I have had my share of injury in the last 25 years. In fact, I only got over chronic back pain as recently as last year. My story is one of being young and uneducated in proper lifting technique in my pre-professional-singer-life as a chemical technician in a pharmaceutical company. We dealt with a lot of heavy equipment and there was no training on how to lift, push or otherwise move huge full 50 L carboys up to 300L stainless steel tanks. In contrast, my daughter recently started working at Indigo Books and they had a full day of training in lifting and back care. I’m sure I already was suffering the onset some weakened muscles when I went to my regular aerobics class and I did a forward folding stretch in the cool down (something I had done many times before) and could almost hear let alone feel the tearing in my back. It left me walking around like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. After time off work, visits to my doctor, chiropractic care, massage therapy and so on, I still had lingering effects and there were days when I could barely bend over to touch my knees let alone get anywhere near my toes. That tearing is an example of an acute or traumatic injury: an injury that occurs suddenly. Obviously, if you experience this you should seek the advice of your physician or physical therapist immediately.
Some injuries are not as obvious at first and you can find yourself wondering if it’s muscle soreness or injury. Should you work through it or seek help. If you work hard at the gym or exercise class you might experience the muscle burn of working hard and fatiguing your muscles. That’s normal, but if you overwork and feel real pain, especially any sharp, shooting pains, that is a signal that you may have strained a muscle and you will cause worse injury if you try to work through it. It’s time to R.I.C.E. (Rest, Ice, Compress and Elevate). If the pain persists, seek the advice of your physician or physical therapist.
Then there is the day after a good hard workout when you feel like a bow-legged cowboy walking in slow motion. This is known as DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) and is an inflammatory response to the micro-tears in your muscles, which will eventually result in growing stronger muscles. Not everyone experiences this so it really isn’t an indicator of whether or not you had an effective workout. It’s just your body’s individual response, which may be affected by genetics or diet. This soreness can last up to 72 hours. You can continue to workout with a light workout that includes a good warm-up and stretching and focus on different muscle groups giving the sore muscles a chance to rest. DO NOT take any pain medication such as Advil before the workout, since this will mask the pain and you won’t be able to tell if you are doing further muscle damage until it’s too late (the same goes for before singing – you can overstrain and damage your vocal folds without realizing it if you are on pain meds). Though I’m not a fan of any medications and try to use natural methods like ginger and tumeric, you can take painkillers after the workout to help lower inflammation if it really is uncomfortable. R.I.C.E. can help, too. If the pain lasts longer than 72 hours you may need to seek the advice of your physician or physical therapist.
There is also the repetitive strain or overuse injury. This is slow to manifest itself and quite often occurs because of muscle imbalances, poor form or insufficient recovery time. The pain is usually low grade to begin with, which may make it seem insignificant and not worth requiring medical attention. Symptoms will include discomfort in daily activities (eg. going down stair or sleeping, even singing), and a progression in the intensity of pain with continued exercise or activity. Again in the first 72 hours of noticing the pain R.I.C.E. and if it continues seek the advice of a physician or physical therapist.
If you look back on what I’ve written, every paragraph ends with, “If the pain persists, seek the advice of your physician or physical therapist.” I cannot stress this enough. If you don’t get the attention it needs even if it seems like a small, insignificant pain at the time, continued use of the muscles/tendons/ligaments involved can lead to chronic problems.
Remember that in the end I am looking at how this will affect you as a singer! As I always say, your body is your instrument. Back pain can affect our breathing, injured legs can affect our ability to move on stage as well as offering a firm base for our breath mechanism, and so on. Knowing the signs and symptoms to look for to distinguish between soreness and injury will allow you to get the timely help you need to keep you in prime singing form.
For me it was definitely not always easy to sing with pains that at times made breathing a struggle and affected my alignment. It can be done, but now that I’m pain-free I see that there is so much to be gained from a freely moving painless instrument. How did I beat my pain? Really, I did try so many things and taxed my budget on chiropractors, physical therapists and massage therapists (the joys of being self-employed with no insurance coverage). This is another full story, but there were two key factors that really brought about the change: one was ART (active release technique) and the second was PiYo (I credit it with my recovery so much that I have now become a certified PiYo Live Instructor).
As singers we are used to this concept as it applies to learning new things about our voice production and facing performance anxiety. Singing students sometimes have trouble letting go because they are comfortable with the sound they make or are afraid of sounding bad in their own perception. Through the guidance of their teacher they learn that the new sounds they make are actually good and eventually they shift their perception of what they should be hearing and feeling internally. Performance is another step out of the comfort zone for most singers and even professionals as they face auditions, competitions, new audiences, new repertoire and so on. The thing is as singers, we know these are part of our vocation. It does get easier the more we do it, though there can always be elements of leaving our comfort zone. We learn to accept them and find ways to deal with it. We become used to being comfortably uncomfortable.
