I am in the middle of recording my next album, and I am singing 8 hours a day in the studio. My voice gets tired and sometimes slightly hoarse, but my voice coach says I will never build vocal endurance if I stop when I am vocally tired. How can I build muscle and endurance with my singing, so I am able to sing 8 hours a day without any vocal fatigue?
Building vocal endurance is a myth.
‘Vocal endurance’ is a common phrase referring to the ability to sing for extended periods of time, and is suggested as a sign of vocal strength. Singers are taught they need to gain vocal endurance in order to achieve this successfully. In some cases, singers are asked to sing for over eight hours a day, five days a week. When on tour, singers sing every night, usually in a different cities. The concept of building up vocal endurance is not only false, but also can be quite dangerous and lead to incurable vocal fold damage.
What is endurance?
Endurance is the ability to endure, or withstand, stress. Endurance training, therefore, focuses on increasing the body’s ability to withstand stress, and raise the threshold to fatigue. An example of increasing endurance can be seen with a training athlete. If pushed beyond fatigue, the athlete will gain muscular strength, thereby continually increasing his or her abilities. While singers often are referred to as ‘vocal athletes’, this should be in regards to how they have to maintain their health, vocal training, and technique. Singers should not refer to themselves as athletes based on their abilities to push through challenge.
The difference between endurance for an athlete and endurance for a singer has to do with the anatomy of the musculature that is involved. For example, a weight lifter endures by lifting more and more weight to allow the athlete’s muscles to hypertrophy, or grow. Muscles fibers are thought to hypertrophy by repairing from damage due to overuse. When these muscle fibers hypertrophy, they become stronger, allowing the athlete to increase his or her strength. Skeletal muscle tissue is the most adaptive tissue in the body, and can therefore be overused time and again with little to no damage. Unfortunately, vocal anatomy and muscle physiology are not the same as, for example, quadriceps physiology.
The vocal fold anatomy is more complex. The vocal folds can be split up in two parts conceptually: the cover and the body. The cover of the vocal folds have many layers which, when combined, form the vibrating section of the vocal folds. The body contains several components responsible for providing tension and establishing vocal pitch.
When the voice is overused, one might exhibit hoarseness or feel vocal fatigue. This is the result from swelling of the cover section. The only natural way for this layer to reduce inflammation is to rest. Pushing your voice further at this point will not allow for increased endurance in the future. Once the cover is swollen, continuing to sing will not allow you to sing longer next time. When a singer ‘sings through it’, meaning singing with swollen vocal folds, they risk (and often incur) irreparable damage. Once there is continued use on swollen vocal folds, nodules, polyps, hemorrhages, cysts, and other pathologies can occur very easily. The vocal muscles do not hypertrophy with continued use and, therefore no added endurance is built. What continued training does is prolong the period of time until your cover layers swell by ensuring you are not putting undue stress on them.
So how do I build muscle in my vocal folds?
Many students and teachers alike believe they need to build muscle or ‘bulk’ in the vocal folds. Although there is controversy in the literature about the ability to build bulk in these muscles, consensus seems to be that this is not possible. Endurance is increased by increasing efficiency and conditioning of the muscles. However, fatigue or voice strain is indicative that the instrument is taxed. Continuing at this point simply increased the swelling of the cover layer, prolonging recovery from a hoarse to normal voice.