Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Exercise Physiology: Perspective for Vocal Training

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Exercise Physiology: Perspective for Vocal Training

Article excerpt

[Modified from: Robert Thayer Sataloff, Professional Voice: The Science and Art of Clinical Care, 4th Edition (San Diego: Plural Publishing, 2017).]

VOICE PROFESSIONALS, PARTICULARLY PERFORMERS, are often described as vocal athletes. This is a reasonable comparison given that vocal performers and occupational voice users work at the extremes of voice use, either by using the voice over an extensive frequency and intensity range or by engaging the voice for long, sustained periods of time. From this perspective, select principles of exercise training have been applied to voice training for some time.1 Exercise training principles of warm-up and skill acquisition have been emphasized over the years; however, other important aspects of muscle training have not yet been incorporated widely into voice pedagogy in the studio or the clinic, and singing teachers should be familiar with this important topic.

In truth, some of the primary principles of muscle training are obvious in the voice training protocols and pedagogies that are used in both studio and clinic. There is little argument to the exercise performance premise that excellent technique is necessary for optimal function. Excellent technique for a tennis serve will generally translate to more consistently accurate tennis serves. The same is also supported in vocal training, as excellent vocal technique will lead to optimal vocal function.

It is also the case that application of certain principles of muscle training will require us to question what has been considered common wisdom in the realm of optimal vocal function historically. The most salient example of this is the long held belief that vocal rest is good for the voice. Voice rest may be the best course of action for the voice immediately following surgery or in the case of laryngeal injury that requires a minimum of vocal fold contact to promote healing. In a high level performer, however, adapted voice use may be a wiser course of action than extended voice rest to preserve most or all of the muscle and motor learning adaptations that the performer has achieved. A world class sprinter with an acute ankle sprain will not be advised to lie on the couch with her foot up for four weeks as it heals. Yet, extended unloading of the larynx is recommended for superficial lesions such as vocal fold nodules to allow for repair of the epithelium with little thought given to muscle function implications. By extension, a healthy singer who engages in extensive voice rest may jeopardize optimal vocal performance if voice rest is not used judiciously.

Our historical focus on vocal fold cover health has put laryngeal muscle training considerations in the back seat. Without a doubt, the integrity of the vocal fold mucosa is vitally important for optimal voice function. However, there is no physiologic model in exercise science that can correlate with the function of the vocal fold epithelium and lamina propria. The vocal fold mucosa functions within the whole larynx that is comprised of skeletal muscles, the function of which may have direct and indirect impacts on the health and integrity of the vocal fold cover. To be clear, if we are to apply exercise physiology principles to voice function, the focus is on the muscular aspects of laryngeal function. All of the principles of exercise science used in this article should be considered within the realm of the intrinsic laryngeal muscles and the respiratory muscles, both of which are known to adapt to the conditions imposed on them. Aspects of vocal fold cover fatigue or wear and tear are not within the scope of the application of exercise physiology evidence to voice function.


The importance of vocal warm-up is unquestioned by most voice practitioners. In classical and choral singing, vocal warm-up is considered essential for optimal voice function. While the use of vocal warm-up is less prevalent in commercial and contemporary voice work, pedagogies are beginning to emerge. …

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