Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Review of Journal Artical: "Vocal Exercise Physiology: Same Principles, New Training Paradigms"

Well, well, well, don't I just feel so smart!

People who have been following my blog know that as I've been reading about training principles for running and sports, I've been thinking out loud and wondering how and if these principles might be used to design a program for training my voice.

Just last night, when I was out on my "long run" as I'm trying to train for a half marathon, I was thinking about how it seems like people in the sports world are way ahead of the vocal world in thinking this way, and I was wondering if there was anyone out there thinking along these lines.

Well, it turns out there is! I was very delighted and surprised when I finally picked up my copy of September/October issue of Journal of Singing in order to do some reading, to find an article called "Vocal Exercise Physiology: Same Principles, New Training Paradigms," by Keith G. Saxon, MD, FACS, and Samuel L. Berry, MS, CSCS. People with fancy titles by their names who work at Harvard writing about what I have been interested in!!! It was like sitting in front of a delicious looking hot fudge sundae. My heart was beating with excitement, and of course that was the article I was going to read first!!

What was really great about the article is that it validated my own thinking, which I had come to independently. What was less great was that it didn't take the information much further than I had already gone with it. I was hoping to expand my knowledge a bit more. At first, I was excited when I saw a section in the article labeled "Applications to Vocal Training and Performance" and thought that there would be more specific information that I might be able to use to practically apply the principles. But, although there were a few points that added to my thinking, they were still talking at the theoretical level and kind of generally. It seems as if it is up to voice teachers, with the knowledge of rep and exercises, to use these principles when working with a student.

Here are some things from the article that were helpful to me:

In my blog post "Training Method for Singers", I had taken training principles I had read about in a running book and tried to apply them to singers. I had discussed four components of training: mode, intensity, duration, frequency. Well, the authors of the article in the above-mentioned Journal of Singing informed me that these training components are specified by the the American College of Sports Medicine.

What I described in my article as "stressing the system to stimulate it to grow," they call the "overload principle." If you remember (or if you go back and reread), I wasn't so sure exactly what "stress" or "overload" would mean to a singer, but I was guessing it might be high singing, or singing for a great length of time, or singing with greater volume.

Saxon and Berry, in their article, write that "overload in singing means requiring more of all or part of the vocal apparatus than it is used to doing." They state that "the obvious choices for producing overload -- greater volume or increased airway resistance -- are among the least adaptive and most risky." They don't say why, exactly, so I guess they are expecting the voice teachers who mostly read this publication to agree with that already. And I guess that means my theorizing that singing at a greater volume could be used as an intense workout is not a good strategy.

But they do say that "overload can be produced by singing longer at a more moderate volume, singing more frequently and even without producing a sound, working on airflow control, or varying airway resistance." So I pleased to learn I was right on track with some of where I was going with all that.

They also say that "a correlation has been found with high pitch, high intensity, and high load on the cricothyroid and thyroarytenoid muscles." I think this means that what I said about singing in a higher tessitura as a means to grow the voice was appropriate.

Saxon and Berry also touch on the subject of recovery as part of the training cycle, which I wrote about in my blog post The Importance of Vocal Rest They speak of "load cycles" and "recovery cycles" and state "the recovery cycle is essential to allow physiologic adaptations to occur."

And remember how I was musing in my Importance of Vocal Rest over whether opera singers use these principles of cycling like this for performances? Well, in the Saxon and Berry article they say "the peak cycle is the preparation for maximum muscular conditioning and skill enhancement that immediately precedes performance" which then is followed by a conditioning cycle that maintains the gains and achieve other gradual improvements that don't need as much intensity as the peak cycle does. They call this paradigm "periodization."

They go on to talk about a number of the other principles of training, similar to the ones I was writing about. They talk about lactic acid a little bit, and how measuring it's accumulation in the blood might be used to determine whether the workload is too easy or too hard. They also mention using measurements of oxygen consumption to help with figuring out what level of intensity a performer should be using. Overall, it seems a bit tricky to figure out the optimal training intensity. I believe that my fear of injury over the years caused me to train at too low an intensity, which is why my voice didn't develop to the operatic level that I wanted.

A point they bring out which I didn't mention in my writings is the need for exercise progression to be "slow and gradual to lower the incidence of injury." This reminds me of the paradigm from running training to not increase distance more than 10% per week. However, this is a general principle and it is hard for me to say how this would apply for the voice. The authors do talk about how since the intensity of vocal training is less than other athletic workouts, that the singer might be able to train with more frequency.

Another principle they bring out which I had not discussed (yet :)) is that of "Anatomic Adaptation. This is a preparatory stage where all the muscles, joints, ligaments involved are prepared for future training. An example of this would be how I walked for 30 minutes, 5 days a week for 16 weeks before beginning my 1/2 marathon training program. In a singer, this might be the period of time spent on form and vocal exercises that a teacher uses with a student before introducing rep.

One last thing they bring out is how the voice teacher or coach needs to formulate an "exercise prescription" or "training program." They say, "Skilled teachers apply these cycles routinely in the studio when they vary the intensity, duration, and frequency of singing and attend to rest periods." They also say when talking about the differing levels of skill sets and muscles' metabolic capacity to do work, that the trainer or teacher of singing needs to have a level of creativity and sensitivity that can "thoroughly understand the performer's current skill set and level of training," and needs the ability to "design an optimal method for training to occur most rapidly and without injury. Consciously or unconsciously this assessment happens routinely in the studio of a skilled teacher of singing."

