As the World Opens Up: Holistic Wellness for Singers in a Post-COVID Era
by Ellen Allen
As the World Opens Up: Holistic Wellness for Singers in a Post-COVID Era
After a long year of isolation, anxiety, and stress, the singing community is now faced with the prospect of performing live again.
Some of us are doing cartwheels of excitement and can’t wait to get back out there. Others are feeling reticent, wondering how we will do so safely. Maybe you’re vacillating between these two states.
Let’s first acknowledge that both feelings are equally valid. Personally, I resonate with both, at different times.
Whether you are excited about moving forward in these next few months or feeling hesitant, it’s important to think about how you want to proceed, as this new season is bound to come with its own difficulties and uncertainties. I am neither a scientist nor a medical professional, and am not here to tell you what you should or should not do - other than to keep following local and state health and safety regulations. As a singer and a wellness coach, however, I am here to offer some suggestions to consider as we enter this next phase as a singing community. My hope is that they will help you to take care of your body, mind, and voice during these next few months; and empower you to make the best decisions for YOU.
MENTAL WELL-BEING: PREPARATION AND MINDSET
Just like for a good performance, preparation for this next phase is key. By using this time to calibrate our expectations, develop a vision, and set some ground rules for ourselves, we can enter this new season with more clarity and confidence.
Calibrate Your Expectations
First, let’s make peace with the fact that post-pandemic performing is going to look different than it did pre-pandemic, at least for a while. How that difference plays out will depend on each situation, but developing a flexible, open, roll-with-the-punches mindset is going to be important.
Develop a Vision
Take stock of your mindset about performing. Is it one of limitedness and scarcity? If so, you’re not alone - after all, many of us singers were conditioned to have a scarcity mindset about opportunities from the outset. And after a year of so much loss and difficulty, it’s possible this mindset has been reinforced.
If that’s the case for you, consider using this time to reframe. Rather than focusing on the scarcity of performance opportunities, strive to cultivate a mindset of abundance. Here are some things to consider:
- Now is a great time to reassess and re-evaluate your goals. Maybe you want to pick up where you left off in early 2020; maybe you want to pivot and pursue new opportunities.
- Consider how your unique skill sets can serve your colleagues and your community.
- Consider creating your own opportunities! If you’re passionate about something, find a way to make it happen.
- Allow yourself time for honest self-reflection and to think creatively about what you really want - not what you feel you “should” do. If you’re feeling unclear or don’t know where to start, seek out a trusted mentor, friend, or coach to help you create some action steps.
- This is also a great time to network with directors, conductors, and potential collaborators! Reach out to people via email, or consider meeting colleagues for coffee (either in-person or virtually) to brainstorm ideas for new projects.
Set Your Ground Rules
It’s important that each singer establishes their own personal COVID-safety performance ground rules before considering any gigs. What precautions would make you feel safe? What risks are you willing to take, if any? What would be a deal-breaker? Everyone’s situation and risk threshold are different, and so will be our personal safety preferences.
Once you’ve set your personal ground rules, use your criteria to assess the safety of each opportunity objectively. If you are asked to take a gig, find out as much about the precautions as you can beforehand, and communicate clearly to the director or coordinator what your parameters are. Get an agreement in writing, if possible. If something doesn’t feel right, trust your instincts. You are always free to say no. Something else will come along that will be a much better fit. (See, there’s that abundance mindset again!)
And what if you take the gig, only to discover that the agreed-upon parameters aren’t being observed? You are still free to say no. Be professional and courteous about it, of course, and honor the terms of any written agreement as best you can, but always know that you are free to walk away if you feel your health and safety are being compromised.
Finally, be prepared to re-evaluate and/or revise your criteria as the public health landscape changes and new data become available. In situations like these, adaptability and flexibility are key!
EMOTIONAL WELL-BEING: SET AND HONOR BOUNDARIES
It might be tempting, after spending a year in a performance and collaborative desert, to take any opportunity that comes your way.
