Instrument Maintenance and Repair 101: The Importance of Fitness for Classical Singers

Alright, singers. I’m talking to you today. Particularly you collegiate classical singers out there. Stop your practicing (you WERE taking the opportunity to practice this Sunday evening, riiiight?) and listen up, because I am going to take some time to give you some knowledge I desperately wish I had when I was still singing in competitive mode. It’s something your studio professor can’t directly say to you for fear of harming your delicate, complicated relationship. But the internet is for… well, other than that thing that Avenue Q thinks it is for… today the internet is for tough love.

As many of my current readers know, I have a degree in vocal music performance and education. I loved my time in college, which was the time I was singing every single day. There was no greater high or rush in the world for me than to step onstage and play a role and do something powerful with my voice. I loved the process of creating music: practicing seemingly minute, insignificant details until they became your new normal; hitting new personal bests; walking offstage or out of your voice teacher’s studio knowing you just nailed a technique you couldn’t have done two months ago; and even slogging through the time in the practice room, plunking out my part on the piano, painstakingly practicing certain tough spots over and over and over again.

You may have noticed that this is not a blog about singing, but about weight loss, specifically my journey through it. So you probably can guess where I am going with this, but I will give it to you anyway, this hard truth I wish I would have known a few years ago.

See, I was fat. And I was a singer. I thought those two things were unrelated. Sure, I kinda knew that being fat wasn’t good in any sense, but I was still singing pretty well. I won some competitions, I rocked some recitals. Life was good. I mean, Pavarotti was a golden-voiced porker, right? So what was the problem?

I want you to imagine a professional instrumentalist who doesn’t maintain their instrument. A brass player who never oils. A violinist who doesn’t bother to put their violin in a case and props it up outside in the sun and rain and cold and snow. A pianist who never tunes their piano.

Scary, right? I got physically ill thinking about the violin thing.

broken violin

The problem is, by neglecting my body, I was abusing my instrument, and didn’t even notice. I know, it’s way, way more difficult when your instrument is your body. Because your body has to serve all sorts of purposes outside of being an instrument. It’s not really fair, but if you are hung up on that, learn piano. It’s the nature of the beast.

So, you young singers, I implore you: maintain your instrument the way the instrumentalists have to. I have three powerful reasons, which I will outline below.

1) Better physical health improves your singing. It just does.

Since I began working out multiple times per week, my lung function today is crazy and unfathomably better, and I am still not even close to the peak of health and fitness. I can tell you firsthand that those nasty Rossini coloratura passages that felt difficult and labored when I needed them to be awesome now feel easier and freer. It’s because I am not running out of breath. Your voice teacher undoubtedly talks about breath constantly, so I will spare you. But doing regular cardio has made a noticeable improvement.
I’ve also been working hard to improve my core strength, which has made me acutely aware of how completely out of tune I was with my abdominal musculature before. Your abdominals are kind of important for singing, again, because of the whole breath management thing. My voice teacher would often describe a feeling I was supposed to be attaining, and I just had no idea what was happening in my abs, so I only kinda sorta understood what she was getting at.

2) The discipline it takes to eat healthy and exercise go hand in hand with the discipline it takes to be a musician.

I have come to realize that athletes and musicians are not so different. Remember all those things I talked about up in the second paragraph of this post? Those reasons I love singing? Those have become freakishly similar to the reasons I have come to love working out: learning what your body can really do through repetition and practice, setting goals and demolishing them, and constant, meticulous improvement.

You and I both know that it takes ridiculous amounts of discipline to be a musician, at least a good one. We all know talent only goes so far, and what you do in the practice room is what really matters. What if I told you that dedicating yourself to healthy eating and working out, (remember, this is your instrument we’re talking about!) would improve your overall ability to focus, manage your time, and dedicate yourself to a goal? True story. Building good habits and routines of ANY kind make it easier to value habits and routines and build your life around them. You will find that motivation spilling over into other aspects of your life.

3) Getting healthy makes you feel great, which will make you feel more comfortable onstage, and may even give you more access to a variety of roles.

I was always pretty confident, even at my heaviest. I never really thought to myself “Oh gosh, I hope the audience doesn’t notice that I am fat.” But I know some people do. And a little weight loss, if you are overweight, goes a long way in the confidence department.

But it does something else too. It makes movement much, much easier. I felt very inhibited by stage movement. Kneeling was painful because, well, that’s a lot of weight on a knee. Getting up from any sort of sitting position was very labored and awkward looking. I also had no real coordination to speak of, which actually has greatly improved with more movement. Body awareness is huge in terms of stage movement, and I so, SO wish I had it when I actually had the opportunity to move onstage.

