Friday, 11 October 2013

On working out...

Some people may be surprised to know that I work out.  After all, I don't exactly look like a shining example of physical fitness.

Not me.
Nor am I one of those people who posts on facebook and twitter every time I go for a run.  Nevertheless, I do make exercise a priority in my life.  Ideally, I try to do something physical every day.  If I can't manage every day, I aim for 2 or 3 times a week.  Even if it's just 10 minutes of yoga here or there, I always try to fit something in.

Why do I think exercising is important?  I have many reasons.  Mainly, I think it's an important part of my work.  I think that exercising makes me a better singer.

I'm not talking about how exercise affects my physical appearance.  Yes, exercising can make you slimmer and more toned, and (sadly) this can increase your chances of landing a job.  But that shouldn't be the reason you exercise.

Soprano Heidi Melton recently gave a fantastic interview about what it's like to be an opera singer.  And what she said about fitness really resonated with me:

"I just want girls to be healthy. I want everyone to be healthy! To me, opera is first and foremost about voices. It is about incredible voices that have taken a lifetime of devotion, sweat and tears to train. It is about voices and bodies being able to communicate with the audience. Trust me, I have seen and heard plenty of horrible skinny opera singers. I’ve also seen a lot of fantastic ones. All humans are capable of portraying, expressing and communicating. There is the argument that we have to modernize and make opera more believable and relatable and appealing to the masses. First of all, I wasn’t aware that only thin people fall in love or have interesting stories to tell. This is news to me. As a woman who is not categorized by the rest of society as “thin,” I can tell you that men have fallen in love with me, and that I have fallen in love with men. The fact that I have some wobbly bits hasn’t made that experience less real or less important to me or to them. In addition, I think talent is HOT. Really hot. Sexy comes in all sorts of different packages and what is sexy to me, may not be sexy to you and that’s the way it should be. That makes things interesting and dynamic and HUMAN. I think our boundaries need to be expanded. I don’t think we need to conform to what we are supposed to think sexy is or isn’t. Can’t we come to those decisions on our own? Opera needs to showcase talent. If it comes in a thin package, fine. If it comes with wobbly bits included, also fine. Just sing the crap out of it."

Heidi is absolutely right - singers shouldn't all be thin.  Singers should be whatever shape and size is healthy for them.  And honestly, all this crap pressuring us to look thin and fit doesn't motivate us to take better care of ourselves.  It just makes us feel bad and reach for the cupcakes.  So I thought I would write about some good, positive reasons to exercise - reasons that have nothing to do with your dress size.

1. It boosts your energy.
Have you ever woken up feeling groggy and lethargic?  Exercise is like a big cup of coffee.  It gives you a burst of adrenaline that help you get through the day.  When I start the day with a run, I always feel like I have so much more energy to bring to the practice room and the stage.  It's the difference between starting with a full tank of gas or running on fumes.

Ready and raring to go!

2. It's great stress relief
What singer doesn't need stress relief?  Between auditions, performances, travel, and heavy rehearsal schedules, we are stressed up to our eyeballs.  So blow off some steam in a kickboxing class, or do some relaxing yoga.  I promise that the exercise will help get the stress out of your system.  It will probably help you sleep better too.

3. It makes you happy
Feeling bummed out about a bad audition?  Go to the gym!  Endorphins give you a nice boost of that happy feeling, which we all need every once in a while.

4. It helps your mental focus
Many people come up with their best ideas when they're on a walk.  Why is this?  Exercise helps you to focus your mind.  I often go through music in my head when I run - I find the physical activity really helps me think clearly.  It's the best way I've found so far to memorise music.

5. It warms you up
Singing uses your whole body.  If you come into a practice room "cold", without having done anything physical that day, it will take a long time to warm up.  Exercising warms up the body, and prepares it for singing.  I always find that it takes me far less time to warm up if I have already exercised that day.

6. It keeps you fit
The days of "park and bark" are over.  Modern directors want singers to run, jump, climb, and dance onstage.  If you want to be an opera singer, you have to be fit enough to do all of these things and still have the breath control to sing beautifully.  This may have little or no relation to which size of costume you wear: I've known some very unfit skinny people and some very fit fat people.  Fitness is not what you look like, it's what you can do.  And fit singers can do some amazing things.

Cartwheel on a high C?  No problem!

7. It keeps you healthy
Your body is your instrument, and you have a responsibility to take care of it.  Exercising can increase your lifespan and decrease your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.  A healthy body means a healthy voice and a longer singing career.

8. It improves your body awareness
I was recently having a lesson with a new teacher, and he was doing some work with me on breathing and support.  He was very happy with how well I responded to his direction, and said it was great that I was so "in my body".  I think what he was noticing was the effects of regular exercise.  Singing involves controlling and coordinating specific groups of muscles, and you need to be connected to your body to do that.  These days with TV and internet, we're more sedentary - we often lose our connection with our bodies and become floating brains.  Exercising helps you stay aware of your body and how it works.  This is essential if you want to learn a new technique, or follow someone's stage directions, or just assess what is happening with your voice today.  You need to be highly sensitive to every movement and change in your body.  You can't do this if you're always stuck in your head.

"Bend my knees.. which ones are my knees again?"
9. It boosts your confidence
Exercising helps you feel good about yourself.  Again, I'm not talking about what you look like.  I'm talking about what you can do.  Whether it's because you added 5 minutes onto your run, or because you added 5 pounds onto your weights, or because you just motivated yourself to go to the gym at all today, nothing beats that smug feeling you get after a workout.  And why shouldn't you feel smug?  You're doing something good for yourself - go you!!

10. It balances you out
Singers have an intense career.  We spend countless hours practising, performing, and studying music.  Our schedules are irregular, and we travel all the time.  All of this time spent focusing on one thing is stressful and exhausting.  Which is why it's great to find something you love to do outside of singing - whether it's salsa-dancing, rock-climbing, or marathon-running.  It adds dimension to an otherwise singularly-focused life, and brings some regularity to an otherwise chaotic schedule.  One thing I love about running is that no matter where I am, no matter which piece I'm rehearsing, I can always put on a pair of running shoes and step outside.  It's one of the only things in my life that I can always count on.

It's all about finding balance.
Exercise is a great thing to have in your life.  It can keep you sane when everything else is insane.  If you want to exercise to lose weight or tone up, that's great.  But don't forget that there are so many other fabulous benefits that come with regular exercise.  Benefits which - in my opinion, at least - are way more important than the size of your waistline.  In the end, it's not about how you look - it's about how you feel!

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