I would like to bring up a point here where I feel there is a great need to improve this area among voice teachers. How to practice voice has been an issue all my life. I would get on my own and really have no clue for so many years on how to approach training my voice like this. I did not really receive any specific instructions on exactly what to do, what workouts to include, etc... Sometimes a teacher might touch briefly on the concept of one of these principles, but I don't recall having specific examples of how to apply them, and never got, from voice teachers, an overall explanation of these principles, or suggestions on how to design a practice program. I have heard voice teachers complain that students need to practice and do the work, but have not heard to much about specifically what that work exactly is.

I'm not even sure if it is the job of the voice teacher to design the training program. Is it the job of a vocal coach? The voice teacher usually has enough to do in one hour to just show you proper technique, correct errors, and show the singer a manner in which to work.

All in all, I was very happy to read that there are people with much more knowledge than I have working on these things. I hope we see in the future some publications using principles such as these principles from sports training that map out some sample training plans that a singer might use. Like the ones in Jeff Galloway's books fr runners. These training plans could be followed by beginners to just have something concrete to follow and to begin to understand the principles and get a few results, and could be used by advanced students to customize and create their own approach.

I am truly excited to have some of my ideas confirmed and validated by this article. It reinforces that I'm on the right track. I need that as a person who is not steeped in the academic music world, but a lone hobbyist taking care of house and home and pondering these things.

(You can subscribe to the Journal of Singing on the web site for the National Association of Teachers of Singing. The article, "Vocal Exercise Physiology: Same Principles, New Training Pardigms by Keith G. Saxon, MD, FACS, and Samuel L. Berry, MS, CSCS is in the September/October 2009 issue: Volume 66, No. 1. pp 51-57)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Questions, questions, questions about SUPPORT

They're at it again on my singer message board, the New Forum For Classical Singers (I call it "my" board because reading it every day is a part of my daily routine and it has been such a great link for me, a stay-at-home mom, to be connected to people talking about one of my favorite subjects, everything that has to do with singing.)

This week they're discussing "support." One person on the message board asked another particularly knowledgeable vocal pedagogue and teacher what his views on "support" were, and he responded with a post on his views, and then a big discussion broke out, some of it civilized and some of it not so civilized, due to the antipathy some people have when anyone has a viewpoint other than their own. Pretty dramatic and exciting! Especially when loves singing, and is home surrounded dishes and laundry. Definitely better than watching soap operas to liven one's day.

Anyway, what I, personally love, about a big discussion like this is more often than not it stimulates me to think, research more, and grow to a better place of knowledge than I had before. What follows here are some of my rambling thoughts about breath support/management as stimulated by thinking about the discussion on my message board.

I, like almost every singer, have an unending interest in figuring out what is the "best" way to "support" while I'm singing. Since support has to do with how we use our muscles in order to manage the airflow and pressure needed to sing, it is a very important part of a singer's technique. And having a better or lesser technique can mean the difference between being more free to express as an artist or more limited in one's expression.

First, I wonder what the word "best" means? Is it subjective? Does it mean what is best for me? Does it mean what is most efficient? If it does, why would we want to be more efficient? What benefit would there be in that? Is there an objective way to say what is "best?" Does science answer the question definitively? Is there a range of acceptable approaches, like in other sports? Is there a range of acceptable approaches that varies from individual to individual, and are there outliers from the standard set of acceptable approaches? If I am using a method that is working for me, even if it is not quantifiably "best," do I need to change it?

What I aspire to do, and what I think many singers want deep in their hearts, is to figure out how those really legendary singers made such beautiful sounds, and be able to make beautiful sounds like that. Those legendary singers look like they are so enjoying the freedom to express that they possess, and it looks like it would be so wonderful to experience that. The first thing the singer thinks is, "oh, I'll go take voice lessons and learn the techniques of how they're doing it."

This starts a very long journey, and it is a mystery why some find the way to get their voice to the highest level and others do not succeed.

As you know, I like to compare singing to running and I"m going to do that again here. Let's say a person likes to go out and jog is watching the Boston Marathon and is totally inspired and enthralled by watching the elite runners at the head of the pack winning the race. They admire their smooth running form, and are dazzled by their speed and endurance, and the way they look so strong at the finish.

So, the little jogger decides they want to run like that and win the Boston marathon one day. They want to be one of the best.

Hmmmm! That's a mighty goal, isn't it? And it is certainly not a goal that one shouldn't aspire to. I would never stop anyone from thinking that they could do that if they wanted to try.

Well, I think that's kind of what a singer might be like who listens to recordings of an operatic legend, such as Leontyne Price or Marylin Horne or something and decides she wants to be one of the best and make beautiful sounds like that and sing freely and expressively in a way that can move hearts.

So, the singer, or the jogger, sets out on the journey, and they do not foresee where it will lead. In the beginning there is inexperience, huge lack of knowledge, and many physical limitations to figure out. But the reality is, there are a huge number of runners/singers, who are running behind the top ones, a big gob of them in the middle-of-the-pack, and another group bringing up the rear. Some happy right where they are, some trying to move up in the pack. Not everyone trying to get to the front succeeds. They are stopped by physical limitations, lack of time and circumstance to train, injuries, etc...

What happened in my case, when I set out on this noble journey, is that I did not "succeed." It is when one does not succeed, or when one runs into injuries, or one hits a plateau in growth that one begins to look more deeply for answers (if one is not willing to give up.) All the years and all the money I shelled out to teachers, I never did understand how I was to be "supporting" my singing voice. I couldn't even begin to manage my airflow and air pressure because I wasn't even phonating properly, and good phonation is a prerequisite for gaining access to beginning of the development and coordination of the muscles of breathing regulation.

