3 ways singers can thrive while having their period

When it comes to women’s health all too often we are handed a big steaming plate of “this is just how it is.”

To that I would like to reply a resounding BULLSH*T!

Here’s the scenario: you get to the week before your period and you turn into a bloated, murderous-swinging-to-weepy, unable to connect to your breath support, singer who feels like she’s trying to drive a mac truck rather than a ferrari. Oh, and let’s not forget the killer cramps when you finally get your period. Sound familiar?

Good. Well, not good, but let’s unpack three things you can do to lessen all that yuck. Because it doesn’t have to be ‘just how it is.’ And, if the only solution you’ve been offered by your OB/GYN is to take the pill, you definitely need to read this.

Things can change. Here’s how:

  1. Eat
  2. Move
  3. Chill

Those PMS changes are driven by hormone swings. Ideally our estrogen and progesterone are in a happy, balanced relationship and vary a bit as we get close to our period. But, for many of us, we are stuck in an estrogen dominant state: we eat meat, use products that have estrogen mimicking ingredients (called xenoestrogens) like parabens, and drink alcohol.

We need progesterone to keep that estrogen in check, but if we’re consuming all those things, estrogen takes over and progesterone can’t keep up. Then we’re bloated, moody, struggle to lose the muffin top, get migraines, and have abnormal paps.

We also need to talk a bit about insulin (blood sugar) which is like the gatekeeper for other hormones. When it’s high, it contributes to estrogen dominance too. Then we’re hangry, crave foods, get shaky between meals, feel anxious and have high fasting blood sugar.

We also can’t leave out the importance of Cortisol, the stress hormone. A little bit is good for us, we need to be able to respond to stress. Buuuut, a lot of it can lead to too little of it and then you’re in a cycle of sucking down caffeine in the morning to rev up and red wine at night to unwind. Plus cortisol raises your blood sugar and cross talks with estrogen and progesterone. When cortisol is high we’re stressed, have insomnia, GERD, and overeat.

All of this, becomes even more of an issue as you get close to and past age 35. UUUGGGGHHHHH.

As singers who are so highly attuned to the body as our instrument, we need things to do that help us return to as close to an optimal state as possible. Exercise more and eat less is a bit too simplified for women to get the results they want, I think, but here are some ideas that can help you craft what works for you.

  1. Eat: Up your plant intake. One of the ways we get rid of excess estrogen is through poop. Yep, I said it. You need to start pooping more. I’m a fan of thinking about what we can add into our diets to improve our health rather than thinking about what to restrict. Eat a rainbow sounds silly, but it’s correct. Lots and lots of leafy green matter, red, yellow, orange, purple veggies are all good. Go slow with adding veggies because if you overwhelm yourself with too much fiber…well, that can be ugly and uncomfortable. Some ways of adding things in: throw some dark leafy greens into a morning smoothie, chop up some carrots to crunch on rather than chips.  If you do better with thinking about how to lower your intake of things here are the things you want to limit: caffeine, sugar, alcohol, processed foods. Also, drink enough water for your body, but you already knew that because singers are smart about water.
  2. Move: Movement is another way we can manage our hormones. Sweat helps flush estrogen out of the body. Movement helps manage cortisol levels and balances blood sugar. Do you need to kill it at the gym? No, but you need to start moving your body more and moving it better. Maybe that looks like a brisk walk 3 days a week to begin. Maybe it’s a spin class, or a yoga class, or a HIIT workout. Find something that makes you feel good and do it regularly. Many women have found connections between tension in the back of the legs and period cramps – stretch your calves regularly for a month and see if your cramps are better. Movement doesn’t just help your hormones, it helps your singing. Cardiovascular fitness, lung capacity and overall improved blood flow are all advantageous for your voice.
  3. Chill: No, this isn’t netflix and chill. Numbing out to technology (or food, or booze) isn’t what I’m talking about. I mean, get quiet with yourself. Schedule in downtime where you literally do nothing. Find a meditation practice that works for you. Take a hot bath nightly. Spend time off of social media, the land of comparison-itis. Women thrive in the company of other women, so plan a night with girlfriends. Engaging in mindful practices helps manage cortisol levels. We sleep better, we’re happier, and we sing better when we aren’t so freaking stressed all the time.

This list is far from exhaustive, but it’s a place to start. If you want to learn more, there are some great resources out there. Some of the most affordable and accessible are books by Sara Gottfried, an integrative MD and hormone expert. Her two books the Hormone Cure and The Hormone Reset Diet are must reads. Kelly Brogan MDs book A Mind Of Your Own is another great hormone/mental health read. A good functional nutritionist or hormone expert like Anna Garrett can help you test hormone levels and formulate a plan for yourself.

There are lots of apps out there for meditation like headspace and Calm. There’s a yoga studio on every corner and most have some kind of restorative class or meditation class if you like in person things.

If you want to talk about movement because you aren’t sure where to begin, reach out and let’s talk about what your body needs to begin to move more in a way that feels good.

You deserve to thrive as a singer all 4 weeks of every month and not feel so bogged down with the changes in your body that are driven by your hormones!

Are you asking for the impossible?

Have you ever asked a singer to raise their sternum, or told them to stand tall? Perhaps you’ve had them place three fingers or placed three of your fingers on their sternum and asked them to lift into your fingers? Maybe you’ve even had them roll shoulders up, back and down as a way of elevating and opening the front of the chest.

