Thank you for joining me, Claudia! I am very excited for your upcoming book, Complete Vocal Fitness: A Singer’s Guide to Physical Training, Anatomy & Biomechanics, due out in spring 2018! I understand you have Kickstarter campaign running until Thursday, December 21 2017 7:00 PM CST. So, I wanted to chat about you, your upcoming book, and your process a little bit more. Your work as a teacher is undeniable. You definitely have your students unlocking their own world-class instrument through your work together. So, let’s get to the questions…
Can you remember any specific situations, or mentors, that inspired you to become a world-class voice teacher?
CF: I began my musical journey as a clarinetist and did not begin studying singing until my early 20s. It seems to me that for instrumentalists, technical studies are more codified and structured than they are for singers. I was fascinated to see how much voice teachers’ approaches varied from studio to studio, and I also became curious about why within a given studio some students would grow by leaps and bounds while others struggled. I began to wonder whether it was possible to codify and teach fundamental elements of singing technique in a way that is universally applicable and effective – more akin to the instrumental pedagogies with which I was familiar.
- Stephen Smith has been my valued mentor and friend for many years, and much of what I do in the studio has evolved from the methods he teaches. Steve’s approach is both highly structured and highly adaptable to the needs of singers of varying voice types and skill levels. I also owe a debt of gratitude to the more experienced fitness professionals I worked alongside early in my training career, especially Rick Richey – Rick is not only an exceptional trainer and instructor but also an outstanding and patient motivator, a skill that is just as valuable in the voice studio as it is in the gym.
Are you able to recall a time when you struggled with understanding your own vocal anatomy and/or fitness? What helped you the most?
CF: My early experiences with fitness were pure humiliation! I was that kid who was always picked last for the dodgeball team in middle school, but I eventually got very good at dodging Phys Ed class. It wasn’t until my mid-20s that I came to fitness on my own terms. I came across Karen Andes’ A Woman’s Book of Strength and was inspired by the image of feminine power she projected. I took up strength training and was delighted to discover that I actually did have an aptitude for fitness – I just hadn’t been offered instruction that I could respond well to as a child.
However, I do not have a natural aptitude for science, which I avoided nearly as strenuously as Phys Ed in middle and high school. When I began focusing on vocal pedagogy, though, I realized that I was somehow going to have to master anatomy. There were two things that helped immensely. First, my brother-in-law, Michael T. Fry is an artist (he created the cover art for my book) – he gave me a copy of The Anatomy Coloring Book, which I highly recommend for anyone who feels challenged in this area. Second, the gym is the perfect lab for learning about anatomy. I found it much easier to grasp how muscles, bones and joints work when I was able to see them engaged in simple, repetitive movements, than I was able to learn from a book. Understanding how knees and shoulders function also made it much easier for me to visualize and understand how the larynx functions.
An understanding of vocal anatomy is only useful when you are able to apply that understanding to your technique in a highly practical way. It’s my aim in this book to present things in the simplest and most practical terms.
You’ve mentioned that your book “is the culmination of everything I have learned over the years about the biomechanics of alignment, breathing and vocal function, presented in accessible, practical language and enhanced by outstanding photography and anatomical illustrations.” What educational steps did you take to increase your knowledge in both teaching voice and helping your students adapt an athletic paradigm?
CF: The most significant athletic principles I apply to teaching technique are those pertaining to motor learning, and again, where I learned them was in the gym. If you want to help a fitness client improve their alignment, you have to teach them new movement patterns so they will no longer engage in the old habitual movement patterns that knocked things out of balance. Part of this involves breaking complex movements down into manageable components. For example, prior to teaching someone the proper form for a squat or a push-up, you have to teach them how to stabilize their core so that their lower back doesn’t arch while they perform the movement. And once they perform a movement well, you have them do multiple repetitions to both condition the musculature and habituate the movement.
The way our nervous systems learn and habituate new movements is no different for vocal anatomy than it is for our larger muscles and joints, so the principles that are effective in the gym apply also in the studio. We have to break down complex movements into manageable components, offer new movement patterns, and repeat them until they replace old habits. If a student is in the habit of retracting their tongue every time they inhale, they will change that pattern faster if we begin addressing it in isolation – by practicing inhaling while encouraging a relaxed tongue – than they will in the context of subsequently onsetting on a high note.