There seem to be some naturally coordinated singers out there who just "get it" and support, and to be honest, some of them can't even describe what they're doing but it's working. The fact that they couldn't describe what they were doing, however, wasn't helpful to me in finding the way to do it. If one of them stopped for a second to try to figure out what they were doing, their description of what their muscles are doing often wasn't helpful because it is hard to describe sensations in one's body. What feels like pushing out to one person may be actually pushing in, or may not be pushing in but feel like pushing in to another person

It gets very confusing.

I was not able to figure it out, and the first attempt to figure it out, asking knowledgeable people, led to varying opinions and varying descriptions, so I thought, okay, maybe there is an objective answer in science. This leads a singer such as myself into taking a look at anatomy, and reading some of the stuff vocal scientists have been trying to figure out.

But, even after that, one encounters many theories. One sees that there are different ways to achieve the airflow and breath pressure. I heard theories that sounded plausible, had been measured and tested somewhat, but when I tried them they didn't work for me at all!

This has led me the point where I have become interested in stdying the anatomy of respiration a little bit, and have tried to use some logic to conclude what I'm supposed to do. The approach that I currently use when I am deciding which action I will take next goes something like this: If A is true (something like the diaphragm descends at the intake of breath, for example), and B is true, (something like the ribcage expands, for example), and C is true, (something like we need to apply pressure to get the vocal cords vibrating, for example), and D is true (something like we recruit the ab muscles to apply the pressure at a certain point) then maybe E is true (something like perhaps toning my ab muscles will help me to have better control over my singing, for example).

So then based on my theory and conclusion, I embark on a plan of improving the condition of my abs (even though some singers say that helps and others say it doesn't).

In other words, the approach I use at this time in my life is to take some things that I know are true, or are somewhat proven to be true, draw some conclusions from that, develop a theory, and then test it out. If I get results, great! If not, then I have to go back to the drawing board.

I may have the luxury to do this because I am not a professional singer and the pressure to have my voice be in any kind of "ready" condition for performing at top levels is not present, so I can just sit here and take forever to figure it out. On the other hand, the reason I'm not a professional is because it has been taking me forever to figure it out and I'm just stubborn and won't just give up.

The limitation of my using this approach is that the subject matter is so complex and my knowledge is scant. I gather a few pieces of information and hope it's enough to get me a technique that works. A lot of times it's not enough, and I have to continue on studying the matter more and more deeply. Thank heavens I'm interested and inclined to this type of study, but I also have to balance it with my other duties and obligations.

My dream would be to find simulated graphic animations of what it looks like internally when great singers are singing. I have viewed some animations of what respiration looks like from the inside, such as this one: respiration animation. This one doesn't show how the muscles of respiration are behaving, but one my husband has, in a very expensive computer program he bought while he was studying anatomy in medical school, does show it well.

In my research and explorations and hunt to find similarly animated demonstrations of singers, I have eavesdropped (via papers presented at the International Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques -- way to get sidetracked, huh?) and heard how "in animation, respiration and its deformation of the torso have remained stylistic and are often overly simple or ignored entirely." (Model and Control of Simulated Respiration for Animation, Victor B. Zordan, Bhrigu Celly, Bill Chiu, and Paul C. DiLorenzo¤
University of California Riverside

I guess that means that they are still trying to figure out how to portray ordinary respiration itself and we are a long way off from my being able to look inside a singer's body by this means. Will anyone ever take an interest in animating that?

Or some kind of MRI-like image taken in some new-fangled stand-up chamber where singers could be imaged as they did their thing, so you could see what the muscles were doing. I bet you'd have to watch way more than just one singer and I bet you'd see different things going on with each one of them and have to compare.

The latest thing I've found in my hunting and gathering of information is this book, The Biology of Musical Performance and Performance Related Injury (see, it takes a desire to figure out what causes injury for people to explore more deeply for answers sometimes) by Alan H.D. Watson. I have just skimmed what is on the google reader for this book, and what I've seen so far looks like it's good material, but don't have enough information on whether to actually recommend the book or not.

However, on page 118 of this book there is a chart on "The difference in respiratory patterns between individuals with different body types as proposed by Hoit and Hixon (1986)" that you might want to take a look at if you are someone interested in this subject. The chart has pictures of different body types, endomorph, ectomorph, and mesomorph, and describes different ways of breathing each body type employs.

The book itself costs $55.00 and how very much I would like to purchase it and dig into it. However, can I justify the cost when I am not even a professional, not a teacher, and merely have this hobby kind of interest? But I can't tell you how much I want to buy this book now. Oh how I wish I had deep deep knowledge, instead of this mish moshed mix of snippets of information!

For the time being, I will delve into the amount that has been provided by the google reader. That should be enough to feed me for a while, and I plan to dig into it right after I get dressed, empty the dishwasher, do my laundry and ironing, go to Whole Foods, get organized for the week, practice singing, go for a run, take the dog out, etc.....

I am very grateful for the lively discussion and debate on my singer message board. Because of it I have been stimulated to seek further knowledge and now have this new information about the different body types to explore.

Friday, September 25, 2009

One Crayon

My only solo singing "gig" this past year has been the singing of the Star Spangled Banner at our kung fu graduation ceremonies.

For the past several years, until last year, I had several solo performing opportunities throughout the year. I would usually sing one or two times with my women's choir, and then get some solos at church on special occasions, and substitute as a cantor occasionally. I found that situation very fulfilling, and I thought it was all I could ever really want or need as a singer. I could have gone on doing that forever and been quite content.

But, for some reason, and I think this is the way it is with singers, this season of my life turned to one of drought. Things changed, and other singers stepped in to the slots I had been occupying, and before I had quite realized what was happening, I once more found myself in the position of having to "begin again." I will write another post sometime about the ebb and flow of generating singing opportunities, but for now I would like to explore a little here how this change in circumstance has caused me to grow as a singer.

