In my article How to Best Practice Practicing Singing, I allude to the fact that good technical exercises are often non-musical by design:
#11: Practice non-attachment/your voice is not an expression of your soul. With practice you may develop an instrument capable of expressing something your soul feels, but you are going to have to make some amazingly ugly and non-musical sounds to develop that solid technique.
That exercises are non-musical/non-expressive could be obvious. How can one compare the expressive potential of a Bach Passion aria with an ascending and descending major triad? Dig a little deeper, though, and I hope that you will apprehend my point: It is technically valuable to exercise the voice without the imposed layer of an expressive construct specifically because the desire to express something often engenders unnecessary layers of muscular tension.
In as simple an exercise as 1…3…5…3…1 (See fig 1.), the tendency to crescendo to 5 and decrescendo back to 1 is an imposed expressive construct mingling at least two pedagogical goals, namely the preservation of optimal cricothyroid/thyroarytenoid balance throughout a range of frequencies, and the ability to increase and decrease the intensity of tone (amplitude, volume, etc…) at will. Of course, any singer should be able to sing the exercise in figure 1 (perhaps with different words), and there will be some unavoidable increase and decrease in amplitude relative to frequency due the physics of sound; however, by isolating changes in frequency (pitch) from intentional changes in intensity (volume), one is more likely to create a voice for which ‘high’ does not automatically mean loud, and ‘descending’ does not automatically mean disengaged.
With this in mind, this month I present a series of exercises initially designed by voice scientists to help rehabilitate the voices of non-singers. These exercises not only serve a “non-expressive” function, but also fill a likely gap in your practice routine, isometric exercises.
It is commonly known that many singers’ practice regimens contain an abundance of rote ascending scales and many types of isotonic (see sidebar), florid scale work. Exercise of the isometric type is not always an essential ingredient. Even so, there is general agreement in the singing world that there exists a close correlation between the sound vocal technique the old Italian masters taught and their heavy reliance on “isometric” exercises such as the messa di voce (a specific frequency or pitch that is begun with a crescendo, sustained at a forte dynamic level, and ended with a diminuendo). [emphasis added] (Sabol, et al, pg 27)
In their study, as described in the article The Value of Vocal Function Exercises in the Practice Regimen of Singers (Sabol, et. al ), Julianna Wrycza Sabol, Linda Lee, and Joseph C. Stemple introduced a series of simple exercises into the practice regimens of a group of graduate school vocal majors (three male, seven female.). Various measurements were taken at one and twenty-eight days, and the results were compared to a control group (also three male, seven female) that did not incorporate the exercises into their routines. Measured benefits to the inclusion of these exercises included (adapted from Sabol, et al, pg 34 ):
- Increased awareness of breath control
- Increased sense of relaxation during both inhalation and exhalation
- Decreased rate of airflow while singing (and decreased sub-glottal pressure)
- Increased phonation volume
- Increased maximum phonation time
- Greater ease while gliding through register breaks
- Increased awareness of laryngal and facial tension
- More productive subsequent singing sessions
This set of exercises features both isometric and isotonic exercises devoid of any musical or expressive constructs.
During the following four steps of the exercise regimen, subjects were instructed to produce phonation in the very soft part of their dynamic ranges. [emphasis added] (Sabol, et al, pg 29 )
The exercises as described by Stemple  with my notes in brackets:
1. Sustain /i/ as long as possible on a comfortable note (these subjects used F above middle C).
2. Glide from the lowest to the highest note in the frequency range, using /o/. [n.b. For countertenors, lowest means your chest voice, not the bottom of your countertenor range.]
3. Glide from the highest to the lowest note in the frequency range, using /o/.
4. Sustain the pitches C4 (middle C), D4, E4, F4, and G4 (female) or C3 (an octave below middle C), D3, E3, F3, G3 (male) for as long as possible, using /o/. Repeat these notes two times. [n.b. For countertenors, I would recommend both the female and male variations.]
The experimental subjects performed the exercises two times each day, with two repetitions each time, 7 days/week. Each exercise session required ~ 15-20 minutes. These same subjects maintained a written log of phonation times on a time sheet… (Sabol, et al, pg 29 )
I have found that both [o] (like the first sound of the diphthong in boat) and [u] (like boot) are useful when the exercise indicates the phoneme /o/. The openness of the former can help decrease tension in the jaw and tongue, so be aware and play around. If the sustained /o/ is extremely breathy at a soft dynamic, is can be healthy to sing on [i] (like a bumble bee) at first, as the vowel encourages a more efficient use of air.
This set of exercises accomplishes several things of value to the singing student:
- You will learn immediately if you waste air at onset.
- You will cultivate an awareness of the tension you carry (the first step towards releasing it!)
- You will reduce unnecessary sub-glottal pressure.
- You will decrease the amount of energy required to sing, while simultaneously increasing your amplitude.
- You will strengthen your singing muscles independent of an expressive construct, thus allowing them to efficiently serve you when you sing music expressively.
Train the voice to respond in a healthful manner at all times, and your musical choices will be dictated by your mind, rather than by the limitations of your technique. Try incorporating these exercises, and let me know if they help.
With thanks to Jennifer Lane at the University of North Texas for putting this bug in my ear.
1. Sabol, Julianna Wrycza, Linda Lee, and Joseph C. Stemple. “The Value of Vocal Function Exercises in the Practice Regimen of Singers.” Journal of Voice Mar. 1995: 27-36.
2. Stemple J. Voice Therapy: clinical studies. St. Louis: Mosby, 1993.