Singing is a physical activity involving the use of muscles. It is helpful to think of the singer as a vocal athlete. As in all sport, the muscles we need for singing have to function properly and be strong enough to meet the demands of the music. Therefore, how muscles work needs to be understood at a basic level. Learning which muscles should be doing which action will help a singing teacher and a singer to train muscles to function properly and to build up the necessary strength, and from this to develop healthy voice production.
Muscles essentially have three actions:
- they contract
- they relax
- they can be stretched
In singing, all three actions can be happening at the same time.
Contraction of a muscle is often called flexing a muscle. When a muscle contracts, it shortens – and the muscle bulges. This can be easily observed by looking at the bicep in the upper arm. The most basic muscular action is the spasm (jerk reflex); it is a quick contraction of the muscle, caused by energy passing through it. Singing uses a lot of energy because of the amount of muscular activity involved.
When muscles relax, they ordinarily go back to their original length and the bulge disappears. In sustained athletic activity, however, muscles which have been overworked may lose this function and go into a state of chronic contraction. In such cases, muscles need to be stretched, which is why athletes are constantly massaged.
Athletes do stretching exercises to loosen up the body and to warm up. In the same way, singers can benefit from a physical warm-up routine, such as stretching, shaking out shoulders, and moving arms and legs, in order to prepare and energize the body for work. This should then lead on to a vocal warm-up.
Muscles tend to work in groups rather than in isolation. For example, a group of muscles works together to raise your arm, and a group of muscles works together to lower your arm. If both these muscle groups decided to work at the same time, there would be a problem. The arm would neither raise nor lower, and the conflicting energy would block any movement. This conflict of muscular energies is referred to as tension.
Consider the tongue, which is not simply one muscle, but a combination of several which work together to comprise the fastest-moving organ in the body. It is also a very flexible organ, allowing the singer to alter the shape of the mouth and pharynx with speed and precision. But any conflict of energies in the muscles of the tongue can result in tongue-root tension – when the base of the tongue becomes locked, interfering with the free movement of the tongue and tending to stiffen the jaw. This can hinder the formation of vowels, consonants, and the free movement of the larynx, all of which has a negative effect on the singing voice.