At first, I was disappointed to have my singing ventures dwindle down from being numerous enough to satisfy me to just this single opportunity. But after a while, I have come to see it in a new way. Instead of thinking of my solo performance life as having "dwindled," I have begun to think of it more as having been "pruned back" for growth, because something interesting has begun to happen.

I have just this morning realized that the Star Spangled Banner is acting much like the "One Crayon" in a story my Uncle told me a long time ago.

My uncle is a very talented pastry chef, whose creative cakes have appeared on the cover of Bride's Magazine. He is a pride and joy of our family with his artistic and creative talent and skills.

Now, when my son was a small boy, I wanted so desperately to give him what I thought was an environment where he could explore his artistic and creative side. I provided him with everything a potential budding young artist might need. Easels, finger paints, markers, special marker paper, clay, crayons in every color. I went way beyond the standard box of 64, and bought all the metallica and jewel tone add-on Crayola packs, lest my little Renoir was lacking in just the right nuance he needed. I figured with this abundance of supplies, he was all set to bring out his inner artist.

Then, one day at a family gathering, I heard my Uncle tell his One Crayon story. It seems that when he was little, my grandmother used to take him along to her doctor appointments, and she didn't want to carry a whole box of crayons, so she would bring along a coloring book and one crayon for him to color with. He said that he developed his artistic skills because he had to make that crayon look a whole bunch of different ways.

My jaw dropped when I heard that story and in a moment I realized that perhaps, in a kind of new-mother blindness, I had not developed a proper concept to my approach at all.

So, while practicing the Star Spangled Banner again for tonight's rendition, a light bulb moment happened as I remembered the One Crayon story. This Star Spangled Banner is my "one crayon." Because it is the only performance moment I have, I have been growing each time I sing it. And because I have been working with it so much, I am finding all kinds of interesting things within the piece, and learning how much more there is to a piece of music than one encounters the first time around.

Because it is the crayon I have been handed to use, I have been practicing molding and shaping the piece and the phrases in various different ways, much in the way I imagine my Uncle did with his crayon. He must have pressed hard to color one area in dark, and then lightened up his pressure to color another area in light. He may have started crosshatching to fill in the different parts of his coloring picture, and then tried dots (ala Seurat).

The Star Spangled Banner, sung in hushed reverent tones, or dramatic triumphant tones? What is the shape and structure of each phrase? What key is the one that sits the best? Try different keys. Sing it in classical style. Sing it in a belt style. Sing it in a speech-like way. Experiment with each phrase to see what shapes make the most sense, and then see how each phrase fits the unified whole.

I truly value this one remaining gig, my singing of the Star Spangled Banner, and I am preparing right now to sing it for the third time this year at our graduation tonight. I feel that I make a contribution to the event, which is always an exciting display of martial arts talent. People have told me that they get chills when they hear it. I like the idea that I am helping to set the tone for the fun celebration of martial arts skills that will follow. Since my own martial arts skills are not too exciting, I really appreciate that my Sifu is allowing me to show the skill that one his students has developed in another discipline.

Like all things right under our nose, this circumstance of my only gig being singing the Star Spangled Banner over and over again may be a blessing in disguise that has come to help me develop more of my artistry.

Like the crayon held in the grip of my grandmother's little son, this song has been provided for me by someone else. And I find it so interesting that it has not been provided to me by the musical community, nor one of those dedicated to advancing the musical arts, but by one who has stated that he has a mission to help the "children" of his Kung Fu school family explore and develop their talent and potential, whatever it may be.

(Click here to hear: Star Spangled Banner Bflat))

(Click here to hear work in progress: Star Spangled Banner key of C)

(Click here to hear it in a belt-style: Star Spangled Banner key of F)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Importance of Vocal Rest

An article I have just been reading about running training on Active.com confirms what I have believed and experienced in my own vocal training (and also in my piano traning): that my voice does not grow during the time I am actually practicing, but while I am resting and recovering. Springboarding from this knowledge, can I use these ideas about the role recovery has in muscle development to improve my approach to my vocal training?

For years I would work on part of a piano piece. I would drill over and over a section that just would not come. Then I would go to sleep, and the next morning it would "magically" be there. A few years ago I did read an article that was about how the gains from piano practice showed up in the morning, and that the night's sleep was needed for the body to process an absorb the information from the practice session. Something was happening during sleep that was going to enable me to experience results later. I wish I could find that article now. I'll keep looking for it to add to this blog.

I have also noticed that when I have sung to the point where I need to rest my voice, sometimes if I take a little nap, when I arise, even if it is in the same day, I will have the gains I had been striving for while practicing.

Well, now I have begun to understand why this happens. In an article about running by Matt Fitzgerald, Six Ways to Train for Recovery, on Active.com, he explains that, for the athlete, it is during the recovery time that one's fitness is increasing, NOT during the actual workout. He says,

"The stress of running [singing?] flips a number of hormonal and genetic switches in various parts of your body, allowing each part to adapt in a way that renders it better prepared for the next workout. But these adaptations can unfold only when your body is at rest [emphasis mine]."

This coincides with what I have just told you about my experiencing a new voice after having taken a nap.

In a book on running No Need for Speed: A Beginner's Guide to the Joy of Running by an author I've mentioned before, John "The Penguin" Bingham, there is a whole section explaining how muscle fibers grow and respond to workouts and stress.

