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Leveraging Sport Science Research
Vocal load management is important for all voice users but it is such an abstract matter! How do you measure something so intangible and subjective? And even if you can quantify it, how do you actually use it to plan and manage your vocal load and to help prevent overuse issues?
Thankfully the world loves sports and tonnes of money and talent have been poured into sport science research to help athletes train smarter, perform better, and reduce the risk of injury. The method I’m sharing with you is a popular and easy-to-use one amongst athletes. I think it translates very well for voice users because voice performers are vocal athletes after all! Let’s dive in.
The 3 Categories of Vocal Load
To effectively measure anything we first need to clearly define what we are measuring. For vocal load, I like to divide it into 3 categories, they are Everyday Voice Use, Professional Voice Use, and Incidental Voice Use. I think it is important to make these distinctions because you use your voice differently under different circumstances. For example, I’d speak lazily at home but I make sure I project and enunciate well when I speak to my patients at the clinic. I also speak more at work though I’m sure my husband would disagree.
1. Everyday Voice Use
- Speaking with family, friends, colleagues, or yourself!
2. Professional Voice Use
- Teaching – At school, a fitness class.
- Presenting – TV, radio, news, seminar, webinar, podcast.
- Performing – Actors, voice over artists, content creators.
- Singing – Various genres
- Customer service – In person, over the phone.
- Consulting – Health professionals, lawyers, advisors.
- Rehearsal – Repetition
- Meeting – Noise, duration.
3. Incidental Voice Use
- Last minute gigs
- Unexpected long phone calls/ meeting
- Singing in the shower/ car
Rate of Perceived Exertion
The intensity and effort of voice use is very important in measuring vocal load, which is why the Rate of Perceived Exertion, or RPE for short, is super useful. What is RPE? It simply is your subjective assessment of how hard you’re working on a scale of 0 to 10. In terms of voice use, it means how much effort is required for you to complete your vocal task.
This is purely a subjective measurement. Your numbers apply only to you and you alone, you cannot use your numbers and compare it with someone else’s. You and your friend might spend the same time on the same vocal task, say you play the same part in a show, but you might find it more effortful than them to complete the task or visa versa. Your number only works for you. Think of it like fingerprints, your sets are unique to you and you can’t use your fingerprint to unlock your friend’s iPhone.
Not All Vocal Tasks Are Equal
I think the best way to demonstrate RPE is with a real-life example so here’s how I use it.
I have a playlist of songs compiled for singing practice, these are songs I love so I don’t mind singing them over and over again. I know them very well and remember the lyrics so I can sing them anywhere I want. They sit comfortably in my vocal range for the majority of the song and each have one or two elements that challenge me in the areas I want to improve. For me, the effort required to sing through these 5, 6 songs is 3 RPE. On a side note, any exercise you use to refine and polish technique with shouldn’t be harder than 3 RPE, anything harder than a 3 will make it hard for you to focus on the detail. Anyway, it typically takes me about an hour to get through this list: I start with my voice preparation (which includes vocal exercises and physical movement), then I’d sing one song, listen back to the recording to analyse how I’ve done, practise certain phrases I want to refine before moving onto the next song. Depending on what’s next on my schedule, I may or may not do a voice-body reset (cool down) straight after. I feel very good doing a session like that and don’t feel vocally or physically tired afterwards.
Now we need to do a little maths to work out the load, you do this by multiplying the time (in minutes) by RPE to get the load for the task. So for this 60 minute practice session at 3 RPE, you’d multiply 60 by 3 which gives you 180. 60 x 3 = 180. My singing practice session has a load of 180 unit for me.
If I were to practice belting however, my numbers will be different. Belting is something I find super hard, I rate it at 9 RPE and I currently can only sustain that effort for about 20 minutes tops. So what does the maths look like? We will multiply time (in minutes) by RPE to get the load for the task, so you multiply 20 by 9 which gives you 180. 20 x 9 = 180. A short session of belting also has a load of 180 unit for me.
Both singing practice (low RPE) for 60 minutes and belting practice (high RPE) for 20 minutes give me a load of 180 unit! Interesting, huh?
Here’re other ways to amount to a load of 180 unit:
- 2 RPE for 90 minutes
- 3 RPE for 60 minutes
- 4 RPE for 45 minutes
- 6 RPE for 30 minutes
- 9 REP for 20 minutes
The Keys to Improving Your Vocal Capacity
This is one interesting aspect of loading. It is heavily related to the effort it takes you to do the task, you could even say it is dependent on the effort involved. Typically, the more demanding or intense the task is for you, the harder it is for you to sustain that effort and it generally means you can spend less time doing it. Just like a sprinter can only sustain top speed over a short distance, a voice user can only sustain highly demanding vocal tasks for a short period of time. Understanding this concept comes in very handy for planning your vocal load and also shines a light on why even voice users with great technique fall victim to overuse issues. See my previous post to read about why technique alone can’t protect you from overuse voice issues.
Does this mean I can never belt for longer than 20 minutes? Not at all! Your voice is an incredibly adaptable musculoskeletal instrument that can be trained to do amazing things. What this means is that I need to be smart and patient with how I practise and built up my skill, technique, vocal capacity over time in a gradual and sustainable way.
I’m a big fan of Beyoncé and even Queen Bee wasn’t born with the ability to belt show after show! That level of skill, vocal capacity and fitness can only have come from years of hard work and committed practice. I hear the Queen practises her entire set whilst running on a treadmill! How’s that for dedication!
Logging Your Vocal Load
As a voice user, it is essential that you understand what your baseline is, what vocal tasks you find easy, what you find demanding, how long can you work at a certainly level… etc.
Non voice use factors affect your baseline, too! Such as sleep, stress, hydration, nutrition, general health, sickness, travel…etc. Basically, the stronger, healthier, and fitter you are, the better you can manage your vocal tasks… and life!
To help you understand your baseline you need to find out what a typical week of voice use looks like for you so have a think about your vocal categories, write them down, and start logging your RPE and minutes for all your vocal tasks.
Some categories are obvious and some will not be immediately apparent, that’s OK! Vocal load management is an ongoing process and what happens over time is very important so start getting into the habit of logging and collecting data today.
In the next post I’ll show you how to put it all together so you can progress your voice use safely as well as plan smart for the future.
’Til next time, Be Free In Your Movement™.
This information is not medical advice. Got health concerns? Consult a real-life health professional.
Views are my own.
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