Classical Singer magazine has invited me to contribute a regular monthly column on fitness, beginning with the December 2013 issue. "Musings on Mechanics" will offer strategies for the care, maintenance and optimal functioning of your instruments. CS is kindly extending my readers a discounted subscription via this link, so please subscribe now as this content will be available solely through the magazine.
My first installment, "Get Ready for Your Close-Up," discusses how to deal with the increasing pressure singers feel to attend to their physical appearance. My student Daniel Foltz-Morrison is pursuing an interdisciplinary MA in Vocal Performance and Exercise Sports Science at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, so while I was putting this column together I asked him whether his research had turned up any material I'd find useful.
Unfortunately, there isn't much available on the topic. Daniel referred me to a 1995 piece from Nutrition Today titled "Professional Singers with Obesity or Eating-Related Problems: The Diva Syndrome," by Angela Slover and Johanna T. Dwyer. By then I'd already handed in my draft to Classical Singer, so I thought I'd share my reactions to it here.
Slover and Dwyer describe common "maladaptive eating behaviors and lifestyle characteristics that are prevalent among professional singers, predisposing them to obesity," including pre- and post-performance eating habits, erratic schedules, and social obligations where an abundance of rich food and drink is on offer.
I for one would not go so far as to say that a singer's lifestyle predisposes them to obesity or that our community's collective eating habits constitute a syndrome! However, while Slover and Dwyer's article lacks academic rigor, it raises some important issues. A singing career does create formidable obstacles for establishing and maintaining a healthy diet.
In preparation for performances you have to fuel your body like an athlete, but you also have to make sure not to eat so close to a performance that a full stomach interferes with your breathing or causes reflux. By the time the show is over and you're done greeting your fans and have taken off your costume and makeup, many hours have passed since your last meal. You're famished and will likely join your colleagues for a heavy meal, then head to bed shortly afterwards. Performance days thus often involve two large meals with a period of gnawing hunger in between, behavior that can lead to weight gain. While research has yet to yield conclusive date, studies suggest that the later you eat, the more difficult it is to regulate your weight. And while experts still argue over whether it's better to eat many small meals or a few large meals throughout the day, common sense should tell you that the hungrier you are, the more likely you are to overeat.
Frequent travel and variable work schedules increase singers' dietary challenges. Upon arriving in an unfamiliar city for a month or two, it's going to take you a little while to figure out where to shop, whether it will be possible to prepare your own meals, and which local restaurants are healthy and affordable. Your nutritional needs and meal schedules on rehearsal days, performance days, and days off all have significant differences. If you still depend to some extent on non-musical employment for your survival, this further compunds the irregularity of day-to-day meal planning.
Regular, balanced nutrition is essential for the well-being and function of your instrument. It may not be easy to achieve, but with planning and vigilance you can develop eating habits that will advance your health and support your singing.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
Establish criteria for your pre-performance meals. Everyone's needs differ, and you must figure out what works best for your body so that you will perform with energy and without discomfort. Don't skimp on calories pre-performance – even if you're trying to lose weight, this is not the time to cut back.
Keep healthy snacks in your dressing room. You may have to clear this with the wardrobe staff, and it is important to choose things that will not damage your costume or mess up your makeup. But a few bites of an energy bar at intermission will not only fuel your performance but keep you from becoming famished by the end of the show.
Manage your post-performance hunger. A snack at intermission will help, and you may also wish to have a few more bites of that energy bar before heading out to celebrate with patrons or colleagues. Eat slowly and mindfully post-performance, and you'll be less likely to overdo it.
Exercise restraint at social functions. You'll confront an abundance of rich food at receptions, and it can be difficult to keep track of what you've consumed.
Research shopping, meal preparation, and healthy dining options prior to arriving in an unfamiliar city. That moment when your plane lands is the moment when you're most vulnerable to making expedient, regrettable choices.
Create distinct meal templates for performance, rehearsal, day job and leisure day schedules. There is no one plan that will suffice for them all. If you find yourself in a situation for which you have no plan, you will likely just wing it, and the results will not be ideal.
This is indeed a lot to contemplate and keep track of. You have the maintenance and performance needs of an athlete without the regularity of an athlete's schedule. The highly social nature of your career has you continually surrounded by lavish food and drink. And the fact that you are drawn to so sensual an art form suggests that you're probably deeply hedonistic. We all love to eat!
Put in the work to build eating strategies that will balance your enjoyment of food with what you need to feel healthy and energized on a day-to-day basis even in the face of irregular travel and work itineraries.
Sometimes just acknowledging that something is hard helps to make it easier. Your nutritional needs are specific to your career and lifestyle, and you're not supposed to just know how to eat on a given day. Be aware that if you've struggled with diet issues, there's a good reason: our needs are, in fact, surprisingly complex.
They are complex, but they are not pathological. Slover and Dwyer conclude their article with an ominous but unsupported admonition that "Singers must be educated early in their training that obesity is an occupational hazard of a professional singing career." I would instead encourage an early awareness of our unique dietary challenges and support for cultivating good eating habits while singers are still in the relatively structured environment of training programs. They'll be better poised to design strategies to augment these habits once it comes time to meet the demands of a career.