"When you start moving a muscle, it uses as few fibers as possible to get the job done. as you fatigue the first fibers, others are recruited to do the work. The longer you keep moving the muscle, the more fibers are recruited until eventually, and in time, most of the muscle fibers are involved."


"The bottom line is that you need to strengthen your muscles so they'll do what you want. As we've discussed, strength comes from stress AND recovery. Muscles must be strengthened one level at a time, and adequate rcovery time must be allowed at each level in order to get stronger. [emphasis mine]"

This reminds me of something described by Oren Brown in his book Discover Your Voice: How to Develop Healthy Vocal Habits. I remember reading in his book that the voice is built up one thin strand at a time until it reaches a level of strength needed for the task. (I have misplaced that book for the time being, but will find the exact passage and add it to this blog later, so check back again if you want to hear more.)

I recently read that the vocal muscles, like the runner's muscles, acquire strength through this recruitment of muscle microfibers as well. It was referred to in a blog post I was reading by Jean-Ronald Lafond, a voice teacher and vocal pedagogue. On his blog, Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog, while he was discussing the process of developing his voice from baritone to tenor, Mr. Lafond talks about the process of strengthening the voice in order to achieve a specific muscular balance needed for the production of each note. In his post, Strengthening a Weak Range or Why a Rossini Tenor With a Perfect High D Finds Una Furtiva Difficult, he says:

"The specific balance for each note requires the recruitment of very specific micro-fibers which we have no way of seeing or measuring. Unless we were able to insert needle electrodes in the crico-thyroids (which are easily accessible) and into the vocalis (which is not) we cannot really know which micro-fibers are recruited when. It is particularly difficult with the vocalis, which has a double structure of fibers (one group of lateral fibers similar to other muscles in the body and a spiral group that is singular to that muscle). Which specific fibers should be recruited is only important insofar as wrong recruitment yields dysfunction."

This echoes for the voice what I have quoted John "The Penguin" Bingham was explaining above about recruiting muscle fibers for running.

My interest in these ideas lies in how I can best develop a training program/practice approach that will recruit those deeper layers of vocal muscle fibers that I need in order to have balanced healthy singing of difficult and beautiful pieces of music. Can I put together what I am hearing about how this works in an athlete, and design a smart approach for my own voice? Do I know enough to figure this out?

Let's see how the ideas outlined in the aforementioned article, Six Ways to Train for Recovery, might be used to design a training plan for voice. How will this important principle of recovery periods be used to promote the growth of one's singing voice?

First there must be something to recover from. That would be a more stressful workout, but not too stressful. Mr. Fitzgerald starts it off by saying you need to first "create a need for recovery":

"The stronger the training stimulus that precedes a period of rest (up to a point), the more pronounced the recovery-adaptation response will be. So the first ingredient of a recovery-based training approach is hard training."

Interpreted for a singer such as myself, that might be having the courage to work on a challenging piece, maybe even a piece that is something I will not ever sing, such as Dove Sono, which has a high tessitura, and a number of challenging spots to sing while the voice is fatigued. But it's not just working on the piece. It is how long and how much as well.

Mr. Fitzgerald goes on to say:

"By training to within inches of the limit of what your body can handle, you create a strong need for recovery that turns into maximum fitness gains between key workouts and during recovery weeks between periods of overreaching."

The next step Mr. Fitzgerald recommends is to space out key workouts. Key workouts

"need to be preceded by adequate recovery so you're ready for them and followed by adequate recovery so you're able to properly absorb them"

I take that to mean that I should not be singing my stretch piece, my Dove Sono, every day, but maybe something like twice a week. I also must not work on this song two days in a row.

Next, Mr. Fitzgerald talks about recovery workouts:

"Recovery workouts are relatively short, easy runs that don't challenge your body enough to create a need for additional recovery, so they won't interfere with your recovery from the most recent key workout. But they still carry fitness benefits, because they enhance your running efficiency by forcing your muscles to perform in a pre-fatigued state. Doing recovery runs also allows you to run more frequently than you could if you tried to run hard every time, and by increasing your frequency of training you teach your body to recover more quickly from hard workouts."

For a singer, this might be going back to some familiar, less challenging repertoire, perhaps the Italian songs, or, in my case, I have been using musical theater pieces. Doing this kind of easier singing in between, if it works the same way as he states it does for running, would carry the benefits of increasing efficiency and improving recovery time from the more difficult repertoire.

The next step outlined by Mr. Fitzgerald is to "train opportunistically." That means that you monitor and gauge how your singing is that day. Perhaps you had planned to work on a challenging piece of rep, but can feel that you have not fully recovered, so go with more of a maintenance day. Or vice versa: You open your mouth, and you feel so strong and you find you can even sing longer for that day. You let your body take the lead.

Next, he talks about monitoring your recovery. If you are having a Dove Sono day, and it is not going well, it might mean that you need more recovery time. He recommendation of grading the workouts for this purpose can be useful for a singer. The singer would grade the practice session as he suggests, and if there haven't been any "great" sessions for a while, it could indicate a need for a total rest day in order to completely recover.

I don't know if you've stayed with me this far in the blog, but at this point I want to remind everyone that I am a total amateur, and I don't have these things worked out in my own practicing. I am really excited about these ideas, and I don't exactly know what it means as far as practical application to my vocal training. I feel very strongly that there is something in this approach, and that a smart, systematical training plan can be devised for a singer based on some of these principles. I am sure there are variations and adjustments for individual bodies, so a one-size-fits-all plan really would not work. But a teacher and a who student who understands what one is trying to achieve could work together to find just the right way to train.

One last thing I wanted to mention, which is also in the article (Six Ways to Train for Recovery). In the last section, Mr. Fitzgerald, the author talks about "Practice step cycles."

