More on Vocal Exercises

If you wanted to build a substantial physique and put on quite a lot of muscle, thereby changing the proportions of your body – you could get VERY far on the following exercises ALONE:

  • Squats (LOTS of these)
  • Overhead Press
  • Deadlift
  • Bench Press
  • Bent-Over Rows

That’s it.

That’s FIVE exercises that would give most people the physique of their dreams.

However, the world of fitness is NOT immune from the boredom and intrinsic lack of glamour in these simple exercises. Despite their EFFECTIVENESS in most cases, people can’t seem to trust something that is just so B O R I N G. These exercises are just not TRENDY!!! A current glimpse at the exercise industry will reveal more fads and tricks than one can perform in TWO lifetimes. Thighmaster™? I rest my case.(Recognize similarities to current pedagogy? If you don’t think there are trendy ways of teaching singing you aren’t paying enough attention.)

We get bored  – so we INVENT new exercise routines that alleviate the boredom. We want the latest exercises! What are the cool kids doing? (Answer: they’re definitely NOT squatting – that area of the gym is ALWAYS empty.) Some teachers make it a fetish to COLLECT exercises, as if the exercise itself was the magic pill to vocal success.

Do you know why all those fads and tricks exist? Because we in Western culture are impatient with true mastery, and we want to look hot naked NOW. The idea that it would take 1-2 years of hard work and diet to look great makes us deeply uncomfortable. In the words of psychologist David Burns, author of the book Feeling Good, we become process resistant. 

Rather than stay with classic exercises, improving form, increasing weight, we bail on them and look for other more exciting exercises. This is the anti-Mastery syndrome that George Leonard talks about in his important book Mastery:

Going for mastery in this sport isn’t going to bring you the quick rewards you had hoped for. There’s a seemingly endless road ahead of you with numerous setbacks along the way and – most important – plenty of time on the plateau, where long hours of diligent practice gain you no apparent progress at all. Not a happy situation for one who is highly goal-oriented.

There are in reality FEW vocal exercises that will assist in the development of a good vocal technique, but our boredom with them usually precludes our interest in their application and refinement. Rather than stay with something classic, we lose enthusiasm and run on to different exercises that we feel are more exciting or fun. OR we just stop vocal exercises altogether and start singing songs. (Much like a bodybuilder posing in the mirror and not lifting any weights in the gym. Why? Premature celebration of gains not received is SUCH a gym turn-off.)

Remember the Karate Kid? Daniel grew exasperated by the repetition of ‘wax on, wax off” he was being asked to perform OVER and OVER again – mindlessly – until he finally confronted Mr. Miyagi.

This scene is that result (voice teachers, can you relate?):


So how should we think about exercises? Four ideas off the top of my head:

  1. We should NOT attribute any magical property to the exercise ITSELF. Remember my five bodybuilding exercises above? They can all be done BADLY or DANGEROUSLY if the person performing them has no idea what they’re doing. Bad form can ruin the BEST exercise and negate its positive properties. ALL exercise is only as good as the form and the understanding of WHAT IS BEING DONE in the exercise. Mindless squatting or ego-lifting are only going to get you injured or hospitalized.
  2. SIMILAR exercise gives us a barometer of how the voice is functioning (if it’s purpose is understood). If you did 1,000 exercises it would be VERY hard to measure progress in all of them. By simplifying a family of exercise, you give yourself something to measure yourself against. Is it freer? Sticky? Harder? Looser? If you have a similar exercise to measure, you will gain more insight into your body – in the same way that doing the squat regularly will tell you more about how your legs, buttocks, and hips FEEL on a given day – and how much you will be capable of lifting.
  3. Randomly done exercises are no different than someone walking around the gym and just tinkering with exercise. To achieve a high level of success every bodybuilder must have a PLAN. Sticking to the classic routine is going to give you more success in the long run than running all over the gym willy-nilly as the spirit strikes you. Of COURSE you can veer off course once in a while, but any bodybuilder will tell you they will ALWAYS come back to a classic exercise to measure their progress. These athletes tend NOT to get distracted by shiny things.
  4. Exercise PRINCIPLES MATTER. Why am I doing this? What is the purpose? What do I hope to achieve by doing this exercise? A bench press will not exercise your legs (unless you have bad form and lift them off the floor). Understanding a principle allows you to do LESS exercise with better intention! You will be able to do a lot more with your chest muscles if you understand you only need a few things to strengthen them! As F. M. Alexander said, “A person who learns to work to a principle in doing one exercise will have learned to do all exercises, but the person who learns just to ‘do an exercise’ will most assuredly have to go on learning to ‘do exercises’ ad infinitum.”

All the above brings me to an important final question: What ARE versions of classic exercise that could represent the core arsenal of vocal exercise? Here are some ideas that I have culled from most of the historical literature on singing. As with the above mentioned physical exercises, you could build a pretty substantial singing voice on the following exercises:

  • Sustained tones. This exercise is far too frequent in older texts to be convenient for modern pedagogy, and few teachers will commit to a program of sustained tone singing. The amount of technical and pedagogical goals that can be achieved simply by singing a single tone are staggering.
  • Messa di voce. Another ignored exercise owing to its intrinsic difficulty, few singers or teachers will embrace the messa di voce as a core exercise for vocal development and a measurement of vocal progress. To this author’s mind, there is no greater vocal exercise to show the development of the singer’s voice and technique than a beautifully performed messa di voce. It is the singer’s version of the squat – often neglected and totally unglamorous as it reveals everything.
  • Staccato. An important and spontaneous vocal utterance that clears up onset issues and helps a less-trained instrument to ‘speak.’ It has largely become the purview of sopranos and lighter voices, but all voices should have this spontaneity of utterance.
  • Vowel differentiation. The ability to sing various vowels with clarity is the lifetime work of the singer. This is an area of focus than can always be improved.
  • Movement of all kind. The voice should move. Strength without flexibility is imbalance. The voice should fluently render scales of an octave, an octave and a half, two octaves. Arpeggios should be included as the voice becomes more fluent. Trills, acciaccature, mordents all fit into this category. The voice is supposed to move. That “dramatic” voices ignore movement is to demonstrate a technical deficiency. No matter how large the voice, it should not lose its agility. This is a vital component.

When we can learn to understand and appreciate the purpose, value, and yes – SIMPLICITY of vocal exercise, we will have come a long way as teachers in determining how to effect change in the voice. Simple and well-performed exercise over a long time WILL make enormous changes in the vocal instrument, in the same way repetitive squatting changes the strength and appearance of the legs.  We must simply stick to simpler, core exercise and allow the instrument to respond, rather than running off somewhere else in the vocal gym because we have gotten bored. God forbid.

If you are bored with the simplest of maneuvers, you are not looking or listening closely enough. Get back to the squat rack.

As my college piano teacher used to say, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”