Inspirazione! : Be a Green Singer

A couple of months ago, I was talking with someone, and as the conversation continued, I felt my voice becoming hoarse. I had sung a fair amount that day and thought that maybe I was tired, but after a few moments I realized my voice wasn’t tired from use. I had a sore throat. The harsh tickle was unmistakable, and I went through the usual rapid sequence of alarming questions that occur to any singer in that situation. “How long will it last?” “Will I have to cancel an engagement?” “Is it strep?” “Will I lose money or an opportunity?” All this in a period of about a minute.

As the day wore on, my sore throat became a bit worse and I was convinced it was a bug on the way—but then something happened. I returned home and after a couple of hours I was fine, the irritation was gone. I learned later that a large fire was burning in a neighboring county. Apparently the wind had brought some of the smoke my way. A few hours indoors were enough to resolve what had been a strictly environmental irritation.

What that event drove home to me is how much singers depend on clean air, and how utterly we take it for granted. For most of us—L.A. residents aside—it is just there, but things changed fast that day, and the effect on my throat was immediate.

So, Happy New Year. It’s time to take stock. Remember what’s important to you, and do something about it.

I thought this would be a good time to consider what we, as singers, can do to help preserve what we cannot do without. Here are some things of concern. Researchers on the West Coast have already detected the byproducts of coal combustion in China here in the United States. The increase in Chinese coal production is staggering, and India is not far behind. It is no consolation, but for the moment anyway, the United States is still the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. (We’re No. 1!) Evidence of pollution’s contribution to increases in heart disease and cancer (and of course respiratory illness) is mounting.

If you’re thinking, “But I’m a singer, what can I do?” Consider that singers have a long history as activists, whether it is current stars such as U2’s Bono or Sheryl Crow, or the famous Paul Robeson, who founded the American Crusade Against Lynching in 1946 and spoke out here and abroad on the injustices faced by black Americans.

It is an honorable lineage. Getting involved in a cause that you feel passionately about can be an inroad to experiencing your full aliveness, and will support your creative energy as an artist.

For things you can do at a personal level, see the sidebar on clean air habits. Of course, you can increase your effectiveness exponentially by working with others.

Here are some thoughts on becoming involved.

Get Organized

Right now, the San Francisco Bay Area is in the midst of a bona fide environmental crisis, after last week’s spill of 58,000 gallons of crude oil in the bay. Trying to volunteer has been a frustrating experience, with much more wading through red tape than time spent helping. I’ve been shocked to discover how ill prepared this supposedly environmentally enlightened community actually is in the face of this event. Government officials have been sluggish, despite the best intentions, as they struggle to get legal ducks in a row to engage a volunteer work force.

I’ve experienced a steep learning curve and I cannot help thinking how much more could have been done by now if we had organized more proactively as citizens, to educate ourselves and to participate with elected officials to prepare. So waiting for disaster to strike and then jumping in is not a strategy I would recommend, though it is gratifying to see how many people want to help.

If you’re an industrious sort, you might start an organization yourself. If not, you can find plenty to choose from. Either way, plan ahead.

Choose a Cause

Experts I have spoken with are quick to point out that global warming and clean air are not the same issue—but they are certainly related. The types of energy production that contribute to global warming are also the types that tend to diminish air quality, namely, coal. So, whether you do the work to diminish global warming, or improve air quality directly, it is bound to have a positive effect. Personally, I believe that the issue of air quality may be a greater motivator. It is a bit easier to see an immediate and personal consequence of pollution, such as increasing asthma rates in children, or negative experiences traveling to polluted cities.

Choose a Job

Consider your skills and go where you can be of most use. As a singer, you’re probably not afraid of a little public speaking, which many others shy away from. Or you may have organizational skills or other expertise. I ended up on the evening news after a tiring day of volunteer training, so I recommend bringing your lipstick, because you never know! A series in CS that ends this month explores the relationship between singers and leadership, and I think it’s a good point [see “Exploring the Relationship Between Singing and Leadership,” p. 10]. We don’t generally like the sidelines and can be of service by making our voices heard.

Fighting Hopelessness

I recently heard a speech by Wangari Muta Maathai, a Kenyan woman who spearheaded an environmental campaign of planting trees, along with other democracy and human rights works in Africa, and received the Nobel Prize in 2004. She told the following story.

“There is a huge fire raging in the forest. A humming bird sees the fire and rushes to the lake. She takes a sip with her beak, but she can only hold one drop of water. She flies over to the fire, and drops the single drop of water onto the fire. Then, she flies back to the lake and takes another single drop in her beak, and flies back to the fire. She does this again, and again.

“The other animals begin to gather and notice what she is doing. They laugh at her and begin to call out to her. Animals like elephants and others who could carry much more water, stand around watching this one little humming bird. Finally, they say to her, don’t you know that you’ll never be able to put out that fire with your tiny little beak, you silly bird!

“And do you know what the little hummingbird replied? ‘I’m doing the best that I can.’”

Ultimately, I believe, as frustrating as it can be to face some of these big troubles of our time, it feels better than knowing it’s happening and not doing anything about it. It might be the environment, or helping others in need in some other way. I simply mention clean air, because it’s something we, as singers, have a particular stake in. The day I experienced a sore throat from smoke, the news did not even carry an air quality alert.

Singers are particularly sensitive in this area. Let us use our power as songbirds, before we become the canaries in the coal mine. Like the hummingbird, we don’t need to worry about being perfect or doing it all. We just need do the best that we can.

Going Green

Most singers drive a lot. Carpooling to and from rehearsal and performance not only reduces fuel consumption, it increases net profit. (See “For Love or Money,” July 2007.) Don’t feel you have to chat your voice away on the way to the gig. That’s why God invented headphones.

Consider picking one or two days a week as “no driving days.” You may be surprised at how nice it is to get out from behind the wheel.

Carry an “eco-pack.” Having a travel mug, cloth napkin, utensils and a bag for shopping will decrease your impact on a daily basis and may help you shift from a “disposable” mentality.

Ditch the plastic water bottle. I once heard a conductor say irritably, after a singer took yet another swig from a water bottle, that he didn’t know of any operas that had a water bottle onstage as part of the set. Don’t do without the water, but consider a stainless steel or glass bottle. It’ll be easier to identify as yours at rehearsal.

The Green Singer At Home

• Use compact fluorescents bulbs.

• Clean or replace filters on your furnace and air conditioner.

• Buy a programmable thermostat. Set it 2 degrees lower in the winter and raise it 2 degrees in the summer.

• Use less hot water, turn lights off, and unplug appliances from the wall when you’re not using them.

• Buy energy efficient appliances when making new purchases.

• Get a home energy audit.

• Recycle.

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at