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 summer is a whirlwind for me this year. Often I spend my summers enjoying some time to myself, training for triathlon, some light planning for the fall and teaching voice one day a week. My online world continues, but not teaching really frees up a lot of time.
This summer however, is vastly different – and in a good way. I’d say even a GREAT way.
It started of with a bang with five days in Vegas at the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) conference .
That was loaded with inspiration; refreshing old ideas and exploring new ones.
With my head still swimming with all of that, I made my way to Resonanz Opera in Ohio, where I’m pulling triple duty as director of the high school internship program, teaching health & wellness for singers in my LIVE Empowered Singer program and stepping in for the Abbess in Suor Angelica. This last one was impromptu as the originally cast Abbess could not make it. Good thing I brought my score!!!
We started off our Empowered Singer program talking about mindfulness and ways of thinking. And it was also the subject of a couple of sessions at the NATS conference. This is a subject of growing importance to singers.
In an industry where we can feel such negativity - feeling examined under a microscope, dealing with rejections, feeling the heat of competition, being our own worse critic, struggling with finances and so on, it can all affect our ability to free our voices, to open ourselves to our own vulnerability, to be confident in that vulnerability, to be able to cope with the stresses in the face of that negativity, and to bring out our true creative nature.
Great performers have learned to overcome this. In part this is due to these traits that they have in common:
A fighting-spirit: That doesn’t mean you’re going to get in a catfight with that arrogant soprano with a diva complex (she’s probably dealing with issues of her own). What it means is that you have the fight in YOU to carry on no matter what obstacles come your way, to fight to make YOURSELF the BEST you can be, to keep improving in all aspects of your life.
The ability to focus their attention: In times of stress if the stress levels get too high we can hyper-focus, that is we narrow our range of focus and often to the negative. At the same time if there is too little feeling of stress or nervousness then there is a lack of focus and can become easily distracted. Finding that middle ground of our stress response allows us to focus on the task at hand with detachment from emotional responses without sacrificing expressivity – sometimes this is called the Flow State.
A positive attitude: Towards yourself and others. Being willing to learn and grow. The ability to forgive.
Self-Confidence: So often we think of self-confidence associated with body image and as the opposite of shy, and though to some extent that’s true, it’s also confidence in the skills you have, and being confident that you will master the skills you don’t yet have.
Self-Discipline: Of course, we know we need self-discipline to practice, but it is also the self-discipline to practice effectively. There is also the self-discipline required to keep detached during performances and detached from distractions, and finally, self-discipline in other areas of your life that may have a bearing on your instrument, such as looking after your health.
Determination: In the face of all odds you are determined to get the outcome you want. Whether it is to perform your best at your next concert, get a handle on your finances or the determination to make this career choice work for you, your determination will find ways to tackle any obstacle.
You can have these traits, too!
The good news is all these traits can be learned and practiced. The most effective path is through mindfulness.
Mindfulness can be used in many ways:
Studies have shown that meditation and other mindfulness practices do actually make physiological changes to your brain.
Mindfulness can be informal or formal.
Formal include practices such as prayer, transcendental meditation, visualization practices and yoga.
Informal practices can be washing dishes, eating mindfully, walking or running (when runners get in the zone), taking a shower.
Most likely you will use a combination of different types of mindfulness to achieve different outcomes.
You may use informal methods to calm yourself or unleash creativity (the best ideas always seem to come in the shower) or even learn to focus (focus on experiencing your meals, slowly chewing, tasting, smelling).
Formal methods can help you reach deeper into yourself to make changes. Get over performance anxiety or learn how to control your temper by practicing visualization of the situation you are going to be in that may trigger the unwanted responses. You can use visualization to improve motor skills, as well – a great way to practice when you’re traveling and won’t be able to properly vocalize.
Mindfulness practices usually will cross-over to other benefits, just the focus of attention may change. Example: A visualization practice will help you focus, de-stress, release tension and master a skill.
There are many apps available that can lead you through guided meditations. Choose one and get started to reach heights of awareness you didn’t think were possible. You can start of with as little as 5 minutes a day.
The key to success with mindfulness is to practice it consistently. Focus on one area of improvement at a time and stick with it for at least three weeks before moving on to another skill or goal.
If you want more guidance on mindfulness join our free community at Vibrant Body Vibrant Voice.
