Book Review: Complete Vocal Fitness

Complete Vocal Fitness: A Singer’s Guide to Physical Training, Anatomy, and Biomechanics, by Claudia Friedlander. Rowman & Littlefield, 2018, ISBN 9781538105436

Adapted from an article published by Routledge/Taylor & Francis in the Voice and Speech Review on March 5, 2019.

Claudia Friedlander is a voice teacher and fitness expert based in New York City, with a doctorate in music performance and a fitness trainer certification among her credits. She opened her singing studio in 2002, and she writes the “Musing on Mechanics” column for Classical Singer magazine.

As stated in the preface, her new book aims to provide a user manual for the vocal instrument, optimizing the entire body for singing. It offers, in her phrase, “sport-specific training for the vocal athlete” (xiii).

While the book is aimed primarily at classical-music performers (with a few comments for musical theater singers and actors), it is also addressed to singing teachers. As Dr. Friedlander explains in her preface, “generations of voice professionals have warned singers against vigorous exercise” (ix). Yet problems with her own body mechanics drove her to explore the field of kinesiology. From there, she determined to help others meet the physical demands of classical singing and to confront head-on the singing pedagogy community’s “reservations about the potential impact of […] physical activities on the voice” (viii).

After a preface covering this personal history and philosophy, and an introduction to fitness principles in relation to voice, the opening chapters of Complete Vocal Fitness review the functional anatomy of alignment, breathing, voicing, and articulation. Dr. Friedlander’s double insight (as singing teacher and fitness trainer) comes through beautifully in her recommendations for improving function in these areas. She explains the principles of corrective exercise—stretch/relax what is restricted; strengthen what is weak; and integrate both in real-time functional movement—and how these principles can be applied to challenges in voice technique. The anatomical material is nicely illustrated by originally-sourced drawings of muscles and their actions.

Throughout this section of the book, self-assessment guidelines help readers to identify their individual needs. For example, the chapter on the larynx and its surrounding musculature guides singers to palpate the upper throat for any tendency to tighten that area during high pitch voicing. Similarly, the chapter on breathing includes an excellent discussion of the suspended moment between inhalation and exhalation, what Friedlander calls “turning the breath around” (36). The entire anatomy-and-physiology section is followed by a standalone chapter on mind-body practices such as Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Method, body-mapping, and meditation.

The heart of the book is Chapter 6, Dr. Friedlander’s “singer-centered workout regimen” (85). The regimen begins with foam-rolling and vibration-massage for myofascial release, followed by static stretching, strength training, and cardiovascular conditioning. Gym photographs of each exercise are provided. The author omits the formal prescriptions of exercise intensities, sets, and repetitions that are found in many workout guides, emphasizing instead that any fitness routine should be individualized for a particular singer’s needs.

A subsequent chapter on warming up summarizes general preparations for the body, voice, and mind. The book’s final chapters discuss nutrition; vocal health risks and medical care; and how to integrate all of the material in the context of real-world demands. The back of the book includes a glossary of muscles and fitness terms, an annotated list of fitness resources, and an index.

The strengths of Complete Vocal Fitness are the author’s expertise in both voice pedagogy and physical training, and her desire to help singers break the taboo against going to the gym at all. Her determination to demystify working out is demonstrated by the generous number of illustrations and photographs. Her judicious use of personal story, within a friendly and accessible writing style, provides refreshing contrast to the academic formality of many singing pedagogy texts, and to the aggressive, objectifying style of many fitness programs.

In any discussion of voice physiology and fitness training, breathing naturally deserves special attention, and Dr. Friedlander’s chapter on muscle mechanics around the singer’s torso does not disappoint. However, in her introductory guidelines for the workout section itself, breathing is mentioned only briefly, in the common advice to breathe smoothly through every exercise and to avoid tight glottal closure. This would have been a perfect place to recapitulate the “turning breath around” principle, as an important protection in higher exertion activities.

Aspiring singers who are inspired by this book to venture into their local gym—or to browse online training videos—may be unexpectedly plunged into a “tuck-the-ribs, tighten-the-core, brace-and-push” fitness culture that could compromise their breath use and put the voice at risk. Those who can afford individualized training are unlikely to find a trainer with Dr. Friedlander’s expertise in vocal technique and safety. Students might therefore benefit if the book’s workout instructions included more overt and repeated reminders of the open-throat principle and of other ways that singers’ fitness diverges from generic training, such as her wise caution against over-doing abdominal crunches.

Quite simply, this singer’s guide to fitness cries out for a sequel, directed at the fitness trainers who serve voice performers! Vocal development can and should build on existing principles of physical and mental conditioning, but it also has unique demands that the rest of the athletic world may not comprehend. The author is well-positioned to offer such voice-specific training for fitness professionals, and one hopes that she will attempt it in the future.

…  Many vocal arts and vocal medicine organizations are now turning to sports training and exercise physiology as guides to vocal conditioning and rehabilitation, but they are focused primarily on the laryngeal muscles. At the same time, some corners of the classical singing world appear to preserve a prejudice against bodily exertion that is out of step with modern singers’ performance and appearance requirements.

In this environment, Dr. Friedlander’s book offers important myth-busting, accessible and detailed fitness information, and a generous attitude toward developing artists. Motivated by her own needs as a singer, but now redirected to serve students, Complete Vocal Fitness is both an eminently practical resource and a welcome manifesto.

Site by Shannon Garcia