If you have, I hate to break it to you, but you’re asking for the impossible. That open chest you want, with a ribcage that is buoyant and flexible…It ain’t happening at the behest of a few words or a shoulder roll or even a shove of the sternum.

What we know should be happening and what a singer’s body can actually do are often a few light years apart.

Because most of what we do in life has our arms out in front of us and our heads looking down, our shoulder blades tend to be protracted – that means they are pulled away from the spine. The impact of this is rounded shoulders, a dropped sternum and lack of mobility in the thoracic spine. When we tell a singer to stand up straight or to raise their sternum, they can’t really do it due to the hyperkyphosis (spine rounding) and resulting immobility of the thoracic spine (the part of the spine where the ribs attach).

As an aside, we ALL have that hyperkyphosis, most of us are just able to mask it still. But, when you see an older body that makes a C shape in their torso, that is unmasked hyperkyphosis.

Because we don’t have good mobility in each spinal joint in the thoracic spine, when we’re told to stand up straight, we move from where the thoracic and lumbar spine meet at the bottom of the ribcage and thrust the entire ribcage forward. It might look like the sternum is now elevated, but we’ve created a swayback position and closed off the lower part of the ribcage so it doesn’t move well when we breathe.

And no, the answer is not to tuck the pelvis and bend the knees to address the swayback.

The answer to being able to stand up straight without creating a cascading avalanche of compensations is to improve mobility and build strength in the parts that are tight and weak. Rhomboids are muscles that run between the shoulder blades and the spine. Strength in these muscles helps keep the shoulder blades happily positioned on the back AND they counter the hyperkyphosis that we all have in the thoracic spine. Their primary action is retraction of the shoulder blades – meaning these muscles pull the blades toward the spine.

It would be nice if we could just issue a phrase or move a body into the position we want it to be in and expect it to stay there, but that’s just not how it works. You can’t shove a body part where you want it to go and have that fix years of patterning.

Let’s start being realistic in the physical requests we make of singer’s bodies. Change will happen much faster and actually be sustainable.

Want to get in on this goodness and discover ways of moving the body to make lasting, helpful changes that support the voice? Join me in the Singers’ Online Learning and Movement Library and get unlimited access to movement videos and workshops all geared toward the singer’s body.

Remind me that I like to move…

I know, it seems strange that I, the movement teacher needs reminding that I like to move, but there it is.

If I back up to my pre-parenting days I was a always a mover and I liked pushing myself – I ran 10Ks, worked out at the gym, challenged myself at yoga, skied and skated in the winter, played tennis and canoed in the summer. I never did any of it with any concern that I would injure myself. I might get sore for a few days but then I’d be fine.

More than the movement itself, was HOW THE MOVEMENT MADE ME FEEL. When I moved I felt strong, confident, capable and happy. The endorphins of exercise are very real my friends. It was also a place where I connected with other people, running with friends, seeing my community at yoga class…exercise was a part of my social network.

A little over 6 years ago my youngest was born. I emerged from that pregnancy and birth with some pretty significant, birth-related injuries. I suffered in a high level of pain for about a year before I began to get my body back on track.

It all began when I was was out for a walk at about 5 months pregnant. I felt something in the front, left side of my pelvis change, not in a good way, and every step I took was painful. Whenever I brought any of it up to my midwives they shrugged it off to the general aches and pains of pregnancy. In my heart I knew it was more than that, but I wasn’t one to push back against an expert (OH HOW THAT HAS CHANGED!) so I just kept soldiering along.

By the final month of the pregnancy, that went 7 days past my due date, I was barely able to walk. I’d stand up and wait for the shooting pains to pass through my left pelvis and then stagger walk where I needed to go, gritting my teeth with every step.

My alignment for most of the pregnancy was a mess and it showed up when I finally went to give birth, the baby was facing the wrong way. He was sunny side up. Fearing back labor for me, the midwives positioned me on my left side in the hospital bed.

The labor was fast, with me arriving at the hospital around midnight and him born around 6am. I was so focused on the labor that I didn’t really think about the fact that they had me lie on my left side, where my hurt pelvis was, with nothing but a thin hospital pillow under my head.

I went through the entire, labor and delivery with my head improperly aligned to the rest of my spine and given my history of a waterskiing accident that did a ton of damage to the soft tissue of my upper body as well as my cervical spine, that was the equivalent of a train wreck for my neck and back.

In the car ride home from the hospital, my entire back seized up. I was in so much pain that I couldn’t be upright without a crushing headache.  Something I’d never experienced before and hope never to again. I then suffered in my own cave of misery for 2 full weeks, on my back for most of them, because being upright in the car was not an option so I could not get back to see the midwives and I had a new primary care physician closer, but I’d never seen her because I hadn’t needed to go and a new patient appointment availability in that office was months away.

It took a solid 18 months of work on my part to rehab my body to the point where I didn’t end every day with an agonizing tension headache. I tried physical therapy, but they never seemed to look at the whole me, so I would leave those appointments feeling physically worse than when I went in. Chiropractic and massage each helped in the moment, but they couldn’t tell me what to do to hold onto the release they helped my body find. I tried a trainer at the gym, but she was young and ill-equipped to handle a body that was hurting, and I never returned after my first session because she seemed to ignore all I told her and I was in pain when I left.