Follow The Fit Singer on Facebook or Instagram to follow my adventures at Resonanz this summer and get more tips on all things vocal health.
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.
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.
You may find yourself exclaiming,“Oh no! Not another article about breathing?!” But hear me out. I gave this some thought. As singers the basis of our technique is breathing and there are many articles available on breathing technique. I scoured many and there are many varying thoughts. And the pros and cons of nasal and mouth breathing are very simplistic. What’s prompted me to write about the subject is the prevalence of articles I have come across in the fitness industry on breathing over the last few years and the things mentioned there that are never mentioned in the singing ones.
First let’s look at the health benefits of nasal breathing. It goes far beyond the warming and humidifying of air and filtering particles. Nitric oxide is found in the inside of the nose, which has anti-microbial properties and once inhaled into the lungs enhances oxygen uptake. The more you use your nose to breathe the more you stimulate the production of nitric oxide. Nasal breathing also stimulates the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve provides parasympathetic innervation to glands of mucous membranes of the pharynx, larynx, organs in the neck, thorax, and abdomen. It innervates skeletal muscles of the pharynx and larynx. It also functions in controlling heart rate and the digestive tract.
So here is how all this translates into 10 health benefits:
Mouth breathing really doesn’t have much going for it. It dries out the mouth. There is a tendency to over-breathe and to breathe higher in the body. It can lead to hyperventilation. There is an increased risk of asthma and cardiovascular disease. It can cause snoring and even sleep apnea.
In fitness, nasal breathing is encouraged more and more for improved athletic performance. But how can we use this in singing when we need to take in breaths quickly? The best advice is to inhale through the nose when you can: at the beginning or when you have a rest for 2 or more counts. Otherwise try to inhale through both the nose and mouth. The more well trained you are the easier it becomes.
With my beginner students (and even not so beginner) we start with humming exercises with inhalation through the nose. The mouth should never open during these exercises. It’s quite difficult for most of them at first, but it does encourage deeper breathing, which is always a problem with beginners (not surprising, when it is estimated that 80% of the western world breathes improperly).
Many of the health benefits attributed to singing can be directly related to breathing. If you are already an established mouth breather for singing and/or exercise, it’s time to rethink how you breathe and use your nose more. So let’s make sure you are getting the most out of every inhalation!
Google exercises for singers and you will find many lists that include yoga, pilates, walking and swimming, while cautioning against weight training, extreme sports and sometimes dancing. In a world where what the human body can do is constantly being challenged and new ideas are evolving in sports medicine this is a very traditional and limiting view.
There was a time only a few decades ago that women were discouraged from running for fear that their ovaries would fall out. Now nearly half the field at the Boston Marathon is women; 61% of half-marathon finishers are women. If attitudes to women and exercise are changing so dramatically, then why are many sources for singers still behind the times? Luckily there are many singers that are pushing the frontiers of fitness and singing. There are singers who are marathon runners, triathletes (including me), and more. Some of these singers are very successful in the world of opera, too, an art form that is steeped in tradition. In the next few months I will be doing some interviews with these singers, so stay tuned.
But back to the original question: What makes a good exercise program for singers? Well, since presumably singers are humans, we require the same elements as anyone else. These elements will help prevent disease, improve body composition, help prevent injuries and make everyday activities easier to perform. The three primary components are cardiorespiratory training, resistance training and flexibility training.
Cardiorespiratory training improves lung capacity and strengthens the heart, increasing stroke volume so more blood is pumped through with each contraction of the heart, which means more oxygen is delivered to the cells and used at the cellular level to create energy. Read more in my previous article Why Cardiorespiratory Training is Important for Singers: How Hip Hop Changed My Life.
Resistance training (also called strength or weight training) improves muscle endurance and muscular strength, increases basal metabolic rate, improves joint strength and overall posture.
Flexibility training, by increasing range of motion, decreases the risk of injury, improves bodily movement and improves posture.
I’m sure as a singer you see the benefit of it all. For all singers posture is important for freedom of sound. Making sure any muscle imbalances are corrected through resistance and flexibility training will help with posture in an efficient manner. Energy and muscular endurance are important for performance when we have to deal with moving in heavy costumes, dancing, lifting props and any other stage craft needed to make it through a whole show sounding fresh right to the end. Even choral singers have physical demands placed on them to stand through a performance holding music.
