Monday, 10 December 2012

On taking care of yourself...

I've just spent half an hour bent over a pot of hot water.  No, I am not cooking.  I am battling a singer's worst enemy: the common cold.

Die, cold, die!

I've seen it all - tonsilitis, laryngitis, bronchitis, strep throat, the flu... but by far the worst illness you can get as a singer is the common cold.  Why?  Because it's a viral infection, which can't be cured by antibiotics.  And it just looooves to linger.  So while other sicknesses might be cured in a few days by a magic pill, the only thing you can do with a cold is rest, stay warm, and drink lots of fluids.  Easy enough, right?  Maybe not when opening night is in four days.

I've heard it said that singers are neurotic about their health.  Ok, fair enough.  Guilty as charged.  But when your body is your instrument, and the slightest sniffle might be heralding The Cold of Doom, and thus the cancellation of your next gig, well, it's only sensible to be a little bit neurotic.  As they say in the Princess Bride...

And so we singers watch our health like a hawk.  We drink litre upon litre of water.  We drink litre upon litre of herbal tea.  We take echinacea and vitamin C and ginseng and whatever other immune-boosting potion is hip these days.  We eat healthy foods.  We exercise.  We don't drink alcohol.  We always make sure we get plenty of sleep.  Yes, singers always take good care of themselves.  We are a paragon of health and wholesomeness.

Yeah, right!

Aside from the water and tea and echinacea business, I don't think any singer can claim they do all these things.  Ok, maybe we would like to do all these things.  They all sound very nice in theory.  But they're much harder to put into practice, especially with a busy and stressful rehearsal schedule.

It's been a long week at the studio.  In the run-up to opening night (which is Friday), we did five 12-hour days in a row, and having had a day off we're now doing three days of dress rehearsals.  In the past month or so everyone has been getting sick.  This is only natural - we're stressed out, exhausted, and run down.  Also, it's winter.

I didn't get sick.  At first.  I have to admit, I felt a bit smug for a while there about being the healthy one.  While others missed rehearsals or saved their voices by marking (marking, v. - the act of singing quietly and/or down the octave to indicate one's part in rehearsal whilst preserving one's voice), I was always there and always singing full voice.  But I should have known, it would only be a matter of time before I too would succumb to The Cold of Doom.


For a while there, I was doing pretty well.  I was getting lots of sleep, going for runs, and even doing  yoga at home.  Ok, so my diet isn't the healthiest in the world, even at the best of times (spag bol, anyone?) but I was cooking for myself most nights, and getting some fruit and veg every day.  However as pressure mounted and our rehearsal days got longer, it became harder and harder to stay healthy.

A musician's lifestyle is not always a healthy lifestyle.  In fact, with the long and unusual hours we work and the frequent travelling, it can seem impossible to take good care of yourself.  Eating healthy is a great idea - if the grocery store is still open by the time you're finished rehearsal.  Exercising is great too - if you have the energy for it after another 12-hour day.

Ok, but at least after a 12-hour day I can enjoy a good night's sleep, right?  Wrong.  When I finally do get home from rehearsal, I find it's impossible to turn off my brain.  I've been concentrating so hard on the music all day that it's become lodged in some distant corner of my brain and it will never find its way out.   (By the way, I think this is the reason so many musicians drink).  Have you ever tried sleeping with a 90-minute opera running through your head on loop like some kind of perpetual motion machine from hell?

"Ach, ich fΓΌhls...."
As the weeks went by, I started to succumb to some bad habits.  Skipping the running and yoga.  Surviving on chocolate, cheese sandwiches, and crisps.  Sure, I knew I should be living better.  I still had my notions of a healthy lifestyle, and I would always promise myself to be better tomorrow.  Somewhere out there I envisioned an ideal world where I would do yoga every morning with the sunrise, sleep 9 hours a night, and eat berries and nuts that had been freshly picked from the woods by my animal friends.

Basically, I would be like a hippie Snow White.
But that ideal world did not exist.  What did exist was long days, late nights, and the constant temptation of deliciously bad-for-you snacks being shared around.  And when you're tired, stressed, or just a bit bored of sitting around waiting for your entry, those biscuits start to look pretty good.

At one point I visited the grocery store on my lunch break, and in a last-ditch effort to fight back I purchased some healthy food to keep at the studio.  No sooner had I done this than some kindly old ladies came to the studio to bring us a huge pile of chocolate and cookies on behalf of Sinterklaas.  I think there were also some oranges in there, but I don't really remember because my response to chocolate is always this:

ZOMG CHOCOLATE!!!!1!!1!!!!11!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
It's a genetic condition.  I can't help it.

Anyway, eventually all of the junk food, and the lack of sleep, and the fact that it's cold season, caught up with me.  I got a cold.  I missed the last 12-hour day of rehearsal.  I spent 2 days in bed.  And now that I'm past the critical stage and into the annoying almost-gone-but-still-lingering phase (which could last for ages, in my experience) I'm leading a double life.  By day, I rest, stay warm, drink lots of fluids, and try to get rid of the last of this cold.  By night, I run around the stage in costume (marking, of course, because my voice still isn't back).  After all, opening night is Friday and the show must go on!

Could I have avoided this cold?  I'm not sure.  Perhaps it was inevitable.  Everyone gets colds.  Try as we might to stay healthy, we all have to succumb to our body every now and then.  But it certainly would have been easier to fight it off if I was taking better care of myself.

As it stands, I'm getting pretty fed up now of not singing (probably the most frustrating feeling in the world).  And although I know I kind of brought this on myself, I'm really annoyed with my body.  But I'm pretty confident that my voice will be back by Friday.  And I'm promising myself, once again, to take better care of myself from now on.