It took me finally deciding I was going to take what I knew about the body and figure it out. I HUNTED online before I found Katy Bowman’s work and together with what I already knew, I put my  core back together, shrinking my 3 finger diastasis to under 1, built better balance in my pelvis and addressed the imbalances in my shoulder girdle. I built a small set of very limited, in my opinion, things that I could do that would not make me hurt. Walking, functional movement and some swimming.

That’s a very long story way of saying I gained function, but never strength like I had before, and the memories of that time linger. In the 4+  years since I’ve used the demands of two kids, a job, a house, a dog and a husband to ignore the fact that while I desperately missed moving, I was terrified to try anything for fear of hurting the way I hurt for so long.

It makes me tear up just to write that. Because that loss of movement has come with a loss of happiness, a loss of community, a loss of feeling strong and capable.

I’ve periodically tried moving how I used to. We’ve played tennis a few times, I’ve hopped on the elliptical, but it wasn’t until yesterday when I went XC-skiing with my husband that I realized I go into every single movement session harboring a major fear that I’m going to hurt myself. The impact of 6 years ago is still lingering in my brain.

I’ve kept movement minimal to keep me functional and not allowed myself to see how much fear was driving the bus.

I could feel my body yesterday out on the trails, but I’m not in pain today. My pelvis is fine, my upper body is fine. My muscles feel used and I’m sure I’ll be sore, but in a good way, not in a close your eyes in a dark room and pray for the day to end kind of way. I want to make a big giant note of all that and remember that I LIKE TO MOVE.

2019 is my year of Community. I’ve scheduled in times into my calendar to go to the gym this winter. I’m working on owning that I not only have the tools to help others, I have them to help myself too so it’s ok to try things out. I know there’s community waiting for me when I re-enter into the world of moving the way I love.

I will need reminding that when I move the ways that I love, I feel happy, strong, capable, confident. That I can move and not hurt. So hold me to it, ok?

The Voice World is like a Balloon Factory

I listened to Seth Godin say something this morning that stopped me dead in my tracks while I walked my dog.

In his book Tribes, he uses a fabulous analogy of a balloon factory, to talk about the institutions that we train and work under where the systems we have in place keep things humming along at status quo level. It’s safe in the balloon factory, it’s comfortable, and you learn how to do what you need to, to produce the product you want.

But, the problem with a balloon factory is there are these other things, sharp things, that are the enemy of the balloon. Things like pins, knives and, yes, Unicorns. If you work in the balloon factory you learn to fear those sharp objects.

If a Unicorn walks into a balloon factory, he suggests, it can send everyone into a panic. The disruption a Unicorn causes can make workers become protective of their work, fearful of the change it might cause and make people turn their backs.

As I listened, I realized I AM A UNICORN IN THE BALLOON FACTORY OF THE VOICE WORLD!

We are trained in school about the systems of the voice – respiration, registration and phonation. We read all the pedagogy books which teach us about the voice and how those systems work from the standpoint of ideals on a page.

I’m over here saying WAIT, what about skeletal, nervous and muscular systems of THE WHOLE BODY?  What about the fact that no one has a nervous system that developed perfectly, so we don’t actually function like a 2-D skeleton on a page? We have joints that are limited in range, muscles that are underused, imbalances and lack of function globally in the body. Those are the issues that impact the voice that NO amount of vocal technique can solve.

I’m disrupting the vocal balloon production line by suggesting that we can’t just say the pedagogical platitude the whole body is the instrument, we actually need to know what that means AND what that looks like in the body; our own and those of our students. We need to be the boss of our body so our careers are sustainable and productive.

I get it, Unicorns and their horns are terrifying if you need to make 30 beautiful balloons by the end of the year and have only 1 hour every week to work on them. Isn’t there enough work to do already? Everything you need to know you already learned from those 22 books you read on balloon production in graduate school, right?

The voice world, like so many other industries that rely heavily on the ‘this is how it’s done’ mentality, fears the Unicorns. But, we so desperately need Unicorns to help us grow and change and improve what we are doing and how we are doing it so we can do our jobs better than ever before.

Join me in popping those pedagogical voice balloons to find new ways of really understanding the body and voice and how they work together.

Here for you.

Your Vocal Unicorn,

Sarah

 

How did I end up here? Pt 1

As I squatted down to move laundry along this morning I started thinking about my career path and had a little chuckle as I pulled multiple pairs of yoga pants and yoga shirts out of the wash to hang on a line to dry rather than putting them in the dryer.

I was often told to dress for the job I want. Perhaps that’s why I owned so many yoga clothes before becoming a yoga teacher?!

In reality, I set out on my path of voice and movement not really knowing where I was going. I’ve always been that way. I have a gut instinct to do something. It just feels right, and I say yes and then on to the next step.

That’s how this started.

I said yes to a yoga class in 1999.

That lead to curiosity about how much better I sang in my lessons after being at a yoga class. Which meant I started going to several classes a week.

That lead to doing a 500 hour yoga teacher certification program. Which meant I did every project in the program on something that brought together the body and the voice.

That lead to knowing just what I needed to calm my performance nerves so I was present and powerful on stage.

That lead to bringing yoga into my voice studio at Harvard where I taught for 13 years.

That lead to giving workshops at State and Regional NATS gatherings, for schools and choirs, all focused on how the body and voice intersect and work together.

