Maximize your vocal stamina

Maximise your vocal stamina

Vocal stamina can be the difference between a successful singing career and a singing career crash. Vocal nerds, Chris and Steve explain how to ensure your voice lasts the distance.

What would the answer be if you were to ask yourself each day, “How much vocal stamina do I have?” Probably: “I need to get a life!” A question like that asked on a daily basis is far from healthy ?.

All jokes aside, the answer to this question really could be the make or break of any professional singing, speaking, or teaching career.

For a start, what does vocal stamina even mean? For the purpose of this article, let’s all agree that it’s the ability to sustain prolonged vocal use for whichever activity we choose. Clearly this will vary from person to person and job to job. The demand for a singing teacher will be completely different from someone screaming out the high notes whilst fronting their rock band on tour.

Am I able to sing for three sets instead of two if required? What happens if my tour is extended? Am I expected to sing with a different style or tone? These are all questions that are likely to cross our paths at some stage along our journeys as singing professionals.

At worst, a lack of stamina can lead to vocal problems, including nodules and other serious disorders.  When vocal stamina is mastered, however, it’ll help give the perfect performance time and time again. In this article, we look at how we can improve our vocal stamina and give ourselves the best chance of surviving in this vocal jungle!

The influence and incidence of style 

Delivering the right stylistic attributes is an essential part of being a professional singer. After all, to be a real success in your arena you have to connect with your audience through the art of expression. How else will you get them to pay you or buy your stuff? But being stylistic can also have an effect on your vocal stamina. Just think, bashing out rocky numbers night after night may generate more vocal scuffs than a Norah Jones tribute show.

However, expression and style come much easier for a trained singer. This is because they don’t have as much of the dreaded tension halting their ability to control their voice. Hypothetically speaking, if your voice goes from the bottom to the top very easily and without any cracks or breaks then you’re much more likely to be able to do it even when the conditions are ‘non-optimal’ (fancy term for ‘less than ideal’).

Elements of style and sound adjustment could be considered as ‘non-optimal’ because they may throw out the muscular balance in the voice. But they must be part of your performance. That’s the “catch 22”!  A little bit more twang here. Some aggression and growl there. These can all throw the balancing act out temporarily. So you’ll need some safeguards in place to make sure your voice is absorbent in these situations.

Why are today’s vocal artists experiencing issues?

The expectations of a successful singer in today’s climate are said to be some of the most demanding of all time. Dr Shawn Nasseri is an otolaryngologist in Beverly Hills who treats many of the biggest singers in the music business today. He has said that the age when a singer could go sing two to three shows a week, rest in between, not do daily press meetings and not stay up at night tweeting about it are OVER!

The modern-day requirements of a pro annoyingly counteract the lifestyle needed to support healthy voice function and increased vocal stamina: late nights, interviews and the fact that it’s still cool to inhale red-hot smoke over the vocal cords (this is also known as smoking).

Adele, Caleb Followill (Kings of Leon), and even the queen of pop Whitney Houston have all been reported to experience vocal health issues. These were all singers at the tops of their games. They had access to the best voice coaches, specialists and therapists in the world. With this in mind, it’s clear that you would need to dig a little deeper to find out what went wrong with their vocal health.

Increase your vocal stamina in 30 days! 

Y’know those ‘stamina’ ads that you’ll find in the back of men’s magazines. We’ve all looked into them (haven’t we? C’mon guys???). They’re a bit dubious, but there is a real strategy to improving your vocal stamina. Cue vocal nerds telling us we need to ‘find balance’, have ‘fully functioning registers’, and have a ‘warm up regimen’. Lecturing as it may sound, it’s the truth.

Despite a couple of casualties, there’s a strong correlation between those who train their voices with stamina in mind and those who are experience long-term success, and not just because it enables the singer to sing longer. The principles used to develop stamina are sure to encourage all round vocal ability, allowing creativity to flourish without limits. Beyoncé and Stevie Wonder are standout examples of this process at work.

In any case, there is no question that excellent vocal stamina is a result of excellent vocal balance.

The vocal stamina killers

Talking of balance, singers and teachers can begin to structure a system of training that offsets the demands of the pro voice. One of the most common ‘problem’ scenarios in singing is something we call ‘pulled chest’ aka straining. It’s at the top of the most wanted list for voice killing. Without getting too heavy at this point, ‘pulled chest’ is where the voice becomes stressed in the transition between the bottom voice (chest voice) and the top voice (head voice). Between these two registers there should be a well-coordinated handover involving muscle and resonance. That’s the balance we’re looking to start with.

In ‘pulled chest’ the chest voice resists handing over to the head voice, resulting in a myriad of issues: Excess volume with a yell-like quality, building tension, loss of vibrato, and flattened pitch. Under this pressure the voice often cracks, and we all hate it when that happens, right? It’s also a state which saps energy from the vocal muscles, leaving you feeling vocally drained.

Aggressive vocals can strain the voice and reduce stamina
Aggressive vocals can strain the voice and reduce stamina

In any case, if a singer ‘pulls chest’ for a large proportion of their singing then long-term problems will rear their head. The vocal cords can become perpetually tired, battered and inflamed. In the pro world there often isn’t enough rest time available to fully recover from a vocal bashing. You could take some time out, but the bank account will suffer as a result. But if you don’t rest, your voice will become more ragged. A day off will need to be a month off if you’re not careful. Can you see the vicious circle forming? In the case of a working singer, finance and reputation take the hit if your voice experiences trouble. For a signed artist there’s even more pressure to get on stage, as you’re making other people money too. To avoid a bleak outcome to this hell storm, a modern singer desperately needs to consider how their voice works technically. Whether it’s a ‘pulled chest’, a soft, breathy tone or even too much volume or air passing through the vocal folds, every condition has its pitfalls.

