Singing and Weight Loss for Opera Singers

Letter published in the ‘Letters to the Editor’ section of the February 1998 issue of Classical Singer magazine:

I am a soprano who lost about 125 pounds almost four years ago. Mostly I thought the fitness issue was excellent, but I take issue with the idea purported in a few of the different columns that weight loss does not affect the way you sing.  Although I lost the weight slowly (the recommended 1% per week), I went down a size in fach, and I also had to learn new ways to support the voice as my physicality changed. Muscles get smaller when you lose weight, including those muscles that deal with support and breathing.  Phrases that were once no problem to sing through suddenly became very difficult; I felt I had much less breath to spare and dealt with about three months of pitch problems.  I have readjusted to my new body and have learned to make my smaller muscle structure more efficient.  It’s worth it to be much healthier and more “physically suitable,” but I thought singers who are trying to lose weight should know that it can cause some changes.
    -Name withheld

Letter of response published in the ‘Letters to the Editor’ section of the July/August 1998 issue of Classical Singer magazine:

Dear Editor:

    In response to the letter from the anonymous soprano on page 26 of your February 1998 issue, any fitness professional or doctor will tell you that fat loss has absolutely nothing to do with changes in muscle size.  This singer’s comment that “Muscles get smaller when you lose weight...” is tantamount to saying “Cerebral tissue decreases with weight loss”.  The reason she is having vocal problems after major weight loss is exactly the opposite of what she thinks.

 When a person is very obese, fat presses in the ribs and internal organs, causing the diaphragm to dome up into the chest cavity.  This creates a situation wherein it is almost impossible for the singer to take a deep breath.  Therefore, from the very first lesson, the student is singing on empty most of the time - an ideal situation for excellent vocal production because of the marvelous physiological compensation system between the brain, throat and lungs.  When the brain senses that the lungs are on the empty side, it tightens the cords in a favorable way so that they impinge against each other cleanly, economizing on the amount of air flowing through them.  This has a number of favorable effects on vocal production:  Firstly, there is the minimum amount of air passing through the cords for the maximum effect, so that the singer can sustain the longest phrases without having to take a deep breath.  Just observe how even when bass Samuel Ramey (who has one of the most perfect vocal techniques of the century) is singing naked from the waist up, hardly any part of his body expands when he breaths, no matter how long the phrase.  Secondly, because the cords are adhering to each other tightly and cleanly, they are producing the smallest sound waves possible for each particular pitch.  Small, focused sound waves effortlessly cut through an orchestra and pick up the maximum amount of ring and tone quality from the resonating cavities.  Thirdly, it is nearly impossible to push the voice when you are empty.  Clean, economical impingement of the cords promotes accuracy of intonation, stamina and vocal health.  And fourthly, when the diaphragm domes up into the chest cavity it forms a strong, resilient curved structure which is optimal for maintaining a steady, wobble-free tone.   
    On the other hand, when a singer loses large amounts of fat, the diaphragm can now descend and flatten, possibly for the very first time.  If the singer does not make a conscious effort to continue singing on empty, the lungs overload with air and the exact opposite symptoms occur:  The brain automatically loosens the vocal cords to vent the excess air, so that despite the fact that there is actually more air in the lungs, the singer has the sensation of “not having enough breath” because the air is being blown through the cords fast and hard.  The sound waves are now diffused and unfocused, the cords are doming up and the singer loses power, resonance, extremes of range, stamina and accuracy of intonation.  The flattened diaphragm is now weak, wobbly and easily undermined.  The singer falls into a vicious cycle because the more they feel they don’t have enough breath, the bigger breaths they take, causing the cords to leak even more air, causing them to feel they have even less breath.  Over time nodules can develop.  My guess is that this is probably what happened to Maria Callas.  

    The moral of the story?  Lose all the weight you want, but keep singing on empty.           

    John Nicholas Peters