Monday, 4 March 2013

On taking care of your instrument...

I didn't sing a note yesterday, or the day before.  No, I wasn't sick.  And no, I wasn't on holiday.  I was on vocal rest.

I know what you're thinking.  Another singer on "vocal rest".  She's being lazy.  She's being precious.  She's being a diva.  But before you judge, let me explain what led up to this...

The past two weeks have been pretty vocally intense.  Just as I was getting over a bad cold, I was into rehearsals for a French baroque opera, where I was singing in the chorus and belting out the ball-busting role of Juno.  We were rehearsing ten hours a day and I was singing full voice the whole time.  Singing through a cold is no easy task.  When you're trying to blast through all that congestion, it's easy to push your voice too much and tire yourself out.  Which is exactly what I did.

But there's no rest for the wicked!  As soon as we had finished two performances of the opera, we plunged right into a series of masterclasses on Italian repertoire.  And naturally, being the kind of over-ambitious idiot that I am, I had chosen to work on one of the most difficult coluratura mezzo arias in existence: Non piu mesta from Rossini's La Cenerentola.  As well as the usual runs, cadenzas, and high notes, this aria features a series of rapid scales all the way from the top of the range down to the depths of the chest voice.  The words "vocally tiring" are an understatement.  It's more like the vocal equivalent of running a marathon.

And unless you're an Olympic athlete, you'll look like this by the end.
I did my best to push on, despite being in bad shape after the cold and feeling tired from the opera.  But I did not feel good.  Even when I started a day feeling fresh, by the time I'd sung for twenty minutes I had a very sore throat.

I knew this was not a good sign.  My singing teacher in Toronto used to warn me to back off if anything hurt.  "Dancers feel pain," she'd tell me, "but singers never should."

Ooft.  Poor dancers.
I tried to take it easy, only singing in the masterclasses and resting as much as I could.  At the end of the week we gave a concert to present all the repertoire we'd worked on.  I sang Non piu mesta.  I didn't feel pain anymore, but I didn't feel in shape either.  And I didn't sing well.  In fact, it was a Non piu MESS. 

(Funny story, afterwards I said "well at least the Rigoletto quartet will be good".  The Rigoletto quartet fell apart in a spectacular manner.  Wow.  Way to jinx it, Brynne.)

At times like this, there's only one sensible course of action.

Wine.  Lots and lots of wine.
Seriously, though.  After I'd sufficiently drowned my sorrows, and the ensuing hangover had worn off, I took a step back and assessed the situation.  And I decided I needed a couple of days off of singing.

Not singing is harder than it sounds.  I always have trouble justifying it to myself.  I come from a family of string players who put in countless hours in the practice room.  My tuba player boyfriend frets about losing his embouchure if he misses a day.  I'm surrounded by people with a strong work ethic, and a firm philosophy of "use it or lose it".  That is to say, if you want to maintain your technique, you have to practise constantly.

I also know that singers are always getting flack for being lazy because they don't spend as much time practising as instrumentalists do.  I know that people roll their eyes at us for being so neurotic about our health, for saving our voices by marking in rehearsal, and for taking days of "vocal rest" where we don't speak or sing.

But here's the thing about being a singer.  You can't see your instrument.  You have no idea what's going on in there.

Unless you have someone constantly sticking a laryngoscope down your throat when you sing.
In which case, you have more problems to worry about.

If you sing too much, or sing when you shouldn't, you could easily be damaging your instrument without knowing it.  And you can't take a damaged voice to an instrument repair shop, or buy a new one.  A damaged voice may need extensive surgery.  In some extreme cases, it may even be irrevocably ruined.

I'm not trying to scare anyone here.  I'm just trying to explain why it makes sense for singers to err on the side of caution.  Our instruments aren't made of wood or metal.  They're human bodies that need to be treated with care to avoid injury.  And when they get tired they need to rest.

So ok, it's smart to rest up when my voice isn't feeling good.  But isn't it kind of... lazy?

Well it is if you want it to be.  But there is a lot of work a singer can do without singing.  Although I didn't sing in the last two days, I did study German and listen to recordings.  And I did a lot of silent practice, studying scores and reviewing the pronunciation and meaning of the text.  Silent practice is surprisingly effective.  I'm always amazed to see how much I've improved vocally after reviewing a piece mentally.  And the best part is, you can do it literally anywhere.  On the train, on the couch, or even in bed.  I often think through my music when I run.  I find the exercise helps me think clearly and really cement things in my brain.  Of course, as everyone knows, the very best way to study a score is at a cafe with a good cappuccino.

Scientifically proven to help you learn arias.
And here's another thing.  I know it feels great to put in X number of hours in the practice room, but what are you actually accomplishing with that time?  Are you practising, or are you just repeating?  Are you getting in better shape or are you burning yourself out?  When it comes to practising, quality is better than quantity.  If you take the time to rest and recover, you'll find you have more focus and energy available to you the next time you sing.

So while I may feel guilty about not singing for a while (and trust me, I do) I am doing something positive for myself.  I'm giving my body time to recover while I focus my mind for the next practice session.  And when I do sing again I'm sure I'll be pleasantly surprised by how all that rest and mental work has paid off.  Sometimes it takes just as much discipline to not sing as it does to practise regularly.

Look, in an ideal world, I wouldn't have had two weeks like that with no rest in between.  But we don't live in an ideal world.  We live in the real world, where singers have to deal with crazy schedules like this all the time.  You can't always control the timing of your schedule.  But you can create your own balance.  Be smart.  Don't sing full voice in all the rehearsals.  Don't take on demanding arias when you're in bad shape.  And when you have the time and you feel you need it, take some rest.  Trust me.  You and your voice will thank you for it.

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