The functional training of the voice that I’ve been been focused on for the last dozen years is different than the traditional singing training I received years ago. The traditional methods were predominately for voice training in the classical music world. Although, functional research was around (research and books), it was not mainstream. In 2008, the American Academy of Teachers of Singing presented their paper “In Support of Contemporary Commercial Music (CCM) Voice Pedagogy” to the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS). You can read it here!
I heard the presentation that year, attending my first NATS Conference, fresh out of grad school. Learning how to teach pop singers was my goal when I realized that my traditional training wasn’t helping me help my clients interested in contemporary music. I was thrilled about this research and presentation, as I know were the men and women who have been researching and training in this field for decades; finally being publicly validated as they had been advocating (and some creating) a different type of training for these styles of singing. As I dove into this training more than 10 years ago, my life changed. My own singing changed. My teaching changed. My studio grew. I could offer training for singers who wanted to make sounds they didn’t know how to make, and get them to meet their goals, and give them the power and understanding how to manage it on their own.
Living in a world that said singing was all about the breath, posture, lifting the soft palate, etc, didn’t serve me or my clients well who were trying to sing pop, country, blues, etc. This new functional world of balancing muscles in the throat, strengthening muscles, becoming aware of muscle groups that are trying to help, but are actually getting in the way of the vocal folds (cords) job - was like solving a puzzle. Like finally seeing clearly the art behind one of those hologram images that looks like squiggles. It’s tangible training. I can feel the differences of the muscles. I can hear how different muscle groups make different sounds. I can see/sense how they try to work together. Voice Science!
My traditional training was also built on a lot of imagery that did not always make sense to me. Being a good student, I would say that I got it, but in reality, the sounds that I made were likely a fluke or a result of a direct instruction that I did not fully understand, because I could not duplicate it. The functional training required me to increase my kinesthetic awareness - the sense of movement in/of the body. Identifying a sensation for making a certain sound takes a hyper focused mind. And, it has given me such control and freedom at the same time, over my voice. This is how I train my singers!
My clients either come to me new, knowing nothing but the myths they hear about singing training (like: it’s all about the breath!) or they come from a more traditional based training that is not serving them in their contemporary music goals. Most of them have heard that “warming up” the voice is good before singing. To them, that is usually synonymous with voice exercises. I decipher warm ups separate from exercises, and also include “cool down” exercises. What goes up must come down! Kind of. Let’s break it down.
WARM UP - EXERCISES - SING - COOL DOWN
Let’s say “warm ups” are for getting the blood pumping, getting ready for the activity. Imagine walking before running; swimmers hopping up and down before diving in the pool. While the Vocology (study of voice) and Voice Science field have been booming with research for singers in recent years on comparing exercise physiology to the voice, there is sometimes just perceptive data or anecdotal data, that’s available until they have enough studies to prove certain theories. For instance, we know moving the arms and legs actually gets blood flowing to the muscles, warming them up. But, there may not be data showing the same is true for the vocal muscles.Yet. We’re assuming for now. I’m not a researcher. I read articles here or there. Until some of the science proves itself, I’m happy to be working off theories, which seem to be consistently working again and again!
WARM UPS are for getting blood pumping to the muscles. Warming up the muscles, getting ready for action. You can take off then. Run the race. Sing the song. A warm up will not necessarily get you passed a certain hurdle in a song though. The warm up does not assure that your legs are strong enough for the 10k. Exercises will help with that. There are so many different kinds of sound that we can make on so many different pitches, and with an innumerable amount of pitch and rhythmic patterns. So many variables. And, the muscles in the throat alone, need to learn how to navigate between low - high, high - higher, quiet - loud and back, striking soft - hard and back through these patterns.
NOTE: So many variable sounds are intricacies that air alone (the breath) cannot fix. Now, here’s the thing. You need air flow (the exhale of the breath) to make the vocal folds vibrate, so please understand that I’m not saying you do not need to breathe! There has just been so much emphasis placed on the breath fixing wobbles, bumps, hitches, in the voice, and I have not seen it be a consistent means for the results people get. The use and practice of balancing air flow and air pressure - the way we need to slowly release the air needs to work in conjunction with the muscle balancing that we need to do with the laryngeal muscles to make the sounds we desire.
EXERCISES are designed to strengthen the muscles to make loud or quiet sounds at various pitch levels, are designed to help different muscle groups share responsibility for certain sounds, or trade off/ hand off making a sequence of sounds. Anyone who has sung a song and somewhere around where it goes higher has experienced what some call a voice break (“my voice cracked”) might recognize that the voice muscles didn’t share or hand off the making of that sound very well. I visualize it to be like someone throwing the baton at the runner in the relay race coming up behind them, or the runner taking the baton, drops it - a messy hand off. That’s kind of what’s happening with the muscles in the throat. One group was working too hard, and one not hard enough to make that pitch change easier/smoother, hence the hitch in the voice.
NOTE on language: I would love to see these terms - VOICE CRACK/ VOICE BREAK - go away! Nothing is broken! It seems like awful negative language around a body function that is natural. And, it is so psychologically linked to shame that people are literally afraid of a high note (of course that’s what makes the body tense and makes for the messy baton hand off). For most voices, this is a naturally built in weakness that needs to be coordinated and strengthened, and most voices/brains don’t know how to do this, or even that it needs to happen, because for generations we’ve been told that we just need more breath or support. That can either not be helpful, or outright harmful if someone is hurting themselves to make the sound they desire with only that instruction.
Through EXERCISES we can work on muscle coordination, strengthening, stabilization, flexibility, agility, stamina - in order to make all the sounds we need for the music/song we’ve chosen. Different styles of music may require different muscle groups to work more than another. Just as going to soccer practice doesn’t mean playing soccer, singing a song is not practice in and of itself either. Soccer players run around the track (WARM UP), they may go (EXERCISES) lift weights (strengthening), do leg drills kicking back and forth (stability), skirt/run side to side (agility), and likely do not play a soccer match at practice. The exercises get all the muscles ready for the game/match/song!
Have you ever done something physically active (walk/run/hike) and then the next day were sore? It hurt to take the stairs. Maybe you didn’t stretch after the activity! Know how some athletes “ice” after a game. This is the idea of “cooling down”. COOL DOWN exercises for singers may look different depending on what you’ve been singing. There are studies on this; still relatively new in our voice science world, so not a lot of data. For Opera or classical female singers, a cool down may look like creating a vocal fry or using single low sustaining pitches through hums, a straw, ascending/descending glides lower in small intervals, like a third. These artists typically sing high and with certain muscle groups in heavy rotation, so these exercises would be relieving/relaxing. A Rock ‘n Roll singer may do descending lip trills / hums high to low softly with a lot of air flow to relax there muscle groups that have been making lower and loud higher sounds all night. Cool down exercises are similar to those “Resonant Voice” exercises used in Voice Therapy - advocating for more airflow through the vocal folds than sometimes we instinctively use. Most of my clients have found this an invaluable part of maintaining easier sound making when their voices are in high demand; the singer and public speaker.
Understanding the role of WARM UPS, EXERCISES, and COOL DOWNS can be crucial for sustainability for singers using their voices a lot; professionals or avid amateurs. Focused awareness of the intention of specific exercises and what they are for (what is the desire result) is necessary for voice training. It takes awareness, it takes patience, sometimes it takes a willingness to make weird sounds to get a particular result.
I’m working on creating an exercise video series to contribute to the world of singers. Give me a shout if you want to know more about functional voice training! I love to talk about it! If you can’t tell :)