If we are used to this concept of facing our fears and stepping outside our area of comfort, then why is it so hard to do in other parts of our lives? Singers can still experience phobias, they can still be afraid to try new things, they can still comfort eat, they may still be hesitant to make healthy changes in their lives because it seems so hard. This is a complex problem with no easy answer. Everyone is different and some people may have deep-seated emotional or psychological problems that may need professional intervention. For the average singer though, it is a matter of habit. Non-performers look at us in awe saying they could never get up on stage to do what we do, but, for most singers, we were in awe of the people on stage at one point, too. It is just through years of training and doing that it becomes normal to us - habitual.
So if leaving your comfort zone is a matter of habit how can we break it? If it took years to develop our singing habits, what chance do we have of developing new healthier habits to replace the old ones? And yes, it is all about health and wellness – physical, mental, social, emotional or spiritual. The good news is that it has been shown that it takes about 21 days to develop a habit. The bad news is it applies to bad habits as well as the good ones. The thing is to do it mindfully.
Step 1 – Decide What and How
What is it that makes you afraid of leaving your cozy bubble? How will it benefit your life? For instance – I am petrified of the thought of skydiving. Would skydiving benefit me? Not likely, so I really don’t need to concern myself with that. On the other hand, I had been afraid of public speaking. One of the reasons I was drawn to opera was because everything was laid out for me from the text and characters to the emotional context in the music. Speaking on the other hand was not something I was comfortable with. I was a very quiet shy person in any social situation and even in spoken word performance I was very unsure of what to do. What would the benefit of public speaking be? I would be more comfortable in social situations, I would be able to teach and present with more confidence. Clearly it would be an immediate benefit to my life. How could I approach it? For me it was a long journey, but it started with being cast in a musical (Oh no! Spoken text!!!), and a very kind director who spent much time with me ridding me of my up speak (the rising inflection at the end of every statement that makes all you say sound like a question). After that rehearsal and performance period I no longer had up speak. I noticed people paid more attention to what I had to say.
Step 2 – Choose a focus
As I said, that was the start of the journey for me and for most of us when we want something outside of our comfort zone it is usually complex and there are layers to it. Once you’ve established why you want to get out of your bubble you have to decide what the first step is. It is hard to change everything at once. As a singer you know this, no one is a great singer in just 21 days. It takes time. You work on one or two things at a time until they are habitual and then move on to the next thing. It can be too overwhelming to do everything at once and usually that is why people fail. So, choose one or two things to develop into a habit and focus on that.
Step 3 – Get support
I had my director who went above and beyond to help me with my up speak. You need to have a support system in place. Even if you have professional help, which can sometimes be very important, get the support of family and friends as well. Let them know what you are working on. This support system will keep you motivated and accountable; very important factors in your long-term success.
Step 4 – Reassess
Periodic assessments keep you on track and continue to move further and further from that bubble you once found so cozy. These assessments will also help keep relapses at bay.
So let’s put all these steps in play with a fictitious case study (this will not apply to everyone, don’t take it as a blanket approach). Sandra wants to lose 20 pounds. What is holding her back? Changing her eating habits and the thought of exercising puts her out of her comfort zone. How will Sandra benefit? She will decrease her risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes (there is a history in her family) and she will feel more confident wearing a sleeveless gown for an upcoming recital. What should she focus on? Start small with exercise and commit to walking 20 minutes a day and remove all processed sugary, salty, fatty foods from her pantry, replacing with healthier foods and snacks. She needs support so she is talking to a dietician about healthy choices and has her husband on board to help with meals and a friend to walk with. After 21 days Sandra reassesses her progress, she has lost 5 lbs and is feeling more energy. She decides she is ready to take a further step out of her comfort zone with a Zumba class two times a week and continue walking with her friend for 3 days a week, but increasing to 45 minute walks. The eating was hard and she needs to find more healthy recipes that appeal to her, but she is feeling encouraged by the support her husband gives her. Sandra is now on her way to continue challenging herself. As she develops these habits, she may find that there are other parts of her life locked away in her comfort zone and as she is ready she can then start to face new challenges. Maybe it's to have a closer relationship with her husband or take on another role in her career such as becoming a director. Whatever the challenge maybe, once you know how to get out of your comfort zone you just keep growing as a person for the rest of your life. It truly is an amazing journey!!!
So whatever is keeping you in your comfort zone venture out! Most likely the benefits to your body, mind and spirit will far outweigh the safety of that bubble.