Are You A Functional or an Optimal Singer?

Are You A Functional or an Optimal Singer?It is up to you to decide what you need out of your voice – says Tom Burke

Tony Robbins said, “Never overestimate what you can do in a year, but don’t underestimate what you can do in five years.”

The reason I like that phrase is that it holds you accountable. You have to be realistic, but at the same time, you should stretch yourself.

Never overestimate what you can do in a year, but don’t underestimate what you can do in five years

Functional vs. Optimal

When we talk about making changes to a voice, there are two very different situations.

The first is when you take a voice from dysfunctional to functional. The second is about taking a voice from functional to optimal.

Overcoming specific voice problems (recovering from an injury, dealing with allergies or illness, undoing vocal tension) so your voice is functional might take 8-10 weeks in voice therapy.

Moving to optimal means reaching a certain level of mastery, which studies have shown takes about 10,000 hours of practice, performance and training.

If you consider that a full-time job is about 2080 working hours a year, it will take about 5 years of full-time hours to reach the mastery mark.

Functional Voice

What is considered functional? What is optimal? These can vary depending on the singer, the genre and the workload. Each singer needs different things out of his or her voice.


Being able to perform at the peak of certain vocal demands might be optimal for opera, but completely unnecessary for other genres

Let’s imagine a singer who has nodules and has some resulting breathiness in her sound. That breathiness might kill her opera career.

On the other hand, if she is singing jazz tunes at or below her speaking range and she can manage multiple sets per night with no problems; I would say she doesn’t necessarily need voice therapy.

Despite having nodules, her voice is functional for her needs.

Optimal Voice

Optimal means being able to perform at the peak of the vocal demands required by your genre… with ease.

Consider an opera singer who can nail a high C fortissimo then decrescendo to a triple pianissimo, all with consistent vibrato over 20 seconds. That might be optimal for opera, but completely unnecessary for other genres.

Optimal for some singers might be singing eight shows a week on Broadway or 300 shows a year on the road, wowing crowds every night and without getting sick.

Change Your Voice?

In order to make your voice more powerful or flexible or whatever it is you want to achieve, you may need to change something about how you sing.

When it comes to singing, it is not very effective to “hit the books” and practice for four hours at a time.

Motor learning research suggests that the best way to learn a new motor skill is through short, randomized practice sessions.


The best way to learn a new motor skill is through short, randomized practice sessions

New Motor Skill Example

Let’s look at a specific example. Let’s say you want to get more power out of your voice, and you’ve been told you can do this by raising your soft palate more while you sing (the back section of the roof of your mouth where it feels soft).

I tell singers to play around with multiple aspects of this concept in short spurts throughout the day. It starts with getting your brain to understand the concept more organically.

Why raise the soft palate? It helps with resonance. By raising it, you change it from a soft surface to a hard surface – a more acoustically efficient dome.

To understand this idea, you might consider that a firm surface doesn’t necessarily mean a tight surface. You might think about the shape of an amphitheater, or how your iPhone sounds louder if you put it against a wall. Just thinking these thoughts – creating a vast neuronal web in your brain about your voice – counts as vocal practice!

There are physical prompts that can help you. For example, flaring your nostrils helps you raise your soft palate. With various exercises, you can learn how to integrate this new motor skill into your singing. Eventually it will become automatic, meaning that whenever you open your mouth to sing, your sound will be just that much more powerful.

The more important goal is to learn how to control your soft palate intentionally

Do you need raise your soft palate? In general, most likely, but it’s more subtle than that. The more important goal is to learn how to control your soft palate intentionally.

No absolutes

There are very few absolute rules that apply to all singers and all genres. I don’t agree when teachers say, “never do x” to a singer.

I do, however, stand by these two warnings:

  1. Singing with excess effort and inefficiencies will not serve you well.
  2. When one muscle group is working disproportionately harder than the rest of the body (i.e. your larynx is doing all the work without support) that is usually when you hurt yourself.

If you decide your voice needs some work or improvement, there are lots of experts who can help you (Article: The Specialists You Need).

Whether it takes 10 weeks or 5 years and whether you are going for functional or optimal, always remember that short, randomized practice sessions throughout the day are the most effective way to acquire new motor skills.

My Reaction to This Week's Singing Competition Entry

Kelly Young Kelly Young - Big Spender

Hi Kelly. You have a great range and ease with the riffs. This is an iconic song and along with that comes its challenges. Consider working with a movement coach to clarify the specificity of  your movements while singing. On certain words with the /a/ vowel the pitch tended to be flat. This is common when the tongue is too low. Experiment with singing with the tongue in a higher position. Say “ay” and notice the dorsum or mid-back portion of your tongue against your top molars. This should be the position for a bright /a/ that will be more stable on more consistently on pitch. From a videography perspective, shoot videos in landscape with clearer visuals on your face and less background noise.

Tom Burke BioTom Burke is a speech-pathologist and voice coach for Broadway, Film, TV and Google. He developed the world’s first online vocal conservatory, Broadway VoiceBox with members in over 19 countries and growing fast. Find out more about his work here:

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