Kashu-do (歌手道): The paradox of strength and flexibility

In a yoga class some months ago, I asked my teacher what I could do to accelerate flexibility. He said:  “it depends on how strong you are.”  I did not see the connection. He then suggested I lift my backpack, filled with over 30 pounds of scores (that I too often carry around, putting strain on my posture), then slowly at chest level make a large figure-8 with my arm.  It was not easy. In fact it took a lot more strength then I thought. Then he suggested I do the same with two arms.  It was much easier.  The simple principle is that when my muscles are not straining just keeping the backpack up, they can allow for easy movement.  Whatever the action is that is asked of the muscles–be it my lower back muscles that are not strong enough to allow me to bend totally forward while they are being counted by the muscles that allow me to bend backwards (most every muscle is part of an antagonistic pair) or my crico-thyroids not strong enough to counter the necessary resistance of the thyro-arytenoids that yields appropriate fold depth (and therefore correct closure and air flow)–we have to be strong.

In the beginning of vocal study, or when correcting any imbalance at any stage of the game, there must be physical challenge.  The freedom that come from balanced phonation– (i.e. the easy flow of air that comes when the fold covers on both sides are loose enough to do the wave-like motion over the the fold body, but at the same time coming together well enough to produce complete closure during every close phase [inertial reactance included])–requires great strength. The laryngeal muscles must be strong relative to their paired antagonists in order to set the folds in the correct posture that allows for easy flow of air. The breathing mechanism also depends on a strong antagonism between muscles of inhalation and those of exhalation in order to steady the air pressure. The core muscles must be very strong in order to provide the support structure under the diaphragm that prevents loss of air pressure.

Most voices are unbalanced in some way: whether it is the young dramatic tenor who spoke very lightly as he grows up and never engaged the chest voice appropriately, or me, the slightly older dramatic tenor who spoke too low and also allowed his athleticism to slowly decay over the years.

During my development over the past two years (April 24 marks the two years since I sang my last baritone performance), I became conscious of several simultaneous muscular processes. We all desire for the work to be easy, particularly when we have heard this all our lives from teachers who do not like to see us work hard when we sing. Yet in the beginning, if you are not strong in the ways you need, true lyric singing will not be easy and it will not look easy. If it does look easy and one is not strong enough for the correct sound, then the sound will not be viable.

I have gotten to a very interesting level in my development at which I can sing an excellent Bb in a number of ways.  In a series of practices over the past three days, I tried first to concentrate of the bright tenor quality and concentrated much more on fold closure (I can always be more efficient in that regard). I had a very satisfying practice but then the next day by voice felt a little stiff and it took longer to warm up then usual. I realized then that I had been pressing and not engaging all the muscles that create proper fold posture and breath pressure.  I decided that day to reconnect fully. It was more physical work, but the vocal folds became much more pliant and I did not have to sacrifice the fold closure I had found the previous day. What I discovered was that I was not strong enough to take my support, and my fold posture mechanism for granted.

When I work hard like that in my body, it feels like the ceiling of the top is taken away and high C does not feel so impossibly high.  Some singers have a great physical constitution genetically. They do not have to work out and they look like body-builders. Most of us have to work hard to maintain our muscular toning. It is when we become strong that singing feels easy. Maestro Pavarotti said that we are athletes first. In this priceless video he says this at 4:10.

At the end of that sentence Pavarotti says: “But generally…an athlete…because we push so much”.  What does Pavarotti means about “we have to push so much”?  He certainly does not mean pushing in the way we use the word in English.  I believe he means that there is extreme physical effort required in singing and so one must be in excellent shape to sing.  Being in shape of course does not mean that one has to be very thin. A sumo wrestler is a powerful athlete, but he does not train the same way a basketball player trains.  Different muscles for different activities.  Of course, it is found that cross-training also is of great benefit to athletes. Being in good shape in general helps singing greatly, but it is not enough unless the muscles specific to singing are developed at a very high level.

© 04/10/2010

One thought on “Kashu-do (歌手道): The paradox of strength and flexibility

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  1. An interesting thought. And reminds me that in the singer biographies I've read, that in fact, Pavarotti was an athlete in his youth, as was Corelli, as was Lanza. Probably not a coincidence. Also, singing wise, all of them learned to sing powerfully before they learned to sing quietly. Great observations.


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