"Step cycles," he says, "are recurring patterns of training that last two to four weeks and end with a week of reduced-volume training for recovery. In a two-week step cycle, a week of hard training is followed by a week of lighter training. In a three-week cycle, the first week is relatively hard, the second week slightly harder, and the third week easy. In a four-week cycle, the third week of training is slightly harder than the second.

Planning recovery periods into your training in this way helps ensure that you don't accumulate fatigue during a long training program. It also allows you to train harder during your hard weeks than you'd be able to do if you didn't take planned recovery weeks."

Wow! Does that apply to vocal training too? I have heard of athletes who are training to run a marathon using these kind of cycles, and I have also heard that there is a moment where the athlete "peaks" during the cycle. Most competetive athletes want to make sure that they peak at the point where they are competing, naturally.

Does this rhythm work with singing too? Do we have to step back and look at the big picture, and map and plan it out so that we peak for a performance?

This idea of rest and recovery periods, does this apply to those big opera singers who appear all over the world? They must take into consideration the space they need for recovery before entering a new training cycle (getting ready for the next opera), and the recovery time and weeks they need after peaking.

One thing I have realized is that I have carried the wrong idea with me about singing for most of my life. I had always thought of myself as reaching a certain level and then I would be "there." Vocally fit and ready for anything. I am realizing more and more that the singing life is dynamic, like an athlete's life, and we go through and in and out of different periods and levels of fitness. We have different training cycles. There is an ebb and flow to the growth, and there are periods where we have to start all over again. It is a living thing, being a singer. It is very exciting, and it takes a lot of the pressure off to see this training as a way of life.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

So Like a Video Game

My reflections this morning have centered on a new realization that the journey to learn to sing is so like the little adventures encountered by the heroes in my son's role-playing video games.

I have watched my son progress through the stages and stories of various video games, such as the Legend Of Zelda, for about 12 years now. When he first started, he couldn't read that quickly, so he asked me to read the captions as he moved through the game. When my daughter was born, I would sit on the couch nursing her and watch the game and become interested in the story.

I got to see over and over again the pattern and structure used to present these video games. And this morning it hit me that this structure and pattern served as a little model as to the way the singing journey worked, and even life in general.

A game of this genre usually starts out with a little hero living in a familiar and comfortable kind of home town. It is in this friendly and comfortable place that this little video game hero begins to explore and find out about the world he finds himself in. The programmers use this device as a kind of training ground, and it is where the player learns about the moves his little hero character is capable of. In the beginning of the game, the hero has only a few moves and a modest set of tools with which to work and solve little tasks. He is not able to progress in the game until he has figured out these moves and solved these tasks. The skills he develops while moving about in this safe little place are ones he will need to survive in future levels. What he learns here will prepare him to commence with the game.

I liken this little home town to the place in our voice where we are most comfortable and which develops the most strength and ability. Our speaking voice. When we begin to sing, we start out in the range of our speaking voice and it is there, like the little hero, that we begin to explore what our voice can do. Singing Happy Birthday at a party. Learning the ABCs set to music. Celebrating Christmas with carols. Singing hymns at church. There are little tricky tasks to overcome, such as moving smoothly from one note to another, and then making leaps of intervals and such. When we have solved the tasks of this "hometown" of our voice, it can be time to move on and begin to explore other territories.

Most video games like this have a map of the little hero's "world." When viewing this map for the very first time, the little hometown area will be clear, but there will be some kind of cloud coverings over the rest of the world. After he becomes adept enough at his beginning skills, the hero will finally be able to solve a task that unlocks one of the other territories or lands. The cloud cover is lifted from the map from another of these areas, and the hero eagerly enters the new territory to explore the next level of the game.

Yes, this happens in singing. Once we have mastered the tasks of the hometown of our voice, we begin to venture into one of the cloudy territories. In the new territory, the hometown has been left behind, but we bring what we have learned there and it is of use to us as we begin to explore.

Back in the video game, when the hero enters the new land, he finds that his skills are used in a new way. There are some more difficult tasks here and some monsters that are just a little more scary then the cute little ones he encountered in his home town. Although he is able to solve some of the more difficult tasks with his original moves, usually the programmer introduces some new moves and skills and the little hero will not be able to defeat ALL the monsters in the new land, and solve ALL the puzzles without learning the new moves, and also being equipped with some better weapons and tools.

When I first ventured away from the hometown of singing, it was probably in my adolescence, which was filled with pop songs, high school choir, and musical theater pieces. Like the little hero, working out how to navigate this new world, which added some notes to my range presented new puzzles and challenges. I was mostly on my own, but there were some guides to help. My chorus teacher, for one.

My son has had quite a facility for these video games. He was usually ahead of his classmates in unlocking the doors and mastering the moves. The phone would ring frequently after school with the voices of little boys asking advice about how to proceed to the next level of the game. I noticed that some children were content to stay in the hometown just running around and having fun with all the beginning moves. Others wanted desperately to know how to solve the puzzle to get to the next level, and just needed help, not being able to figure it out on their own. Others, after feeling good about mastering the basics, got discouraged when they got to the new land and found that it was going to get more difficult.

Once the hero has advanced, he may be introduced to his first "dungeon." He must get through the dungeon, facing various "enemies" within the dungeon, and unlocking treasure chests, collecting items, and solving puzzles.

To me the introduction of dungeons is like the introduction of repertoire. Each song is a dungeon, with has its own set of little tasks to solve. A more complicated dungeon would be a piece of musical theater filled with multiple songs.

