The Contrast

The Contrast
Lift Big, Sing Big, Look Great Doing It.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

"You can't sing with Abs!!!" AKA Weight Loss and Singing

This is a big controversy in the opera world. The assumption that losing/gaining weight or obtaining abs will all of a sudden limit your breathing capacity and leave you unable to sing.

Lets dive into this, shall we?

Where does this come from?

People often point to Debra Voight for big operatic transformations, and she is the most notable example in today's era. After a scandal in which she was fired from a production of Ariadne Auf Naxos at The Royal Opera House because she could not wear a little black dress, Voight decided to undergo gastric bypass surgery.

Voight lost a significant amount of weight. She later on appeared in that same production and wore that little black dress at the Royal Opera House. However, there have been many claims that this transformation has taken a toll on her voice and that she's no longer the artist she was because of it.

The comparison above is not really fair. For one, the two are recorded differently, the first one almost sounds like it was recorded on a cell phone, the second one maybe from the CD or a recording of the live broadcast (potentially doctored.) Secondly, the places they are recording are entirely different venues and performed with different accompaniment. If you were to take this evidence alone by itself you might say the product has diminished, but you'd have no factual evidence to support it other than your basic perceptions and opinions.

The Classic example of Maria Callas.

This article talks about how the supreme diva lost her weight. Losing about 80lbs or so over the course of a year, she became recognized as one of the most elegant women on stage, making her vulnerability as figures like Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata unbelievably realistic.  

"Callas's international career began in 1947 when opera singers were expected to be overweight. But at 108kg she felt miserable and regarded herself as ugly and unlovable. When the director Luchino Visconti told her to lose 30kg before he would work with her, she dropped 40kg. She then went on to lose another 8kg.
According to legend, Callas's enormous weight loss came about because she deliberately swallowed a tapeworm. Tosi, president of the International Maria Callas Association, said she did have to have treatment for worms, possibly because of her fondness for raw steak, but she dropped the weight by following a diet based on consuming iodine.
'It was a dangerous treatment because it affected the central nervous system and changed her metabolism, but she turned into a beautiful swan,' said Tosi.
She never ate pasta and favored meals of rare beef or steak tartare."

Some argue that her weight loss caused some decline in her singing, specifically in her support, others argue that losing all that weight allowed her sound to become more clear, less burdened with weight and allowed more freedom. She herself claimed her health and physical comfort was affected by the weight and decided to change it on those grounds.

My Theory.

I've seen this happen more than once. Somebody decides that they want to lose weight and they go about it in a very desperate manner and lose lots of weight in a very short amount of time. It's understandable, we as humans are very impatient and want our results immediately. This kind of body change is going to take its toll on the whole of the person, not just his voice, although that will be one of the things that people will put most under scrutiny if you're a professional singer. Losing lots of weight very quickly comes from either having a procedure done or an extreme crash dieting scenario (And yes, I consider some doctor prescribed things to be crash dieting.) Both of which I do not recommend. In the first example you're doing something rather invasive and manipulating your body dramatically, causing you to make a massive change from your everyday practices in order to not sustain injury. That's not a natural process, it's a dramatic switch that is going to give you dramatic results. The second option is going to leave your body completely drained of nutrition by neglecting food groups and taking strong medication to alter your bodies metabolism. Also dramatic and more than likely leaving you miserable, self conscious and create a bad relationship with food.

The difference between these two divas before and afters is noticeable, that's a fact. However, talking about which one is better than the other (the before or after weight loss) is a matter of opinion that is shaded heavily by bias. You could argue all day and get nowhere, because no one will be "correct."

I have a few friends that have gone through transformations that are just as big, but didn't go under the knife. I'm not going to name names because I'm not going to bring out their personal lives without discussing it with them in detail, and frankly I don't have the patience for that. However, what I do know is this: they ate cleaner, ate less, worked out consistently and committed themselves to programs and came out the other end singing just as well, if not better than they used to when they were larger. On the flip side, I've had friends who have crashed dieted to obtain a goal and have lost significant qualities to their voice and vocal performance. I'm going to remain just as anonymous with their names as well.

The Opera Abs Assumption.

There are lots of people out there that want to get abs, and some of them are opera singers. However, teachers for years have been telling their students "Don't do it! It will ruin your voice!"

Again, let us look into this:

How to obtain abs.

It's not crunches, its not 10 minute ab videos, and its not a certain exercise. You obtain ab muscles by lowering your body fat percentage. Plain and simple. Fat is a subcutaneous layer that surrounds your entire body. You can't pick and choose where your fat loss will come from. It will happen on its own. That means that you could do all the situps in the world and you won't see your abs unless you're below a certain body fat percentage. The size of your abs can be directly affected by exercise, so you could potentially see them at a higher body fat percentage, but in order for them to be defined, you have to strip away fat. It's highly doubtful that you could do enough exercise to build up really thick abs that are visible through 15% body fat. Most people store the majority of their fat around their belly, and it's the last to go. It's safe to assume if a persons abs are visible, they are fairly lean.

