The Bipolar Classical Singer

In the first part of this series we looked at what bipolar is and is not, treatment modalities, how it affects a classical singer, and signs and symptoms warnings. In this part we will examine prognosis, coping and survival tips, career advice and alternatives, and life as a bipolar classical singer.

Prognosis

It is possible to have a very good prognosis or a very poor prognosis with bipolar disorder. This depends a great deal on the severity of the illness as it affects you personally, life’s stressors, success of medication and therapies, and even perhaps things such as age.

The best-case scenario would involve being able to work in virtually any musical capacity, while under proper psychiatric care, working with known limitations and learning to respect them. A reasonable scenario would be one with managed symptoms and learned coping mechanisms—a moderate career with some singing engagements and teaching. The worst case scenario is, of course, total disintegration and a lifetime of hospitalization or disability checks, or suicide.

I should hope that many will fall close to the mostly functioning end. The bipolar singer must, however, be realistic and accept that is this is a chronic, sometimes progressive disorder that is “managed” but never cured. In this, one needs to look at alternative and perhaps unconventional ways to have a career as a classical singer.

Tips for Coping and Survival
Acceptance
Denial of your illness will impede and delay treatment and can lead to a more damaging breakdown later.

Know Your Limits
If you don’t know them now, you will be getting to know them—and you must respect them.

Restrict Socialization
Sometimes you need to pull away to stay sane. Reserve your energies for the projects you are working on. Not everyone needs your energy, but you do. Learn to say no, especially if you are running too hard and fast, because you will crash and not be able to fulfill your obligations. Choose late activity or morning activity, if certain times of the day work better for you than others.

If your cycles are fairly predictable, try to not schedule engagements when risk of depression or mania is more likely. Mania does not often seem bad when you are in it, but depression does. Often we cannot see the effects of our racing thoughts and actions, and this may cause us to make poor judgments.

Gather Soundboards
Establish and maintain at least one person or group of people who can let you know if they think you are going off—your mother or other relative, pastor, voice teacher, professors, discrete colleagues. Stress exacerbates symptoms; listen when they say you are overdoing it and try to pull back for a while. You have to trust when people tell you that you are off because you really cannot feel it when you are manic. You feel so good and on top of everything, but you are headed for a fall. Listen as best as you can because they see what you cannot see, and you feel more than is actually there.

You probably really are a kind of superman or superwoman, endowed with exceptional creativity and intelligence and talent. But mania can make you think you are a god or goddess. So it is best to leave the supernatural qualities at Mars Hill and listen when people say you are overreaching, overdoing it, attempting too much, or going down too far.

It is common to become hypersexual and get involved in relationships that are not healthy simply because of the uncontrollable urges. Beware that you could end up in an abusive situation which will intensify if you become depressed. And then the cycle will start down and it will be harder and harder to get out once you get into it.

Carpe Diem (or, Rather, “Carpe Momento”)
Seize the time when you feel good and make the most of it. The balance is not overdoing it, no matter how strongly you feel like overdoing it, because you don’t see how you are overdoing it. Doing too much can set off a stress-induced meltdown.

Try to sense the swings and act before an episode. Sometimes you can sense that you are going down or that you are starting to race.

Career Advice and Alternatives

How can a singer with bipolar disorder develop or maintain a career? Here are a few ideas.

First, gather the network that you will work within:

• Your voice teacher should know about your illness. He or she will be an excellent prognostician as you work together.
• An accompanist who will work with you and understands your high and low periods is the next jewel in your treasury. You can do a great deal of music with just an accompanist. This may be one way to keep singing, even between periods when you have to step back for a time.
• If you are at management level, it will indeed be a forward-thinking individual who will work with a singer who has potential personal limitations. You need to be realistic about what you can handle and accept only what work you can see yourself doing at your lowest point.

Next, consider variant career “addenda,” or supplemental or alternative career choices:

• Teaching. A goal would be to develop a studio of understanding students who are willing to accept a text, e-mail, or call when you are simply not up to working that day.
• Church/synagogue music. Within a religious setting you may find understanding in the need for intermittent breaks and the leeway to sing when you are able.
• Writing and research. This is not making music, unless you are composing, but writing is a way to stay creative and work at your own schedule. The possibilities here are endless.
• Recording. Glenn Gould retired from his career as a concert pianist and turned exclusively to recording, because he thought performing live was like being in a “circus.” You may have other reasons for recording your music, but consider the value of making recordings at any point in the journey when you feel well enough—any music you want, anytime you want—and selling it. Amazon.com has amazing opportunities for selling any music that you can put together in MP3 album format. These days it is probably more the norm to download a CD’s worth of music onto your phone or MP3 player than buy a physical CD. Consider the possibilities and creative freedom that this digital age is giving musicians to disseminate their music without the need for a recording company.
• Foundation and philanthropy. I know one singer who was with me at Juilliard in the 1970s who lost her amazing voice and then went on to create a foundation to support other singers. Within this context you would have creative freedom, flexibility, and control.
• Music therapy. I enjoyed the many years I sang for people in institutional settings. This can definitely be a way to sing in increments without too much pressure.

Holes in Your Résumé

It is not just OK to take time off when needed—sometimes it is imperative and sometimes it is unavoidable. There is no need to mention why there is a gap in your résumé due to illness (e.g., hospitalization and disability status). This might be more advantageous for women in terms of appearance since we often take breaks from our careers to raise children.

Mental illness is still too often seen as a scourge, a character flaw, weakness, or laziness. Yet the artists and musicians I have known with bipolar disorder are among the most creative and industrious people I have ever known. Funnyman Stephen Fry walked right out of theatre obligations when already billed and had minor run-ins with the law as a young man. “I walked out on that play and I walked out on my whole life,” he recalls. Yet Fry has managed to have an incredibly successful career as an actor, writer, and media persona, in spite of his bipolar disorder.

If you need to address gaps in your career on your résumé, the timely advice of G. Joyce Tyler, career advisor at Westminster Choir College and College of Education, is most appreciated. Tyler says stating “medical reasons” on your application is sufficient enough to explain gaps in a career. (No potential employer is allowed to ask any details—nor is a medical condition a reason not to be hired!) She also urges anyone with bipolar disorder to “seek medical advice and adhere to medical recommendations” before continuing or resuming a career. “Not adhering to medical recommendations places the career of a performer at risk,” she cautions.

Life as a Bipolar Classical Singer

In the end you must develop acceptance of your illness and acceptance of limitations. This is difficult, because sometimes you feel limitless! Yet other times you feel incompetent! Your career path and life choices will be very different once you accept what is true about yourself, your brain, your mind, and your emotions—and then you need to get busy figuring out how to do your best in spite of them.

Lastly, do not stop singing! There are days when you do not want to do anything, but at least do some lip trills in the shower or sit at the piano and vocalize. Before long you might feel well enough to really sing. And keep on singing, in spite of the challenges before you for, as singers, we do not just sing to live. We live to sing, no matter what ups and downs the songs of life give us!

(Please see the website version of this article series for a complete bibliography.)

Theresa Rodriguez

Theresa Rodriguez received her master of music with distinction in voice pedagogy and performance from Westminster Choir College at Rider University in Princeton, NJ. She is currently a member of the voice faculty at the Community School of Music and the Arts at the Goggleworks in Reading, PA. She recently published a book of poetry entitled “Jesus and Eros: Sonnets, Poems and Songs,” which is available on Amazon.