This goes on and on throughout the game, until eventually all the cloudy lands have been uncovered on the map, all the items have been found, and all the advanced moves have been mastered. It culminates in the hero triumphing over a giant boss enemy. This giant monster, or ultimate enemy requires all the resources and skills the hero has collected up to this point. By now, the hero, besides having added skills and an arsenal of weapons and collected a few friends along the way as a support system, has also increased his endurance and strength (usually marked by special bars) and his ability to recover after being injured is shorter. If the big boss is attempted before having bolstered one's self in this way, it is often not possible to beat the game, and the hero will have to go back and continue to build up and come back and try to defeat the boss later.

Can the big boss be considered a very difficult opera? A dramatic soprano singing a Wagnerian opera?

Well, I don't know enough about the higher levels to say for sure. I've just kind of ventured out of the hometown, finished the second land, spent time in the land of mezzo soprano, and am now uncovering the secrets of dramatic soprano. I'm just getting to the point of entering a couple of the easier dungeons in dramatic soprano land, so I don't know what lays in the cloud covered misty regions beyond. I will continue to write as I journey on. I hope anyone reading out there will be rooting for me as I tackle the monsters and solve the puzzles. Maybe I WILL make it to the encounter with the Big Boss some day.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Reincorporating the belt voice


"People just do not want to hear my kind of voice singing those type of songs!"

I overheard words to this effect when I was a teenager. They came from the mouth of a classical singer who had been hired to sing the lead with our community theater's Gilbert & Sullivan production. She was referring to herself singing Broadway tunes and popular-style music. Little did that singer, nor I, realize that a seed was being planted that summer in a young person's mind that was going to remain embedded for years without her realizing it.

The belief that took hold at that time was this: Classical singing and popular or broadway-style singing were mutually exclusive. You developed one or the other. Another part of the belief was this: people didn't want to hear the classical sound in popular or musical-theatre.

Well, when I was a teenager, I did not admire the classical technique, although as a singer, I had a secret interest in it that I was not aware of. I guess I kind of wondered why people liked it. And when I heard the hired artist in our little Gilbert & Sullivan company sing, and I heard the gasps and awes at her developed voice, and experienced the strength, power, versatility and, most of all, high notes, I had to admit it was intriguing.

But I was far more interested in getting the lead role in the current year's high school musical. I was interested in belting out songs and show tunes. The singers I admired and listened to and tried to emulate were ones who could do that. They got me excited and I wanted to sing excitingly like they did.

I never thought a person needed lessons to be able to do this type of singing. I thought lessons were for the people who wanted to sing opera. I certainly wouldn't want to take lessons if they were going to "ruin" my belt voice. And so I spent hours and hours and hour in my living room practicing my belt all by myself and wondering and wondering how some of my favorite artists were achieving the effects they did.

But because of an imbalance in my voice, I was limited in what I was able to do with my belt voice. So as a young adult I did end up starting lessons to try to figure it out. This eventually led to my falling in love with voice and wanting to learn to sing in the classical style. When I made the decision to train classically, I thought I was leaving my belting behind for good. I feared that belting as something that could damage and harm my voice and my new aspirations to sing operatically.

Little did I know that by abandoning these roots and disavowing them, I was cutting off a part of myself that was a strength. Cutting this side of me out was like denying I grew up in a small town, or being ashamed of my parents or something like that. There was a great strength in these roots and I did not know that by doing this, I was to impede my progress as a classical singer.

Well, recently everything has been coming around full circle. I have been studying with an amazing teacher, Susan Eichhorn Young, who teaches a very healthy technique for balancing the voice. I have been training with her to sing classically.

But recently an unexpected and surprising consequence has occurred:

My belt is back!!

It is very exciting because I am able to revisit the old songs of my youth, that back then had somehow been lacking, with newly balanced range. I know more about what I'm doing than I ever have and find that I am able to sing both styles of music and I can just feel that it is healthy.

I remember my father, who held the New York State high jump record for 11 years, telling me that he felt he had developed his high jumping skills when he was young and used to cut across the back yards as a short cut to school and leap the fences.

That act of fun and joy developed his muscles and later became an asset in his athletic career.

Well, in the same way those hours spent belting in my living room developed muscles that I need in my classical singing. The problem was that this set of muscle action was overdeveloped and there was an imbalance. It was kind of like if a runner had one leg stronger than another and let that leg do most of the work while running. Over time, favoring the stronger leg might lead to the underdevelopment of the weaker leg, and perhaps injuries for both legs.

So, while it's true that the imbalance needed to be addressed, I was operating under a false notion that what was really a strength in disguise was a detriment and to be avoided and feared. It is true that I needed to leave this strength to the side for while in order to develop other aspects of my voice, but it was wrong to think this must be a total abandonment. It was merely put on a shelf for while, like a favorite piece of clothing, to be rediscovered and reincorporated into the new wardrobe later on.

My new belief is that there can be such a thing as a total singing athlete. A new category of singer for modern times, an almost Greek kind of ideal, who can crossover and sing in many different styles. Kind of like the idea of "fusion" cuisine, but a kind of "fusion" vocalist for modern times. I even suspect that this ideal, and attempting to approach this ideal, could produce more total kind of vocal fitness and be very healthy for the voice.
Here a sample of a "Belt Workout" (Maybe This Time)
Another: (Star Spangled Banner in F)
Last one: (Happily Ever After)
Added 10/27/09  What I have read here on the Exuberant Animal blog in a post titled "Putting the Physical Back in Physical Education," by Franc Forenrich seems to substantiate this approach, even though he is applying it to another kind of athleticism.  He sums up the ideas of a conference he has attended with Greg Thomson, an elementary physical educator:
the distinction between “adapted” and “adaptable.” Those who train exclusively in a single sport, movement style or discipline simply dig their neurological ruts deeper and deeper; they become adapted to a specific challenge. But for true athleticism and holistic health, more is needed – the ability to move across challenges and disciplines, always adjusting and adaptable.
This matches the ideas I've been mulling regarding cross-training for singers. Singers moving across different vocal disciplines, so that their voice is not stuck in one muscular rut, nor their neurology stuck in one particular groove.  Thus, the adaptable, adjustable singer!!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

How Much is Too Much?

