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Why classical singers are like elite athletes

Long training hours, fierce competition, only the strongest make it to the top – professional singing is the ultimate sporting feat.

By Rose Slavin (Former Assistant Content Producer)

17 August 2016 at 4.28pm | 16 Comments

It’s 7:30 pm. The bell has rung. The spectators are in their seats. The tension mounts. The spotlight hits. A lone figure at the top of their profession enters the arena. Die-hard fans are about to enjoy a marathon - of the musical variety.

Adrenaline, anticipation, and years of training culminating in just one chance to get it right; an evening at the opera has much more in common with a sporting event than you might expect. As well as a world-class musician, the singer is an athlete - and it’s a discipline that is by no means created by talent alone.

‘Opera singers need focus, stamina, flexibility, endurance, determination and adaptability,’ says Kevin Thraves, Deputy Head of Opera at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM). Most elite opera singers consider their training to be lifelong – undergoing years of studying with teachers at school and completing a postgraduate degree to hone their skill.

Just like an Olympian in training, every morning former Jette Parker Young Artist Lauren Fagan completes a set of exercises to warm up her most important muscles: ‘I will take 5-10 minutes to warm my body up, releasing any tension in shoulders and neck and then progress to singing through scales on different vowels and buzzing noises,’ says the soprano.

Vocal muscles aside, it's also helpful to maintain a healthy lifestyle outside of the auditorium. Fagan says she likes to run and even took part in the London Marathon this year. 'I find that something as simple as going to a spin or yoga class at the gym can help me to keep fit and also helps to take my mind off singing for an hour or so,' she reveals. 

Principal study singing tutor at RNCM, Antonia Sotgiu, agrees: ‘The source of the sound is produced in the larynx. But singers also engage muscles in the mouth, throat, tongue, diaphragm and the intercostal muscles. It is essential to tone and strengthen these to develop stamina.’

Like every athlete – an opera singer needs support from the best in the field.

‘Having a pair of ears that you trust to work with you is as important as a coach is to a top level athlete. An Olympian wouldn't train without a coach and it’s the same for international singers,' says Professor Susan McCulloch from Guildhall School of Music and Drama. It's this coaching that enables singers to build up the stamina they need, mentally and physically to make it through the operatic marathon.

There have been numerous rehearsals, not to mention the hours studying the music in German, Italian or French, both alone and with other cast members.

Singers practice at least five days per week – anything more than two days of rest, and the vocal instrument starts to lose stamina. There are no microphones, so voices have to be powerful enough to fill an auditorium with 2,000 people and compete with the full orchestra.

Opera singers must know their own strengths and limitations; push too far and accidents can happen.

‘An athlete can compete when they have a cold or sore throat, but a singer shouldn't,' warns McCulloch. ‘Swellings develop on the vocal folds, nodules or cysts which prevent full vocal fold closure and means that singers are unable to phonate successfully.’

The curtains close and elated, the opera singer retreats to a dressing room to unwind. Like an Olympian, the buzz from the crowd has goaded them to give their all and that energy is still in the air.

‘It’s the time when you are able to let go some of the massive amount of adrenaline still coursing through your body,’ says McCulloch.

While a sports star might treat their tired muscles with an ice bath to reduce swelling, singers are advised to go easy post-show: ‘Don't drink ice-cold drinks after singing as the vocal muscles can go into spasm if they are still hot and warm from singing!’ McCulloch warns.

As well as drinking plenty of water to lubricate the vocal cords, singers should always get plenty of sleep to recover after a busy schedule of rehearsals and performances. Because tomorrow, as the victorious sports stars hang up their medals, the opera house curtain will rise once again.

Read more: How opera singers take care of their voice

The Opera Olympics illustrations were especially created for The Royal Opera House by Glasgow based writer and illustrator William Goldsmith. He has just released his second book, 'The Bind', published by Jonathan Cape.

This article has 16 comments

  1. Sarah Turnage responded on 17 August 2016 at 5:15pm Reply

    Can a singer ever take a vacation and not sing for, say, a month?

    • Ida responded on 17 August 2016 at 9:11pm

      You can, if you don't have any work. But then you would have to put 1 more month in to the mix just to get back to "normal" form. Starting of slow so you don't strain an "out of shape" voice and gradually get into the groove again. But it's seldom worth it. It is easier to just maintain it than to build it up all over again

  2. Karen Elizabeth responded on 17 August 2016 at 9:22pm Reply

    I think you mean vocal cords not 'chords'....

  3. David responded on 18 August 2016 at 1:23pm Reply

    We can all acknowledge and appreciate the thrust of this article but ..... "professional singing is the ultimate sporting feat" - I don't think so, certainly not in the ROH. When it comes down to long training hours and fierce competition, etc, the real "Olympic" stars at the Royal Opera House are its dancers, not its singers. I don't in any way undervalue the long, dedicated and difficult journey a singer must make, it's one I know well, but the ballet dancer's journey begins in childhood, involves far more sacrifice, is much much more demanding and like the true Olympic athletes is relatively short-lived. Few professional singers have to retire at forty, even tenors carry on into their fifties, some, naming no names until their seventies! I'm sure your dancers will raise a wry smile when they read this but the article would have had greater truth if it had focussed on the other side of the House's activities where the comparison is far more relevant!