The Tight Abdomen Theory.

"This singer made the supreme mistake: working out hours per day at a gym. (I DO recommend reasonable exercise on a daily basis for any singer, but NEVER heavy weights that build up the neck muscles.) His abdominal muscles were so tight and tense that he could not breathe properly.  This made it extremely difficult if not impossible to relax a low breath into the body. After 6 months of study, I suggested that he make a choice: continue to embrace extreme exercise and STOP singing or adopt moderate exercise in order to sing well. This created such an emotional crisis for him that he left the studio to seek other instruction. In his mind I am sure he felt that he could continue bodybuilding and still sing well.  This did not happen and, due to a lack of musicality, he never became an accomplished singer. His inability to create a musical phrase was a direct result of over-exercising the body to the point of locking the breathing muscles. It reminds me of a phrase that a friend of mine made many years ago. “Real talent is choice making!” This singer made a choice that cost him his career."

This is taken from one of my favorite websites on singing, and is a teacher I truly do believe in. My teacher has studied with him and believes in his teaching. David L. Jones. Many would consider him a master teacher and I'm inclined to agree with the majority of his teachings. However, this bro don't lift.

I do not know the circumstances that surround this case, so therefore I cannot pin point the cause of his problems, vocally, physically, or even mentally! I don't know what kind of lifting he did, how large he was, if he used drugs to be competitive, what his training split could potentially be or what he even looked like.

What David cites is thick neck muscles and a tight abdomen.

Here's the thing: I've seen the exact same incorrect singing behaviors in someone who is overweight, and doesn't exercise or someone who is skinny and works out moderately. Tension is tension and inflexibility is inflexibility. I'm sure Mr. Jones was not inferring this, but I feel people (including myself) have mistaken his words. Having weight (specifically fat) around your stomach won't give you the ability to have "deep breathing," and having visible ab muscles won't keep you from being able to fill your body with lots of air. This stems from having flexibility in those muscles that come with specific training. Most average people who begin singing lessons do not have the flexibility in their abdominal muscles to sing operatically. Whether its the length of the phrases, the volume required to sing it professionally, or the manipulation of the mechanism you have to train specifically to produce that kind of quality of sound. I actually argue that doing big compound movement exercises will help develop these muscles exponentially.

Case in Point: Low Breathing and it's necessity for Squats and Deadlifts.

With that belt on you can literally see and hear how big and deep his breaths are. Is he breathing the healthiest way possible? Maybe not, but he's also not concerned about his vocal health. Most of us will never lift weight this heavy, and it's not necessary to do so. However, doing exercises like this actually PROMOTE beep abdominal breathing and controlled exhalation because, just like in singing, the air creates a cushion for our muscles to push against. Even just breathing against a band of resistance like a weight belt is going to reinforce that inner abdominal wall. Making it stronger and capable of filling more with air, or more specifically, be able to do more with the air that is stored. Caruso was once quoted to say that you should be able to sing any phrase with a thimble full of air...or something like that. I don't think we require as much air to sing as some people make it seem, but I think it is important to breathe correctly to have air conservation skills.

With specifications to having strong neck muscles. I personally don't have very big neck muscles, They flare up quite a bit when I lift, but having big traps comes from very purposeful training and genetics. You can develop a very thick back and trapezoid muscles from doing deadlifts and rack pulls, but your genetics will only take you so far. What makes me think that David Jones heldentenor may be on some form or additional testosterone boost (Which we'll go into an entirely different article about some other time) is because of the thickness of his voice, the description of his neck muscles and his tight abdomen. If he was on some form or anabolic steroid that could have way more of an effect on his singing than any exercise a person can do.

Regardless, almost none of you will obtain a competitive body building physique that is described by Mr. Jones, either out of no interest or lack of commitment or time, so don't keep yourself from doing crunches because of one extreme example.

Great Opera Singers with Great Bods.

I'm not gonna say that every opera singer that I've seen with a great body has an equally great voice. I'm not even going to say that the majority of opera singers who have good looking bodies have voices that aren't terrible. That's putting too much of my opinion into something that I've frankly grown to care so little about that its remarkable. I do have a few examples of dudes with great bods that are dominating opera in all ways awesome, the one I will share with you today is:

Michael Fabiano

I'm a big fan of Fabiano, and not just because he's a bro with a great voice and now a pretty nice physique. I'm immensely impressed with his determination to be the best. That same determination basically made him look like an insane person in the documentary The Audition. Hell, I'm not convinced he's not crazy, but I don't care when it comes to seeing him sing on stage. The man delivers the goods. Fabiano has not always been in great shape, but he documented his path on his blog. He's an interesting dude to say the least.

