Functional Training in the 21st Century

If we let go of repertoire entirely for the moment and looked at singing training strictly as a physical activity like a sport or like dance we can talk about what it takes to develop an Olympic quality vocalist (which is related to, but not the same as, an artist who sings).

Gymnastics requires greater and greater physical skill, pushing the body to its limits. Its combination of enormous flexibility and great strength are found most aptly in the young and the diminutive. Long lanky people don’t do well in gymnastics, mostly for reasons that have to do with physics. The long lanky folk do well in basketball and volleyball and the sturdy, wide and densely muscled seem to do well in weight lifting and football. Other sports may have other physical parameters that make it easier for individuals with certain kinds of bodies to do better at them than others. Ballet dancers tend to be long like volleyball players although not quite so tall. The women, particularly, do better with smaller breasts (whether natural or decreased through surgery).

No one has ever looked at singing in exactly this way, except through the externals of the sounds they make. We do have “dramatic voices” (ones that seem to be quite loud and rich) and “lyric voices” (ones that seem sweeter and not quite so powerful) and a range in between. We describe voices with descriptive words like “warm” and “earthy” and “cutting” or “creamy”or “delicate” and “shimmery” but those words only mean something to the people that use them. They aren’t objective terms.

We don’t know if a certain size larynx or a certain thickness of vocal folds makes for a certain kind of sound, or if a certain thickness of neck or length of throat gives certain harmonics a boost. We do know that longer throats tend to be lower pitched voices, and small ones higher pitched voices, but that’s about it. It stands to reason, though, that anatomy has to have something to do with what we call the voice itself.

Nevertheless, the vocal ligament is part of a complex muscular system. Only the hyoid bone in the tongue is an actual bone. Everything else is either cartilage or muscle, meaning it is soft or malleable. That being so, why would it not respond to development, at least in the muscles? The muscles of the pharynx and velo-pharyngeal port (the throat and the back of the mouth) can change shape by contracting. The more they learn to contract, they more they develop strength and flexibility. Even the vocal folds themselves can learn to contract more firmly and resiliently, closing more firmly to resist great air pressure from the lungs. The muscles of the chest (intercostals) and the abdominals (all four layers) can become very strong.

The predominant method of training for singing, developed in the 1600 and 1700s, passed down mostly one person to one person for all these centuries has evolved and changed along with the music being written and sung during that time. By the mid-1800s when orchestras became large and loud, voices really needed to have a certain kind of “oomph” in order to be heard, since there was no amplification other than that which could be created within the singer’s own physical body. At that time it became imperative to find a kind of “carrying power” that allowed a vocalist to compete with an 80 piece orchestra in an opera without ending up with a severe case of laryngitis. The “singer’s ring” seemed to help the sound soar over the orchestra and seemed like the “golden answer” to operatic vocal production. That end product, that special resonance, became the goal. Problem is, it never was the source of the sound and it isn’t possible to “do resonance” deliberately.

In observing the ingredients of those who had succeeded in this endeavor, singing over the orchestra loudly enough to be heard and sound good, but also not lose their voices, it was clear that it had something to do with breathing and with that “golden answer” in the sound. The breathing and the resonance became the pathway to this answer and today, hundreds of years later, it still is. The goal became the pathway, and the pathway became less important that getting to the goal however one could.

We know that winning in gymnastics means that you have to have all the various maneuvers mastered to perfection but that you must also look a certain way (comfortable) while you do them. We know that even small infractions of the movement parameters or the execution of them in terms of their smoothness and ease can make or break winning a medal. We understand that executing the maneuvers takes a lot of practice but I don’t think the athletes or their coaches confuse doing a routine on the uneven parallel bars as something that “just happens”. Clearly, they understand that a very complex kind of training has to happen every day for hours and hours for many years to make that routine into an Olympic one. They also understand that the gymnast has to have certain physical requisites and a certain mindset in order to make the possibility of success greater than it would be for an “average” person.

If we applied that to singing, every singing student would have a lesson every day and practice under the watchful eye of the teacher for 10 years before the student would be skilled enough to equate with a gymnast of the same age and kind of training. Imagine what that would mean to the level of singing that young people could address by the time they were 17 or 18! But, with the attitude that training can only begin after puberty, and with the attitude that one lesson for one hour once a week is sufficient to teach someone to sing well, there is no realistic possibility that at the same age the singer could ever be to singing what the gymnast is to gymnastics.

I am asking here, why not? It isn’t because it would be impossible, just that it hasn’t been done in a long long time or maybe it has never been done at all.

And what does this have to do with learning songs in foreign languages that were written in 1650 or 1720 or 1805 if you intend to become a professional singer in some style that has nothing to do with classical singing? The answer, obviously, is nothing at all. The training process, for its own sake, is about learning to make the desired sound, comfortably, easily and freely, in whatever quality one needs,  on demand, over and over again, in a way that is expressive and satisfying. The training process is about discovering what you have, in terms of the voice and the body, while being guided by a trained expert who encourages experimenting with various kinds of sounds in many different directions until finally the process itself produces the results almost without effort.

If you are an artist, if you have a desire to create and to express, if you have something special to say about how you view the world and life, if you want that expression to come through your voice in music, then, you must have a strong vocal and physical scaffolding as a secure platform to do all of these things and to make the world a better place by doing so. When that scaffolding is in place you can rest upon it with confidence, without giving it more than a passing thought, and express that which only you have to say.

So many people who would sing from the heart are robbed of this experience by poor or inadequate training. They have the artist within killed by teachers who lack skill, life experience, and high level singing ability of their own. Many singers stop singing altogether because someone who was teaching without a clue said or did something that went to the core of their soul and silenced them forever.

The way out of this dilemma is through solid functional training, grounded in science, and applied with care and kindness.

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