MASSAGE: : Luxury or Essential Career Tool?

For someone in this profession, massage is essential.” Barbara Lowin, a former opera singer now performing cabaret (including a CD of love songs and ballads called As Long as There’s Music, due out at Christmas), is very forthright about the benefits of massage. “Let’s face it, we all have stress in our daily lives, and not only work-related stress. But when you have a very concrete stress going on, I strongly recommend massage.”

One singer said, “Massage is definitely beneficial. Extravagant–no. Expensive–yes. Singers simply must be relaxed, and our lifestyles are not conducive to that.”

So what exactly is massage, anyway? It’s not as easy a question as it sounds, because there are many different facets to this discipline, further complicated by related fields (such as reflexology), which may sound like the same thing but are definitely not. Massage may serve a number of different purposes. It can help to relieve stress-related muscular pain (long rehearsals on raked stages) or the accompanying discomfort following an injury (stage combat that goes awry). It can be a companion to sports training, or recommended as an adjunct to chiropractic treatment, or it may be part of psychological therapy. Some massage therapists cite the friendly physical touch of massage as one way of counteracting abusive experiences in the past.

Within the discipline of massage therapy there are certain subdivisions. The term “Swedish massage” may be the most familiar in some respects, but there are variations on this technique widely used by therapists, including trigger-point massage, in which small areas of tension are worked to release lactic acid build-up and the accompanying pain.

Massage therapist Leslie Leonelli makes it all a bit clearer. “Swedish massage is the basic language,” she said. “The strokes are established in the Swedish style of muscle manipulation. Depending on how you apply it, it becomes sports massage, relaxation, prenatal, trigger-point therapy. They all have their base in standard Swedish massage.”

Aside from the obvious general benefit of all-over muscular relaxation, massage for singers may offer some unexpected bonuses. “Massage enabled me to relax the body,” said soprano Harolyn Blackwell, “and to become more aware of the body, which is, of course, our basic instrument when singing.”

Suzanne Falletti, a soprano at the Met, says, “I started getting massages as a teenager, so I became aware of the benefit of bodywork. Then when I went to college, I got a massage as a gift, and it was tremendous! I couldn’t believe how much it relieved neck and lower back tension. As I’ve evolved as a performer, I’ve done lots of bodywork–not just massage, but rolfing and acupuncture–because I really believe your whole body is your instrument. When you separate out your singing voice from how the rest of your body is functioning, I think you’re missing the boat. I hear and see lots of singers who hold a lot of tension in their necks and backs, and they would probably be amazed at how much easier it could be.”

Lois Barth, a massage therapist working in Manhattan, puts it this way. “[Massage] is a wake-up call for singers. It says, ‘There’s something below my neck–it’s called my body.’ So many singers are disconnected from their bodies. I see a real connection between body, mind and spirit. On the physical level there are so many challenges, for the new or the experienced singer. With each massage you’re re-educating the body, and increasing that body awareness.”

Whether it’s viewed as a kind of pampering, or as part of a regular program of physical fitness and relaxation, massage is certainly an often-used technique for many singers, dancers and actors. Singers are as dependent on their physical body as any athlete, and although the emphasis is often placed on the part of the body from the collarbones up, increasing awareness and function of the body as a whole may be one reason massage is a good option.

Emily Brunson

Soprano Emily Brunson was senior editor for Classical Singer from 1998-99.