As so often happens to me, I find instruction for singing in what seems like an unlikely place. For my birthday a couple of weeks ago, my sister gave me the book No Need for Speed: A Beginner's Guide to the Joy of Running by John "The Penguin" Bingham.
As I read through one chapter in particular from this book,"Method or Madness," which describes the principles involved in running training, I immediately begin to draw parallels and see if I can apply some of these principles to vocal training.
Before laying down 4 principles of training for running, which I will outline further on in this blog post, Mr. Bingham begins by explaining how most beginners make the mistake of adopting the training method of thinking that if they just try harder, put in greater effort, they will improve. This is their basic approach to getting better at running, and I can see how this is the approach I used for so many years towards trying to improve vocally.
Take high notes, for example. Each time I "tried" to sing a high C, I thought that maybe I just hadn't mustered up enough effort. That I had to try a little harder each time to get it.
And I used a similar strategy in an attempt to acquire some resonance and ring. I thought that I had to try harder to make the sound I wanted. I would stand there for an hour trying to make the sound I thought I wanted.
The result of all this greater effort was sometimes a hoarse voice for the rest of the day.
I didn't understand that the real way I was going to get that high C and the real way I was going to acquire that "ring" in my voice was to set up an intelligent and methodical training plan based on certain principles, and grow it through patience and consistency of training, just like the athlete does. That I was going to "grow" my high notes and my resonance and ring, like a beautiful fruits that appear on trees that I started from planting seeds. That it was going to result from a routine, almost mundane, kind of regularly scheduled practice. That it was going to "appear" on the scene after a period of time and just surprise me as it crept into my physique. That it wasn't going to appear spectacularly with a big "tada," but was going to come in a quiet gradual way, first as small buds, then tiny green fruit, then enlarging and ripening. That it was going to become a part of who I was and what I could do, molded into me by the daily reality that I was a singer and that this is the way I spent my time every day.
When a singer sets up this routine, almost mundane, regularly scheduled practice, the intelligence by which it is approached is important. I would like to use the principles used to train a runner, as outlined in the book mentioned above, to explore how a program to train the voice might be devised.
John Bingham describes 4 components of training:
Experimenting and balancing these four modes will produce the right training plan for the individual runner, and, I believe, the individual singer as well.
Mode: For the singer, this will be what kind of materials will be used during the training session. Will the singer be using exercises and scales? Whose exercises and scales? The ones the teacher provides, or from friends or books? Will the singer use songs? Which songs? What level of training is the singer? Will they use popular songs, songs from the 24 Italian standards, Broadway tunes? If they have a dramatic voice will they use dramatic arias, or arias that prepare them for the work they will do later? A runner who goes out and runs the same 3-mile route every day might maintain a certain jogger's level of running, but but does not have the advantage that hills, varied scenery, different running surfaces will provide in determining just what kind of runner is being made. What is the potential of the individual? Will he/she be a trail runner? A 5Ker, a marathoner, an ultra marathoner, a triathlete? The singer has these varied options as well. A nightclub singer, a choral singer, Broadway belter, early music, oratorio, opera?
Intensity: Intensity means stressing the system a little bit to stimulate it to grow. For a singer, intensity might mean volume, or how much pressure is applied. Intensity might mean speed, how fast they will be singing. Intensity might mean how high they will be singing. Intensity might mean where the tessitura lies. I often feel like I did not improve for so many years because I did not up the intensity level of my singing for fear of injury or harming my voice. While a singer, like the runner, has to be careful to find just how much intensity work to include in training, in order to grow stronger and faster this kind of work needs to be accomplished, not feared. But it needs to be done at the right time in the right way, and in a balanced way for the individual.
Duration: Duration is how long the practice session will be. While discussing these components of training, John Bingham writes that there is a relationship between this "duration" and "intensity." Workouts of greater intensity should be shorter, and lesser intensity can be longer. This balance has to be found for each individual and will be different based on the experience level of the athlete. And for the singer as well. A short workout for the high-developed opera singer is going to take more time than a short workout for the beginner.
Duration can be more than just how many minutes the practice session is. Duration can apply to how long a song is. A 1-minute song, a 2-minute song, a 3-minute song, etc...
Duration can also apply to how long the phrases are.
I know that as I train for my first 1/2 marathon this coming January, I include one "long run" per week, and the other two 30-minute runs supposedly maintain the gains of my long run day. I started my "long run" at just 1 mile, which did not take me very long to run, and have been increasing that run by 1/2 a mile per week. The recommendation is not to increase your long run by more than 10% per week. I am now up to six miles, which really is long.
Should this apply to singing training as well? One day where you sing for a long time? One day where you work on getting through your longest piece? One day where you sing beyond the amount of time that you usually sing. Is there a "rule of thumb" for how much to increase the duration of one's singing, like the 10% rule in running? Do any teachers know how much to increase, or how to tell if a singer is increasing too much too soon?
And what, like the two 30-minute runs per week, maintains the level of singing one has achieved? Do any voice teachers out there know what balance a singer should maintain in this kind of vocal training, and can they help their students understand, or help their students build a training program that will be optimal?
Frequency: The final principle to explore is that of frequency, how often to practice. Deciding the frequency will have to factor in duration and intensity, mostly because of the fact that it is necessary to have recovery time after working out. The muscles grow and adapt, build and repair during recovery time. Recovery and rest is an important part of athletic training, and I believe it is part of the process of vocal training as well. It is almost as if the muscles use the rest time to "think" about what happened during the training session, absorb what has been asked of them, and adapt themselves to the task they had been given. So the frequency of training has to take into account how much rest time is needed. An athlete will need more recovery time after an intense training session, as opposed to a maintenance session. An athlete will need more recovery time after a session designed to increase endurance, one of longer duration. Recovery time will vary between beginner and advanced athlete. It will vary according to age, and will also vary from individual to individual. Finding one's personal recovery time will be part of this art.
One lament that I have is understanding these principles really late in the game for a singer. I am sure there are teachers out there who understand what needs to be done and can coach these principles in their students, but I think more teachers need to study these things and help young singers understand the job they need to do to train their voices. If I had this kind of training when I was younger, I think I would have had many more options.
I am very excited and happy now, however, to know of them. Better late than never at all, and I will use the time I have left to train in a better way and enjoy my voice better than ever.