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!

Is your speaking voice helping or hurting you?

If you are awake for about 15 hours each day, that is a lot of time that you can use your voice for talking and singing. Our muscles respond and form patterns based on how they are used. Your voice is a muscle.

The most problematic speaking patterns that I see include the excessive use of glottal fry, speaking at a pitch that is too low and pressed phonation. I see it more in females than males, but there are always exceptions.

Effective use of the speaking voice is closely tied to breath, alignment and how rested you are, but I’ve covered those issues already. So, assuming you’ve sorted those out, or at least know where your growing edges are on those topics, I want to address specific ways you can improve your speaking voice.

1. Find your optimal pitch.

There are a few ways of doing this. You can have someone ask you a simple question to which you will respond with uh-huh. The kind of noise you make without thinking to respond to a simple question. Find where that pitch is on the piano and that is a good indication of your optimal pitch.

Or, you (if you are female, men can try humming in the octave below middle C) can hum on middle C, the B below and the B-flat below. Hum with your teeth apart, lips barely touching. See if you feel vibration on your lips or in the mask area – bridge of the nose, cheekbones. The one that vibrates the most is your optimal pitch. Typically, the higher the voice type, the higher the optimal pitch. There are always exceptions to the rules too – you may not feel vibration and in that case use the uh-huh exercise above.

Now, I’m not advocating talking in a monotone like a robot, but if we were to average out all of your pitches, that pitch that vibrates easily is where we’d want to be. Most often, the average pitch is much, much lower.

 

2. Find a resonant speaking voice

A resonant voice is ‘placed’ well, easily produced and can be used for an extended time without getting fatigued. Now that you’ve identified your optimal pitch begin gently humming it, feeling warm air escape through your nose and vibration on your lips.

Begin to open from the hum to different vowel sounds hmmm-aaaaaa, hmmm-eeeeee, hmmmm-oooooo etc. Move through all 5 vowel sounds.

Make up sentences that begin with resonant consonants like m, n, or v (Dr. Seuss is a handy help in this…Verna Vera Vin’s Violet Violin!).  Chant the sentences on that vibrational pitch…. My Mom May Marry….Name Nine Names Now…. etc.

After you’ve intoned the sentences, try speaking them again in a regular speaking voice, using your breath well and exploring this new pitch range.

 

3. Explore your range while counting

Count in groups of 5 from 1 to 50. Pause between each group to take an easy breath where the belly and ribcage release. Let the pitch of the voice rise and fall to explore your full vocal range as you count – don’t ever go so low that you fall into the gravelly, vocal fry place.

 

Of course, just doing these once won’t undo your habits of many years. Try doing them in the morning while you are in the shower or while commuting (unless you take public transportation in which case you will get a serious case of side eye from fellow passengers) to set yourself up for efficient voice use throughout the day.

Be mindful of when you slip into your old habits of speaking too low or in fry. Your level of fatigue and hydration as well as how connected you are to the breath will all influence the quality of your speaking voice. If you catch yourself slipping into your old habits, just pause, take a breath and start over again.

Back to school…Healthy Habits for Singers

It is back to school time and I thought I’d offer up a list of habits you can institute that will keep your voice healthy throughout the year.

1. Don’t smoke. Don’t use drugs. Don’t abuse alcohol.

2. Find a way to deal with stress! If you don’t your body will find a way to let you know usually by getting sick or injured in some way. Yoga in the form of physical poses, breath work and meditation will do this for you.

3. Make sleep a priority. Staying rested will help lower your stress level and keep your immune system in balance. Sleep is also the time when our cells repair themselves. If you’ve had a long rehearsal, sleeping will help your voice repair for another day’s voice use.

4. Eat a healthy diet and drink water throughout the day. My rule of thumb is eat actual food and not food products. Whole foods are rich in the protein, vitamins and minerals that our bodies need. Hydration is systemic so drinking water every day until you pee pale is the way to know you are hydrated (and your voice will function more efficiently when you are hydrated.)

5. Exercise regularly. A daily dose of thirty minutes of moderate exercise (walking) is all it takes. Strength training is also beneficial to keep muscles in peak condition.

6. Observe how much you talk throughout the day. It is unlikely that you spend more time singing than speaking. Limit your voice use so you have time to recover – put yourself on voice rest if need be. Don’t use your voice to imitate sounds, yell excessively at a sporting event or engage in competitive talking (like what you do on the subway when you try to make yourself heard over background/ambient noise).

7. Always warm up the voice completely (15-20 min.) before full-on singing. Each voice needs different exercises to target certain areas, so don’t rely on a choral warm up to be perfect for you, if you are a choral singer. Ideally, warm your voice up in the morning before you have used it all day to speak. This will help you to speak efficiently. Before you visit the extremes of your range, spend a lot of time on middle voice. Use lip trills, glides and a variety of vowel sounds to awaken the voice.

8. Ask questions! If you are having trouble singing a piece meet with a conductor or a voice teacher who can help you develop strategies for singing difficult passages. Improving your sight singing skills will also help keep you from getting vocally fatigued when learning a new song. Be sure you are singing the right voice part! If you are unsure of the appropriate range for your voice, go and see a voice teacher.

