At some point every singer will hear that their body is their instrument. I’ve heard it going all the way back to my first singing teacher when I was 14.
But what, exactly, does that mean?
The vocal instrument is more than just the larynx aka the voice box. Technically, just like every other instrument, it's made up of a motor (the breath mechanism), the vibrator (the vocal folds), and the resonator (the pharynx - the throat and mouth).
Unlike other instruments the vocal instrument isn't made up of inanimate material, it's made up of living tissue. If something breaks, it's not a matter of getting a new set of strings or sending it to the repair shop.
This is where vocal health comes in.
But what is vocal health?
In short, it is maintaining good overall health to maintain a strong, resilient vocal instrument that is able to function freely and with reduced risk of injury or illness.
Some of the advice that I got as a young singer was very superficial.. The typical dos and don'ts of vocal health are:
However, there were still so many questions and so much conflicting information. What exercise is best for a singer? What should I eat to support my voice? How do I get a good night's sleep?
Advice on exercise was limited to walking, swimming, other light cardio work– weights were absolutely to be avoided and forget about a six-pack.
And if you were a singing dancer - Oh the horrors of dealing with the slew of problems in breathing that that would produce!
Thankfully we are entering a more enlighten age about exercise and the voice. Many singers are now hitting the gym, running marathons, doing triathlons (me included!) and there is no detriment to the voice if training properly.
In fact, doing more intense cardio will benefit breathing, stamina and endurance (Any Wagnerians out there? Now that’s an endurance sport!), not to mention all the actual health benefits of exercise including reduced risks of heart disease, diabetes and cancer, to name a few.
Then there is the nutrition advice that got more specific: Avoid dairy, spicy foods, alcohol, carbonated and ice cold drinks prior to performances. Eat two hours before a performance. If you are experiencing a dry mouth eat sour foods like grape tomatoes, or lemon water. Most of this advice revolves around the immediacy of singing rather than any long-term management.
Unfortunately not enough time is spent talking about good nutrition as a means of keeping your instrument healthy for life. When singers talk about avoiding colds most seem to think a scarf, copious amounts of tea and avoiding germs at all costs will protect their throats. Caught a cold? Singers are probably keeping Cold F/X and other supplement manufacturers in business. As with exercise a healthy diet will not only help you stave off a cold, but will reduce risk of diseases and other chronic diseases.
Hopefully most everyone has more enlightened teachers and coaches than I did, though I still see many of the old remedies and myths about how to take care of a singer’s body floating around.
Singer’s must also be proactive in finding out what they can about leading a healthy lifestyle, which include a solid exercise plan and a good nutrition plan to maintain a healthy body.
I used to think I was doing enough; I followed the old Canada Food Guide and was dancing 4 classes a week with the occasional trip to the gym, yet I would still get sick about every six weeks. It made performing a real challenge for me. This all changed when I began triathlon training and switched to a whole food plant-based diet.
The only times I have become sick are when I have strayed from my new eating pattern or had exceptionally stressful times in my life, like when my father passed away. Not only do I not get sick anymore, but I also have so much more control of my voice and it is so much stronger.
So what does it mean that your body is your instrument?
It means that you owe it to yourself and your voice to do the best you can to exercise, eat well and in general lead a healthy lifestyle. The bonus of taking good care of your instrument will be that you will be able to cope with the other facets of your life better (like house cleaning, playing with your children, your day job), you will minimize illness and you will have plenty of energy for it all!
Welcome! This is the first official blog of my new website. With no performances and no travel, this summer was the perfect time to build my new site. So I'm excited to share it. Here you will find content in all things singing, from the art of singing, tips for students and lots on the care of the vocal instrument.
Now that we're settling into the fall routine with our new normal (for me that means all online lessons), I want to start off by giving my students some solid tips to make their practice time into an efficient use of their time. The goal is not to go in blindly and plow through all the songs singing them over and over without a thought. Instead, we want to approach each session mindfully. This will allow for faster progress and singing more of the songs they love.
1. Schedule a regular practice time each day.
Making sure there is a set time each day to practice is a great way to ensure good practice habits. Young children may need parents nearby to help them look at notes and set goals for the practice session.
2. Do your warm ups
We all want to get right to the good stuff and sing our favourite pieces, but it's important to remember to warm-up. Just like an athlete stretching before hitting the field, we need to warm up our vocal muscles, too.
3. Read you lesson notes
When you're practising between lessons it can be easy to just start working on your pieces and never crack open your note book with the lesson notes.
However it's important to check here to make sure you're completing the correct assignments and working on the things your teacher feels are priorities for your improvement.
If you do this you will get better faster and be able to enjoy your music making all the more!
4. Set goals for each practice session
As tempting as it is to go over and over your pieces, it's important to have efficient practice for the best results. Setting a goal before each session is a great idea.
-Keep a steady beat
-Sing through phrases in one breath
...and so on.
Keeping the focus on just a one or two things will make it easier to learn and keep the fun in practice.
5. Listen to yourself
Sometimes you might charge into a piece and just try to plow through it without really taking the time to listen to yourself
It's important to develop the skill of listening
Are you playing musically? Do the notes sound right? Are you using dynamics? And so on...
You can even record yourself and listen back to see if you did.
6. Practice slowly
Breaking down your piece and singing it slowly will ensure that you learn the notes correctly, improve enunciation and develop a fluid line.
Keep a steady beat, don't rush through the parts you already know.
You will learn a lot faster with fewer mistakes and have much better control if you take the time to practice slowly.
7. Practise in small sections
We all want to sing the whole piece in all it's glory, but the fastest way to mastering it is to work it in small sections.
Work a phrase at a time or even a couple of measures to get the notes, rhythm and tempo.
You'll be able to get the whole piece polished in no time following this method with less frustration.
8. Take a deep breath and move on
At times when we are trying to perfect a section of music it requires us to do multiple repetitions of a small section.
Some days it just doesn't seem to be working. It can get frustrating. If you feel the frustration building it's not going to help your technique, so it's best to take a deep breath to calm down and let go of the tension and then move on or stop for that practice session.
9. Don't practice mistakes
Practice makes perfect they say. That goes for mistakes too. If you keep singing the same mistakes over and over again, you are learning them just as surely as you're learning the rest of the piece. If you catch a spot where you constantly make a mistake take note. Then go back to it and use practice tips #5, 6 and 7:
-Listen to yourself
-Practice in small sections
This is efficient practice and will make this music teacher very happy when you come back to your lesson with your mistakes corrected!
10. Practice in front of a mirror
Singers, there is so much to be learned by looking at yourself in the mirror when you practice.
You can check for:
Do you look like a performer you would like to watch?
It can be hard looking at yourself at first, but if you learn how to do this, you will progress much faster by having that self-awareness.
So how many of these practice tips do you already have in place? Which ones do you need to start focusing more on?
If you're new to practice, just pick a few tips to start with. I'd start with 1, 3 and 4, then build from there.
You will unlock your potential and #freeyourvoice in no time!
Hi, I'm Elizabeth! I'm your guide on your vocal journey. I work with singers - Voice Students of all ages, Singing Teachers and Choristers - basically anyone who LOVES to Sing and wants to free their voice.