What is more important: strength or technique?
More and more, I am appreciating the value of strength when it comes to singing. When I turned into a tenor, I could technically sing the high notes [mostly :)] . I knew what to do because I’d been secretly practicing them for years…
But they weren’t strong, and recently they’ve only gotten stronger because I’ve gotten stronger. I’ve been practicing the phrase from Rodolfo’s aria “Che gelida manina”, “Talor dal mio forziere”, which ascends to an Ab and then returns in that beautiful Puccini legato way. When I first tried this, I was miserable at it. But since I just obsessed over it, it’s gotten much easier.
Sure, my technique has gotten better, but I just feel stronger.
My teacher is experiencing a certain Renaissance in his voice due to simply [mainly] practicing a lot more. He thought that he had lost his high C. Nah. He had just lost the strength to do it.
But again, with his increased practicing, certain technical truths are becoming evident to him.
So my questions to you are:
- What is more important? Strength or technique?
- Are they equal?
- Can one become so dominant that it fills in any weaknesses in the other? For example, perhaps one’s technique CAN become so good that strength is less of an issue…or vice versa.
Please leave a comment below.
I wonder in what ways strength and technique apply to piano… I firmly believe that for piano efficiency, coordination, mechanics– in short, technique is most important. Yet at the same time I know my fingers are stronger now than four years ago.
Ian Sidden says
It’s a good question. When I began playing guitar again for the Simon and Garfunkel show, my fingers remembered everything (which really surprised me). But that didn’t mean that they could do everything. They had gotten weak, and only after several weeks of obsessive practicing did they get their strength back. Then they could actually do it.
It’s probably similar for piano.
Hey! Great questions. To me, technique means playing/singing healthily. It means that whatever demands the music might put on the musician that he is prepared to tackle it without straining the body… So technique lacking strength can be functional, and more importantly, harmless to the instrument. This doesn’t work as well the other way around. Strength lacking technique can be… scary. We’ve all heard big voiced, strong singers warbling (and sometimes wobbling) towards a technical train-wreck. On the other hand, we’ve also heard lovely, technically adequate voices that aren’t especially strong or exciting.
But have we ever heard really exceptional technical singers who are weak? -Or exceptionally strong singers that lack technique? Maybe you can think of some examples. I can’t. It seems that at the professional level of singing, one must have developed both aspects of the art. Without the marriage of the two, a singer is limited.
If I had to pick a favorite child…. technique.
Ian Sidden says
Thanks for comment, Tara. Those are excellent points. It’s true that uncontrolled strength can lead to wretched singing.
Part of my reason for asking the question is that I worry that we teachers don’t spend enough time on “strength training”. Back to my experience with the guitar for a moment; a player may understand how to play a barre chord, but without sufficient strength and dexterity, that player will never be able to play it.
I am certain that the same applies to singing. But I am not sure what part of singing falls into that category. High notes? Legato? Maybe.
Franco Corelli had an interesting idea about breathing (alas, I do not have the book Great Singers on Great Singing here, or else I would just quote him). He thought that we singers spend to much time analyzing the technical aspect of breathing, and that simply by getting strong enough in the throat breath would become a non-issue.
That might be an example where strength trumps technique in an exceptional singer. Of course, who knows exactly what he was doing with his breath? Perhaps he had stellar breath technique but poor articulation of it.
The picture next to your blog illustrates a point: the fellow lifting the weight has sufficient strength, but his technique is very bad, and he runs the risk of hurting himself in a variety of ways. Also, he would need less strength if he had better technique. On the other hand, if he had the technique and not the strength (not just of muscle, but bone and connective tissue) he would be unable to lift the weight, and he risks hurting himself in a variety of ways.
My old master teachers were all excellent singers. They poured a flood of technical information into me, but they were also strong people who often emphasized the development of strength. One can think of strength training as just another form of learning: the muscles, bones, connective tissues, neurological pathways learning to adapt to a challenge by adding to their resources.
That is good news. Learning is very egalitarian and that a thing can be learned means we are not simply assigned to and trapped in categories of strong and weak, smart and stupid, sensitive and insensitive, clumsy and graceful. If we have the drive, curiosity, and willingness to change we have considerable freedom. Sure, Tara isn’t going to become an NFL lineman, and I’m not going to give birth, but we can all become strong singers, graceful and wise.
Ian Sidden says
I was hoping that someone would notice that man’s form in the picture. :)
Andrew, your comment brings up a good point. “Strength” can mean a variety of things in different contexts. In Tara’s response, the strength she was probably referring to the strength that can push and push look powerful. But you, Andrew, referred to “adapt”-able strength, which is the response by the body to new stresses placed upon it. It learns to deal with them.
