The Vocal Athlete: Part 1

You are a Vocal Athlete; just ask the internet!

Over the past decade or two, this concept of a vocal athlete has become increasingly mainstream for many reasons. There are many ways in which being a singer, and especially training to be a singer, is similar to being a baseball player, football player, or any other athlete. There are, unfortunately, also many ways where this comparison falls short, which can lead singers down the wrong path. So prevalent is the concept of a vocal athlete that even some voice teachers can be led astray.

Over the next few weeks, we will look at precisely what or who is a vocal athlete, what comparisons between singing and sports we can draw, and what differences exist between training and living as an athlete and as a singer.

A Vocal Athlete is someone who:

  • Uses their voice for a living
  • Follows a specific training plan for their voice
  • Works to push past their limits
  • Is concerned with their vocal health

A Vocal Athlete is Not someone who:

  • Leaves their singing to chance
  • Rely on their talent alone
  • Is unconcerned about longevity
  • Is unmotivated

Or in other words, a vocal athlete is someone highly motivated to develop or maintain their singing over the long term.

The Vocal Athlete: Warm Up

The most apparent of all similarities is the warm-up. Athletes do a series of light movements and stretches, progressing to increasingly challenging activities to increase blood flow to muscles and help prevent injury. Similarly, if you have done any formal singing in lessons or choir, you undoubtedly started with some form of light phonation, progressing to longer, louder, and higher patterns. The idea is the same, to increase blood flow to the muscles and to help prevent injury.

Some popular warm-up exercises include descending and or ascending five-tone scales, sirens, triads, octaves, and some cute little tunes. These might be hummed, lip trilled, tongue trilled, sung on vowels, solfège, or words. Typically, you’ll start somewhere in the lower middle part of your range and progress downwards before working to the top of your range. All of this follows the same model as if you were warming up to run. Great! Check Mark! We are being good athletes! Maybe…

Let’s double check this one. Starting with the base assumptions:

  1. Vocal folds and the accompanying muscles can get cold from lack of use.

    Unfortunately, this one is a no.  The thyroarytenoid muscles, your vocal folds, and the lateral cricoarytenoid, interarytenoid, and cricothyroid muscles, the closing and stretching muscles, are always in use. To better understand this, your vocal folds open at the start of inhalation, and the air is drawn into your lungs. At the end of the inhalation, your vocal folds close until the start of expiration, when they part again before closing to start the process over again.
  2. Warming up will reduce the risk of injury.

    Amazingly, this is a no as well. Research study after research study has found no direct correlation between warming up or the length of warm-up and a reduction in the rate of vocal injury. In fact, the leading cause of injury is misuse and fatigue. This can be seen in the high rates of vocal injury among voice teachers, a group that reports completing vocal warm-ups consistently.

Now you are probably asking two questions right now: Why are we doing vocal warmups then? And should I just start singing then?

What is really interesting about warm-ups is that they manage to at least partially achieve a secondary purpose, even if the intention is wrong. Vocal warm-ups are inherently basic skill acquisition exercises. You are singing patterns, scales, and intervals in different parts of your range. This is very important no matter how experienced you are. The problem is if your intention is to warm up, you are likely not as focused on accuracy as you would be if the goal were to sing that interval perfectly.

As for whether you should just start singing, it depends… Your vocal folds are warm and loose, and your adductor and abductor muscles are warm and loose. Still, the singing mechanism is complex and affected heavily by your health, hydration, food intake, exercise, hormones, the weather, the time of day, and the alignment of mercury. Well, maybe not the alignment of mercury; Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson would undoubtedly tell us that mercury has nothing to do with it. But the rest of that list and more does come into play. So checking in with your voice can prove beneficial for understanding how it will respond; many voice scientists recommend just a few (3 or 4) light sirens to get your day started.

A Vocal Athlete Warm-Up? Probably Not!

While it is convenient to think about the vocal instrument and the bigger muscles of your body the same way, they are fundamentally different. Do a few sirens and use that time for more structured skill development. But do remember that while mercury isn’t going to be affecting your voice just about everything else will.

As always, please note this article is to be informative and not to provide medical advice; individuals should consult with a medical professional if they are concerned or think they might have a vocal injury. Prevention is the best medicine. There is no replacement for lessons with a professional voice teacher.

Josh Manuel

Josh Manuel, a voice instructor and founder of VoiceScience, is dedicated to empowering singers by providing evidence-based techniques and knowledge for enhanced performance and vocal health. His expertise and passion in the field of vocal science have made him a trusted resource for singers seeking to improve their skills and achieve their full potential.

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