The heightened vocal demands of classic drama, choral singing, musical theater, and opera are sometimes referred to as “vocal athletics.” But if vocal performers were truly treated like athletes, final rehearsal schedules might turn upside down.
Rather than accelerating to opening night, athletes in endurance sports typically rest more and workout less as the Big Day approaches. This contrasts sharply with the grueling, sleep-depriving, and hoarseness-inducing schedule known in the theater world as “tech week,” and similarly brutal, increased hours of singing often expected before music performances.
Speaking at the June 2013 Symposium on Care of the Professional Voice, Mary M. Gorham-Rowan, Ph.D., Professor of Communication Disorders and Sciences at Valdosta State University, GA (and an athlete herself), presented some initial research done in collaboration with Dr. Karl Paoletti, from the Dept. of Music at VSU, and Dr. Richard Morris from Florida State University.
A group of 10 women choral singers followed a tapering, stepped-down rehearsal schedule prior to a major concert, while a control group rehearsed on the normal schedule (increased singing in the final days). Acoustic, laryngoscopic, and self-perception questionnaires were used to assess vocal status in both groups, at several points before and after the performance. Later in the semester, with a second concert looming, the groups switched so that all singers were eventually tested in both routines.
Preliminary results showed that some choristers on the tapered schedule developed less vocal fatigue than their classmates on the traditional schedule. The most important variable seemed to be the singers’ individual levels of experience: those with least training benefitted most from the tapered schedule.
As Dr. Gorham-Rowan commented to me via email, “perhaps tapering is more beneficial for those individuals who are [still] learning to use their mechanism appropriately.” In her view, both singers and athletes with less training are more likely to incorporate maladaptive behaviors as they fatigue, and are thus more prone to injury.
She concludes: “tapering may be more important for those in the early stages of training. …Everyone fears that they haven’t done enough to be ready for the big day—but more work is generally not beneficial and can often be detrimental. It was especially interesting to note that while we didn’t notice a clear-cut pattern for tapering, neither was there a clear pattern for improvement after a rigorous practice schedule pre-performance… the data do not support the current practice of increasing rehearsal time prior to a performance.”
These findings indicate that, especially in secondary schools, undergraduate, or non-professional settings, vocal performers might do better on opening night if “hell week” were replaced by shorter warm ups, cue-to-cue run-throughs, ‘marking’ of songs, and other lower-demand strategies, instead of the “It’s still not right, so do it all again, full-out!” approach.
Give the kids a break, and look for more research to come!
© Joanna Cazden 2014
first published in VASTA Voice newsletter