Reverse Engineering the Master Singer
Reverse Engineering: The Master Singer’s Technique

Reverse Engineering: The Master Singer’s Instrument

 

 

Athletes1

 

These portraits are drawn from Howard Schatz’s 2002 book, Athlete. Schatz was fascinated by the diversity of elite athletes’ bodies, and his photos are a celebration of human form following function. An athlete develops their build in the service of excelling at their sport. Sports scientists and coaches are then able to analyze the physical attributes that contribute to their excellence and put that information to good use in training the next generation.  

 

Diversity
Clockwise from top left: Sonya Yoncheva, soprano; Luciano Pavarotti, tenor; Lawrence Brownlee, tenor; Montserrat Caballé, soprano.


We also find tremendous diversity in the outward appearance of elite singers’ instruments. We must analyze the physical attributes that contribute to their excellence, but it is a more challenging enterprise than with athletes because:

  • The activity of singing is largely internal and the physical attributes that facilitate it are difficult to observe and measure;
  • Each singer is unique. While athletes are also unique, there are more common denominators for evaluating their performance, e.g. all marathon runners are judged by the time it takes them to complete a race, whereas we do not evaluate any individual singer’s success by how swiftly they can execute a G major scale or how long they can sustain a note in comparison with other singers; 
  • We are only just beginning to figure out what attributes it would be useful to measure and how to measure them. 

We can, however, express what an elite singer should be capable of doing (see my previous post for my opinions about this), and we can describe a number of the physical attributes that characterize vocal mastery. They include good alignment, stamina, balanced strength and flexibility, and overall health and well-being. 

While these are qualities that every professional singer must embody to the best of their ability, few educational programs directly provide for their cultivation. It would be unthinkable for NCAA student-athletes or dance performance majors to receive so little support for their physical development and health, and I believe that the time has come for us to consider a means of providing singers with education and robust support in the areas of anatomy, fitness and health. 

We regard incoming freshmen as being in possession of an instrument suitable for the development of technique and musicianship, unaware that we thus do them and their studio teachers a significant disservice. With rare exceptions, their alignment and overall fitness are not yet adequately developed for the task, they have little idea if any how to meet their own nutritional needs, and they know far too little about how their voice works to pursue a lifestyle that would provide for its optimal function. If we do not provide them with the means to optimize their instruments, we leave far too much to chance and pave the way for deep frustration when technical and musical training alone fail to yield the results they desire. 

 

Physical Fitness

With the exception of some hardcore child athletes, everyone develops postural distortions and muscular imbalances. As F. M. Alexander put it, “Use determines function;” our bodies evolve in response to the way we use them day in and day out. Distortions and imbalances can be created by sitting for long hours in classrooms or in front of a television or computer; engaging in repetitive asymmetrical activities like shooting pool, playing guitar or skateboarding; recovering from an injury that leads you to favor one leg over the other for an extended period of time. No one develops a perfectly balanced musculature by accident. Your body is the sum total of your habits and experiences. The minor distortions and imbalances that you develop may create no problem whatsoever for the average human, but any serious athlete must strive to resolve them in order to achieve peak performance. When a singer fails to address them, they are playing a dysfunctional instrument. The dysfunction may manifest as only a slightly exaggerated spinal curvature or asymmetry, but it will likely limit their singing in one or more ways. “The Voice of Posture,” a post I contributed to the NASM blog, provides a broad overview of how common postural distortions can impact breathing and laryngeal function. 

Athletes and their trainers know that good alignment is essential for optimal performance, and it is just as important for excellence in singing. However, most athletic activities have a direct impact on alignment; athletes also avail themselves of functional movement screens to identify imbalances and access resources to address them as needed. Singing does not have a significant direct impact on alignment; singers are not regularly assessed for imbalances or provided the means to address them. This also applies to cardiorespiratory stamina – it’s crucial for singers, it’s fairly simply to assess and improve upon, yet most of us have little awareness of the vital role it contributes to performance or any tools to address it.

The best teacher in the world can only teach you how to play the instrument you bring to their studio. 