One of the tasks of a singer is to figure out how much to challenge a developing voice with difficult repertoire: which songs to sing, how much and when. There is a little bit of a discussion going on right now on the New Forum for Classical Singers about how safe to play it for vocal health while one is a younger singer. The posters are responding to a young singer who told everyone that she had been pushing herself to sing repertoire that was too difficult for her, against her teacher's advice, which can be a way to grow, but perhaps pushing herself too much and to the detriment of her voice.

They are also responding to the fact that the girl feels her teacher may be in some way responsible for her having overdone it, by not communicating specifically and well enough why this might lead to harm. Or perhaps that her teacher had not given her good enough technique to withstand the rigors of pushing one's self to further vocal heights.

My first real voice teacher was very protective of vocal health. She was concerned about the tendency in today's singers to push the voice, and would point out singers who were experiencing vocal strain. She was a mature singer, and her voice was in excellent condition, so I took her admonitions to heart about being willing to wait for the voice to develop, to proceed with healthy habits, and to value vocal health.

But in some ways, this was not good for me. I played it too safe, and I did not stimulate myself to grow. I kept myself, afraid of pushing and afraid of being too impatient for results, in a comfortable zone, and didn't dare stress or push my voice for fear of injuring it. In a way I was too good. I treated my voice like it a special bird in a cage that I had to be very gentle with. I began to think of it as being a fragile thing that could be broken so easily.

As a result, however, I did not grow and develop my voice for years and years. I was waiting patiently for this growth to occur, but I did not challenge myself in the ways I needed to in order to produce that growth. I had a fear of high notes. I had this picture of my vocal cords just tearing into little shreds if I went for a high note with too much gusto. I had a fear of what I called my "chest voice," which was the production of the heavy vocal mechanism, and which was actually a great asset of mine, and began to think that this voice was dangerous and would destroy me as a singer if I gave it too much freedom. What made this even more insidious is that I didn't completely recognize that I even had this fear, nor where it came from. I thought I was vocally virtuous. And so I waited and waited and waited patiently for vocal progress that never came. (Also did not realize exactly how long it was I was supposed to be waiting.)

In a way, I was like my son, who learned the lessons I tried to teach him to be safe a little too well. I wanted him to develop good hand washing habits and thought I was being so smart teaching him about germs and what they do. But I produced fear, and he didn't want to touch things with germs. As a parent, trying to teach a child, my primary worry was that my child would not listen and take me seriously about germs, and I was so focused on this aspect that I never saw the other danger of his taking me too seriously, and hampering his ability to be free and enjoy himself in the world and not worry too much about germs.

Yes, the muscles that operate phonation are small, but they are not so puny and fragile as all that. On top of it all, I am finding out now, late in life, that I as an individual have particularly sturdy vocal cords with a great deal of stamina and the potential for longevity. How I wish I had known that! Can I blame my "overprotective" teacher. I'm not sure. She could not see into my soul and understand the conclusions I was coming to and which I did not think to articulate to her.

For the moment, as I discuss this I'm going to leave out the important and primary aspect of technique and form and assume that proper technique and balanced phonation has been set in place and it is okay to proceed with challenging the instrument. Like any athlete, a singer needs to figure out how much to stress the voice to stimulate vocal growth, and how much to protect the voice to avoid injury. A singer, like an athlete, needs to learn how to recognize which "pains" and strains are normal little discomforts from challenging one's self, and which ones to pay attention to that may end up as full fledged incapacitating injuries.

One of the things that makes this even more complicated is that the set rules don't apply across the board. There are different body types and different voices. What is too strenuous for one body and what would cause damage to that one is almost nothing to another.

I think it's a very difficult thing for a teacher and a student to understand. How do you know if another person is overdoing it or not? How does an inexperienced/beginner athlete/singer know what is too much or too little or not? It is an ongoing process and a separate art in and of itself to figure out an individual's precise level of training and growth.

In a book I have just finished, God on the Starting Line; The Triumph of a Catholic School Running Team and it's Jewish Coach, by Marc Bloom, the coach has the task of training a group of adolescent boys to run as a cross country team together as well as learn to run their personal bests. One of the students continually resists the coaches admonition to hold back in the beginning of the race. For whatever reason, this particular student felt that he must not follow the coach's advice and pushes ahead of the other runners because they are going too slow for him, and because of his hunger for a personal victory over them. It isn't until he experiences the consequence of the failure of his own strategy that he finally hears and believes what the coach had tried to tell him.

A lot of times the way we learn about ourselves is by the results. The singer on the message board, like me when I think about my years with the protective voice teacher, learned a lot from her results. She learned that the communication in the relationship needed to be a lot better. Assumptions were being made on both parts of teacher and student which never came to light. What makes communication even harder is that we are not even always aware of what we assume. It is only after the fact, like when examining a broken relationship, that the light is shed on how we had been thinking.

How can anyone really be blamed when we are all learning? Trial and error, mistakes and injuries; They all teach us about ourselves and how our voices and bodies work. Eventually we will become smart singers who know and recognize the teacher who is going to be good for us. And the teachers are growing and learning in their own art as well.