Postural distortions and muscular imbalances seem to be a recurring limitation for many singers. What are some of the benefits of working on this alone with your book and also working with a teacher/trainer such as yourself?
CF: Can you learn to assess your own imbalances and develop good workout form just from reading a book? The answer will vary from reader to reader. I learned a great deal from reading Karen Andes’ book, and it provided a useful foundation for everything I later learned from trainers and from my fitness certifications. For most people, it is useful to pursue at least some instruction from a qualified teacher in addition to reading a fitness book. A singer who reads this book prior to working with a trainer will be able to partner well with their trainer in prioritizing things that will support their singing and avoiding things that could prove problematic.
The fitness industry tends to frame goals in terms of appearance rather than sport-specific performance. The majority of people who are likely to walk into a gym or hire a trainer want to slim down or bulk up rather than pursue a specific type of functionality. My book will help keep both you and your trainer focused on performance goals and help make sure that any aesthetic goals you’re pursuing are compatible with performance demands.
How do you help students develop new routines or habits to think of themselves as a vocal athlete? “If you could tell singers how they should think of themselves, you would say…”
CF: In both the gym and in the concert hall, it’s all about performance. I encourage them to adopt a mindset such that they are thinking about what they want to be able to do or express, not how they want to look or sound, and engage in the activities that they know will yield the results they want without constantly monitoring for those results. A baseball player who wants to be able to throw the ball farther and faster must do exercises to cultivate more explosive power in their arm, but they don’t stop in between sets of chest flyes to throw the ball and see how fast and far it goes. It’s similarly important for singers to engage in vocal exercises designed to train particular skills and assess their progress based on how well they are executing those skills, not how “good” they may sound doing the exercise. While in training, both athletes and singers will make swifter progress focusing on the process they’re engaged in rather than the eventual product.
What are five skills that you have consciously and strategically developed that have helped you reach this level of authority in your own career?
CF: I think the way to answer this is to frame things more in terms of following guiding principles rather than actual skills or strategies.
- Don’t give up on something just because you’re not naturally good at it. It was very difficult for me to learn anatomy, more so than it even should have been because it made me feel stupid when it took a long time for something to sink in! But I now find it so useful and fascinating, and it gives me such pleasure that I can explain it articulately to others. Singing demands excellence in so many skills and you won’t be naturally good at them all. It absolutely does not mean you can’t learn to do them all well.
- It never hurts to ask. I asked Classical Singer magazine whether they’d like me to contribute a monthly column on fitness. I asked my team at Carnegie Hall to produce a series of video singing tutorials for me. There are plenty of instances where people have said “no” when I’ve asked, but you really only need a few “yeses” to get things going.
- Learn on the job. The only way to get good at teaching singing is to teach singing. If you have some skill at singing and a concept of procedure, there are probably a lot of people who can learn a great deal from you. Read all the books, find some mentors and observe them, commit to doing no harm, but don’t think you’ll get to some magical point of competence that will qualify you to start. Competence comes with experience.
- Hang out with people who aren’t performers sometimes. Many of them are calmer and more grounded than we tend to be! It will broaden and enrich your experience of life and enable you to return to your artistic bubble with a different perspective.
- One of the most valuable lessons I learned from my training as a Teaching Artist for the Weill Music Institute is this: 80% of what you teach, is who you are. How you live your life, walk your talk, engage with the people you’re talking to and the world around you, is more impactful than any content you offer a student and will impact how readily they trust and absorb that content.
Claudia Friedlander, DMus, NASM-CPT, CES, PES is a voice teacher and fitness expert based in New York City. She has completed Personal Trainer, Corrective Exercise Specialist, and Performance Enhancement Specialist certifications through the National Academy of Sports Medicine and applies the concept of sport-specific training to the professional voice in numerous ways. She is the author of the monthly column “Musings on Mechanics” for Classical Singer Magazine as well as a widely read and cited blog on vocal technique and fitness, The Liberated Voice.