Establish a daily voice training regimen 

This will promote stamina to no end, and create the shock absorbent safeguard we need. You can work with a teacher to sculpt the perfect approach to develop your voice technically. Firstly let’s look at the things that everyone can incorporate, regardless of individual technical issues.

The 5 Vocal Stamina Principals

1. A Warm Up 

Our first job here is to explore the vocal range in a comfortable way using occluded exercises (lip trills, tongue trills, the straw, etc.) and appropriate vowel choices within scales. In this case appropriate means whatever works for you. As a suggestion, vowels such as ‘oo’ (as in ‘who’) and ‘ee’ (as in ‘me’) are great for this. Use them on a long scale covering one and a half octaves, and keep the volume back a little.

Moving on with the warm up, we look for sounds that promote intensity whilst maintaining the comfort found in the sounds above. The geeks around us will understand that the development of cord closure is our priority here and so we’ll be choosing sounds that promote this. Adding consonants such as G and B to the vowels used in step 1 is a great starting point. We should then aim to sustain with a wider selection of vowels (‘uh’, as in ‘mother’ is a good safe move forward) in the more exciting parts of the voice. Use your usual singing volume for this part of the process. Vibrato is also a great tool to ensure there is maximum comfort in the warm up.

2. Reset 

During the interval at your gig, your classroom teaching, or your interviews, you can reset your vocal mechanism quickly. You’ll know when you need to do this because you might feel fatigue set in. You might just feel like you weren’t as ‘on it’ as you were earlier. In these cases it’s great to incorporate the Ingo Titze straw exercise  into your daily voice routine. The straw exercise helps to stretch and un-press your vocal cords whilst returning resonance to a good spot. Perfect if you feel your voice is getting slowly tired

3. Warm Down 

Often overlooked, the warm down is one of the most powerful elements of a singer’s vocal strategy. As we mentioned earlier, stamina is the ability to sustain prolonged vocal use for whichever activity we choose. With this in mind me must aim to maintain, or return to, a place of vocal harmony (and we’re not talking about the Beach Boys) after singing. The warm down is just that. It helps smooth out any woes picked up during the gig, reinforces good coordination, and disperses the toxins gathered in the vocal muscles. This will give us the springboard to go at it again when required, without stiffness. A warm down procedure can be as simple as reversing the warm up procedure: we’re singers, we don’t want to have to think too much about this stuff!

4. Rest When Needed

A professional runner will not go running when injured. If they did, they would be stupid. A professional singer will not sing when they are injured. Okay, sometimes they do, but in fairness it’s not always easy to know when we are ‘injured’. Equally, it’s not always easy to cancel a tour. With this in mind, make rest a priority. When you can, take it. If you don’t have a need to sing on a day after consecutive gigs, don’t. Go for a walk on the beach or something instead. It will give the voice some much needed time to recover or heal. Oh, and the sea air will do you a world of good!

5. Active Recovery

To slightly contradict Step 4, sometimes it’s good to give the vocal muscles a quick stretch out on your days off. This could be when voice use has been high over the past few days but you’re still feeling pretty good all things considered. It’s also usually a strategy that works best for those with sound technique already in place. It’s the same principle for sore muscles from the gym; it’s worse to leave them inert for several days than to do something light. The blood flow generated by a little stretching and vibrating helps to dissipate lactic acid and toxins resting in the muscle fibres. Again, the warm up procedure will do it.

Combine this with great hydration and you’ll be ready to rock and roll quicker.

Some Just Can, Others Just Can’t 

You know the other guy? The one that can scream from morning to night with no impact on his voice? Yes, they exist. Damn them and their genetic prowess! It is true that some singers are more robust than others. They appear to be able to handle a stag night before a gig and be as banging as they always were. Some of us (our hands are in the air) just can’t. This is down to the body’s ability to recover, which can differ slightly from person to person.

Smoking and drying substances will reduce your vocal stamina
Smoking and drying substances will reduce your vocal stamina

Recovery is also profoundly affected by the world around us, our activities and our lifestyle. Many famous singers over the years have proven that lifestyle choices (e.g. smoking, drugs, alcohol, late nights, bad eating habits etc) can make the life of a singer an uphill struggle. The following list is bandied around in every walk of life but readily ignored. Speaking from studies and experience, if these are in check, not only is life much nicer, but vocal stamina doesn’t seem like so much of an issue: Sleep well, drink more, stress less, eat well and exercise! Sorted.

But, when the gig schedule goes stratospheric (and if you’re good it will, believe us) a combination of thoughtful voice training with optimal health WILL prevail. You will rarely bail on a gig, screw up an audition, or turn down a good opportunity. You’ll be a well-oiled machine with a long career!

If you are at all concerned about your vocal stamina then please do get in touch with us. You can approach your ENT department to get the old vocal cords checked out for vocal pathologies. You can also visit a technique-specific teacher to iron out any problems that may affect your stamina. Ultimately, being professional means that you’ll need to invest in your own development and health more than your karaoke-driven counterparts.

Check out our free webinar Building Vocal Stamina Q&A video recording.

Chris Johnson and Steve Giles are both experienced vocal coaches working in Southampton and London. They are with the Vocology In Practice teacher network and specialise in training clients in advanced vocal technique, style and improvisation. They are co-founders and presenters of the popular iTunes singer’s interest podcast The Naked Vocalist. As well as coaching and podcasting they are also in-demand performers and manage their own successful soul acts.