Then, six years ago, my body blew up when my entire back seized after giving birth to my second child and the nagging aches and pains I’d had all through my 20’s and early 30’s became full blown, angry, unhappy places in my body.

I started to question everything that I’d learned and done in my yoga study in the preceding decade. I felt broken. Unfixable and unsure that I wanted to do any of this anymore.

It took some soul searching, digging on the interwebs and the discovery of two new ways of movement that brought me back and brought me where I am.

I’ll share more about how I got from flat on my back 6 years ago to the work I do now of helping singers and voice teachers better live in their bodies and better see the bodies in their studios.

Jaw Tension

If you live with jaw tension and pain you are all too familiar with the ways it can impact your singing. You may have observed and experienced how tension in the jaw tends be seen in conjunction with tension in the tongue as well as the larynx and the rest of the neck. That tension can lend itself to struggling to produce the voice easily and sing notes in certain registers, to dealing with a jaw that locks open, clicks, pops, is in pain or is simply too tense to open easily.

Because the jaw is a portion of what determines the shape of our resonator tube and is so intricately linked with the tongue, hyoid bone and the larynx suspended below, jaw tension is not a problem you want to live with when you need your voice to function at its best.

The question we want to get at is this: is the jaw responding to the rest of the body or is it the source of the problem?

The quick fix paradox

We are trained as a culture to focus on the part of the body that is in pain and identify the fastest way to fix it. In this case, the quick fix is often popping a pain pill and/or a massage of the jaw area and maybe the neck and shoulders. Something like massage (or taking a pill) can bring you short-term relief, which is great if you are standing backstage about to go on. Sometimes a one-time fix takes care of the issue in a long term way. Very often though once the quick fix wears off you are back to square one of experiencing tension and/or pain. When that happens you can easily get caught in a cycle of pain/tension, treatment, pain/tension, treatment, with no long-term relief in sight. If you are returning to the quick fix repeatedly, it is time to expand beyond the local area and look for clues in the rest of body.

Long-term relief from jaw tension (or any other tension/pain based issue) begins with embracing the concept of the whole body being connected and developing an awareness of current patterns that exist across the body. Once awareness is raised we can move on to skill building – finding new ways of moving that improve functionality and suppleness in the body.

Before we continue with the physical elements, I want to address the mental/emotional side of tension and pain. There are always emotional/mental connections to the issues we experience in our bodies. Unexpressed emotion can get housed in the tissues of our being.  I often recommend to clients that they begin by becoming an observer in the week following our session. They are to notice under what circumstances their tension or pain increases. For many, simply making that connection is enough to create an a-ha moment, that rather than expressing their rage over great aunt Tillie asking when they are going to get a real job and stop doing this little singing thing, they clench their jaw.

For those who discover they have a long pattern of unexpressed anger or a sense of not being safe to express feelings or be heard in their life, and it manifests in their jaw, I always recommend they find a qualified mental health professional to engage with to resolve the emotional component of the root of their issue. Releasing the emotional component frees them up to being to implement skill building to re-pattern better function in the body.

Exploring the Whole Body Connection

While the whole body is our instrument, we still have long way to go before we better understand how all of our parts inter-relate. If you think of the body like a chain created by all the joints, tension and pain are most likely to occur at the weakest link in that chain. But, the way the other joint links are behaving while we are moving and not moving are also impacting that weak link.

The relationship between the jaw and the pelvis

The jaw and pelvis have a unique connection in the body. Located at opposite ends of the spine, they are bridged by all the tissues of the torso. We can discover several cross body connections between the jaw and pelvis. When there is tension in the jaw it is often mirrored in the pelvis – for example, tension in the left side of the jaw and tension in the left side of the pelvis. Along with that mirroring we can see an excessively tight pelvic floor. Another mirroring connection across the jaw-pelvis spectrum is tension at the base of the skull and a corresponding tension in the front of the lower belly. Bracing at one end or the other, or both, meaning you are holding a higher than normal level of tension as a way of providing stability, is not uncommon.

One quick way of understanding the connection between the pelvis and jaw is to sit comfortably and simply squeeze your anus. While you do that see what you notice in your jaw. Can you feel the muscles of your jaw engaging? Can you feel your breathing change? Now relax everything. Next, purse your lips really tensely. Can you feel a corresponding engagement in the anus? A change in the breath? It’s okay if you don’t. Sometimes connecting the body on a subtle level is tricky, especially if this is the first time you’ve tried.

Looking at how these two ends relate through alignment, breathing, and functionality of the core, all give us big clues as to how to work with the body to address jaw issues.

Alignment

The first place to can assess is your alignment, or how the body is stacked. When the head is not stacked well over the pelvis, meaning it is sitting in front of the shoulders, then we know there is a problematic relationship between the two ends. From the waist down we often discover many people ‘wear’ their pelvis in front of the body – meaning the mid-hip sits in front of the ankle because the pelvis is pressed forward. The pelvis can also be habitually tilted or tucked and not neutral.

Alignment is a wonderful assessment tool. However, it is one thing to look at a picture of a skeleton and understand the concept of alignment. It is quite another to translate alignment into your own body that is covered in clothing, adipose tissue and muscle. Enlist a friend or partner to take pictures of the body from the side to help you better understand how you hold your body. When we uncover problematic postural patterns we begin to understand how the ways we are (and aren’t) moving are impacting the whole body.  If you’d like to learn more about Alignment and how to use it in your studio, I have an entire workshop that teaches you how to use bony markers to align a body and ‘read’ the results. Click here to learn more.

