Every singer has heard that their body is their instrument. I’ve heard it going all the way back to my first singing teacher when I was 14. But what, exactly, does that mean? Some of the advice that I got as a young singer was very superficial and only marginally better than what any person with some common sense would do anyway. Eat well, get enough sleep, stay hydrated, and don’t scream. Of course, even common sense is sometimes in short supply, like the time a 12 year old student went to a Shania Twain concert (she was a really big deal about 10 years ago) the night before a voice exam and then wondered why she didn’t perform as well as usual:
Me: “Did you scream a lot?”
Me: “Did you go to bed late?”
Me: “How did you feel before going into the exam?”
Student: “I was tired and my voice was hoarse.”
Chalk that one up to youthful exuberance.
As I progressed as a singer some of the advice became more detailed. Talk of alignment and breathing were in the forefront. Recommendations of Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, Yoga and Bodymapping as methods to improve these were ever-present. Advice on exercise was limited to walking, swimming, other light cardio work– weights were absolutely to be avoided and forget about a six-pack. And if you were a singing dancer: Oh the horrors of dealing with the slew of problems in breathing that that would produce! Thankfully we are entering a more enlighten age about exercise and the voice. Many singers are now hitting the gym, running marathons, doing triathlons (me!) and there is no detriment to the voice if training properly. In fact, doing harder cardio will benefit breathing, stamina and endurance (Any Wagnerians out there? Now that’s an endurance sport!), not to mention all the actual health benefits of exercise including reduced risks of heart disease, diabetes and cancer, to name a few.
Then there is the nutrition advice that got more specific: Avoid dairy, spicy foods, alcohol, carbonated and ice cold drinks prior to performances. Eat two hours before a performance. If you are experiencing a dry mouth eat sour foods like grape tomatoes, or lemon water. Most of this advice revolves around the immediacy of singing rather than any long-term management. Unfortunately not enough time is spent talking about good nutrition as a means of keeping your instrument healthy for life. When singers talk about avoiding colds most seem to think a scarf, copious amounts of tea and avoiding germs at all costs will protect their throats. Caught a cold? Singers are probably keeping Cold F/X and other supplement manufacturers in business, if not reeking of garlic. As with exercise a healthy diet will not only help you stave off a cold, but will reduce risk of diseases.
Hopefully most everyone has more enlightened teachers and coaches than I did, though I still see many of the old remedies and myths about how to take care of a singer’s body floating around. Singer’s must also be proactive in finding out what they can about leading a healthy lifestyle, which include a solid exercise plan and a good nutrition plan to maintain a healthy body. I used to think I was doing enough; I followed the Canada Food Guide and was dancing 4 classes a week with the occasional trip to the gym, yet I would still get sick about every six weeks. It made performing a real challenge for me. This all changed when I began triathlon training and switched to a whole food plant-based diet. The only times I have become sick are when I have strayed from my new eating pattern or had exceptionally stressful times in my life, like when my father passed away. Not only do I not get sick anymore, but I also have so much more control of my voice and it is so much stronger.
I was recently reminded about how the maintenance of the body of an instrument makes it sound better. At one of the schools I teach at we had a lovely Steinway grand. Unfortunately due to poor maintenance the soundboard cracked and it was no longer able to stay in tune and the tonal quality was very uneven. Our bodies are like this instrument – how we maintain it will affect the sound we produce, as well as the longevity of it.
So what does it mean that your body is your instrument? It means that you owe it to yourself and your voice to do the best you can to exercise, eat well and in general lead a healthy lifestyle. The bonus of taking good care of your instrument will be that you will be able to cope with the other facets of your life better (like house cleaning, playing with your children, other jobs outside of music), you will minimize illness and you will have plenty of energy for it all!