So we need the three primary components of fitness, what else? The secondary components of fitness are comprised of balance, coordination, agility, reaction time, speed, power and mental capacity. All of these, even when exercised on larger muscle groups, will prime your brain to carry these components into singing, as well.
Now we know all the components to fitness, but how do we build a program from that? Ideally, you should have an assessment and work with a personal trainer who will design a customized program for your particular needs. We are all unique in our goals. We all have areas of weakness or muscular imbalance that a trained professional can help you with on an individual basis. They will also help you find something that you will enjoy doing so that you are successful at reaching your goals.
For many singers the cost of working with a trainer can be prohibitive or if you are traveling just not possible. The Fit Singer offers programs that can help you that are cost efficient and available to do from anywhere. For more information check out The Fit Singer Boot Camp.
If you already are doing some physical activity that’s wonderful! Just make sure you are including all the components of exercise. I would love to hear about what you do for your singer fitness. Let me know by commenting or send me a message at The Fit Singer.
Every time you look in the news it seems that there is another singer out with vocal fold problems. Just last week Meghan Trainor had to cancel her tour due to vocal fold issues. Sometimes all they require is some rest, other times they have to resort to more drastic invasive surgical treatments. Some classical voice teachers posit that it’s the lack of technique and though for some singers this may be true, in general that is not what the cause is. http://www.vulture.com/2015/08/surgeon-explains-vocal-cord-injuries.html?mid=fb-share-vulture
In 2008 at a conference for the National Associations of Teachers of Singing (NATS), I took part in a study to assess the vocal folds of voice professionals. The results of the study were surprising in that 86% of the study participants had vocal pathologies, but it didn't interfere with healthy voice production. This is one reason why every professional singer or aspiring professional should get a laryngological evaluation including high-quality strobovideolaryngoscopy when they are healthy and singing well. http://www.vocapedia.info/_Library/JOS_files_Vocapedia/JOS-069-3-2013-301.pdf What really causes the problems for professional singers is not the abnormalities that already exist or the style of singing, but the demands and frequency of performing.
Train Like An Athlete
In sports overuse injuries are well known and talked about - rest and recovery are very important parts of any training program. Vocal athletes need to consider this as well. Opera singers do - performances are spread out with rest days and rehearsals are often sung with a marked voice. The modern contemporary popular music artist is expected to perform day after day with grueling touring schedules, plus the toll of the constant travel can increase stress levels and make healthy eating difficult. Young singers in undergraduate programs also run a risk due to technique not being fully developed and increased vocal use in lessons, masterclasses, choirs, practice, etc.
What can you do about vocal overuse? As with sports training, have an effective training program. There are a number of training cycles involved. One is the overall cycle that takes into account training season, playing season and off-season. A smaller scale cycle could be broken up into 4-week periods with a three-week build followed by a recovery week with a lighter load. Finally we can program a weekly cycle that allows for work days and rest days. Keep in mind that vocal folds and the surrounding muscles are small structures and cannot train for hours on end a day. It’s important to get to know your voice and what the signs of fatigue are. In athletic training, even for intense interval training you should always feel like you still have gas in the tank. You should be able to maintain form and good technique. If that starts to break down then it is time to stop.
The other aspect of any good training program also involves things like making sure you have a good light warm up keeping the intensity low. It sets up your mind and body for the training that is about to happen. Working on all round development. For singing this would involve making sure the whole body is in condition, not just the vocal apparatus. Keep in mind principles of reversibility and maintenance. Reversibility is when training ceases and the body returns to a pre-exercise state. Though a week or two of rest may be a good break anything longer can result in a regression. Most vocal students who take off the whole summer usually experience this. The other principle is maintenance. This can prevent the reversal of your vocal (and bodily) fitness level during the break times (up to 12 weeks at one third the volume).
Stress and diet are also important to keep in mind. Make sure you are eating a healthy diet. I find Shakeology is a great addition and wonderful for traveling. You are always guaranteed one exceptionally healthy meal a day. Take time to distress by having some quiet time doing activities you enjoy (a bath, a walk in the park, meditation, exercise).
As I always stress, singing is a very physical activity and you are a VOCAL ATHLETE. Treat yourself like one and you will find that you will be in better shape than ever (vocally and physically) and less prone to overuse injury.
Hi, I'm so glad you found my wellness coaching site. I am a singer, voice teacher of over 20 years, certified personal trainer and nutrition coach.
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