However, I’d encourage all of us to remember that we’ve been through a lot these past thirteen months. Your capacity may be different than it was a year ago. It’s important that you realistically assess your time, resources, and energy levels based on this current moment - NOT on what they were before the pandemic, or on what you wish or hope they might be in a few months’ time. By sticking to your boundaries and investing only in those projects your capacity will allow, you’ll be treating yourself and your colleagues with the respect you all deserve.
If you are on the other end of the spectrum and feel somewhat terrified of performing amidst other singers again, be gentle with yourself, and take things at your own pace. Refrain from comparing yourself to your colleagues. Their situation is different from yours. You are not obligated to do anything you’re not ready to. Your own well-being is what’s important here.
And if you’re one of those people who hasn’t even been singing at all this past year, never mind performing? Be gentle with yourself there, too. Start singing when and if you are emotionally ready. Start small. Sing what you want, what brings you joy. Set small, realistic goals, perhaps with the help of a teacher, coach, or other mentor.
No matter what, it’s important that we all make time for rest, self-care, and the activities that will replenish us. And yes, we must MAKE time. Self-care is a discipline to be cultivated, and that requires intention and commitment. Rest and self-care will help to keep your nervous system calm, keep you grounded in the present moment, and give you more clarity of mind for all the tasks facing you in life.
PHYSICAL WELL-BEING: BOOST YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM
We know that masks, distancing, and hand-washing all help to prevent the spread of covid (and other illnesses, for that matter). However, these basic precautions - while absolutely necessary - are only one piece of the illness-prevention picture. And while vaccines are a godsend in many ways, the current data show they are not 100% effective. Thus, if we’re going to start putting ourselves in each other’s aerosol clouds again, we must remain as vigilant as ever about protecting our immune systems, especially against diseases that will negatively impact our instruments.
As singers, we’re told from day one that our bodies are our instruments, but it’s not often that we stop to think about all the implications of this statement. Before the good ol’ immune system took center stage at the beginning of the covid crisis last year, I’m willing to bet most of us didn’t give our own much thought unless we felt an illness coming on. And whenever that happened, we would run to our tried-and-true meds, remedies, and regimens, hoping to head sickness off at the pass.
However, as with anything else wellness-related, it’s important to take a holistic, systemic view of the immune system. If our whole bodies really are our instruments, we’d do well not to fall into the trap of treating every single issue in isolation - because our bodies don’t really work that way.
Your immune system is something that requires continuous ammunition, especially during times or situations of heightened threat. Boosting your immune system means giving your body the tools it needs to fight pathogens and staying away from the things and circumstances that will make that task difficult. This means that there is no magic bullet when it comes to preventing illness and that you should be boosting your immune system on a daily basis, whether or not you feel ill.
When it comes down to it, your immune system has two main enemies: stress and sugar. And these are sneaky enemies because they each come in many forms, some of them initially unrecognizable.
Singers are familiar with the manifestations of performance anxiety - muscle tension, dry mouth, trembling limbs, shortness of breath, and so on. Performance anxiety is a form of acute - i.e., temporary - stress.
After this year, many of us are also familiar with chronic stress - that near-constant, latent sense of unease or anxiety caused by an ongoing adverse situation. This kind of stress can also have physical manifestations, but they often are more subtle or seemingly unrelated.
Acute stress, like your garden-variety performance anxiety, is something every human is hard-wired to cope with. Chronic stress, however - which can be physical, mental, or emotional - is a different story. When your body senses a stressor, it initiates a chain reaction that begins in your brain and then travels to your adrenal glands, which release cortisol and adrenaline. These are necessary hormones, to be sure, but when they’re elevated all the time, they contribute to a never-ending stress response loop that can affect a myriad of functions across your body’s systems.
