Here’s a question for you: How hard should singing feel?
Particularly when working on our voices, having some idea of the hallmarks of “doing it right” would be helpful. How difficult should it feel to do? Should it feel really physically difficult? Or when we get better, should it feel devoid of effort? If it’s somewhere in between, how can we tell?
It’s a tricky one, that’s for certain. I certainly can’t give you a perfect and definitive answer. Nevertheless, I’ve got a few illustrations that may help you explore the complexity of answering this question.
Learning to drive
Take learning to drive and to park a car. If you have to keep doing 17-point turns and endure repeated attempts to get your car into the space, that is typically a sign that you are not yet efficient or competent at that specific skill. Hitting the cars next to you is also a bad sign.
As we get better, we might find we can do it in just a few turns, or a few attempts. After years of driving, many find they can swing the car into tighter and tighter spaces from weirder and weirder angles, in one smooth move.
The hallmarks of “doing it right” with driving are fairly obvious from the outside and also as the driver. The metrics are visual and physical. We can tell that we got the car in the space, we can visually see it’s aligned, we can count how many attempts it took, etc. We can even recall whether or not we heard any scraping sounds as we parked up!
Consider our question
Is it physically hard to maneuver a car like this? Not really, certainly not since the advent of power steering. By and large, the physicality demanded by driving is fairly low. The work is almost all based in cognition, control and co-ordination work.
But you may notice when you first start driving, it’s normal to experience tight calves on longer drives, as your body acclimatises to the mild but prolonged activity. Or perhaps sore hands from newer experienced drivers gripping the steering wheel too tight.
What about something more physical, like deadlifting or squatting?
Most people can lift some weight in one of these moves on a first try, but how well it is executed typically needs a trained eye to spot. Incorrect lifts done wrong, over time, lead to injury.
Moreover, people have an in-built expectation that lifting a weight should feel hard, so they are more likely to force their way through a movement… even if their form is likely to lead to injury.
Yet when you watch an experienced weightlifter lift weights, they very often make very heavy weights look like nothing at all.
Let’s ask our question again of this activity: is it physically hard to lift a heavy weight?
Well, it clearly depends. How heavy a weight? How many reps? Is the lifter a beginner or more experienced? Male or female? Old or young? Big or small? All of these things play a role in how easy or difficult a given weight may be to lift.
For example, 100kg may appear like it’s just a warm-up set for one lifter, but it may appear to be another person’s absolute limit. Yet, consider that even here, appearances can be deceiving.
At the end of the day, 100kg is still 100kg.
Even for the experienced person, their body still has to exert 100kg worth of tension and force to fight gravity and lift that 100kg off the ground. As such, it cannot ever be considered to be physically easy (in an absolute sense).
It is experience and ability which will dictate whether that 100kg weight is well within their capacity, or right on the edge of it. They might be more efficient than the less-skilled lifter, but the weight still requires the same absolute force to lift the weight off the ground, no matter someone’s stage of development.
Singing has elements of both analogies
Singing can become more and more effortless as we improve, but the work never goes to zero. It is never devoid of effort.
The weightier the voice, the more intensely one seeks to sing, the harder the material, all of these things lead to higher level of non-zero effort that is experienced. It should never hurt nor leave you sore the next day, but it will never feel like driving a modern car with power steering. In this sense, good singing feels like somewhere in-between our two analogies, especially as we get better.
Some people seem to be under the impression that if they are singing well then it should feel fairly effort-free, or remarkably low-effort as they get better. While skill certainly does make things easier, yet the same physicality is required whether you’re a beginner or an advanced singer. It’s that “100kg is still 100kg” analogy again.
At the other end of the spectrum, some people seem to be under the impression that singing should feel physically demanding, akin to explosively lifting weights. To them, sheer strength and raw physicality is what gets you there. But singing is not like trying to build muscle over the whole body, there’s far more refinement and finesse required.
To add caveats to both of my positions here, of course, there can be inefficiencies that mean we’re burning out energy or wasting effort that could be conserved, but there is still a core amount of non-negotiable effort required. How high that level feels will depend on many factors. Similarly, even as we improve and things feel easier and more effortless, this does not mean the act itself will become devoid of effort. The effort is never zero.
One last thing
As a closing thought, consider what you see when the best singers perform. They make it sound like it’s easy, and they make it look like it’s easy… but they are also sweating buckets as they do so. Hmm… This perhaps is the best illustration I can give that there is deep effort going on, but all very controlled and refined to sound effortless.