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 fühls...."
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.

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