Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Importance of Vocal Rest

An article I have just been reading about running training on 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, 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.


  1. Thank you for this post that is making me give more thought to my approach to practice and rest. My daily practice sessions can get long and intense enough to be borderline abusive to my voice, mainly because I feel like I have so many things I need to work on and they're not coming along fast enough and I need to get them fixed RIGHT NOW! I need to accept that I'm not going to get it all solved today so that I can give myself adequate rest periods!

    One odd thing I've noticed is that sometimes if I haven't been singing at all for a week or two (e.g. if I'm on vacation with no practice space around), sometimes I actually come back singing better than before the break, when I thought I would get rusty instead. I think sometimes that is a sign that I was overusing my voice before the break and the rest helped it recover. Other times I think it means that my muscle memory did forget some things over the break, but the things it forgot were some of my bad habits (yay!).