Sunday, August 16, 2009

Relaxing at full speed

Now that Usain Bolt has broken the 9.60 barrier and astounded everyone again with his laid-back style and nearly super-human powers, I thought I'd make an observation about relaxation.

Bolt actually pushed all the way to the finish line this time, but more than once, experts have had reason to note that he really doesn't lose as much speed as you'd think when he relaxes and just floats the last bit.

Most people have tried sprinting. It's hard work, and looking at the runners in the WC final, you can tell that they didn't relax their way to the top. Still, relaxation is a vital part of sprinting. How?

Muscles can only either contract or relax. Many muscles (not all) attach to the skeleton at either side of a joint. When e.g. bending your arm, the 'biceps' muscle contracts. When straightening it, the 'triceps' on the opposite side contracts. In each case, the 'antagonist' muscle needs to relax in order not to interfere with the work. A world-class sprinter takes ca 4.5-5 strides per second, where each stride is more than 2 meters (Bolt's strides are 2.40 m). This requires both incredible power and rapid alternation between tension and relaxation in a great number of muscles. The trick is to pull off this fine coordination while staying as close as possible to maximum output.

On to singing, I hear many singers and teachers talk about the importance of relaxation. What is seldom pointed out is that good singing is hard work. Relaxation in itself is not enough. You need to work to build strength as well. If you were lucky enough to find an excellent teacher when you were very young, you may have been able to develop the necessary strength and coordination organically. I started singing for real at the age of 36, and had to work systematically to learn how to engage muscles that had largely been passive until then.

I'm an ex-athlete (as you may have guessed), so I approached the whole thing as an athletic event. I spent several months figuring out how to raise the soft palate on demand, learned how to keep the diaphragm down while exhaling, worked on isolating the action of pulling down the larynx, etc.

Franco Corelli said in Jerome Hines' book Great Singers on Great Singing (pg 60) that you need young muscles to learn how to sing with a low larynx. A person who's around 40 or 50 probably won't be able to do it.

(The above clip is, I believe, the last of a long line of encores after a full concert with orchestra. I do believe even Mr Corelli started showing signs of strain here... Still, magnificent singing).

Perhaps he is right, but there is likely a continuum here, and even if you pick it up late, I believe that you can get far with proper training. But the older you are, the greater the need might be for specific exercises to discover and strengthen the diaphragm and muscles around the larynx.

BTW, my father started taking some lessons with Bengt at the age of 65, and showed great progress even in the first lesson. Bengt's teaching is quite physical, and Dad's been into Track & Field all his life. I don't know how much that has to do with it...

Development of fine motor skills progresses from rough to finer coordination, as is evident when watching a small child learn how to use their hands and fingers. For the sprinter as well as for the singer, the objective is to learn fine motor control at high intensity. This requires both development of strength and work on motor skill, alternating and in parallel. During the first years of my training, I was well aware of the fact that I was tensing too much. It was only after 5 years or so that I started to feel that I could rid myself of unnecessary tension. Before that, if I tried to relax while singing, I would invariably lose my position.

Better to sing reasonably well and be a bit tense, than to be relaxed and sing badly.

Giovanni Battista Lamperti, one of the great singing teachers of the 19th Century, said "Because of co-ordinate action, which intrigues the whole personality, muscular effort and will-power seem in abeyance. This gives rise to a feeling of ease so insiduous that a singer begins to rely on relaxation of mind and muscle - a quicksand that brings disaster [...] Do not become rigid, but never relax." (Vocal Wisdom, pg 116, chapter "Do not relax").

In his wonderful book Singing and Imagination, Thomas Hemsley wrote, "Tension is the result of lack of balance or poise. The cure for tension is not simply relaxation, but the recovery of poise. Misguided attempts to relax while singing (a very energetic activity) are probably, in the end, responsible for many more vocal problems, more unhealthy tension, than any other source" (pg 78).

Hemsley also writes, "Watch an athletics race on your television screen, and observe how the very best runners move. Their legs and arms are moving quite freely, and their heads and bodies appear to be quite still, moving forward as if on wheels. Singers can learn much from watching top-class athletes in action" (pg 37).

Now, he was talking about posture then, but I believe that there are lessons to be learned also regarding the relationship between power and relaxation.


Anonymous said...

Dear Ulf,

I wish I had known about your blog before this. Sorry I was not more attentive. What a terrific resource. I plan to comment on my blog about your excellent posts. You are also developing a very beautiful voice. I am happy to hear and see you sing. Keep it up! You have the whole package, the voice will catch up!

Ulf Wiger said...

Thank you TS, for that wonderful comment. Only last night, as maestro Bengt was here, we were talking about your excellent blog articles. Your praise means a lot to me.