As we enter into the new year, there is a lot of energy around starting new fitness programs and losing weight and dieting and exercise…
But are these really the best things for your singing?
If I could give one gift to every singer in the world it would be to take away the idea that losing weight will make them a better singer. You can 100% lose weight and be a great singer.
But losing weight, on its own, is not something that helps your singing or even necessarily your health.
When you want to make your body physically smaller it reduces your ability to breathe, to resonate and to sing. Why? Because your muscles respond to the desire to be smaller and start activating which constricts your movements. Whether you realize it or not, your body is subconsciously responding to your desire to be thinner by trying to make you look thinner.
Despite the trope "it ain't over until the fat lady sings", thinness in opera has been pervasive for a long time. Our modern aesthetics can be traced back at least as long as Maria Callas was performing, but body image in any kind of performance scenario asks the question: what is physical attractiveness?
If you can picture the ideal body size and shape for someone who is “physically fit” or "conventionally attractive", you will likely imagine a flat stomach, washboard abs, a waist that tapers inwards - all of these things actually restrict your breathing function. Your abdominal muscles have to activate in order to create these results and when your abdominals are active like this your breathing is restricted.
There's also the reality that creating a flat stomach tilts your pelvis forward, which pulls your back out of alignment. So it’s limiting movement throughout the abdominal area and in the lower back which can start to cause back pain as well.
[Funny how all these exercises that are supposed to help back pain are often adding to it!]
It wasn’t until after I had my child and I was working with postpartum fitness programs that I started to realize the layers through which fitness pushes an idealized body type. Get rid of the mommy pooch! Bounce back! Get your pre-baby body back! Even programs that aren’t marketing those kinds of results are ultimately utilizing similar exercises and techniques to flatten your belly, cinch your waist, or get you six-pack abs. So even if my goal wasn’t to have a flat stomach, I was doing abdominal exercises that are designed to make the stomach look flatter.
And it doesn’t really matter what exercise program you’re doing, they’re all founded on the same principles. The fitness industry shares similar concepts of what a “physically fit” body looks like and what exercises and programs are required to achieve that - there's very little understanding of how this might impact someone's ability to breathe or sing.
Even if you’re working with the best trainer or physical therapist out there, it’s very easy to get sucked into concepts about how your body is supposed to look and function that isn’t appropriate for singing.
(A major exception here applies to Pelvic Floor Physical Therapy, but even then there are discrepancies between PT training and what’s required for singing.)
First and foremost, we are not flat. We are kidney bean shaped. Our stomachs are meant to round out in front of our body to accommodate the curve of the lumbar spine. Our abdominals have to be able to release and lengthen to allow for the full excursion of the diaphragm when we breathe. If our abdominals are tight, our organs don't have anywhere to go and we start to build in uncoordinated breathing patterns like "high breathing" or "shallow breathing".
As a singer, you should have a really clear understanding of how your abdominal function when you breathe, but many vocal anatomy courses stop at the visceral diaphragm. That’s only half of your breathing mechanism! The other half is below the visceral diaphragm. The abdominals and the pelvic floor have to release to accommodate the change in pressure so that your organs and visceral diaphragm can descend so that your lungs can inflate.
But for every core exercise I have ever seen demonstrated, there is no information on how to release the abdominals for breathing or how to coordinate their movement before reactivation.
What happens when you continuously shorten and tighten a muscle time and time again without release? You lose length in that muscle and you lose suppleness and elasticity which means that muscle can’t function the way it’s meant to. [Which also leads to increased risk of injury.]
My point in all this is not that singers shouldn’t exercise, but that we need to be really clear about what exercises we're doing and why?
Are these exercises in line with my goals as a singer?
Are my priorities for my body in line with my goals as a singer?
How do they support each other? Where might they pull away from each other? How can I balance those needs?
I think most of the time we’re not given a choice between “what is proper for me as a singer” and “what society tells me my body should look like”. We’re simply given some exercises and maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll have some idea of how they help our bodies function.
The truth is, you can do pretty much any exercise you want so long as you are very clear about how you can balance that against your needs as a singer. It involves a deeper understanding of the anatomy and function of your body as an instrument, but also the complications of societal conditioning around how bodies should look and move.
When you can step outside of that conditioning and make decisions based on your own truth and desires… Do you really want a flat stomach or do you want a body, an instrument, that is capable of meeting your desires as a singer? The more honest we can be with ourselves in this area, the better our whole physical experience will be.
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