Today I want to talk about five ways you can improve your vocal technique. One of the most interesting aspects of being a vocal coach and personal trainer is recognizing the parallels between the fitness and music worlds. There are some striking similarities that I’ve started noticing since I became a trainer. One of the things I’ve noticed in both worlds is the apparent lack of appreciation of the importance of good technique.
I see it very often at concerts that I attend: artists who appear stiff, tense and distant; those who always give 100% effort without regard for dynamics, thus blowing out their voices very quickly; those who tend to sing out of their range more often then they probably should, resulting in loss of vocal control; those who lack the physical stamina to give a high-energy performance, but try to give one anyway, thus making their overall show appear less authentic. I see the same thing in the gym all the time: those guys and girls who use improper lifting technique but stack on the weight, increasing the risk of injury; relying too much on using momentum to execute a lift; improper breathing technique; not enough (or too much) rest between exercises.
One of the lessons I try to instill in my coaching is the notion that if what you’re doing feels good, then it is good. Unfortunately, what ‘feels good’ doesn’t always mean that it’s good for the body in the long term, which is why I place a very high priority on correct form at the very beginning of my vocal and fitness sessions. That means breathing technique, good posture, a good tension / relaxation ratio in the body, positioning, etc.. Generally, the human body adapts to movement patterns fairly quickly, so basic techniques are so heavily emphasized in my coaching sessions. Once these basics are mastered, then the fun stuff can begin. In singing and in fitness, however, focussing too much on technique can get in the way of a good performance later on, so here are 5 tips to help maintain good technique during a performance or workout:
Breath support: ‘Holding back’ doesn’t mean holding your breath
There’s a common misconception among singers regarding the concept of breath support; many tend to think that using more air while singing will make hitting high notes easier, or loud notes louder. In fact, the opposite is true. This misconception stems from the misunderstanding of the definition of ‘breath support’. In it’s most basic sense, breath support is the ability to hold back the amount of air you let out of your body. For many, this means creating tension in the midsection, effectively trying to hold your breath while singing (which is impossible to do, since any sound created by the voice requires air to pass through the vocal chords), causing the singer to push too hard to create sound. While tension in the midsection is a good thing to create stability in the body, it can be easily overdone. A similar mindset is prevalent in the gym; most people tend to hold their breath while lifting, which can result in poor technique, as well as a number of complications such as dizziness, nausea, etc..
In both cases, the most important thing to remember is to activate your midsection as much as you need to, but not more than you have to. While singing, that means holding back by tightening your muscles only when you sing loud, extremely high, or both. Exhaling (without sounding overly breathy) is the key. This kind of ‘natural support’ is something you do every day when you speak. The same applies to working out; tighten up the midsection when lifting heavy, but do not hold your breath. Try to breath out on the concentric part of a movement. Master the art of ‘rhythmic breathing’ (one of the basic concepts of my vocal coaching and personal training classes).
Think small & light
In sports, the general consensus is that to learn proper form, one should use light (or no) resistance in order to perfect the movement patterns of an exercise. The same also applies to vocal training with regards to volume; certain techniques are best trained at lower volumes so to reduce strain on the vocal cords and surrounding muscles of the neck, shoulders and face. Once the movement patterns are perfected, the intensity can be increased (in fitness: an increase in rep speed and/or weight; in singing: an increase in general and perceived loudness, articulation and vocal endurance).
Take it slow
Developing technique is not only about establishing movement patterns, but also about developing stability, balance and coordination skills. The best way to achieve this is by performing exercises slowly, with emphasis on range of motion (ROM). The importance of this in a fitness context is pretty self-explanatory; the better an exercise is performed, the more efficient the body works, resulting in greater gains. In terms of vocal training, practicing slowly has enormous benefits, especially when applied to melismatic singing (aka vocal runs or ‘riffing’). Instrumentalists apply this theory every day in practice; vocalists should be capable of doing the same thing.
Control is EVERYTHING
Regardless of the activity, the end goal of having proper technique is control. As I tell all of my students and clients: the best performers and athletes always know exactly what they are doing. What makes them so good at what they do is that they make their performances look effortless. This perception is not only the result of physical practice, but also mental training and adaptation. The technique has become ingrained into their subconscious, making their performance very natural. The best technique is the one you don’t have to think about.
Take pride in your work!
The effects of regular exercise are well documented: it helps with weight loss, stimulates muscle growth, reduces stress and promotes general health and well being. Many of my singers point to a general good mood, emotional release, stress reduction and their love of music as reasons they take voice lessons. In both situations, it’s important to remember that both situations (like almost everything in life) are choices; no one forces you to do these things. If you make the decision to take part in these or any other activities, you should stand by your decision and perform them to the best of your ability, without shame or fear of judgement. Self confidence goes a long way toward the proper execution of any activity. In the cases of singing and working out, the effects of self confidence are reciprocal; better you perform, the better you feel, and vice-versa.