year olds being told to eat their veggies and sticking their fingers in their ears to not hear. Repeat the message often and gently, eventually the fingers will come out of her ears and she will be ready to listen. (This can also apply to peers or loved ones you feel may need some gentle nudging).
Any singing teacher will have experienced this with messages on practice habits, technique, etc. seemingly falling on deaf ears. Repetition is essential. What may seem like a breakthrough is actually the readiness of the person to accept the message.
Behaviour change is usually classified in five stages:
The situation I’ve been describing is a person in the stage of Precontemplation.
What you can do: Your part is to increase the awareness of the importance to change, stressing the benefits. Do some research into the problem. You can make a list of pros and cons of exercise and nutrition, and discuss health risks. Provide education through print and electronic media (such as The Fit Singer site or Facebook page).
You can also discuss myths and fears of exercise and nutrition (For example, many singers do fear that losing weight will negatively impact their voices similar to what happened to Maria Callas. This just is not true if it is undertaken in a healthy manner.). Find out what’s holding them back – lack of belief of benefits, lack of self-esteem (“I could never change my eating habits”), lack of money, lack of support?
Find out what her priorities are.
The following stage is Contemplation. Here the person is starting to think about changing behaviour and may even have a course of action in mind.
What you can do: Continue with education and discussion of benefits. This may be a good time to invite them to join The Fit Singer’s Vibrant Body Vibrant Voice Club or the VBVV Healthy Eating Challenge. It’s a good time for you to show your support and help them increase self-confidence.
Next is Preparation. In this stage the person is already making plans for behaviour change and may have already made some minor changes. This is where they may be ready for a program. It could be through a gym, working with a personal trainer or The Total Singer Program. Or, depending on the issue, with some other health care professional.
What you can do: Your role at this point is support. You can offer a referral if they need it. The Fit Singer offers customized support programs.
Action is the first 6 months of undertaking a program of change. At this point most of the guidance, motivation, support and accountability will come from the professional be it physician, therapist, coach, trainer or nutritionist.
What you can do: You can also provide motivation and support. Having a community of supportive people is very important for the person undergoing change. Relapses are a very real possibility at this stage and your support is important in managing them.
The final stage is Maintenance. This is after 6 months of successful adherence to a program of change. Again the health/fitness professional will be helping to revise programs, prevent relapses, and provide support.
What you can do: Your role remains the same as for Action – be supportive and encouraging.
If you are a voice teacher working with a student going through the Action and Maintenance stages of someone making weight loss or fitness changes, you may have to start readjusting the support and breathing practices, which will be most affected by the change. You may also need to help them re-adjust posture as they begin to hold themselves differently.
Whether you are dealing with a student, a peer or a loved one, YOUR support through ALL stages will be one of the biggest factors in providing motivation and success!
This topic is one that I’ve been meaning to write about since last January, but there always seemed to be something that came up. Now with back-to-school time looming I figured it was about time to tackle it.
By now most people have heard this term. Text neck is a condition caused by looking down at your cell phone, tablet, or other wireless devices too frequently and for too long. It can be the cause of neck pain and damage. It also contributes to poor postural form, which for singers, of course, means less freedom in the instrument. It will affect breathing and constrict the larynx.
Hunching over isn’t something new. People have been doing it for ages to read, work at a desk and so on. The problem with texting is that it adds one more activity that causes us to look down. And it’s not just texting is it?
Just a couple of weekends ago I went to listen to some live jazz at the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden. Just about everyone had their phone out. Apparently it’s a hot spot for Pokemon! If you thought Pokemon Go was great for getting kids out of the house and doing something active – think again. More text neck inducing activity!
Younger and younger children have access to phones and tablets. These growing spines are susceptible to possible permanent damage to their cervical spine that could lead to lifelong neck pain.
For adults a study has shown that 79% of people aged 18 – 44 had their cell phones with them for all but 2 hours of their waking day! This can result in neck, shoulder and upper back pain. It can also contribute to early onset of arthritis and subsequent chronic problems.
This issue was recently addressed by The Voice Foundation Symposium in Philadelphia in June 2016 and a subsequent article in Musical Theater Resources.
Being made aware of posture and making sure the ears are over the shoulders is a great first step. For some people however, this is of limited value if the musculature and even skeletal system are out of balance.
