It is the time of year for New Year’s resolutions and committing once again to an exercise regime. As a singer, voice teacher and Alexander Technique teacher, I have seen many singers exercising in order to improve their singing and overall health, but without any clear goals or understanding how exercise can help or hinder them. The truth is that it is crucial for singers to maintain a balance of tonicity in different muscle groups, as well as have the ability to shorten and lengthen those muscle groups on demand for singing and stage craft – in other words, retain flexibility while gaining strength. Below I will discuss some basic information regarding exercise for singers, along with the advantages and disadvantages of some different types of exercise.
Disclaimer– this article is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for informed medical advice. The reader undertakes any exercise of his or her own volition and should do so after checking with a qualified medical practitioner. If any questions or concerns arise, please discontinue any exercise and consult a qualified medical practitioner.
The most important thing for singers to keep in mind is that the torso has to remain free and open to breathe and provide proper breath resistance for the voice. This is of vital significance, because the air stream is responsible for creating the energy for the voice and determines to a large extent the quality of the vocal sound. The whole torso has to be vibrant, but remain flexible, and the rest of the body cannot be over-exercised to the extent that it affects the torso.
A fact that many people, singers or otherwise, are not aware of is the interconnectedness of the body. Engaging in a great deal of weight lifting in the arms and legs usually causes a shortening of those muscle sets. Because there are muscle sets that cross over from the limbs into the torso, overly shortened muscle sets in the limbs can thereby affect the torso, cause excess tension and impinge upon free breathing. If the effects are slow and gradual, a singer might not even be aware of this additional tension and have the opportunity to make a change. It is particularly easy for men to exercise to the extent that it affects the flexibility of their torsos, breathing mechanism and breath resistance. I have worked with many men who are quite rigid in their torsos and who usually are fans of the gym. Therefore, it is best to make sure that any exercises done on specific parts of the body are not done excessively and that those same muscle sets are gently stretched on a regular basis, with an emphasis on gently. Muscles that are shortened need to be lengthened again!
Exercising the torso itself should be done with great care. Remember, flexibility is absolutely crucial for singers. Sit-ups in reasonable quantities can be helpful for some, but over-shortening the abdominal wall is patently unhelpful for singers, who need to maintain flexibility there. Again, any sit-ups should be followed by gently extending and stretching the front of the torso on an exercise ball or off of the side of a bed. Also, it is important that the body is exercised in all directions, not just one. If muscle sets are developed unevenly, that can also end up affecting the body and therefore the torso detrimentally.
Every year there is a new fitness craze and it is normal to want to hop on the bandwagon with friends and family and join in. As a singer however, it is important that you step back and analyze the possible effects of any type of exercise done short or long-term. Some types of exercise entail risk that might not be obvious initially. For instance, yoga is very popular nowadays and combines strengthening and lengthening muscles at the same time, which is wonderful for singers, but yoga is not done in the same way in the West as it was originally conceived of in India. There, it is completely integrated with meditation, learned over a period of years and serious practitioners see it was a way of life. In the West, it has become almost a competitive sport and people push themselves far too hard to “achieve”. This has resulted in many injuries that could have been prevented. Yoga should be done sensibly and gently with the limits of the body always in mind.
As an Alexander teacher, I am not a fan of Pilates. Most people are already holding too much tension in their bodies and need to learn how to rid themselves of it. Pilates only creates more tension in an effort to build “core strength”. Whoever decided that people need more core strength? If an individual is capable of walking around and living a relatively active lifestyle, s/he has enough core strength already and would be much better off learning how to release the excess tension that is actually weighing him or her down. Tight muscles in the torso directly impede the ability of a singer to breathe easily and reflexively. Every single voice and AT student I have had who had done Pilates was incredibly tight in the torso and had to be retaught over time how to let go of that excess tension and breath freely again. Pilates is not a helpful kind of exercise for singers.
In my opinion, whole body exercises are ideal for the needs of singers. Walking, jogging (not on a hard surface), swimming, dancing, tennis, kick boxing, etc., are all aerobic exercises that involve the entire body. If a singer wants to be particularly active, doing several of these whole body exercises that use the body in different ways, e.g. tennis plus swimming, with an emphasis on strokes other than the crawl (which mimics serving in tennis to a certain extent), would be a wonderful way to develop additional strength while keeping the torso open and free. Modalities like T’ai chi and Qigong are ideal for singers, since the movements are slow, breathing is an important component and they both have a calming effect on the mind and emotions. Dancing is always helpful for singers, since it combines grace and athleticism, teaches grace and movement skills and could easily be utilized on stage.
In summation, it is important for singers to exercise their bodies in a sensible, balanced way and not fall victim to the latest fad. Few of the great singers went to the gym, but were able to sing wonderfully anyway. When making your resolutions this year, take into consideration exactly how your exercise routine is affecting your body and therefore your singing. Make informed choices and find types of exercise you can enjoy and are helpful for your singing, instead of those that put additional obstacles in your way.
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