The Contrast

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

Friday, May 16, 2014

Ask The Opera Bro: Singing with abs revisited.

Ol' Yeargain is going global. I got this email from the UK the other day!

"Hi, Kasey

I have recently become fitness obsessed and have had a number of different professors, friends etc say that working out (too much, particularly abs) is a bad idea for a singer for obvious tension reasons. I have tended to ignore it as I generally maintain good breathing and posture during workouts and don't place any undue strain anywhere, but perhaps it may have made a difference slowly without me realising.

I wonder whether you might have your own thought on this? You are obviously in good shape and, I guess only you are able to know how it has affected the sensation of singing, particularly from abdominal support etc.

I hope you get a chance to let me know what your thoughts are, I would be very interested.

Best wishes, and thanks"

One of my most popular posts was about abs and singing, and it's been long enough since I've last addressed the topic that we all could benefit from addressing it once more.

A shameless Ol' Yeargain presentation.

My response was more condensed that what I put on here, but it almost always is. I will put what I replied in this color and talk further in this color (black.)

Pleasure to hear from you! I've actually written about this before sometime in February I believe (Here is a link to that article), however, as my physique has changed, so has the nuance of my opinion. I'll give you a few points.

First off, most people in our profession are not in fantastic shape, at least on the aesthetic level. I know many an opera singer that is capable of running a marathon or that lifts weights or is immensely proficient at a sport. But, these things a great body does not always make if you're genetically not predisposed to it (Myself included.)

This isn't a knock at people in our profession, really this is true for nearly all non physically based professions. However, since half of our job is rooted in anatomy, people like to talk with authority about this subject, and unfortunately most of it is not scientifically based, it's more anecdotal oriented than anything.

"I know this one guy who got ripped and couldn't sing a note afterward."

Tell that story to Ryan McKinny.

"I can't sing because you say people with abs can't support? Cool story, bro."

*Side Note: Ryan McKinny just recently sang Stanley Kowalski at LA Opera and was sporting some of the best conditioning I've seen out of an opera singer. Fullness of muscle with some serious vascularity. Much respect, McKinney. You're a verdi/wagner singing beast that obviously knows his way around a weight room.

In regards to specific conditioning for aesthetic goals (having visible ab muscles) it all comes down to one thing: Getting a lower body fat percentage. In order to see muscle definition clearly in your body, whether its in your arms, back or abs, requires you to have a lower body fat percentage. Now, for a professor, teacher or conductor to look at someone that has visible ab muscles and say that they are incapable of good breath support is silly. That would indicate that you can only sing well if you're body fat percentage is above 13% in males, 23% in females. The anecdotal evidence alone demonstrates that this is a fallacy.
In my personal opinion, and what I have found in my own vocal and physical development as well as the study of others is that technique and the physique it inhabits are very often two different things. I know very many small, skinny guys with booming, big voices, and larger, heftier ladies with voices like little tweety birds. Often times technique is the real culprit for vocal faults than the body that houses it.

That being said, dramatic changes in physique can alter a persons instrument...but only when you don't give the body a chance to adapt to it. 

People like to reference Debrah Voigt's immense transformation and how it altered her voice. However, Ms. Voigt's weight loss was due to a medical intervention and a very aggressive calorie restrictive diet that followed. The latter being a culprit of the massive technical adaptations she she herself admitted to having to undertake to feel comfortable singing in her new body.

I've even known a few other singers, close friends that have had similar body changes and subsequently were required to take a great deal of time off to become reacquainted with their instruments.

I won't use names, because it's not my place to do so, so don't ask. But when a person loses a bunch of weight rather quickly, it's usually through uneducated means, illness or medical intervention. I include myself amongst the first part because I lost a great deal of weight rather quickly, and it was only by luck, and the muscle saving weight training that I didn't throw my body completely out of whack the first 3 months of extreme dieting.

Left Kasey: "Luckily we were able to dig ourselves out of that one, right Ol' Yeargain?" Right Kasey: "Agreed, dear fellow."

Losing weight that aggressively is not only unsafe for you physically and mentally, but it has the power to rob you of your voice. Will it? Not necessarily. Even losing 5lbs a week can be safe, as long as it's all fat and water weight, something you can only be sure of through proper application of a body recomposition. 

Now, all of this was in reference to diet. Physical changes with fitness are almost never this fast. In fact, building muscle is quite a slow process. The human body can only put on 1/2 a pound to a pound of muscle a week if the diet and training is consistent and well programmed. And, if you're a student, a professional, or even just an average joe who is using his voice frequently during the week, your body will adapt to the additional musculature being developed.

If you're putting on more than a pound or a pound and a 1/2 of muscle a week, you're putting on way more fat and water weight than is entirely necessary. Keep your diet's in check, people. 

Now, there are things in the weight room that can help and can also detract from your vocal health. If you're power screaming to do a 1 rep max on your bench press, you're doing two things incorrectly: You're screaming, and you're trying to PR. You aren't a death metal singer, and you're not a professional power lifter, you don't need to do either of those things to build an incredibly strong, good looking, functional body.

Now, doing power-lifting movements such as squat, deadlift, and bench are going to help you immensely with your singing technique because of 1.) Muscle awareness and 2.) The breathing patterns required to perform these incredible lifts correctly. There are lots of advanced vocal techniques that require a lot of body awareness that include chest compression, appaggio (That lean of the sternum), and latimus based vocal support. Knowing what these muscles feel like when they contract is going to go a long way in helping you actually use them towards your vocal goals. And the deep breathing required for squats, deadlifts and power bench I've only ever seen in opera singing. Those big bellies full of air and the concentrated release of it can be immensely helpful.

Deadlifts, y'all. Lifting Big, Singing Big.

To sum it up into fewer words, don't listen to people that don't train on advice on training. It sounds like you're on a good path towards your fitness goals and that you're being smart and aware of your posture and your voice. As long as you're focusing equally on both, you'll do well in both of your passions.

Sorry for writing you a novel, hope i've been of some help. Feel free to ask me questions any time!
Kasey Yeargain

I truly believe that if a person is equally passionate in two fields that they won't allow one to take over the other one and that you can succeed in both. I have to believe it because I'm in pursuit of it myself. Nobody makes money out of being a body builder, even Ronnie Coleman, 8 time winner of Mr. Olympia, had a demanding full time job as a police officer on top of his training and competing. The minute you make training all you do, is the minute you're sunk. I believe that these two worlds have a lot of cross over. However, In the end, only time will tell.

Until next time, guys.
Lift Big, Sing Big, and Look Great Doing it.

The Opera Bro

...Oh, and since I think it's rude to talk about other people's voices and physiques without demonstrating your own, here is a video of me singing Nick Shadow from "The Rake's Progress." I performed this on Mother's Day last weekend. Judge me however you see fit.