Breathing

Breathing patterns are very telling of how well the body is functioning overall.

The breath provides us with a continuum that spans the distance between the jaw and pelvis. The more supple our body is between ribcage, belly and pelvic floor, the better our breathing patterns are.

Assessing the breath to determine your everyday breathing pattern, gain a better understanding of the quality of your inhale and exhale, and movement (or lack thereof) in the ribcage and belly can go a long way towards filling in the picture of what’s behind jaw tension.

Immobility and tension in the ribcage, observed while engaged in every day breathing and/or in singing are indicators that there is an issue in the torso that relates to the jaw. And yes, even singers can stand to improve their breathing patterns! When we lack fluidity and suppleness either caused or reinforced by poor breathing patterns, we will not align or move well.

Breath work is always a part of resolving issues with our body.

Getting to the Core of it

To resolve alignment issues we need to create circumstances through movement that invite change. We can’t just shove body parts into the location where we know they should be. First, they will quickly fall back out of that position. Second, we need to understand that they are in that position because it is the safest place for the body. Those tensions, no matter how problematic they are, are present to keep you from being further injured.

Insufficient function in the core is frequently the underlying factor contributing to jaw and pelvis tension, bracing and mirroring. The core, as I’m referring to it here, is the entire torso of the body, from where the neck attaches to the torso all the way down to the base of the pelvis and where the upper arm and leg bones meet the shoulder and pelvis respectively.

I’ve written before in Why Core Training Is Important for Singers about the importance of the deep layer of the functional reflexive core which includes the pelvic floor, transverse abdominus, psoai, multifidi, diaphragm, and muscles of the throat.

There are other lines of muscle connections that can impact jaw function. For example, in Tom Meyers’ Anatomy Trains he explores the connection between the deep front line: the muscles in the bottom of the feet, those in the inner line of the legs, the psoas, deep neck flexors, tongue and mouth.

Further up in the torso, the muscles surrounding the shoulder girdle are impactful to jaw function.

We also know there are broader connections of the shoulder area with the lower leg –  I’ve written before about the tensions mirrored in the two areas.  Additionally, tension in the shoulder girdle will both be present when the lower core doesn’t function well and the tension can keep the lower core from being able to work.  Even the way your leg bone is moving in the hip socket can have implications for jaw function.

All of this is to say, just looking at one area of the body in isolation just doesn’t give you a complete picture of what’s going on or how to work to improve function. Starting to get the bigger picture here?

All of this work comes together when you move slowly and really feel the body. That can be challenging when we are used to addressing individual parts and quick-fix solutions. When mobility is improved, strength and stability can replace tension and weakness, bringing about better alignment and breathing as well as alleviating tension and pain in the jaw.

Where do I go from here?

You may be able to immediately identify that you have issues in the areas of the body I mentioned above. When I work with clients I follow the paradigm of Awareness, Skill Building and Mastery, where we first get curious and honest about what’s really going on in the body. Then we move on to learning new ways of moving the body and get consistent about it. Mastery comes with time.

Because every body is unique, there is no one-size-fits all approach that will serve everyone well. If you would like someone who can assess your body and bring a better understanding of how parts of your body are moving, how they are moving relative to other parts and how some of them are not moving at all, please set up a free 30 minute consult time where we can talk more in depth about where you want to be with your body and voice.

How are you feeling?

Maybe, just maybe,

we don’t need to be told what to do with our voices

so much as we need permission to feel.

 

For me that sentence is loaded with so much goodness that can be explored, from emotional to physical, to developing the ability to feel the voice produced by our bodies and relying on it more than hearing when we perform.

First, the emotion side of feeling. As in, your feelings.

As artists it is imperative that we have access to the full spectrum of emotions and the ability to bring those emotions to our work so our audience connects and is moved.

But, what happens when you grow up in a culture and/or family that is anything but encouraging of having feelings? Well, we find ways to NOT feel. We eat, we watch tv, we engage in destructive behaviors, we avoid etc. You may have your own unique behavior of avoidance. Sometimes that avoidance happens on a subconscious level – you may not even connect that rather than feel your frustration you shove a handful of chocolate chips in your mouth (not that I’ve ever done that. Like, ever. Really.)

Feelings can be hard. It isn’t easy being human.

That avoidance though, doesn’t translate well on stage.

To illustrate I’ll tell you a story about me.

In between my first and second years of graduate school for vocal pedagogy, my father committed suicide. My reaction wasn’t just to his decision, which is a rug yanked out from underneath you moment, but also to the sum total of our relationship, which I would characterize as primarily difficult. He was a hard person to know because his depression kept him from being truly emotionally available and present both physically and emotionally.

The way my being dealt with that experience was to feel numb. It was a survival mechanism that allowed me to keep going and get through my second year of course work.

However, when it came time for the dress rehearsal before my final recital, I’d done all the work of learning the music, but one of my committee members offered feedback that I wasn’t really conveying emotion.