My own experience with fitness and singing.

Ol' Yeargain went through a huge transformation, and I'm continuing to transform my body. I went from being a big ol' chunky dude to a guy who has visible abs, and I did it over the course of 8 months. Has it had an effect on my singing? Why yes, yes it has.

This ain't even my final form, suckers.


I honestly believe that losing all that weight has immensely improved my singing, and potentially opened it up to be the kind of voice it was always meant to be...(But, more on that later.) I have way more energy, I'm singing longer legato lines than I ever have before, and my voice has literally gotten bigger. Not immensely bigger, but specifically my middle to my upper middle have become way more capable of putting out substantial volume. I don't know if its getting older, gaining more experience, learning different techniques and having time and practice to apply them or if its directly a result of the fat loss. I have no clue. What I do know for certain is this: I don't get as vocally tired singing anymore because I'm not physically as tired from singing, staging or basic movement. I'll never forget when I was at my heaviest and most inactive singing the role of Germont in La Traviata at school. I had a section where I had to kneel down and then stand up whilst singing. By the time I stood up I was so out of breath that I could barely finish the difficult section of "Un di quando..."

In contrast, when I recently sang Frank in Street Scene I was capable of standing from a kneeling position whilst singing and performing a decrescendo on an E natural. That would have not been possible in my earlier years.

The Difficulties.

Most of my difficulties have all come from diet and poor planning. I did not realize at first how muscular singing could be, and as with anything muscular, your body needs the right fuel to operate at its highest level. While singing Frank in Street Scene I was doing low carb cycling in order to lose a significant amount of weight before the opening of the show. It was highly effective, but also rather miserable. There were often rehearsals where I would sing having ingested almost no carbs during the day. It was during these days that my vocal performances lacked and vocal production would actually tax my back and ab muscles (Literally sore.) Like most singers, I try to keep the wear and tear out of the throat, but when your muscles are being underfed, you're putting extra strain on tendon and cartilage. I discovered this fairly early on in the process and made sure that anytime I had a performance that I would feed myself an excess of carbs and sugars on those days. The result was phenomenal. I got comments from my director about how great my singing was on the days I ate with purpose, and he hardly ever went out of his way to give me a compliment. (He knew my ego didn't need anymore feeding.)

The other difficulty is finding a balance. I'm currently in love with going to the gym. It's the thing I look forward to the most when I get up in the morning. The next thing I get excited about is eating, then after that its singing. I still practice regularly, but my busy training, eating, and work schedule has made it take a back seat. For people who consider themselves Gym Rats and have worked hard to obtain their physiques, sometimes we get obsessed and allow our abilities in our professional word diminish as a result. The gym and fitness is a scapegoat for poor time management. As in the case with the heldentenor that David Jones taught, he probably could have maintained his impressive physique and built up flexibility in his abdominal muscles if he allowed the time to do purposeful training in that area.

In Conclusion and My Suggestion.

If you're trying to lose anywhere between 10-40lbs, don't stress about this. At all. You're not going to lose your voice because you don't have love handles anymore. That's just ridiculous. That's something that can easily be accomplished via exercise and diet and won't require an enormous amount of life changing decisions, just a series of inconveniences. Don't let your voice teachers who aren't doctors or nutritionists scare you away from going to the gym and staying healthy. Most of you won't obtain career threatening physiques unless you're getting body builder lean (good luck) or developing an eating disorder.

For those of you who may have upwards of 50lbs that you want to lose: do it slow and do it smartly and do it with exercise and diet. Build strength while you're doing it, increase your metabolism and vocalize EVERYDAY! I mean practice 10 times more than you would. Your muscles must rise to the occasion if you're going to shed all of that extra weight on your body. Be confident in your technique and have an understanding of what you're doing physically. If you were one of those people that has always been able to open their mouths and produce perfect sounds, you need to evaluate why you make those sounds and how its happening while you're losing the weight, because when your normal variables are cut out of the equation, your voice is more than likely not going to know what to do. Like any important decision in your life, you have to weigh the potential pros and cons and then make an informed decision and follow an educated plan in order to be successful. It's a lot of steps and a big process, but the more you step out of line from the beaten path the greater your gamble.

Alright, since I think its not right to talk about someone else's singing or physiques without showing your own, here is a clip of me singing some Classic Music Theater from my recital rehearsal, where I was probably the skinniest I've ever been. You've seen enough of me shirtless, so close your eyes and listen up.

*Update: September 2014*


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