Singers are artists. They’re musicians, storytellers, and actors who convey the highest highs and lowest lows of the human experience. But they’re also something you may not have considered: athletes. In this post, our amazing voice teacher Anne discusses how and why singing is a form of athleticism.
We have a concept of singing; we have an ideal of it being this massive expression of emotions, and when we get it right, we are suddenly able to fill a room with the power of our voice. We have a belief that everything involving singing and music is all cerebral and pulmonary, that it all comes from our knowledge mixed with our emotions and our passion for music. We have to feel the music, and once we feel it, we will have this effortless expression of who we are.
This is, unfortunately, not entirely true. There is a bit more to the process.
Let me de-romanticize this for you. Trust me, I am very good at doing that. What is singing? Singing is controlling the breath when we exhale, allowing us to more efficiently use our respiratory system to our advantage. What, then, are voice lessons? Frankly put, the removing of ineffective habits and replacing them with effective habits. And these habits are, for the most part, very physical habits. Singing, you see, is very athletic.
Breath support is a fundamental aspect of singing. Not every teacher agrees, but to me, breath support is the fundamental aspect of singing. A lack of breath support can cause a wide variety of issues, leading from an airy sound, to flat pitches, an inability to get into the head voice, an inability to get lower notes, unwanted tension in the jaw, in the tongue, an overuse of air leading to a whole host of other issues. You get the point. Breath support is important. Now here is the part that a lot of people don’t want to hear: breath support is work. There is nothing effortless about it.
I ask my students many times to put their hands on certain parts of their torsos. “Make sure the muscle stays engaged the entire time,” I tell them. “Make sure you can feel that muscle working.” Most of them don’t like it, but when they do it, they begin to notice the changes and the improvements in their voice. Suddenly, there is their head voice. Almost as if by magic, that note is in tune. All the sudden, their voice has so much more sound. But it isn’t magic, and it isn’t a quick fix. Unfortunately, until that sort of breathing becomes a kinesthetic memory, meaning that your body remembers what to do without your necessarily having to think about it, you are going to have to think about it. And you are going to have to remember that those muscles need to work, and that it will be hard, and that it will take a lot of time to get those muscles to do what you want them to do. Just like someone learning how to swim, run, or play a sport.
There is only one place that singing should feel effortless. That is in the throat. Our tiny vocal folds, which at their largest don’t even measure a full inch–they shouldn’t feel any stress, strain, or pressure. They should just feel the effects of a constant, easy flow of air, gently moving them like a flag in a pleasant breeze. Our other muscles, however, our intercostals, obliques, pelvic floor, et al, they should all be working. Enough to make you sweat. Enough to make you tired. Singing takes effort. It takes work, and energy, and the only way it is ever going to seem effortless is for you to put a lot of effort into it. Physical, muscular energy.
All of the ease and the grace, the artistry of singing that we are all striving for, the emotion and connection necessary to make people feel, that is only possible with the gritty, ugly, and sweaty job of supporting the breath and really asking your lower body to work for you. Without the foundation, there is nothing for the voice to balance on, and it can all come falling down.