When you sing, your body is your instrument. Just like a piano needs tuning, a flute needs cleaning, and a violin bow needs to be loosened, your body needs care to create the best sound.
An often underrated part of training your voice is physical exercise.
Why? I hear you cry!
I know we’re all a bit fed up of hearing about the latest government guidelines on exercise, right? They’re always a bit vague – thirty minutes of moderate exercise is great in a research study, but so difficult to translate into the real world. Plus, even if you’re actually doing quite a bit of exercise, talking about how much you should do can feel quite guilt- and anxiety-inducing.
Most exercise professionals will tell you that doing exercise just because you “should” is a really fast way to quit. So I’m not going to tell you that you should!
The best way to get exercising is because a) you want to do it and b) you enjoy it.
Let’s tackle “want”
When your body is your instrument, making sure it all works at it’s best is going to help your singing. I’ll get into the nitty gritty of the kinds of exercise you should consider later, but here are some examples:
- Running is going to work your lungs, making them stronger, which is going to help you out for those long baroque runs in singing
- Pilates is all about core strength leading to good body organisation (posture). That’s going to work brilliantly to help you stand tall and relaxed so all those tiny muscles in your head and neck can work freely
- Lifting weights both tones your muscles and requires a lot of focus counting reps. That focus will really up your performance when you’re nervous in your exam, as well as the muscle strength making it easier to stand tall
For some people, the enjoying is enough. That’s their want – I want to exercise because I enjoy it. Others, we need a goal in mind.
I’m writing this during the second Covid lockdown in Scotland, and exercise has lots it’s joy for me because it was a social activity. So I found something else – a goal. It’s a really simple one: to walk every day for 20 minutes. And wouldn’t you know, the people who vouch for streaks are right. Crossing off each day is making me more determined not to miss one.
Other goals could be to run, walk or cycle a certain distance, reach a target like doing 30 pushups in a row, or even just not missing a single PE with Joe.
It might take a while for you to work out what fits that “want” for you. It’s worth the effort though!
Wants for singers
I’ll come onto enjoy in a moment. A quick detour through the benefits of exercise for singers:
- Improving your heart and lung function, which improves your breathing for singing
- Better body organisation/posture and the strength to stay there for a long time (standing is surprisingly tiring!)
- More body awareness and co-ordination from paying attention to your movements
- General health improvements like decreased joint or back pain, improvements in long-term health conditions etc
- Helping move towards a healthier weight or muscle to fat ratio. I don’t like including this one as weight is such a complex and sensitive issue, but carrying excess weight in the form of fat does negatively impact on breathing, joints, and general health, so it will have an impact on your singing
- Benefits to mental health that can help with focus and managing anxiety, which is really important given the psychological component of singing
Onto the fun!
How do you make it fun? Find the right exercise for you. There is something out there for everyone. We’re not limited to the school options of miserable winter running and badly managed team sports!
Nearly all types of exercise will benefit you and your singing. I’ve broken them down into groups: cardio, strength training and mindful movement. Obviously, all of them cross over – I’ve got quite out of breath in a yoga class in the past! Try to mix and match a few things.
Cardio is a general term used for exercise that gets your heart beating faster and your lungs working harder as the perceived main action. Of course, all these exercise types use muscles and build strength there, but that’s not where you’re going to notice the work.
- Walking (ideally at a moderate pace)
- Cycling or spin classes
- Aerobics classes like BodyAttack, BodyCombat etc
- Team sports like football, netball, rugby, hockey etc
- HIIT (high intensity interval training) feels very cardio
This is where the perceived effort is in the muscles more than the heart/lungs:
- Weight lifiting, or classes like BodyPump
- Core workout classes
- Aerial gymnastics
- Combat sports (depending on the style)
This is my favourite group. I’d encourage all singers to find an activity in this group that works for you as part of a wider regime of exercise as the mental benefits are massive.
- Tai Chi
Take a break
Of course, once you’ve found the activity(-ies) that get you really excited and enjoying moving, don’t go mad! There’s a reason the “official rules” say three times a week for higher intensity – too much exercise can be a bad thing. Your body needs time to rebuild the muscles that have been worked, and you need time to do other things!
Schedule in down days through the week where you’re doing lighter exercise or none at all. That might look like a run on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Yoga on Tuesday and Thursday and weekends off. Or going climbing at the weekend, taking a dance class mid-week and then walking on your lunch break every other day.
Making an easy, do-able plan (or nicking someone else’s off Pinterest) is usually the way to success!
Watch out for…
For singers, there are a couple of things to watch out for when you’re exercising.
The first is anything that is really straining or over-exerting. If you’ve ever watched an olympic weight-lifter, you’ll know that when they lift the muscles in their neck pop. Did you know they are also slamming their vocal folds closed to increase the pressure in their chest? You’ll see the same thing if you’ve ever binge-watched Call the Midwife – “hold your breath and push”!
If you’re really straining or over-exerting, you’ll probably find you’re holding your breath, and that can potentially put a lot of strain on your vocal folds.
That means you should be cautious about anything like high energy HIIT classes like Crossfit. If you find yourself straining, switch to something less intense. You won’t loose out from the health side, and you’ll keep your voice safe.
Do take care with injuries too. Neck strain, back pain or shoulder injuries can really affect singing. Even a twisted ankle can add complications of needing to sing sitting down with a foot up! Steady, moderate and consistent is going to have a better outcome than high intensity that knocks you out through injury!
Finally, don’t forget to get medical advice when you need it. If you have a long-term health condition, injury or are otherwise already under medical care, you should check with your doctor or nurse about what exercise is right for you. Same goes if you’re pregnant – exercise is great, but needs to be the right level. If you’re starting something new, make sure you get the right advice and support from a qualified instructor, or at least research carefully before you start.
You could even discuss the best kinds of exercise for you with your singing teacher. My recommendation to students who want to start exercising is to try yoga, and I usually direct them to Yoga with Adriene’s great 30 day programmes.
Whatever you try, I hope you’re able to find something you want to do and enjoy doing! Happy exercising!