    • Harry responded on 18 August 2016 at 10:35pm

      It's a shame that in reading an article about the rigours of singing professionally you would try to compare it with another performance art and unfavourably so. The article was not about dancing, and it does not claim to compare the undoubted rigours of that profession with opera singing. Musical training involves much sacrifice along the way too; to suggest otherwise is to lack the knowledge the article attempts to offer. The arts as a whole are always under attack, to reply in this way holds up one at the expense of the other, which is quite unnecessary.

    • David it is a shame you could not read the article without comparison to other art forms. This editorial has not been written in the way you portray it. It would be akin to saying a swimmer works harder than a hockey player. Where is the research to back up your argument? Actors also put their bodies and voices through gruelling schedules just as dancers do and I have the utmost respect for both. Singers who act and dance, that shines another light on this complex area. Singers sacrifice much and suffer for their art. I speak as one who has and it almost cost me my career and livelihood so please refrain from uninformed blanket statements. We all have individual life paths with unexpected twists and turns and you cannot possibly make generalised comparisons when there is so much else involved aside from stamina; emotional stability and financial position and so much more.

  4. Enjoyed the article. i also offer my blog post, "Why Singing Opera Could Be An Olympic Event":http://operagene.com/new-blog/2016/8/4/why-singing-opera-could-be-an-olympic-event.

  5. Nicolas responded on 18 August 2016 at 9:45pm Reply

    The moment we start comparing singers with athletes it's the moment we forget that each individual singer has a unique and different approach to his craft and that singing is foremost an artistic way of expression.

  6. I really feel for singers.... It's incredibly hard work to keep on top!

    One has to be particularly careful not to overdo things and actually hurt the vocal cords.

    As a guitarist, one should also take frequent breaks, but it is a lot easier.

    If I am not feeling well, I can still perform.

    Not so with singers... they need to take a break!

    I have the UTMOST respect for opera singers and think they do a magnificent job!

  7. Brian oliversmith responded on 21 August 2016 at 5:21am Reply

    I was singing in the chorus with Los Angeles Opera and had to have a full physical for another job. The technician asked if I was a distance runner or in physical training for something. I replied truthfully no and she told me she normally only sees this type of lung capacity and measurements in runners or athletes in training.

  8. Very nice article. The analogy does fit well. However, I do not agree that drinking water lubricates the vocal cords. Drinking water actually strips the vocal cords of the body's natural lubricant which is saliva. Hydrating is very important but not while singing. Singers carrying around their bottled water is actually a common cliché that does the vocal cords more harm than good.
    But, they persist. Is better for the throat and the vocal cords to cease drinking 1/2 hour prior to a performance and to re-hydrate afterwards.

  9. Liz (musician & runner) responded on 21 December 2016 at 11:18am Reply

    Athletes should never compete or even train if they are ill - please correct this article!

    Racing and even training when you are ill is dangerous. For instance, viral infections cause myocarditis - inflammation of the heart muscle. Sudden death during exercise is often caused by myocarditis. Metabolism is impaired.

    Exercise whilst ill can also do lasting damage to your long term health - for instance scarring of heart tissue caused by myocarditis. Arrhythmia (irregular or disturbed heart rhythms) is also common.

    Your body and mind need rest when ill to devote energy to fighting the infection.

  10. Eszter Szabo responded on 6 March 2017 at 12:27am Reply

    Hello, thanks for the article! I am not a professional singer but I take voice lessons 4-5 times a week. I agree with most everything you say except that it is better to sing every day than to take a break. I like not to sing 1 day before a recital because it helps me to sound better. I heard that there are singers who do not sing many days before their performance to rest their voice. Also there are excercises you can do to keep up or heal your voice. So I do not think there is a real threat of taking a break and loosing something along the way.

  11. Lili responded on 17 April 2017 at 4:20pm Reply

    What you didn't mention is breathing. To develop breathing and keep up healthy stamena and vocal cords ...As a professional singer I swimm every day than do yoga and Caruso breathing exercise 40 steps.
    Caruso was an ocean swimmer so was Dame Sutherland, Robert Merill a Yogi so was Roswenge he acctually did advenced yoga three hours a day. So one asks why? It's because of breath development. In singing if you want to be free you better perfect your breathing because it will affect everything from your phonation to your attachment of the voice. Italians call that appoggio. And they use to do a lot to develop that breath...And when you open the books of Lamperti,Manuel Garsia, Lilli Lehmann and Tetrazzini or Caruso etc...You will be surprised how much they pay attention...So Caruso did his 40 steps walk each day to stay in shape. Being an opera singer is a huge sucrifice and until you finisg your singing rituals the day is gone. So everyone who doesn't have a clue what a great breather and technician is can't comment eather.
    Salute.

  12. Ellen Bemben responded on 1 June 2017 at 3:58pm Reply

    I shared this great article to Howie Carr, judge on America's Got Talent. He needs this education since he ruined front-running Finalists, FORTE Tenors, on Season 8 saying they don't have to work for their craft - like comedians and jugglers do. It caused a major uproar - to this day - by FORTE fans who say they were robbed of the win due to Mr. Carr's obvious lack of education re Classical singers. We hope he reads this before harming future talented contestants with his prejudices.

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