Muscle Specificity, Exercise Science, and Jazz

“Specificity refers to the concept that strength training must be designed
to appropriately target the specific muscle or muscle group with the intended skill or task.”
(pg. 246, The Vocal Athlete, 2014)

On the heels of presenting at the Jazz Educators Network conference in New Orleans two weeks ago, I’d like to share some ideas about using jazz to train voices.

My presentation was called “Functional Voice Training Through Jazz Literature and Style,” and it outlined the benefits of using jazz rep and style as a training modality for commercial (or contemporary) singers.

Think: jazz lit and style as tools in the pedagogy toolbox.

In the 11+ plus years I taught university level jazz voice lessons, it (eventually) became obvious that jazz was good for voices.  I could use it to get a barely functioning voice to work like a charm, and even if a student wasn’t swimming in musical talent, a semester or two of jazz voice lessons could help him/her get control of pitch, range, harmonic awareness, rhythm, and basic levels of phrasing.  Jazz helped vocal function based issues.

Jazz is replete with opportunities for teaching, at least in my opinion.  And I don’t think we’ve even begun to plumb its depths as a vocal training tool.

So, let’s begin, shall we?

Years before going to grad school, I knew exactly what I wanted to do my thesis on.  The benefits of jazz as it pertains to the physicality of the voice.  Bam.  Got it.

But, I couldn’t describe this concept succinctly, nor did I know about the world of people talking about and researching vocal athleticism.

I ended up calling my thesis “JAZZ VOICE PEDAGOGY:  VOCAL TECHNIQUE THROUGH  THE STUDY OF JAZZ LITERATURE.”  This was the best title to describe something that’s taken me years to clearly articulate.  (I remember a long dinner with my advisor Sandra Dudley in 2012 – at an Italian restaurant – where we used at least 4 different colors of crayons to brainstorm titles on the paper “table cloth.”  That was serious fun!) And at the time, this was my way of saying that jazz offers endless opportunities to train the body to sing efficiently.

Muscle Specificity

One exciting way jazz can help train vocal function is through a concept called muscle specificity.

This idea comes from the world of exercise science research, and is one of five principles in exercise training used to describe the way muscle fibers adapt to new levels of demand.  The other principles are intensity, frequency, overload and reversibility. (245)

Thanks to copious amounts of exercise and physiology research, coupled with the voice world’s insatiable desire to know more about vocal function, we now can make helpful deductions about how to train voices, including how to use the specificity principle for singing.

Intervalic Specificity and Jazz

Quite by accident, I discovered how to teach certain lines of songs.  Very often a student would bring in a tune they had been practicing, and blow the same phrase over and over.  It took a few years to figure out that most of the time the student knew the pitches.  They could play the phrase on the piano, and they could sing it veeeeerrrrry slowly, but at tempo the line would fall apart.

So, I would invariably pick apart a phrase and realize (alongside the student) that there was a particular interval jump, or series of interval jumps, that was causing all the trouble.

Once we addressed the functional issue that was causing the problem between notes, the student never struggled with that line or phrase again.

It was usually a problem with their vocal function – NOT their ears.  Get the voice to move between the “problem” intervals, and suddenly they could physically navigate the “problem” phrase.

This discovery lead me think about how many times intervals were sung from note to note in the same song.  In my thesis, I published graphs like these showing the number of intervals performed in jazz standards.

These graphs caught the attention of people who were spending all their time researching things like muscle specificity and voice, and suddenly there was a larger context for what I was learning in the jazz voice studio.

I was well aware that the less common intervals were important to address.  They could be used as individual exercises, ear training devices, and as I understand them now – tools for training muscle specificity for musical intervals!  (Which will be needed if someone’s going to get a job singing someday, let’s be real.)

Looking at these intervals graphically will hopefully spawn a branch of research all it’s own someday.

Until then, it’s enough to say that because of the depth of musicianship jazz requires, we can keep inventing new ways to use it for training voices.  If I can get a kid to sing tritones, 6ths, and minor sevenths, well . . . there is more vocal function in the world.  And that is good.

LeBorgne, W., Rosenberg, M. (2014). The Vocal Athlete. San Diego, CA: Plural Publishing.

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