Two places in the body where chronic stress typically manifests are:
- The musculoskeletal system, in the form of muscle tension and/or mobility issues - something many of us singers are all too familiar with
- The gut - which, after the liver, is the body’s biggest hormone-processing center, and the place where over 70% of your immune system is located
That’s right - if your cortisol levels are up all the time, your immune system - and probably a lot of other systems - will likely take a hit. And since singing is an activity that is dependent on the proper functioning of many body systems at once, there could be implications for vocal health as well.
How you cope with chronic stress will depend on your unique situation, but no matter what, the principle is the same: calming the nervous system will disarm your body’s defense mechanisms, signaling to your brain that there is no longer a threat. Once you enter this “rest and digest” mode, your body can begin to reallocate resources to anything it deemed non-essential during its time in “fight-or-flight” mode - such as optimal vocal function.
Sugar is a carbohydrate. We need carbohydrates for energy. But regular consumption of refined sugars, and refined carbohydrates in general, can wreak havoc on our bodies, causing inflammation, digestive issues, headaches, brain fog, and imbalanced blood sugar and pH levels, among other things. They also, unsurprisingly, depress the immune system.
When you eat to fuel your body, you want to choose foods that give you the best nutritional bang for your buck - in other words, nutrient-dense, whole foods that your body can easily recognize and metabolize. If you’re eating these foods, chances are you’re getting a lot of the vitamins and micronutrients necessary to fuel your instrument.
Does this mean you have to avoid sugar all the time? Of course not. But if you’ve got a big performance coming up and your family/co-workers/roommates are sick, I’d recommend avoiding large quantities of sugar if you don’t want to succumb to the same plague.
Sleep and Supplements
If stress and sugar are your immune system’s most pernicious enemies, sleep is one of its strongest allies. During sleep, your immune system is hard at work as your body rebuilds after facing the day’s stressors.
Supplements can also be a great addition to your wellness protocol, but be sure to do your research and consult with a health or medical professional before implementing a new regimen, as the quality of products on the market varies widely; many supplements must be taken in conjunction with others for proper absorption, and some may have contraindications or particular side effects that singers should be aware of.
HOLISTIC SINGING: BODY, MIND, AND VOICE
As singers, we all know about the importance of “the team” - the teacher, the coach, the bodywork specialist, the SLP, and other mentors and experts who are in your corner. As we emerge from a difficult year into hopefully happier times, I think it’s important that singers also have recourse to holistic practitioners - particularly ones who understand the unique challenges that singers face. As we begin to rebuild our industry, let’s all use our unique skills to build up each other, embracing what it means to be a singer in this new, post-covid world. May we all be the healthiest versions of ourselves!
About the Author
Ellen Allen is a Boston-based soprano, voice teacher, and holistic wellness coach. Specializing in oratorio, concert, and choral work, she has appeared as a soloist with several Boston-area ensembles, performing the works of Bach, Mozart, Handel, and Haydn. She currently sings with Triad: Boston’s Choral Collective, a democratically-run organization of singers, conductors, and composers specializing in new music, and also serves as the ensemble’s Artistic Vice President.
Ellen maintains a full-time voice studio of high school, avocational, and pre-professional students, and teaches both classical and musical theater styles of singing. In her teaching, Ellen combines her skill as a vocal technician with her other discipline, holistic health, to create a mind-body approach to singing and performing informed by each student’s particular needs. Her students have been finalists in local and regional competitions, landed lead roles in their school and community productions, and earned acceptance to top-level conservatories. She is a member of NATS Boston and the Speakeasy Cooperative and is also the co-founder and music director of Rising Stars Productions, a music and theater education company for youth based in Reading, MA.
In her holistic wellness coaching practice, Ellen works with singers and non-singers alike, taking a whole-person approach to food lifestyle, immune support, and stress management to help her clients feel and sing their best, and build healthy habits that will last.
You can learn more about Ellen’s studio and coaching practice at holisticharmonyvoiceandwellness.com, and her performing at ellenallensoprano.com.