Speech pathologist Nicola Anglin recently attended a webinar on ‘Vocal Performance Fitness’ by Mary Sandage, a US speech pathologist and “vocal physiologist”. Nicola shares some established principles and some new thinking:
You’ve probably heard that we’re not stuck with the muscles we’re born with. Research shows that our muscles are changeable, or plastic. When muscles are stressed during a particular task, specific adaptations occur in our brain, metabolism and muscles to improve our ability to perform that exercise in the future. For example, the dominant arm of a top tennis player is larger and stronger than the other arm, and a concert pianist has far better finger coordination than the average adult. The key is to train specific muscles for specific tasks. We don’t need to be Olympians, but we have the power to train and improve our voices!
Does your Voice fit your Needs?
It’s easy to measure training times in sport, eg. 3-4 sessions of 45 minutes a week. Currently, it’s difficult to measure “vocal load” (how long you use your voice and at what intensity) to determine “vocal fitness”. With your voice therapist, you’ll come up with an estimate and discuss whether this needs modification.
Hitting the (Vocal) Gym
When training muscles, consider these principles:
- Overload – Load yourself up (a little)
- Your gym session is almost over and you’re getting tired. To train your muscles to perform better, you must push past this a little bit (with professional guidance). Go a little further today and next time, go a bit further again.
- Specificity – Be specific
- Exercise the right muscles for the task. For example, playing more sport won’t improve breath support for singing. To sing better, practise singing.
- Reversibility – Keep up the good work
- Perhaps you used to run before you had kids. Now, the only running you do is after your children. When we stop overloading our muscles, we quickly lose strength gains. If you stop running for 3-4 weeks, it may take around 4 months to regain that level of ability! To maintain ability, we need to continue working at 70% of our trained level. Don’t give up hope if your exercise routine is out of shape! If we haven’t lost muscle tissue, most people can return to their trained level with time.
V for Voice? Well, sort of…
One More Time
Your voice therapist will ask about how you use your voice in your occupation and other settings and how much you use your voice altogether. This includes factors such as how loudly you need to talk and whether or not you use amplification, whether you are talking all day or singing low to high notes, and how much recovery time you have.
Voice therapy involves learning skills and building resistance to muscle fatigue to prevent vocal injury. Many injuries are due to overdose (yes, there is such a thing as “vocal dose”) and/or insufficient recovery time. Your voice therapist will help you “train up” to the task, whether that is teaching in a classroom, presenting in back-to-back meetings or reading to the grandkids.
“I’m too old”…
Nonsense! Evidence shows that even very old muscle (over 90 years!) can be strengthened with exercise. Yes, muscles do get weaker, slower and more fatiguable with age. However, the older voicebox is likely to benefit from vocal exercises. For example, you may practise using a louder voice (safely) in therapy than in typical conversation to overcome changes due to ageing. It’s like strength training for the larynx!
Another thing to remember is to “use it or lose it”!
V for Voice (Take Two)
Voice doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is linked inseparably to our general health and wellbeing, and part of voice therapy may involve giving yourself permission to take time for self-care.
You don’t need to stay stuck with a strained, tired voice until the end of the day. Your voice therapist will show you how to ‘reset’ your voice quickly and easily during the day to return to safe, comfortable talking.
The State of (Vocal) Economy
Voice therapy is about achieving greater vocal economy, or “the most voice with the least muscle effort”.
Finally, have fun with your voice exercises!
By Nicola Anglin (Speech Pathologist)
‘Vocal Performance Fitness’ webinar and PowerPoint slides (Mary J. Sandage, 20 July 2017)
The SAID Principle (Todd Hargrove, Jan 10 2009)