As you can see in the diagram the greater the angle of looking down the greater strain is placed on the neck. This can cause the vertebrae to slide out of alignment. It shortens and tightens the muscles at the front of the neck and chest. Meanwhile the muscles at the back of the neck and spine become stretched and weak. When standing in an upright posture you can often see an excessive lordotic curve of the neck and kyphotic curve of the upper back.
Spinal alignment can be temporarily achieved through methods such as chiropractic. However, the pull of the tight muscles and weakness of the stretched muscles will only cause the vertebrae to slip back.
So how can we correct this?
Following are a series of practical exercises to find that alignment. Some simple equipment is needed such as a resistance band and a foam roller.
First we will start with an exercise to develop stronger muscles at the back of the neck and upper trapezius.
The next exercise is to strengthen the back muscles that will help keep the shoulders back – that is the mid- and lower-trapezius, rhomboids, and latissimus dorsi.
The following exercise opens up the chest and can help with correcting a kyphotic curve (keep in mind that there should be a slight kyphotic curve through the thoracic vertebrae.
And finally we will finish with a series of neck and shoulder stretches.
Some things to keep in mind:
First of all, everyone is different and may have different areas of muscular imbalance. A postural assessment by a qualified trainer, physical therapist or chiropractor may be necessary. A voice teacher, though knowledgeable about alignment, may not necessarily be trained in postural assessment and exercise program design. A properly done assessment will require some degree of undress to see where issues may be arising (beyond the scope of what one expects in a voice lesson) and based on that an individualized course of action can be implemented.
Secondly, though these exercises may help text neck, complete core conditioning is essential for optimal posture. Weak muscles of the lower back and abdomen can also contribute to rounded posture. You may like to check out the video 10 Uses of Resistance Bands in the Voice Studio.
Finally, as mentioned before, awareness is very important. Take frequent breaks from downward viewing positions. Try to hold your device higher or keep your laptop at an appropriate height so you don’t have to look down. Get up and move around and do some stretching. Fix your posture every time you think of it.
As always, a beautiful posture, free of unwanted tension, will help produce your free vibrant sound.
We took some time to discuss his health and fitness journey.
TFS: How did you start your health/fitness journey?
MA: I would have to give credit to my dad to helping me start on my fitness journey. As a child I was not terribly active; I enjoyed reading and academics and games. My dad made a point of giving me physical challenges like push-ups and sit ups, 3-5 mile runs, etc. to boost my mental toughness and physical ability. As a reward, I would play badminton with my sister and my dad. Gradually I started to really enjoy the challenge and sense of accomplishment and now need very little encouragement. I am usually at the gym a little too often!
TFS: What does your normal fitness routine consist of?
MA: I have 4-5 weight workouts scheduled throughout the week with 3 quick ab workouts as well. I plan for cardio 2-3 times a week and, as time permits, attend a Chen Tai Chi class on Sundays for about an hour and a half.
TFS: Do you have a favorite exercise or activity?
MA: I can’t say that I have a favorite exercise; I like each part of my workout plan for different reasons. That being said, I do enjoy lifting weights and tai chi perhaps the most. I generally dread going for a run because cardiovascular activity has never been my favorite activity. That being said, it is good for me and builds character. And it is rewarding to finish a run and feel great afterwards.
TFS: What do you typically eat? Do you have a specific diet or nutrition plan?
MA: I tend to eat protein rich meals with a moderate amount of carbohydrates and fats. Generally, my meals are larger at breakfast and lunch, and taper down in size as the day wears on. I eat 5 times per day. For supplements, I use a whey protein powder, a greens powder as I find it a challenge at times to eat enough greens, a CLA supplement and Korean Red Ginseng.
TFS: What advice do you have for other singers?
MA: Keep studying and reflecting to understand your voice. Incorporate activity into your life to help keep stress at bay and keep the body healthy and fit.
TFS: Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years from now?
MA: An interesting question. Currently I am starting to perform again and also work in the hospitality industry. I enjoy both for different reasons. I would be happy to still be doing both within 5 to 10 years with a great amount of performing as a part of my days. Perhaps also teaching voice?
TFS: What have you found to be your most physically demanding performance?
MA: My most demanding performance was during a staging rehearsal at the University of Manitoba’s Contemporary Opera Lab; I was singing Zizi’s Lament and had to do it while doing a series of cartwheels. How or why I was asked to do this escapes me at the moment but the memory of trying to support the voice while my body was supporting itself and spinning upside down to right side up and back again was a ridiculous challenge!
TFS: Thanks so much Michael! It's been a pleasure to talk to you and, of course, work with you again.