It's never easy to put your health first, but then maybe that's why colds exist.  We need to be reminded sometimes how important it is to take care of ourselves.  Of course a cold is not convenient this close to opening night, but then again, when is it ever convenient?

And on that note, I'd better go steam again.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

On learning to trust...

I was never an athletic child.  While the other kids were playing soccer and baseball at recess, I was usually sitting against the wall, drawing pictures.  I got top marks in reading and writing, and the teacher always read my poems out loud to the class.  But in gym class, I was always picked last for people's teams.  Strong?  No.  Fast?  Not at all.  Graceful?  Hardly.  But at least I knew I was smart.

And this is where it all began, this habit of living in my head.  Trusting my mind and not my body.  I know that if there's one thing I can count on it's my brain.  I may not be good at sports or dancing, but I'm certainly good at thinking.  And so, ever since I was little, I've been working my brain very hard and relying on it for everything.

The problem is, I am a singer.  And a singer is a kind of athlete.  Singers spend hours and hours training a set of muscles in their body to work a certain way.  And then, just like an athlete, they have rely on all of this physical training so they can perform under pressure.

Pressure... pushing down on me...
There is a lot of thinking involved in training your voice, especially if you're not a natural.  Yes, I do believe that "naturals" exist.  I've met a few of them.  These are people who seem to be born with a very good voice and an uncanny intuition for how to use it.  They can't really explain to you how they're making such a beautiful sound - they just are.  Their body seems to know exactly what it's doing.

I am not a natural.

I've always had a pretty good voice, but I never knew instinctively how to use it well.  I've had to do a lot of work - with my body and my brain - to develop my singing technique.  Why does that note sound like that?  What can I change to make it better?  What was different this time?  What do I need to think, visualise, or feel, to make sure it's right the next time?  Once I've figured this puzzle out I need to practise it about a million times until it's a habit.  Until it's right every time.

This is what all musicians do in the practice room.  It's just like how athletes train.  We try to find the perfect approach to a physical movement, and then repeat it over and over again until it's in what we call our "muscle memory".

We spend a lot of time practising because we want to perform as well as possible.  We train our bodies so that hopefully, in the crucial moment, they will do exactly what we want them to do.  And here's where it gets tricky.

You can think as much as you want in the practice room.  You can live entirely in your head, analysing every sound and sensation as it happens.  There is always a chance to try it again and make it better.  But performing is a whole different kettle of fish.

(I never understood this saying. 
Do people ever actually keep fish in a kettle?)

In performance, the pressure is on.  This is it - the moment you've been training for.  And there are no second chances.  As my singing teacher says, once you've sung the note, it's out there.  You can't do anything about it.  And you COULD choose this moment to think about your technique.  If you really want to.  But then you would probably look like this while you're singing:

And nobody pays to watch a singer who looks like they're doing math in their head.  They want to see something more like this:

Performing is not the time to be in your head.  It's not the time to analyse or control the voice.  Performing is the moment when you have to let go of all that - stop thinking and TRUST that your body will do what it's been trained to do.

This, for me, is by far the most difficult leap to make.  Let go?  Stop thinking?  Trust my BODY??  How can I trust my body when it's made so many mistakes before?  How can I believe that my voice will be fine on its own, when I've always had to think about it so much?

This week I had another difficult encounter with The Wall.  If you don't remember from last time, The Wall is 2 metres high and just a bit wider than me, and I have to spend a fair amount of time on top of it in the opera.  A few days ago we rehearsed a scene where I have to stand on The Wall, and then climb down from it.  And I had a little bit of a panic attack.  (There may have been tears.)  The director eventually decided that because I'm such a chicken I can be the last to climb down and the others can help me down. 

Maybe I'm being too hard on myself here, but I'm not happy with this decision.  I hate that we've had to change the staging to accommodate me.  My castmates seem to get down quite easily by themselves.  And some of them are much shorter than me, which means it's a longer jump down for them.  So why do I find it so scary?  I should be able to do this!  I really hate that I'm such a chicken.  It makes me angry at myself.

I am physically capable of climbing down The Wall.  And yet I'm terrified to do it.  I'm always overthinking it.  Instead of trusting my body to be strong and do its thing, I keep thinking of what might go wrong if I try.

It's the same thing when I'm singing.  Even when I know my voice is capable of doing something, I can psych myself out.  I try to control things so much that my voice comes out sounding strangled, dull, or a tenth of its actual size.  My mind, my clever little mind, who I've trusted so much through thick and through thin - my mind is not my friend here.  My mind is a dastardly little control freak and it's getting in the way.

Why do I make things more complicated than they have to be?  As a famous baritone told us in a masterclass this week, "just sing the damn thing!"  I was really nervous about singing an interval at the beginning of a Bach aria - straining to sing it as sensitively and perfectly in tune as I could.  But as soon as he told me to "just sing it", the sound I made was miles better.  My voice knew what it had to do - I just had get out of the way and allow it to sing!

I have a new theory about "naturals".  Maybe I am a natural after all.  Maybe all of us are.  The problem is that so many of us let our mind get in the way of our "naturalness".  We may need to do a fair amount of thinking in the practice room.  But at a certain point, the mind has to let go and trust the body to act on its own.  It's the most difficult leap to make, but it's a beautiful leap when it's done well.


As for me, I'm going to keep practising climbing down The Wall.  I know I can do it - I might just need to practise a little.  Just like a difficult passage in an aria, I need to keep repeating the motion until it feels natural.  And eventually I'll be able to let my body climb down on its own - without help from the others, and without any nagging from my mind.

It can be hard to trust your body, especially if you're used to living in your head.  But if you can learn to be kinder - to stop punishing and start encouraging, to stop controlling and start allowing - you might just be amazed by what your body can achieve.