Vocal efficiency has been a bit of a buzzword in pedagogy in the last few years. We can talk about it all the time in voice lessons, but is it?
From a vocal science standpoint, we are less than efficient when we recruit muscles into our singing that don't need to be used, therefore adding in more effort than is needed. I think that's an okay definition, but is this something that is achievable all the time, or even desirable? That's where things get a little murkier.
Young or amateur singers that are trying to get to a particular sound, they may try all kinds of things to get that sound to happen, and there could be all kinds of compensatory actions brought in to make it happen. However, if that person gets the sound he or she wants, and is able to consistently do it for as long as he or she needs to, who really cares if there are more muscles involved than not? Is efficiency simply for efficiency's sake the best goal here? I would say maybe it isn't. Now, if the singer is not able to do what they want consistently or sustainably, then for sure we can look at different ways of doing things. But if it ain't broke, why worry about fixing it?
Before we go any further, I'm going to give my definition of vocal efficiency, so we can start from the same place:
Vocal efficiency is being able to sing the way you want consistently and in a sustainable manner.
That's it. Whatever style you are singing, for however long, at whatever age, singing efficiently gives you the ability to do that. Now, here's where things get a little trickier.
For a lot of singers, the idea of vocal efficiency is an end goal. Meaning, vocal efficiency is something we achieve when our technique is good enough, whatever the heck that may be. But I don't think that definition is adequate.
If you've been singing for a while like I have, you know that your voice is a dynamic thing. It changes as we age, with the weather, as we go through the day, and seemingly at the whims of whatever. Our voice is not a thing that can be nailed down. It is not static. And therefore, our ideas of vocal efficiency really shouldn't be a static thing, either. Achieving efficient singing isn't a destination that you can reach and then you will have arrived. Because our voices are in constant flux, the destination may always be a moving target, too.
Rather than vocal efficiency being one thing (muscles involved) or an achievable destination (good technique), I think we should consider vocal efficiency as the best singing I can do in this moment, and for that I need a toolbox. That toolbox all the things we know to do to get us to the kind of singing we want, however our voice is at that very moment. There are some tools and techniques that we're going to pull out when we are under the weather that are different from the tools we use when we're feeling awesome. Singing while sleep deprived is a whole other experience than singing when you're fully rested. But we can sing efficiently in each of these situations, but maybe it's not going to be exactly the same.
This way of thinking, for me, has helped me to stop thinking of vocal efficiency as something to achieve every time I perform, and therefore sometimes fail at, and rather think of it as a way to do the best I can with the voice I have right now. This helps me acknowledge the ever-changing nature of my body, helps me to have grace if things are less than 100%, and keeps me curious about what works and what doesn't.
Some things I have in my vocal efficiency toolbox include:
SOVTEs and other warm ups that explore where my voice is right now
body work and movement that help me identify where my body is free and where it is holding
regular singing to keep my system as toned as I can
Notice that some of these things are more habits than they are techniques. But if I am consistently doing these things, like the rest of my body, my voice will have a better time operating at its best at any given moment, whatever my best happens to be. Some of the things in my toolbox are simply checks that help me know where I'm starting from, which is incredibly valuable information. After all, if I'm starting from a more difficult place vocally, I might need to use more of my toolbox than I would on days when I'm starting from a pretty good vocal place. Vocal efficiency is dynamic.
So, what do you think? Do you agree, or would you push back on any of it? I'd love to hear your thoughts! You can comment down below, or on my socials. What other things have you added to your vocal efficiency toolbox that you teach your students? I'm always looking for good ideas! And if you'd like to talk about this with your students in a more conversational way, I'm available for workshops and webinars. Contact me to get started. Happy singing!