Hello again, Fit for Broadway!!
I’m delighted to be here with you for week 2 of our series, “Vocal Athletes.” This week’s post delves more deeply and directly into the substance of what we mean when we speak about singers as vocal athletes. In other words, I’m here today to convince you that you, vocal performers, are athletes in every sense of the word, as completely and legitimately as sports athletes are. Some of you may find this obvious – but you turn out to be an enlightened minority! I spend a lot of time in my office counseling vocal performers by preaching the truth – the science – of vocal athleticism. Frankly, many just seem not to believe it, much less internalize it! So I’m here this week to start to make a case for singers as vocal athletes, so that you in turn might internalize these principles, live them, and in doing so – you will start to think the same way I do about taking care of your instruments, and your bodies. This is the foundation for all of us creating change – starting with sound information coupled to a positive inner monologue (we LOVE that FFB initiative, too!) to create awareness, bring about insight, and increase knowledge.
We work and live under the weight of assumptions that there is a difference between activities that require humans to use their bodies to lift, push, pull, throw, or hit things, and activities that require humans to use the same kinds of muscles and tissues to sing, shout, speak, whisper, or otherwise create artful, meaningful sounds. Because the former is “sport” and the latter is “art,” we tend to think of them in compartmentalized ways. (Though, sports like figure skating and rhythmic gymnastics, as well as movement arts like ballet and modern dance explore the overlap between sport and art.) I believe that this is an artificial divide. Though a great singer makes you forget about technique and mechanics – the fact remains that a singing voice results ENTIRELY from the finely coordinated actions of muscles, tissues, ligaments, and mucous membranes of the human body.
But, while anyone can whistle – and just about anyone can sing and speak – similarly, most humans can walk, run, throw or catch a ball. Only a few decide to make their careers – whether in sport or in art – to dedicate their minds and spirits to train their bodies to perform, whether in voice or in sport. Athletes make extraordinary demands of the same tissues that the rest of us use in less rigorous ways every day. Let’s start to get specific about that. Take this very small but highly instructive point: possibly the most famous single note in all of music is A 440, also known as the A to which orchestras tune at the beginning of a concert. (Some people refer to it as A5, or the A above middle C.) But what does “A 440” mean? It means that when you sing that note, your vocal folds are vibrating against each other 440 times per second. PER SECOND! Now, multiply that times the other pitches you sing in one song, times multiple songs in a show, times a 3-hour show, times 8 shows a week. That is MILLIONS of collisions of your vocal folds in just ONE WEEK of performances!
My mentor, Dr. Steven Zeitels, the director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Voice Center, has done extremely cool work and research with Steven Tyler, the lead singer in Aerosmith. Dr. Zeitels and Dr. Robert Hillman, one of the most important voice scientists of our time, used sophisticated technology to measure the number of times Steven Tyler’s vocal cords collided with each other during the course of ONE show, and found that it was 780,000 collisions during that ONE show. In ONE SHOW!!! Some of you will argue that Steven Tyler’s vocal mechanics are freakish, but the point stands that in any vocally demanding performance, the demands on the tissue of the vocal folds are enormous. (And, let it be said, that stylistically, Broadway scores seem increasingly inclined toward pop/rock sounds and textures, so the analogy is not far off, in the end.)
Without getting too much into the weeds of the microscopic levels of function of the vocal folds, I’ll point out that when we talk about “collisions,” we’re essentially talking about the top couple layers of the vocal folds. But the inner core, the muscles – have to do sophisticated, coordinated activities within the structure of the larynx, which itself moves at the direction of muscles that are not simply responsible for voice, but also for breathing and swallowing. Training the larynx and vocal folds to function consistently and efficiently in the act of singing, therefore, absolutely requires precision, determination, practice, and exercise at the same level of achievement to which sports athletes aspire.
Let’s add to this picture that you triple-threats are doing all of that often while dancing – or at the least, moving on stage – which can be tiring, but more specifically, as such, it can affect the mechanics of your breath. This, then, affects the mechanics of your larynx and vocal folds. Putting all of this together, then, requires complex coordination of muscle activity, tissue health, as well as breath, alignment, posture, and form. Singing is unquestionably a whole-body activity. Come to think of it – why do we think of this as anything but athletic?
This post only scratches the surface of voice science and physiology; I would encourage those of you who are super interested in this to inquire within – my colleagues at the NYU Voice Center, Dr. Ryan Branski, and Dr. Aaron Johnson, are doing groundbreaking work with their research teams to help us better understand the science and athletics of voice. I hope I’ve convinced you, or at least helped you consider, the ways that vocal performers and singers-in-training are indeed vocal athletes.
As a preview for next week’s post, I’d like for us to consider the next step in this analysis, briefly here (and of course, more next week!). Football games happen once a week. No NFL athlete would play 8 games a week; but what’s more, no NFL athlete would play 8 games a week, then run 5 miles between games, take a boxing class at halftime, and then go home and do more pushups and planks. That is what many singers end up doing, analogously, when they sing 8 shows a week, do interviews or auditions between shows, go out to dinner at loud restaurants with friends, and go home and talk with their family, friends, or roommates.
Think about this over the coming week – about the ways you use your voice on and off the stage – and the way that affects the balance of activity and rest in your vocal life. This strikes at the central mission of these t-shirts – they are fabulous and fun – but we really made them to broadcast a deeply important message about vocal health, and helping to prevent vocal injury, which we’ll discuss next week.
Don’t hesitate to write in with questions – I’ll try to answer as many of them as I can in week 4!
Contributed by Paul E. Kwak, MD
Photos Featuring: Kurt Crowley, Jane Jourdan, Paul Kwak, Ryan Branski, Drew Gehling, and Elizabeth Stanley
“I’m on Vocal Rest” is an original Fit for Broadway Apparel design. We are so grateful for to be a part of this mission with NYU Voice Center and believe this message is worth spreading in our global community!
Join the conversation below in our comments section. Part 4 of our series will be a Q&A with Dr. Paul so please don’t be afraid to ask questions below!