What happens when you don’t practice for a while?

Most of you who exercise regularly will notice your fitness drops if you don’t exercise for a while. If you take a month off from running or cycling, you’ll notice that your cardiovascular facility will feel less responsive as you return to doing it.

Those of you who do the gym and lift weights will also notice that things don’t feel the same with time off. It’s a different sensation, but it has similarities.

But what about our voices? What happens to our voices when we don’t practice for a little while? How far off the mark can we end up?

The Good News

Fortunately, the voice isn’t as dependent on cardio as running, and it isn’t as dependent on muscular development as lifting weights. There are certainly muscles involved. There is contraction required, and there is air and cardiovascular ability involved. However, none of these things are as extreme as running or lifting weights.

With vocal training and development, it is far more to do with the fine motor control and co-ordination between all those factors than it is to do with any single one.

In terms of what we are doing when we build the voice, we are trying to teach the instrument (the vocal folds and the vocal tract, broadly speaking) how to work together. We are aiming to make ever more refined adjustments to enable smooth and easy registration across our range, and thereby enable good singing.

These various aspects all have to be built and trained to work together. There is more to it than this, but what I’ve described is a broadly accurate summary.

Your Actual Ability
You shouldn’t lose vast quantities of your actual ability when you’ve taken a little while off working on your voice. I used to worry about losing big swathes of my ability if I took even one day off working on my voice, let alone two days! But in reality, a day or two vocal rest isn’t a big thing to worry about.

If anything, having a day or two of rest can be very helpful for singers at every level. It enables the body to recover (obviously), but it also allows instruments to experience some level of ‘reset’.

For example, some people can coax their voices into excessively thinned out or excessively heavy co-ordinations, while maintaining the appearance of everything being well-connected and balanced. Often this predisposition is down to personality and/or genre choice. Often things sound connected and even, but they are overly thinned out or too muscular relative to how their instrument should function. This is often hard to hear though, as if they are keeping their voice in that state every single day, they are in essence constantly nudging it into that unnatural state.

Whereas, having a day or two off helps the voice to reset to a more natural resting state. For voices that should have more bottom end, this should be more present after the day or two off. For voices that should be a bit lighter than they’ve been constantly singing with, this too should enable such a ‘reset’. In turn, this can help the singer realise how they have been jamming their voice into a corner it never belonged in in the first place.

The Bad News

Per my comment above, while singing is not about oodles of cardio or muscular contraction, it IS about very fine motor control between various factors. In this regard, co-ordination that is at the edge of our ability and that is not yet deeply ingrained will dissipate.

When I prescribe exercises to a singer, it is to provide the next steps of co-ordination for their voice. The singer’s responsibility is to repetitiously immerse themselves in those vocal exercises so much that the body soaks it up. With time, it becomes a permanent adjustment to the way their instrument works. This does require consistent applied effort to make the new co-ordination stick, and putting in the reps.

Here’s the problem: if I’ve prescribed the right exercises, the singer should be achieving that co-ordination more or less every time they do them, whether or not the adaptation has become permanent. As such, sometimes singers can often fool themselves into thinking “I’ve got this” after doing the exercises (which are designed to get you there), when in reality they are ONLY getting there because the exercise is set up to make it happen.

The goal is not merely to do it until we get it right, the goal is to practice until we never get it wrong.

If one isn’t practicing regularly and consistently, target notes might be accomplished and the sensations may be pleasing on the occasions we do it, but without consistent effort, the necessary deeper permanent adaptations will not be effected.

As such, a moderate amount of time off working on your voice will not result in a dramatic back-sliding of your permanent facility. But anything that isn’t fully locked in will dissipate. You will notice that some elements you thought you had in the bag are not as solid as you thought they were.

In a sense, this is by far the most painful aspect of taking time off, as reality is a cold, hard wall to have to run into.

Ease yourself back in

If I’ve had a few weeks off (e.g. holiday, sickness, etc), I ease myself back in. I want to aim for ease of co-ordination above all else. I don’t worry about how high or low I can go, I just want to get the muscles and instrument moving together as one. Move from a comfortable lower range to comfortable higher range, and keep it moving using the exercises you feel work with your voice best. If it hurts or feels even slightly uncomfortable, give it a rest, and wind your neck in a little for the next pass.

Within a few days you should find that everything is turning over nicely. You may well feel like the top end of your voice isn’t quite as responsive, but truthfully I’ve found that this simply reveals that the top end you THOUGHT you had, was really you just biting off a bit more than you can chew, at least on a regular basis.

Above all, realise that it takes time and consistent effort to ingrain permanent adaptation. It’s natural to have some time off the ball due to work, holidays, busyness, illness, etc. Rest assured that when you take time off, whatever you’ve made permanent will be there, but also recognise that anything you’ve not yet made permanent is what will be pared back.

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