Keeping Singers Well: Exercise and Sleep

When your body is the instrument, it's imperative to keep it in tip-top shape with good exercise habits and the right amount of sleep.

On the road, onstage, or at rehearsal, healthy habits for singers are in everyone's best interests. Choral singers fine tune their daily habits, optimizing them on rehearsal and performance days, but unlike straightforward programs for traditional athletes, singer wellness regimens are more likely to be an artful blend of idiosyncrasy and science. And singers don't always have the organizational support needed to maintain the healthiest choices. In the first and second parts of this three-part series we explored hydration, diet, and nutrition. In the final segment, we examine exercise and sleep. The corollary to proper nutrition is, of course, proper exercise, and just as with nutrition, it is difficult to spot-train the voice. "Though exercise principles for the voice are emerging, there is still a lack of evidence for applying these principles to training programs for singers, including performers and teachers," write Mary J. Sandage, a speech pathologist, and David D. Pascoe, an exercise physiologist, in a recent journal article examining the relationship between exercise and voice care. Vocal muscles train no differently than other muscles: The frequency and intensity of exercise must be sufficient to provide a "stress/overload," and if exercise is stopped or reduced muscles return to their original state. The authors, both on the faculty of Auburn University, express particular concern for singers who routinely reduce their overall "vocal dose" for an extended period, which would include classroom teachers and choral singers on summer hiatus. They advise a targeted level of maintenance vocal exercises during vacations or between jobs. In other words, use it or lose it. But as voice specialist Margaret Baroody says, singers need to know when to stop singing too. "A lot of choral singers think you just plow through vocal fatigue," she says. For the untrained singer, the demands during concert week can add up to poor treatment of the voice—directors can help avoid these problems by being mindful about breaks and advising singers on how to pace themselves vocally. As for general exercise programs, Baroody says that in her experience there is a wide gap between theory and reality. "Is it possible to be a superb classical singer and not necessarily exercise regularly? It's possible. But you are more likely to be at your best with at least some mild aerobic exercise." Hugh Davies, managing director of ACFEA Tour Consultants and a singer, is particularly vigilant about not missing his morning run on performance days. Another singer who runs regularly claims that years of aerobic conditioning has resulted in amazing breath support—critical to good singing technique.

"Is it possible to be a superb classical singer and not necessarily exercise regularly? It's possible. But you are more likely to be at your best with at least some mild aerobic exercise." -Singing voice specialist Margaret Baroody

Kate Johnson, a Hawaii-based choral soloist and a competitive bicyclist, doesn't lift weights on rehearsal or concert days ("The tension that it takes to work out transfers to my voice and vocal cords," she says) but always fits in light cardio, be it a walk or an easy spin. A typical Colorado Children's Chorale concert includes intensive dance and movement in the second act. "For some of our kids the choir is their sport," says artistic director Debbie DeSantis. "They get more exercise in act two of their concerts than they get in their P.E. classes."

The Importance of Sleep

The final component of wellness, and one that voice pathologist Pamela Harvey says singers are too quick to ignore, is sleep. "People don't boast about how poorly they've eaten, but it's still perfectly okay to say 'I've been working so hard I've only had two or three hours of sleep' as if it was a badge of courage." Harvey says singers need to be doubly vigilant to get proper sleep because the nature of rehearsals and performances already works against them. Nighttime exertion leaves performers revved up, and post-concert decompression time takes away from a full night's sleep. Johnson says for her the endorphin release after a concert is similar to that after a race. "When you are singing you are so involved with the conductor, the orchestra, and your fellow singers it's a rush. I'm high for a really long period after that. I usually can't get to bed until one or two in the morning because everything is still coursing through my bloodstream." For singer Mary-Ellin Brooks, it's necessary to unwind even after a rehearsal. "I noodle around on the computer, read, watch television, have a glass of milk or a glass of wine." Compounding the exertion is exposure to bright stage lighting, which lowers melatonin levels, disrupting the Circadian rhythms that signal the body's need for sleep. Harvey, who authored the chapter on sleep in Dr. Robert Sataloff's definitive textbook, Professional Voice: The Science and Art of Clinical Care, points to research indicating that a very brief afternoon nap—eight to 20 minutes—can improve vigilance, alertness, and logical reasoning for several hours. For some singers rest is not optional. When the Colorado Children's Chorale is on tour, daily naps are required. "At four o'clock wherever we are—on a bus, in a rehearsal room—it's nap time," says DeSantis. "Close eyes, close mouth, hold still. By day three of the tour they are asking, 'Is it nap time yet?'" The Chorale provides pillows and blankets, but DeSantis says they are not always necessary. "They can curl up with their sweatshirts and their heads on their backpacks. Children are adept at napping." Tell us, how do you exercise and how much sleep do you need for your voice to be in tip-top shape?

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