  • If a postural distortion of your cervical spine is limiting movement of the structures governing phonation and resonance, it will likely also limit your ability to apply techniques designed to improve range, registration and tone. 
  • If muscular imbalances in your torso are impeding your ability to fully expand your rib cage, they are also impeding your ability to learn breath management. If the muscles governing scapular retraction are weak, you will fail to maintain an elevated sternum no matter how many times your teacher points out that your chest is collapsing. Weakness in these muscles is also usually behind a tendency to elevate the shoulders on inspiration. 
  • If miscellaneous chronic tensions and movement habits go unresolved, unintended movements (such as unconscious arm and neck movement and side-to-side weight shifting) will punctuate your singing and interfere with your ability to embody your characters. 
  • If you have not developed adequate oxygen consumption, you will not be able to sustain long phrases on a single breath despite excellent breath coordination. 

As I expressed in “Towards a Gold Standard in Singing,” if the source of a singer’s problem rests with their alignment, it can only be resolved through improving their alignment, no matter how skillful their teacher or how diligently they practice. A voice teacher is unlikely to be able to detect the reasons for such problems, and even if they can, it is outside the scope of their practice to be able to resolve them. The best they will be able to do is offer strategies that may enable you to compensate for them, but that will never yield the kind of freedom necessary for mastering singing. Singers need training and resources to optimize their physical instruments, and their teachers need assurance that their students are getting the support they need to get and keep their voices in shape. Voice departments should provide each singer with a thorough assessment of those aspects of their fitness that impact performance and design a regimen to resolve any imbalances or deficits. 

 

Nutrition

Many aspects of first-world culture conspire to keep us from learning how to eat well. We have greedy corporations marketing hyper-palatable foods full of fat, salt, and corn syrup; restaurants serving up enough calories for an entire day in a single meal; and enough confusion and stress around diet and body image to make it difficult to anyone to develop healthy eating habits. Even if you were lucky enough to be raised on nutritious, balanced meals, the first semester of college is a virtual minefield of temptations and distractions for freshmen who are likely making all their own dietary decisions for the first time. Dormitory meal plans are fraught with hazards and full schedules can make it hard to grab a meal at an appropriate time but easy to hit the pizza truck late at night, while sudden access to alcohol compounds the challenge. 

Student athletes have extraordinary support for developing eating habits that will ensure their best performance, and singers also need such support. Professional singers know that a healthy, well-planned diet is essential for maintaining optimal health and energy in the face of unpredictable travel and rehearsal schedules. Performance programs should provide the groundwork for excellent lifelong eating habits. 

You can no more police a student’s eating and imbibing than you can monitor their practice habits, but if you provide them with good instruction they will be far more likely to respond to it than if you don’t. Just knowing how their bodies are likely to respond to what they eat and drink could have a powerful impact on their choices and make a connection between their behavior and the well-being of their instruments. 

 

Vocal Anatomy and Wellness

Most singers have a relatively poor understanding of functional vocal anatomy. I know this because even after reading every pedagogy book I could get my hands on, my own comprehension of how all the parts worked, individually and together, was minimal. We don’t do a good enough job of teaching this yet. The reasons for this include the fact that it’s hard to teach and learn, we don’t always make a strong practical connection between the content and its value for technical progress, voice students have enough other things they need to cram into their heads to earn their degrees, and voice teachers do not all agree that it’s important. 

I argue that teaching functional vocal anatomy is very important, especially when presented in terms of practicality. Singers do not need to pore over endless illustrations and descriptions of larynges; they need to understand how their bodies and their instruments work, in simple objective terms, distinct from whatever technique they are studying. 

Whether or not a voice teacher uses anatomical language in the voice studio, they are giving their students instruction that is intended to bring about movement. Students are more likely to respond with the right movement if they know where all the parts are and how they relate to one another. I also feel that it should not be the voice teacher’s responsibility to educate their students about anatomy. There are too many other things to cover in the space of a lesson. 

