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)


  1. Hey Fresca - I saw on Worldcat that The Biology of Musical Performance and Performance Related Injury is at a number of libraries in your part of the country. Maybe you can get it through interlibrary loan?

  2. Thanks for that tip, Blue Yonder! I have to admit, though, that I found the book for a better price at Barnes and Noble, saw that it came with a CD as well, so, decided to purchase it and add to my growing personal library. I'm waiting for it to come.