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Djarts Voice Coaching ~


Energy vs. Effort
By Dr Daniel K. Robinson

One of my favourite memories from high school was my involvement in the biennial musical. As I look back with fondness on these times it strikes me how I recall the rehearsals with greater clarity than the performances. It’s the time taken developing the skills to present the show with friends that seem to embed themselves in our long-term memories; process over product. I particularly remember a session of ‘vocal warm-ups’ with a senior member of our high school cast who insisted that we stand in a circle and project our voices at each other. The simple instructions required that we yell as loud as we could until we could feel our throats exert enough effort to be heard over the other young thespians in the circle. As a 13 year old boy in grade-nine I found this extremely fun and exhilarating; completely oblivious to the fact that the tremendous effort I was driving through my larynx was placing my vocal health in harm’s way. The idea of ‘projecting’ the voice will not be a new one to many of my readers. But what does it mean to ‘project the voice’? The archetypical example of the singer standing on stage and being heard in the back rows of a large auditorium is often given as the model of a ‘well projected voice’. This illustration seems to pre-date the use of modern amplification and points towards the classical singer whose voice is not assisted by a microphone. Robert Edwin (2000) highlights the difference between the amplitude (volume) required by a classical voice compared with the contemporary sound. He tells the story about one of his students who
...realised that her acoustically-driven [classical] mentality to project to the back of the performance space was a detriment in her pop singing since the microphone rendered projection moot. Singing conversationally into the mike helped her tell her story far more effectively and efficiently. (p. 72)

Edwin’s student had learnt to attribute a sense of physical effort and activity with her vocalisation. It’s important that I spell out, as always, my instruction is directed to the contemporary vocalist. Classical singers often perform without microphones and consequently need to deliver an acoustically reinforced sound which, by virtue of its particular frequency refinement, can be heard over the instruments that accompany it. But even for the classical singer the development of volume and projection should not come about through physically exerted effort. It seems to me that singers (classical and contemporary) who do try to form their volume through sheer effort often find themselves ‘laryngeally focused’. That is to say that their sound is being produced as if their larynx is required to do all the work. Gillyanne Kayes (2004) warns that, “The vocal folds

© Dr Daniel K. Robinson - 2012

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Djarts Voice Coaching ~

on their own are not enough to enable seemingly effortless projection in large spaces or over long-term use” (p. 75). A singer’s instrument is much more than the larynx alone. I often say to my students that their vocal instrument starts at the top of their head and finishes in the soles of their feet; their entire body is the instrument! This is where ‘energy’ comes in… The optimally ‘energised’ instrument evenly distributes the physical activity of singing and the associated effort required throughout the entire body. Some students incorrectly misinterpret the idea of reduced-effort as a request for a lazy physical engagement of the instrument (whole body). No! A lazy voice will lead to a lazy performance; and surprisingly to some can also lead to heightened vocal fatigue. The aim of every skilful singer is to present the voice in an energised fashion; loud or soft. Yes, even softer sounds can be energised. You see it turns out that all levels of volume, shifts in dynamics and acoustic projection require the whole singer to be energised at all times. You could apply the old adage of ‘work smarter, not harder’ at this point. The smart application of skill and balanced energies trumps the more fatiguing and harder activity of effortful and lazy singing. Perhaps the most difficult challenge in establishing an energised voice is kinaesthetically identifying when you are engaging effortful phonation. To finish I note that it was Edwin who, in the earlier quote, identified the effort in his student; often we need another person to help us ascertain when a sound is effortful or energised. A vocalist who has been singing incorrectly their entire career may not even know their technique is lacking aside from the symptoms of vocal wear and tear (and even then they may be blissfully ignorant!). In the match-up between energy vs. effort the energised voice is the underdog. Why? It seems our bodies are more likely to respond with effort because singing with energy is a refined skill whereas anyone can stand in a circle and yell uncontrollably – even a 13 year old boy in his high school musical! References Edwin, R. (2000). From classical to pop: a case study. Journal of Singing, 56(3), 71–72. Kayes, G. (2004). Singing and the actor (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Who is Dr Daniel K. Robinson?

Daniel is a freelance artist and educator. In 2011 Daniel completed his Doctor of Musical Arts degree at the Queensland Conservatorium Grif ith University. He has served as National Vice President (2009–11) and National Secretary for the Australian National Association of Teachers of Singing (2006–11). Daniel is the principal Singing Voice Specialist for Djarts ( and presents workshops and seminars to church singers across Australia and abroad. He and his wife Jodie have three children and live in Brisbane, Queensland Australia.

© Dr Daniel K. Robinson - 2012

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