Staying Physically and Mentally Well

The A.M. Health Series at the 2007 Classical Singer convention aims to provide singers an opportunity to strengthen more than just their voices. The four presenters will focus on a variety of techniques to increase energy, efficiency, and relaxation in body and mind.

With a firsthand understanding of the need for balance in one’s life, Robert Swedberg is both general director of Orlando Opera and a certified yoga instructor.

“Singing-actors work on many different levels simultaneously, with the body and mind functioning at high levels of energized output in a much more athletic endeavor than many people realize,” he says. “Yoga can help the coordination of this activity tremendously.”

Opera administration and stage direction have taken much of Swedberg’s professional attention away from his own singing, but he recently put his theories to the test by assuming a comprimario role with his resident artists.

“I know I am more flexible, have better support, and better breathing capacity than I did 25 years ago when I sang professionally,” he says, but admits that, “I don’t think I will suddenly be a threat to other bass-baritones, but I was happy with the experiment, and I have an even greater capacity to teach and share yoga with performers because of it.”

His session—for practitioners and visitors—will be a mild introduction to yoga but will allow for more vigorous involvement. Participants should bring a yoga mat or large towel, avoid eating for a couple of hours before practicing, and be ready to work in bare feet.

For nearly 10 years, Suzanne Jackson has been incorporating yoga techniques with the specific needs of singers, which includes work with the Washington National Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program and private artists at the Metropolitan Opera. Designed to move at a slower pace than some seasoned yoga practitioners are used to, her session will cover a broad array of yoga-related topics, including qigong, yoga kryias, pranayama (yogic breathing), and even chair yoga.

“Singers spend a lot of time sitting—in travel, waiting through long rehearsals, or in classes,” she explains. “Your energy can get low. [Chair yoga] can help keep your energy going while you’re seated.”

Jackson’s students often comment that yoga “gives them a sense of energized calm—they can take it and be energetic, or take it and be calm.”

Jackson encourages loose and comfortable clothing at the session but says most convention attire, other than skirts, is appropriate.

Glenn Canin wants to emphasize in his presentation that the Alexander technique is not about relaxation. Tension is required for singing, he says, but “tensions need to be delicately coordinated without you interfering with them.”

As a certified Alexander instructor with 15 years of teaching experience, he frequently works with singers in the San Francisco area. He believes that while developing their voices “singers can achieve what they’re trying to do technically through Alexander, which is one and the same with vocal technique.”

At the convention Canin will discuss “the basics of the technique, some things you can do on your own, and how to apply it to singing.” Singers will also have the opportunity to volunteer for individual work in front of the group.

Participants in Lisa Houston’s session on meditation will not be asked to “do” anything. “Most of the time in life, we are reacting and doing,” she says, “but I think the greatest gift of meditation is the permission not to have to do anything, but simply to be.”

A regular contributor to Classical Singer and a student of Vipassana meditation, Houston notes the common physical benefits of meditation—such as lowered blood pressure—but believes it has additional benefits.

“My students who practice meditation tend to take critique less personally and have better concentration,” she says. “For myself, I enjoy singing much more since I’ve been practicing. I don’t judge myself in the same harsh way. I am aware of what needs work, but also enjoy what’s going well.”

Beginners need not worry. “You cannot fail at meditation,” Houston insists. “Don’t expect immediate, tranquil bliss,” she adds. “Don’t make meditation another time to burden yourself with a lot of pressure to do it right.”

Houston says her presentation will apply to both the immediate future (“we’ll discuss ways to bring the practice into the rest of your day as a way to better enjoy the convention, and avoid burnout”) and the extended future (“I want people to leave the session with enough information and resources to begin their own daily practice”).

As singers, we do not pack up our instruments at the end of rehearsal. Our voices live within us and are connected to so much of what we do throughout the day. Rather than ignore or minimize this connection, the A.M. Health Series intends to provide us with the tools to fully experience and strengthen our singing—body and mind.

Brian Manternach

Brian Manternach, DM (he/him), is an associate professor at the University of Utah Department of Theatre and a research associate at the Utah Center for Vocology, where he is on the faculty of the Summer Vocology Institute. He is an associate editor of the Journal of Singing, and his research, reviews, articles, and essays have appeared in numerous voice-related publications. /