When I tried to access emotion in my lessons and coachings, no matter the timbre of the piece, all that came out was tears. I’d done such a good job at putting the grief I was experiencing away, that when I tried to access any emotion it was the only one that was available. Crying for an hour on stage wasn’t an option, so I went back to my largely expressionless singing.

When I listen back to the recording of that concert I can hear the ‘flatness’ in my voice. It took me time and space to be able to open the door on grief and allow it to begin to move through me so I could express emotion on stage. If I’m being honest, expressing emotion has never been a strong suit for me – I think I did it very well as a child, but that wasn’t always met with a positive response and I learned to tamp it down, as so many do. One of the great places of work for me as an adult has been a return to both allowing feelings and expressing them (hopefully more skillfully than I did as a child!).

No one, in that time or any other, ever really talked to me about the concept of embodiment when it came to singing. In the work I do now I work to find ways to encourage singers to feel emotion through the vehicles of the body and the voice and then communicate it. Sometimes the simplest of practices, like feeling the breath coming into your nose is a powerful place to start.

I’ll share another post about physical feelings like the what we often call the ‘stretch sensation’, but I’m curious to know, how do you address making space for emotions in your lessons so your singers can be embodied on stage?

When exercise hurts

This post was inspired by an exchange I had on my facebook page.

I shared a post about foot problems being connected to hip issues and how something like an orthotic is not a good long term solution.

A reader responded regarding her feet, sharing that she wasn’t so sure about all that because she’s had a lifetime struggle with plantar fasciitis. We exchanged comments and her final comment really struck me.

She said, “some of my worst bouts with pf were in my most fit and lean days. Times when I was the most active….running marathons or doing triathalons, times when my muscles were the best conditioned…” She also shared that her best bet now is wearing birkenstocks because they provide support to her feet.

What this dear reader shared is something I suspect is true for SO many of us (me included).

Exercise can make you hurt.

When I was my “fittest”, I had the following issues (not all at once!): shin splints, tibia stress fracture, hip pointer, femoral patella syndrome, low back pain, neck pain, sacro-iliac pain, hot spots on the inside edges of my shoulder blades and a few other aches and pains.

I could run a 7 minute mile, finish a 10K, had a ‘strong core’ and do a handstand easy peasy in yoga.

But I hurt. Often. Constantly, in fact.

What I know now is my lifetime of growing in the shape of a chair, wearing shoes with a heel (yes, even those $150 running shoes that were fitted to me by a running specialist at the specialty running store), running as my preferred form of exercise – on pavement or a treadmill, and yoga that was done faster and less mindfully than it should have been were all contributing to those hurts.

By its nature, most exercise puts us in a repetitive joint movement pattern. In running, the leg comes forward (hip flexion) and the leg moves back (hip extension). We miss ad and ab-duction as well as rotation. When we are wearing shoes with any kind of a heel, we’ve got many misalignments, one of the biggest being the pelvis being ‘worn’ out in front of the ankles. This puts pressure on the mid-foot causing the fascia to separate front to back.  We repeat movements like this in swimming, on the elliptical or while biking.

None of this means running, biking, swimming etc are bad per se, but when you pay attention to variety in your movement patterns, they are probably pretty limited if you are simply exercising. When there’s a high frequency of repetitive joint patterning, that’s just a recipe for problems.

Add in coming to your exercise time having spent 8 hours sitting at a desk or in a classroom, you’re asking your joints aren’t to make major changes in shape that they aren’t so ready (and able) to make.

So, dear reader who had her worst bouts of plantar fasciitis when she was her most active and fit, I HEAR YOU, but I’m also not at all surprised.

The solution to our physical woes often isn’t to simply “get fitter”.

Though we do love a quick fix in our society and I’m all for spontaneous healing, most of us need to make shifts over a long period of time.

Identifying the problem may be simple (I’ve got plantar fasciitis), but the long term solution that restores your body to optimum function without the use of supportive aids, is rarely simple and quick (I need to assess: my habitual alignment pattern and how my leg bones move in my hip socket, how active are my medial glute muscles vs my hip flexors, then get the right parts moving well and THEN strengthen).

Those nagging aches and pains tell us what we are doing isn’t working. We need to find a new path. One that resolves the underlying mobility issues before addressing strength otherwise we are layering strength on top a mobility issue and that won’t make you feel better.

We all need to make a mental shift away from exercise and into that of movement. We need to begin to move more parts of our body and move them better – the tiny muscles in our feet and those bigger muscles in our pelvic region, change the shoes we wear and replace the idea of fit with the idea of function.

Can you still exercise? Absolutely. But, if it’s making you hurt, it’s time to stop and reassess, not stop and stick your body in a supportive chair, shoe or back brace and call it a day (or a lifetime).

The importance of core training for singers

This blog initially appeared on The Opera Stage site. Their blog is no longer active so I have published it here to continue to allow access.

 

Many singers will avoid doing any core exercises in the interest of having total flexibility of their abdominal area. Other singers will do core exercises in an attempt to strengthen musculature that they know is connected to vocal production. And, still a third group considers what they do as classically-trained singers to be adequate work for the abs and leave it at that.

For many of us, the voice works well even though our core isn’t as well coordinated as it could be. However, when the voice and/or breath aren’t working well or you go through a physical change that results in a negative shift in the functioning of your voice or body, core training is a key element of making a change for the better. A well functioning core is crucial not just for pain-free movement, but also for the voice to perform optimally.

