Singing is exercise. The body is the instrument. A strong and flexible body can support a strong and flexible voice. Yes, sure, of course…
There was a time in the not too distant past when most of the vocal instruction I gave and received was about the workings of my ‘mechanism,’ which meant the larynx, pharynx, and articulators, and maybe the lungs, diaphragm, and abs (although instruction about these was unclear at best and at worst just plain wrong). Thankfully, modern voice science and vocal pedagogy has quickly embraced the idea of an holistic singer–one whose entire body, mind, and spirit are considered to be part of the ‘support’ for a voice. We are better for this perspective, and its time has come to stay.
That said, with the difficulty of the music we teach, the complexity of the mechanism above the clavicle, the murky mystery (still!) of the mechanism below the clavicle, and all the pressures of life that encroach upon a singer’s practice and performance, I think singers continue to have a hard time remember the sheer physicality of body-based singing. Quite simply, if you fully energize your body and take a breath from that most basic energetic level, the singing will be much better than if you hadn’t. There’s less need to sweat the small stuff, because the cornerstone of technique and breath is turning on that energetic ‘yes’ before beginning phonation.
So, we need to practice having that energy regularly, and in lots of situations. It is imperative that singers rehearse standing. (requires more energy, often avoided, don’t care!) If they don’t stand, they have to sit well (back away from the chair, spine straight, chest open, I know it’s hard!) Singers need to pursue some sort of physical discipline (exercise) that approximates the energy required to sing. Mental preparation is not enough–the body has to learn the pathways to support, and muscle memory has to develop. It can’t be crammed either–this type of muscle memory develops over sustained practice.
To that end, we need to exercise our bodies and voices regularly. If you don’t have a home practice, start one. Here are two sets of exercises I use and teach. The first comes almost directly from the late, great Barbara Kierig, who taught me in grad school and beyond. She was a master technician and absolutely rock solid on the idea of exercises as essential practice. The second set are simple exercises I have added to Barbara’s in my studio rotation. All of them work the voice in a certain way and prepare a certain energy that mirrors situations that arise in our music. The subconscious will recognize the situation from daily practice, and the appropriate muscle memory will kick in.
When I warm up the San Francisco Girls Chorus, for example, we always start with some sort of postural or physical cue to energize. This is like booting the system before turning to the breath exercises I posted about last week, and then finally adding phonation to the mix. You can use foot stomping, knee bouncing, finger/toe wiggling, shoulder/head rolling, eye blinking, or any other action that requires more energy than just standing upright. Once we’ve done many of these things, the girls are in what I call Singer’s Tadasana–the basic template yoga pose for all standing postures–and have ‘turned on’ for singing. It’s especially important to warm up a group in this way, but even for individual lessons it works wonders.
Shameless plug: the San Francisco Girls Chorus and Chorus School have a wonderful concert at 4pm on Sunday at Herbst Theater. They’re performing canons from many eras with TED fellow, composer, and cello player extraordinary, Joshua Roman. Click the image for more info and tickets. You’ll hear beautiful singing and (hopefully!) see energized physicality from all the performers.