Fortunately, there are far more programs offering singers effective instruction in vocal anatomy these days than there were when I was a student. Scott McCoy’s widely assigned book Your Voice: An Inside View has contributed to making this material far more accessible. But I would still like to see anatomy presented as highly relevant to a singer’s own practice rather than another category of information to be memorized for a final exam. I’ll discuss ideas about how to do that in my post on Curriculum Design. I also sometimes hear concerns that studying anatomy will be harmful for singers who tend to over-think things; I’ll cover that in my post on Intent/Artistry, but suffice it to say for now that the solution for over-thinking things is to conquer your habit of over-thinking things, not to shield yourself from potentially useful information. 

I also see more and more programs providing information and help for maintaining optimal vocal health. However, I’d also like to see this content offered within the context of addressing the function of the vocal instrument more comprehensively. If singers understood the rationale behind preventive measures like a nasal saline rinse and how to manage cold and flu symptom relief with over-the-counter meds, I believe they will be more motivated to learn and follow best practices regarding their own health. They’ll also know when to see a doctor (hint: sooner than they usually do) and will hopefully stop panicking that they’re getting nodes every time their voice isn’t doing what they think it should. 

Clarinetists understand that fingering activates keys that, by means of springs, cover up holes with padded discs. The springs sometimes break; the pads age and need to be replaced from time to time. They need to know how their instrument works so they can keep it in good working order. They also need to know whether a problem they’ve encountered is the result of faulty technique or a faulty instrument. We must cultivate similar relationships with our instruments.

 

Instrumental Integrity versus Æsthetics

When I find myself discussing singer fitness with a skeptic, the most common remark I get is “Look at Pavarotti!” The implication is that if he could sing as well as he did with a massive body that one need not be physically fit in order to sing. 

All right, then: Look at Pavarotti, pictured in the above montage. Note the expansive chest, the neck that remains well-aligned even as he inclines his body up to acknowledge applause, the settled shoulders. Pavarotti was training to be a professional soccer player before singing became his primary passion. He was an athlete. Were we to have performed the kind of fitness assessment on him that I recommend for all singers, we might very well have found his alignment excellent and his musculature well-balanced. 

I have here stressed the importance for singers to develop good alignment, stamina, balanced strength and flexibility, and overall health and well-being; I do not include any reference to body composition on my list of essential physical attributes. While there does seem to be a correlation between body composition and vocal excellence, it is likely a correlation that is specific to each individual singer. Were we to do a study, it may be that we would find that there is a range of body fat percentage that the majority of fine singers fall in, but I suspect that that range would be too wide to make it broadly useful. 

What can be said is that a significant change in body composition will have an impact on how the instrument functions. Anything you do to promote a significant change in your physiology will have an impact on how your instrument functions. Therefore, changes you pursue in your physiology should ideally be for the express purpose of optimizing your instrument. Any changes you pursue for any other reason must be undertaken with respect for what it might do to your instrument and monitored carefully for any adverse effects. 

This is why it greatly concerns me when I observe an ever-increasing emphasis on singers’ appearances among impresarios and casting directors. I am all for singers becoming as fit as possible, but in service to their singing. The pervasive idea that the voice is one thing and the body is another is utterly ridiculous. They are one and the same. It is so counterproductive when singers go to extremes to slim down or pump up without serious consideration for how it might impact their instrument. Were they instead to engage in a fitness regimen designed to optimize their instrument they would likely realize their æsthetic goals as well. And should this regimen fail to realize those æsthetic goals, that would indicate that these goals were unrealistic and impractical. 

I’m recommending incorporating the means to optimize singers’ instruments into performance curricula because I want to improve their chances for success. However, an addition benefit would hopefully be that doing so would begin to educate the greater opera community that there is such a thing as an optimal instrument, and æsthetic concerns must take a back seat to its cultivation. If in addition to voice teachers and vocal coaches, singers have fitness and bodywork specialists on hand to ensure their peak performance it will not only benefit the singers but also raise broader awareness of what it means to simultaneously be and play an instrument. It will become clear that form follows function and that it is no more useful to compare an opera singer to a movie actor than it is to compare a gymnast to a basketball star. 

 

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