There is an important distinction that needs to be made between ‘core exercise’ and ‘core training.’ Core exercise involves doing a set of repetitive exercises without contemplating whether they are contributing to the functionality of the entire body. Core training, on the other hand, addresses functionality in the whole body: your breathing and your muscles, your existing patterns of engagement, resting tension and how you put all of that together (particularly as it relates to your voice) to establish a synergistic relationship throughout the body.

What are the signs of a core-voice connection that could be improved?
” Tension in the shoulders, neck and throat/jaw region.
” Bracing of the abdomen at the onset of sound.
” A held abdominal area that lacks freedom of movement.
” Low back pain.
” A sound that isn’t well supported.
” Weight loss and loss of support of the sound.
” Reports of the voice being effortful to produce.
” Reports of breathing issues that are elusive to resolve.
” Negative vocal and physical changes post-childbirth.
” Hernias of any kind.

What is the Functional Reflexive Core?
The foundation of healthy movement and singing comes from the deep layer of the Functional Reflexive Core (FRC). The part of our body that makes up the FRC is our entire trunk located between where the head attaches to the neck and where the arms and legs attach to the torso.

It has two layers. The deep layer of the FRC is made up of the throat, the diaphragm, the transverse abdominus, the psoai, the multifidi and the pelvic floor musculature. The outer layer is made up of all the other muscles that fall within that central part of the body. We want stability of the muscles in the outer layers of the core, and imbalances here can create problems when it comes to voice production, but when we talk about the core-voice connection, we are most interested in the functionality of the deep layer of the FRC. And, the relationship of the muscles here is heavily influenced by how we are breathing, how we are moving (or not) through our lives and our tension levels in the upper and lower body.

Why do we have these issues to begin with?
Modern life has left us with bodies that are ‘casted’ by sitting, wearing shoes, and moving through a limited range of motion. The good news is, our bodies are relatively plastic and have an amazing capacity to change. We just need to know how to make the change effectively and be consistent in our efforts.

Patterns in the body and breath that indicate an imbalance in the FRC are:
Abdominal Holding – As a result of sitting in chairs our whole lives, our backsides get weak, the abdominal musculature gets recruited to do work it shouldn’t be doing and we carry resting tension in the abs. Second, there is the cultural message that we are somehow more valuable if our abs are flat. That can result in people sucking the stomach in chronically or over-exercising the abs, creating a flatter but definitely not more functional mid-section.

Abdominal Bracing – When the deep layer of the core isn’t functional, we can over-recruit and use the outer layer muscles to make up for the lack. Bracing can be observed in both movement and singing when there is a very visible hook up in the belly at the onset of moving or singing and then it often appears as a static hold – as though you are bracing to prepare for someone to punch you in the stomach.

Bulging – This can occur on inhalation and/or on phonation and movement. If we bulge on inhale, seen through a distended belly, we overload the musculature of the deep FRC. Once overloaded, the muscles lack the relationship they need to the breath and don’t fire effectively. This type of increase in intra-abdominal pressure can lead to things like hernias and pelvic floor problems. Bulging during movement means the belly pushes out when we are doing something like lying on our back and bringing both legs up into reverse table (see below). Bulging during phonation will also show up as a belly that is pressing out in a rigid, fixed way when singing.

Bearing Down – This is just as it sounds. When we move or phonate there is a sense of bearing down – almost like you are trying really hard to go to the bathroom. This is, in fact, the reverse of the motion we want to experience when we are singing or moving. We also don’t particularly want to be bearing down hard to go to the bathroom, but that’s another post for another time!

Here are a few assessments you can do to test the functionality of your FRC

Do you carry resting abdominal tension?
Lie down on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Place your hands on your belly, near your belly button. Cough. Cough 5 or 6 times. What direction is your belly moving when you cough? Does it push up into your hand? If it does, as it will for almost everyone, it indicates you carry a level of resting tension in the abdominals that is greater than necessary. That means when you are expelling air to either move or sing, the coordination between muscles and breath could be improved.

Do you have a diastasis recti (DR)?
Both men and women can experience DR. It is a separation of an unnatural distance between the two rectus abdominus muscles and the connective tissue, called the linea alba, is stretched and thinned. DR is caused primarily by excessive intra-abdominal pressure. To check your body for a DR, lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Exhale normally and pick your head up off the floor. With the head up, use your fingers to palpate down the midline of your rectus abdominus muscles from sternum to pubic bone. See if you can feel both sides of the muscles and see if there is a gap between the two. The gap is measured by finger widths. It is also measured by depth. It may be normal for you to have some separation between your muscles, but a width of 2 fingers or greater or a depth of a knuckle or more, may indicate you have some issues with too much intra-abdominal pressure.

Do you have a hernia?
Most men are probably familiar with the turn your head and cough test to see if you have an inguinal hernia. Inguinal hernias can also present as swelling or a bulge in the scrotum. A hiatal hernia, which is often associated with GERD will require an x-ray study to diagnose. Umbilical hernias are usually diagnosed through physical exam and present with swelling or a bulge around the belly button. All 3 hernias are associated with excess pressure and weakness in muscle.

What do we do about our imbalances?
Our answers to these issues lie in an approach that addresses the whole body, including alignment, breathing and movement mechanics. When we tune in to how we are moving and where our body is compensating for our limitations we can make gains quickly. Here are some simple movements to begin to explore your current patterns and function. To bring balance, strength and stability to the whole body a more complete practice is needed, but these will give you a sense of where you are in this moment and perhaps inspire you to explore more!

