Weight-Lifting and Voice Training

Ed. Note: The following entry is part of a series of posts marking the 1-year anniversary of the Special Issue ‘What is New in Voice Training?

Voice researcher and teacher D. Ralph Appelman writes: ‘A man cannot lift a heavy object without laryngeal closure, and he can become quite hoarse in the prolonged performance of this act’ (1967, p. 43). Appelman here is referring to an involuntary Valsalva manoeuvre: the reflexive closing of the throat in response to heavy lifting. The glottis closes to trap air in the lungs. The increased air pressure in the lungs and the accompanying increase in intrabdominal pressure exert force on the anterior surface of the spine, increasing spinal stability and allowing force to be transferred through the body more effectively.

The Valsalva manoeuvre during a deadlift
(image by Holden-Boyd, 2020; adapted from Rippetoe, 2011, p.59)

Appelman articulates a belief historically shared by many spoken-voice and singing teachers: that heavy weight-lifting and optimal voicing are incompatible. Voice professionals have often recommended against heavy lifting: either out of a concern that weight-lifting generates physical tension and brings the body out of alignment (Rodenburg, 1992, p.59; Bunch 2010, p. 158-8) and/or out of a concern that it produces harmful effects such as hyperadduction or structural damage at the level of the vocal folds (Chapman, 2012, p. 68; Houseman, 2002, p. 12).

There are both personal and professional reasons that an actor might choose to engage in weight-lifting. And yet there exists limited practical advice on how to do so in a way that supports rather than hinders voice training. Furthermore, while voice teachers couch their recommendations against weight-lifting in scientific explanations, there is limited scientific research to conclusively support the assertion that weight-lifting necessarily has a negative impact on the voice.

I am investigating this issue through my current teaching practice at Bath Spa University and through a practice-as-research PhD with the University of Exeter. I aim to generate different interactions between weight-lifting and voice than those historically envisioned by voice teachers. I ask how an actor could learn to actively shape these interactions. For example, I investigate the adjustments I need to make in order to lift a heavy weight without laryngeal closure.

I also ask whether it is valuable to consider more than simply the mechanical interactions between weight-lifting and voice. Fundamental to many actor voice practices is the notion that how one uses one’s voice is contiguous with one’s sense of self. How, then, does weight-lifting intervene in one’s self-experience? For example, could the sense of agency and empowerment that potentially comes with learning to weight-lift challenge and re-form one’s embodied experience of social identity? In this respect, my research has socio-political resonances and I use weight-lifting as way of probing tensions in contemporary feminisms: particularly neoliberal feminism.

Though my project is practice-based, I analyse and shape my practice using ethnographic and autoethnographic research. I interview voice teachers and also draw on my own expertise and experiences not only as a voice teacher but also as a weight-lifter and weight-lifting coach. This (auto)ethnographic framework allows me to consider the broader cultural and social resonances of my work and the ways it challenges or affirms existing voice training practices and discourses.

In the following video, I demonstrate one element of my practice. I explore the idea that, contrary to Appelman’s assertion, laryngeal closure while lifting a heavy object is negotiable rather than inevitable.

To resist the involuntary Valsalva manoeuvre, I have to consciously inhibit my body’s instinctual response to heavy lifting. I do this by sustaining a position of inhalation even as I exhale through the hardest part of the lift: I actively maintain an open throat and hold my lower ribs open. The impulse to close my throat, to grunt or to cry out is strong, and the amount of physical and mental effort to sustain the inhale position against this impulse is significant.

This technique does not come naturally to me; and indeed, feels counterintuitive given my particular voice training history. I am a spoken-voice teacher trained in what Tara McAllister-Viel refers to as the natural/free voice approach (2019, p. 46): a pedagogical approach that emphasises physical release as a means to vocal ‘freedom’ as opposed to consciously applied effort. On the one hand, I find that effort in the body helps me sustain ‘freedom’ in my throat. On the other hand, by resisting the impulse to allow my throat to close or to grunt or to cry out when I lift, I deny the vocal release so fundamental to the free voice approach. 

To grunt or not to grunt? As a natural/free voice practitioner and in the spirit of ‘freeing’ the voice, I am working on cultivating the choice to do either: to lift with an open throat, silencing the effort in my body; or to express the effort, voicing the intensity of the somatic experience of working at the edge of my physical and mental capacity. Both options involve an embodied understanding of effort, where to put it, and how to voice it. Thus, in contrast to natural/free voice practices that focus primarily on developing the voice through muscular release, I propose exploring the voice through muscular effort. I suggest that this guiding principle could form the basis of a new pedagogical approach to spoken-voice training for actors: one that provides the actor not only with the tools and knowledge to protect the voice while engaging in physical effort, but also with the freedom to give voice to that effort. This pedagogy aims to give students a broader toolkit for ‘thinking-through’ and constructing their physiovocal selves.

References

Appelman, D.R. (1967) The science of vocal pedagogy: theory and application, London, Indiana University Press.

Bunch-Dayme, M. (2010) Dynamics of the singing voice, 2nd ed, London, Springer Wien.

Chapman, J. (2017) Singing and teaching singing: a holistic approach to classical voice, San Diego, Plural Publishing.

Houseman, B. (2002) Finding your voice: A step-by-step guide for actors, London, Nick Hern Books.

McAllister-Viel, T. (2019) Training actors’ voices: towards an intercultural/interdisciplinary approach, Abingdon, UK, Routledge.

Rippetoe, M. (2011) Starting Strength: basic barbell training, 3rd edition, Wichita Falls, TX, USA, The Aasgaard Company.

Rodenburg, P. (1992) The right to speak: working with the voice, 1st edition, London, Routledge.

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