As a singing student, I had major difficulties singing freely. Seven years ago, when I still lived in Berlin, my teacher sent me out of the lesson with the words: ‘I cannot do my job like this – Your shoulders and neck are a catastrophe. Go work on them and come back.’
She was right: my respiratory system was seriously clogged due to muscle tension. My larynx was suffering pressure from all directions. Whatever sounds I tried to make, only half came out. It was a sad truth: I hadn’t done physical exercises for too many years.
My history of physical exercise – and neglect
As a young kid I was like all other kids. Running around, jumping, dancing, full of energy.
At around the age of 10 I was still playing soccer with the boys, but also sitting a lot at my desk to do my homework, or at the piano practicing. At 13 I started dedicating most of my time to homework, not so much to playing and running anymore.
At 14, I quit dancing class and right there ended my physical education. I cannot even begin to explain how devastating that was for me. Not only did I mess up my posture, hunched over my desk ot piano with zero body awareness – I also missed out on building the habit of being active in any way. TERRIBLE.
I was very stubborn and wouldn’t listen to my parents’ advice in the matter, now I am literally paying for it.
Am I a lost cause?
When I say I am literally paying for not having done sports, I mean that as an adult I have spent thousands of euros on yoga classes, Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais and more. All to try and fix the serious body issues I had.
At 35, it is not too late for me. How come? Because I am still stubborn and I am determined. I have looked into what I can do and how I can change my disposition to not be active.
What sports have in common with singing
With any sport, be it karate, table tennis, yoga… your trainer will tell you it’s a matter of using muscles but relaxing others. This is what singing and sports have in common. They both require a balance between the two.
If you’re a beginning sporter, you will probably be tensing the wrong muscles, and too many at the same time. It takes practice to stop using force. Good athletes make their athleticism look effortless.
And so are the times I have worked with my voice students on relaxing muscles – throat, neck, jaw, shoulders – countless.
Better core and breathing help singing
Having strong core muscles is crucial for singing, and the same goes for many sports. A tennis player doesn’t generate speed on the ball by just using the force of his arms. Most of the energy comes from his core: the hip, back and abdominal muscles.
I will write a separate, extensive article about which sports contribute most to good singing technique. But I can briefly summarize what I have found so far to be good and bad sports:
- Swimming: for more breath, core muscles, AND the necessary flexibility of the core, neck and shoulder muscles
- Fitness: core exercises like crunches and planking, for strong singing support
- Running for more breath and heart-lung strength
- Neuro-muscular coordination exercises: yoga, Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais. I did all of these, and still do them on a regular basis.
What sports should you be careful with?
Practicing with weights is ok, as long as you don’t hold your breath during the exercise. Also, especially for guys, the danger of too tight chest and neck musculature threatens a proper singing technique. It can ‘choke’ the voice box (larynx). Check out my article The chest – our neglected friend
So make sure to balance weight training with the above mentioned sports. Lean a bit more to the cardio end of the spectrum, and stay clear from very heavy weights. Check this story about a vocal coach and one of her clients who started doing heavy weights
How to motivate oneself – 7 tips
So, how do you do sports if you are lazy like me? How do you make sure your body doesn’t degenerate and feel like your 70 when you’re 20? I will tell you how: find a way to make it fun.
Doesn’t that sound like: “well, duh”? Perhaps. But so many of us treat sports as a duty, and do it out of guilt. We are probably thinking we’re too fat, or too lazy, we GOTTA get ourselves together. Then we sign up for the gym for a year and go twice. A year. Because guilt and alter egos don’t work. You have to want it.
- Be active with people you likeFind a partner (could be your actual partner but not necessarily) who knows a bit about sports and let (make) them drag you for a run, or to the gym, or to a class, anything they are into. They will encourage you and tell you how you are making progress. You will feed on that energy, and the fun you’re having. You will be motivated to impress them, as well. I do that with my boyfriend.
- Ask yourself, what involves movement that I actually enjoy doing? It doesn’t have to be the gym. Dancing works well for me, because I love it. If you like dancing – dance at least twice a week!!!
- Ride the bike instead of the train! Go on it everywhere, to work or to meet friends, a great way to shake your booty.
- Subscribe to a self-defense course – that will keep you active AND develop your general feeling of being in control, and that’s not a bad thing.
- If you are a TV series freak like me – I’m actually in “rehab” for that now – why not combine it with some workouts? Get some kind of fitness equipment for your home, and walk/cycle on it while not giving up your TV addiction.
- If you are into Yoga, Pilates, Gyrotonics or any other body awareness activity that works the muscles out, do it! But not only once a week. And not a mild version of yoga either. Pick a demanding class that will give you the feeling that you have really worked. I am talking panting, sweating and sometimes sore muscle. Us, singers, ought to be doing those anyway. You’d be hitting three birds with one stone: learning to be aware of the body, and making it stronger and more flexible.
Let me know if these tips helped you, and what you think is the best way for you to stay active!
PS If you liked this article, also check out Why yoga is THE STUFF for singers.
In my online course, I give a lot of attention to the bodywork principles of becoming a good singer.