*This document contains a synthesis of understanding from the sources listed at the end of the document. Most of these sentences are not my original content, but a gathering of consensus from the research.
Voice Exercise Principles
One of the greatest gifts you can give yourself as a singer is self-awareness about your vocal instrument. This tipsheet will introduce you to the understanding that exists around how muscles work and help you plan your vocal training so you will move towards development and away from fatigue and injury.
The right vocal exercises can increase your strength, stamina and injury-prevention IF you:
- practice frequently across the week
- stretch just beyond your comfort zone every practice
- target your training on specific tasks and muscle function
- develop patience + perseverance.
While the development of skills through specific vocal warm-ups and exercises has been a feature of vocal training for centuries, it is more recently that voice scientists and teachers have started to look at a broader understanding of muscle training.
Our goal is to use exercises which are designed to promote vocal efficiency, not just those that are geared toward a specific style or place in history.
We aim to:
- choose warm-up exercises that target skill acquisition
- plan training with increased warm-up times that can develop fatigue resistance and also assist us to prevent injury
- apply exercise science principles to the needs of specific repertoire in order to generate an effective practice routine.
If muscles are trained in the appropriate way, they will undergo muscle fibre, neurological and metabolic changes which will develop the capacity to meet the new demand imposed on them. This process is known as SAID (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand). Muscles need to be worked beyond what they are used to for them to continue to develop.
There are five primary principles which lead us to maximise strength, function, endurance and longevity.
- Intensity – or load.
- Frequency – the number of training sessions in a week.
- Overload – in order to extend a voice, we need to place an extra demand on the vocal muscles, using repetition, increased range and extra effort. That is, frequency and intensity must surpass the target muscle’s comfort zone.
- Specificity – training is most effective if work is directed at the exact muscle groups and neuromuscular movement patterns specific to a particular function.
- Reversibility – when the training stops, there is a detraining effect, and you lose the gains in strength and endurance. Most physiological benefits of training are probably completely lost after 4-8 weeks of inactivity. (This does not include neuromuscular patterns that are deeply established, although they may feel ‘rusty’ after prolonged inactivity.)
Intensity, frequency and overload work together. If frequency and intensity do not surpass the target muscle’s comfort zone, the target muscle will persist in a state of maintenance, and growth will not occur. Therefore, demanding muscular exertion beyond its maintenance level will overload the muscle, leading to adaptation and change.
It is interesting to note that neural (mental pathways) and metabolic (delivery of energy to muscles for contraction) changes usually come before the muscle fibre changes.
- Neural changes – after about 2 weeks (usually 4-8 weeks)
- Muscle changes – after another 4-5 weeks
There is a sixth principle sometimes included – INDIVIDUALITY. It recognises that a person’s individual response to a specific load or training program is largely unpredictable. This is why our singers receive a program tailoring exercises to their individual needs.
Your vocal training should feature:
- awareness of the importance of warming up your voice wisely and well
- technical exercises dedicated to the development of specific muscle function
- guidance on applying those muscle function skills into repertoire
- tips on balancing perseverance with patience – time will do its work if you plug away at the task with flexible consistency.
It is possible to over-practice or practice inefficiently – both may be detrimental to the voice.
- Rest and recovery between practice sessions is important.
- Practice sessions don’t have to be all singing.
- Split your session up into thirds:
- Warm up
- Vocalise, text work, rhythms, character development, story work, research, etc
- Increase the amount of time per practice session by 5 minutes per week.
- Aim for an accumulation of 60-90 minutes practice across the day.
Avoid repetitive strain type injuries while building stamina and muscle memory by:
- Checking in with your vocal instrument every day to assess its needs.
- Varying your vocal workout across the week.
- Including a balance of exercise styles to prevent injury and keep you engaged.
- Varying vocal intensity, tessitura and exercises.
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Hall, K. (2014). So You Want to Sing Music Theater. A Guide for Professionals. Rowman & Littlefield, Maryland.
Hoch, M. & Sandage, M. J. “Exercise Science Principles and the Vocal Warm-Up: Implications for Singing Voice Pedagogy” in Journal of Voice. 32(1) p79-84. 2018
Leborgne, W.D. & Rosenberg, M. (2014) The Vocal Athlete. Plural Publishing, San Diego.
Robinson, D. K. (2018). Exercise Physiology Principles for Singers. https://youtu.be/aYHINGq5r3g
Scearce, L. (2016). Manual of Singing Voice Rehabilitation, A Practical Approach to Vocal Health and Wellness. Plural Publishing, San Diego.
Shewell, C. (2009). Voice Work: Art and Science in Changing Voices. Wiley-Blackwell, UK.
Titze, I. R. & Verdolini-Abbott, K. (2012). Vocology: The Science and Practice of Voice Habilitation. National Center for Voice & Speech, Utah.