I remember I watched a masterclass years ago. The first student sang, and the woman giving the masterclass, who also happened to be a former beauty queen, began by going on and on about how great it was that this young singer was “in shape,” talking about how the industry was becoming increasingly visual, and how much looking good mattered, and how you would never again see an overweight person as Mimi in Boheme. She barely even commented on the girl’s singing, in my recollection. And then the next three people who took the stage were overweight. It was one of those awkward moments everyone shared and felt. Though I bawked at how vapid and vain she sounded, she has a certain point. There is a visual element to singing, because singing is a form of storytelling.

Having been on the directorial side of the casting table even on a small scale production, I know that your look plays a certain role in casting decisions. Your age is considered, your height, your skintone, and yes, your weight are all considered because directors, unlike orchestra conductors, also think about the visual storytelling of the show. It’s not even a matter of unconscious discrimination, it is simply a matter of the realistic expectations of the audience. Cinderella can’t look 40 years older than her prince, and your Mimi, dying tragically of consumption, simply will not weigh 300 lbs. Being overweight can indeed limit the director’s choice in roles to assign to you.

Now’s when I talk about the how.


Now that I have laid out the benefits of maintaining (and in some cases repairing, if you are overweight) your instrument, I can already hear you saying “Sounds great, but I am a busy college musician with many important things to do. I barely have enough time for my studies and practicing, much less adding a workout on top of it.” I know what college is like. I know what time you have. And I know the mentality as well.

I am a big fan of multitasking, and working out is a great opportunity for multitasking in a way that will benefit your singing. Here is a list of ideas you can try WHILE working out that will save you time in the long run and, *gasp* make your time even more productive:

  • Listen to your voice lessons. In my studio, lessons were recorded, and I was not the best about actually listening to those recordings. Sorry, Dr. G. Why not use an hour of workout time per week to listen to your lesson critically?
  • Listen to recordings of those who excel in your field. It shocks me how few recordings of full operas I actually listened to while I was in the thick of it. Pick an opera a week and just soak it in. Learn about it. Listen to it. Become a consumer of the field in which you want to become a producer.
  • Take the time to internalize your text and translations by re-reading.
  • Speak the text in rhythm with a metronome in your headphones (softly so people don’t think you are a total psycho). This aids in memorization. You will thank yourself come performance and jury time. On the treadmill, elliptical, or bike, you can do these with your score. While lifting, you can check your memorization by going without.
  • Study for your academic classes during this time, doing your assigned readings and non-written work.
  • Read something that was not assigned, but will make you more knowledgeable in your field. Did you know that reading just one hour per day in your chosen field will make you an international expert in seven years? Why not get started?
  • Read the libretti of the most famous operas or the books from the most famous musicals if that’s what you prefer. Again, do this to expand your knowledge base.
  • Learn another language via apps like duolingo and even those cheesy language learning recordings. Even learning a bit of central vocabulary in singing languages can vastly improve your retention and deep understanding of foreign texts.
  • Take the time to visualize your performance. You can even lip sync your way through a mental performance. Don’t be afraid to make facial expressions, particularly if your machine faces the wall. Even if it doesn’t, explaining what the hell you are doing is a good opportunity to promote your opera, recital, or whatever you’ve got going on. But seriously, think through a performance from beginning to end, visualizing your singing, blocking, and all those elements that come together.

All these things can be accomplished WHILE working out, and are things that, as an academic singer, you are supposed to be doing anyway, but sometimes fall to the wayside. By setting aside an hour per day to accomplish both maintaining your instrument by working out AND doing one of these things, you are maximizing your time and effectiveness. I imagine you will be shocked by how quickly you begin to set yourself apart from your peers by utilizing this time to yourself spent focusing on both your instrument and knowledge as a singer, both of which are oft-neglected. By focusing on those mechanical aspects of singing: the diction, the rhythm, the memorization, your time in the practice room is freed up to focus on technique and interpretation.

So what exercises should I do as a singer?

Man shrugs shoulders
If you are sold on this whole working out thing, and I desperately hope you are, you may not know where to begin. I am going to give you a basic suggestion of a workout. Now, yours may change depending on your goals. The “singer workout” is going to focus on two areas: aerobic cardiovascular exercise, otherwise known as as simply “cardio,” and core strengthening exercises.

There are many great forms of cardio: running, jogging, brisk walking, biking, elliptical training, etc. Anything that gets the blood and heart pumping. This is what is going to improve your lung function. My personal preference is to keep around half of my workout cardio-oriented.

As for the core strengthening exercises, I love the abdominal crunch, rotary torso, and back extension machines at the gym. Almost every college wellness center, which you have access to already, has these. I am also a fan of the weighted Russian twist and weighted side bends (YouTube is a great resource for techniques and explanations of these.)

As singers, we cannot neglect our instruments but often do because we live our life inside of it. Though it takes time and discipline, the efforts are worth the rewards. Please, do what I didn’t, and take these things seriously now and put in the time. Now is the time to begin a lifestyle that includes physical fitness.

Questions? Comments? Additions? Be sure to weigh in (no pun intended) in the comments! Also be sure to share this post if you found it useful and think others might too.


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