9. Don’t sing if you are sick. Instead, use the time to visually learn your music. If you aren’t contagious or coughing excessively, learn by listening. If you find yourself vocally tired, heat some water in a pot on the stove and bring it to just under a boil, so steam is produced. Tent a towel over your head and breathe deeply through your nose and mouth for 5-10 minutes. The steam will help to rejuvenate your voice and make it feel better.

10. When you are done practicing or rehearsing, take a few minutes to stretch and do some deep breathing to help the body return to a rested state.

11. If you find yourself in vocal trouble for 10 days or longer – persistent hoarseness, sudden loss of vocal range, the voice easily fatigues or it is painful to talk or sing – get in to have your vocal cords looked at. For many, this involves a visit to a primary care physician or campus health services and then a referral to an Ear Nose and Throat (ENT) doctor. If you can get in to see a Laryngologist that is preferable – this is an ENT with specific training in the voice.

Why Yoga for Singers

Why Yoga for Singers

Imagine taking the stage feeling physically strong, breathing easily and fully and not having a whiff of nerves. It might feel impossible, but this is what yoga does for you as a singer. You need more than a well-trained voice to succeed: you need body, mind and voice to come together each and every time you perform.

Yoga looks at the whole person and offers a way to balance body, breath and mind. In the physical practice of asana, we learn to pay attention to how our body moves, gaining better alignment, strength and flexibility. In the breathing practices of pranayama we become aware of our breath, understand our patterns and stay connected to the breath at all times. In the mental practice of meditation we become conscious of our mind’s busy nature, learning to quiet our thoughts, becoming present to our performance.

 

Brief History of Yoga

Historically, the word yoga comes from the sanskrit word yuj meaning “to yoke or unite.” Its purpose was to link together body and mind and ultimately form a spiritual connection to the Divine, allowing the individual to achieve spiritual enlightenment.

The practice of yoga in the modern age is very different from its origins, 3500 years ago. Since its inception, yoga has gone through many variations and what we now practice has only been around for about 100 years and grew out of the Hatha yoga tradition that focused on physical poses. Yoga in other forms, however, has been in this country longer as shown in transcendentalists like Thoreau and Emerson who were intrigued by the contemplative elements of yoga talked about in books like the Bhagavad Gita. Though there was yoga in the form of physical practice in the United States in the 1920s, it wasn’t until the 1960s when many Americans began to practice a non-spiritual, physical form of yoga and the multitude of schools of yoga now common in this country, began to emerge.

 

Benefits of Yoga for Singers:

*Improved posture and kinesthetic sense

*Better flexibility of spine and pelvis = better flexibility of diaphragm

*Greater awareness of breathing patterns and ability to control breath

*Management of performance anxiety

*Strength-building for large muscles like quadriceps that help to ground singers

*Improved sense of mind-body connection and balance

*General stress management

 

Families of Asanas (physical practice) and what they do for your body:

Standing – energizing, strengthening large muscles like quadriceps, grounding

Backbends – also energizing, open the chest, enhance inhalation, stimulate lymphatic system

Forward Bends – calming to nervous system, help facilitate exhaling, aidin sleeping, increase flexibility in the hips

Inversions – reverse flow of blood and lymph fluid

Twists – increase flexibility of diaphragm and intercostal muscles, cleansing for organs (bring new blood flow to abdominal organs like the liver)

Balance – strengthen core muscles, strengthen sense of self

Restoratives – help a body in need of rest and rejuvenation (recovery from injury)

 

Pranayama (breath practice) benefits for singers:

There are many pranayama practices that can aid singers. In yogic thought breath is what carries Prana, our life force – without breath no one can survive and our health is intrinsically linked to the quality of our breathing. It isn’t news to singers that your breath will change with your emotions – stress and nerves can cause the breath to become shallow as the body moves into fight or flight mode. Many singers will report a sensation of a high after a lesson or performance due to endorphins that are released when oxygen is exchanged. There are exercises that can help to calm the breath and keep a steady, even rhythm of inhale/exhale, exercises to help balance a busy mind and those to help to alleviate the flow of adrenaline that often runs high after a performance.

Breath Ratio: identifies patterns in breathing that can be dysfunctional

Wave Breath: brings awareness to belly, helping to make core muscles supple

Bee Breath: helps to lengthen the exhale and also works to calm an anxious mind

Alternate Nostril Breathing: helps to balance the mind, bringing clarity and focus. Aids in relaxation and may help prevent panic attacks.

 

Dhyana (meditation practice) benefits for singers:

It is said that the goal of meditation is a cessation of thought, but I think the true benefit comes from learning to be compassionately aware of your thoughts. That means the process of meditating is first about realizing how busy your mind is. Second, you learn to observe those layers of thoughts without judging. Third, you develop an ability to let the thoughts go, moving to a quiet(er) mind.

You can meditate by simply closing your eyes and focusing on your inhale and exhale. Every time your mind wanders, just come back to your breath. You could also do a guided meditation by listening to a cd or attending a class. Either way, working towards clearing your mind will help you relax and let go of stress, tension and fear. There is no hard and fast rule about when or for how long to meditate. Most people do well to meditate when they wake up in the morning before the brain has kicked into high gear, but if you want to take 10 minutes at lunchtime to sit quietly and observe your breath, that counts too.

 

A regular meditation practice will make your singing practice time more effective and it will make your time on stage more centered and connected.