Part of the reason to adapt like that is to avoid injury. This would imply that a major way to avoid injury while singing — beyond singing with efficient technique — is to maintain sufficient strength so that the muscle, bone and connective tissue can withstand the pressures of singing.
Thanks for the feedback!
I’m glad you’re discussing the issue of strength. That is something I have neglected in my training because I’ve received so much feedback over the years about being a hyper-functional singer (pressing too hard and thickening my registration). The issue of balancing strength and technique seems to be about the placement or displacement of strength in the body. I’m referring to the strength in the muscles of support and the release of articulators, extrinsic musculature, and thick mass of the folds in ascending pitches. However, I’m still questioning the whole process because muscles are complex.
I’m currently a 40 year old male rock singer. Despite his battles with cancer, he is a very strong singer. His support seems strong but slightly squeezed down, despite instruction to expand up and out. It’s causing me to wonder about the different qualities of strength. This question comes largely from my lack of knowledge about anatomy, but is it useful to think of muscular support in terms of eccentric contraction (muscle fibers lengthen) rather than concentric contraction (muscle fibers shorten)?
Sorry about the last post. I’m obviously not a 40 year old male rock singer. LOL. I’m teaching one. :-D
Ian Sidden says
Good points, Johanna the 40 year old male rock singer :). I think you’re right about focusing on the types of contractions. Strength may come more from an appropriate balance of muscles.
If we think about some support models, there is indeed an element of eccentric contraction and also isometric contraction.
For example, “La lotta vocale” is the “contest” between inhalation actions and exhalation actions. We displace this effort to the breathing musculature so that our poor vocal folds are not the only structures slowing down the breath from escaping.
As we begin the phrase, if we do balance inhalation and exhalation, there will be a concentric contraction in our abdominals but an isometric contraction in our inhalation muscles, like the intercostals, to slow down the abs and to prevent collapse. As we run out of air, this force becomes too great for the inhalation muscles, so the contraction becomes an eccentric contraction because they are contracting even while they are lengthening. This is all done to control the airflow rate.
These contractions take real strength, and they can tire you out quickly if you are not accustomed to them. From Wikipedia:
There is probably something similar happening between the various muscles of the larynx.
Wow! You explained that very well. Thank you!
My favorite quote from this thread, thusfar, is by Andrew:
“Sure, Tara isn’t going to become an NFL lineman, and I’m not going to give birth, but we can all become strong singers, graceful and wise.”
I love it.
Seriously, though, having been a singer who relied a lot on strength to make up for what I was (unknowingly) lacking in technique…and, then, losing that strength in sickness…I can say that BOTH are very important. I believe it is about balance. I do believe that strength is not necessarily taught enough and, perhaps, it is because teachers do not want to lead anyone who is pushing their voice to lean more on the strength aspect. However, I think it is important that both are taught so that the student will know methods for developing both, when the time comes to incorporate something back in that was being too heavily relied on, before. Andrew, do you have any suggestions for building strength, aside from getting general exercise and doing regular vocal warm-up and practice?
Frances aka "Avocational Singer" says
Even though this is an old thread, I will weigh in here. Before I do, I’d like to thank you for mentioning my own blog. I guess this mention has been here for quite a while and I only found it today.
The kind of muscular strength needed is an articulatory kind of strength, the same kind of strength one might need for a skillful task such as handwriting.
One has to practice handwriting while using a technique. One is taught how to hold the pen, and what angle and position to use for maximum efficiency and the least amount of unnecessary tension (to prevent writer’s cramp). When learning to write, the student must practice the letters becoming smoother and smoother at hooking them together until eventually a flow is achieved. It takes many hours. The technique is used to build the strength. The technique is the method of acquiring the strength. The coordination becomes more possible as the strength develops. It all works together. If the pen is at the wrong angle, a slightly different aspect of the muscle will strengthen.
If anyone doesn’t think it takes strength to hand-write well, they should try to write again after a broken hand has mended and after it has become de-conditioned while it was in the cast. The person will find that besides the muscles of the hand that have become weak, there are also supporting muscles in the forearm, and there are even muscles in the back and shoulders, and the muscles needed to sit at the desk for long periods of time which need to be strong.
Besides needing strength merely to write a sentence, it takes another kind of strength sit at a desk and write an entire novel by hand. A strength of endurance.
I used to kind of think that the kind of strength needed for singing was a much more brute kind of strength, but I now know that the kind of strength needed is more like the kind of strength needed for handwriting. It is the kind of strength needed for precision, accuracy, smoothness, control of flow. There are some things the singer won’t be able to do until they are strong enough, yet the way to become strong enough to do it is to use the technique to get there. The wrong technique makes the singer strong in the wrong ways.