Abdominal Release

  1. Come onto your hands and knees and let your belly sag toward the floor without allowing the back to sway excessively. The pelvis is untucked.
  2. Breathe normally and notice if your belly releases each time you inhale. Focus on letting everything release – diaphragm to pelvic floor on the breath in.
  3. Stay here for about 5 minutes and really tune in to the space from the bottom of the ribcage to the pubic bone.

Notice if you find tension returning and continue to release it each time you notice it. Try singing a few phrases in this position and notice what your body does as you breathe in and as you phonate.

 

 

Waking up the Deep Layer of the FRC

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Bolster your head on a pillow so the lower ribs are on the ground. The pelvis is untucked, with space behind the low back.
  2. Place your hands on your low belly. Take a breath in and notice what moves more on the inhalation –the belly or the ribcage – ideally the ribs will move more.
  3. Begin a long slow exhale through pursed lips or on a hiss.
  4. Midway through the exhale see if you notice the deep part of your core activating in a corseting action this is NOT navel to spine.
  5. On your next breath in, release all engagement and exhale again through pursed lips or on a hiss. Do this 5-7 times. If you do not feel things engaging, don’t worry, keep practicing and the deep FRC will wake up.

Notice if you flatten your back to the floor when exhaling. Notice if you tense in your shoulders or throat when you are exhaling. Notice if your lower ribs pull away from the floor when you breathe in. Be aware that it is easy to engage the obliques more than the transverse abdominus (TVA) muscle in this exercise. Don’t force the engagement of the TVA, allow it to happen organically.

Reverse Table

  1. Repeat steps 1-3 above.
  2. Midway through the exhale, when you have felt the FRC engage, slowly bring the right leg into reverse table.
  3. Breathe in again. And exhale, returning the leg to the floor.
  4. Repeat the above but this time bring the left leg up.

Notice first if one side feels easier than the other. For each side, notice if your belly bulges while moving the leg into the air, or if you are bearing down as you bring the leg up.  Notice if your hips wobble or shift or if your back flattens to the ground as you bring the legs up. Those are all signs you have some work to do to improve function.

For an advanced version of this pose, bring one leg up and then on the next exhale, bring the other leg to meet it. If you have any of the above issues, back up to the phase before.

 

Waking up the deep layer of the functional reflexive core can feel like slow, small work, but the payoff is huge. Having a body that supports you as you move through your life on stage and off, providing you with a solid foundation for the voice to be produced, is an invaluable tool for a singer.

 

If you have questions or would like some help waking up your FRC, don’t hesitate to reach out by email or connect with me on Facebook.

 

The cult of breathing correctly

Today I worked with a client exclusively on breathing and I realized she was asking me the same questions I get from almost everyone about breathing so I thought I’d address them here.

What’s the BEST way to breathe?

I’ve seen it in almost every book I’ve read, whether it is about the voice or the body…there is one way of breathing, as described in the book and that is the BEST WAY. Really? That to me creates a cult-like religion of breathing and I just am not down with that.

We can talk about a biomechanically optimal breath, and I do teach people what that is, because I believe it is valuable to know, but (you knew there was going to be a but, right?), that’s not my end goal in working on someone’s breath.

If your breathing is disordered, I’d like to help you find a breathing pattern that supports your body’s health. Sometimes that looks like addressing ribcage mobility. Sometimes that looks like changing the breath ratio. Sometimes that’s moving from mouth breathing to nose breathing. And, sometimes it’s all of the above plus a few other things.

If your pelvic floor is suffering, I want to teach you the ways in which your breath can impact the pelvic floor and help you find ways of breathing that support your movements so you no longer wet your pants when you sneeze.

If your goal is to sing your best or speak your best, my goal is to help you find a freedom to the breath so it responds to the emotion you are trying to communicate and contributes to the colors of the voice that reflect that emotion.

If your body is in pain, my goal is to help you optimize your breathing because that will both help lower your pain response, but a good exhale always facilitates better movement too.

 

Why is my breathing a mess?

Breathing is governed by the autonomic nervous system. That means as long as you are alive, your body is going to breathe. That also means when your nervous system is out of whack – due to stress – your breath is going to change. Sustained stress, means sustained breathing changes. However breath isn’t completely at the mercy of stress. The breath is actually our most efficient mechanism for shifting the nervous system.

Breathing is also reflexive, meaning we breathe in response to the way we move. If you aren’t moving much, your breathing isn’t being varied and it’s easy to get stuck in a pattern of limited breathing.

 

How do I fix my breathing?

There is no one right way to ‘fix’ disordered breathing because there is no one right way to breathe. I want you to have the ability to breathe appropriately given the situations you encounter.  I usually start with a series of assessments of just breathing and breathing and movement to see where you might be running into breath blockers (bulging, bracing and bearing down) and from there, use a series of breathing practices that progress from simple to more complicated and work with breathing and movement to see how the two fit together. If we’re putting it together with the voice, we listen to sound and emotion and see how they’re working.

It takes time, awareness and practice, but there’s no need to subscribe to a cult of breathing where you think there’s just one way to breathe and that way will magically provide the answers to all your issues!