Tips from Juilliard: Nutrition for Singers

This is a monthly column from Juilliard about the nuts and bolts of singing. Search the archives for previous posts.

Recently I found myself thinking about performing artists and the need to maintain one’s health. I dropped in on Juilliard’s Vocal Arts Department to find some answers, and found myself connecting with Heidi Skolnik, sports nutritionist and overseer of the Performance Nutrition Program at The Juilliard School and the School of American Ballet. Heidi’s background in exercise physiology and human nutrition, her many years with teams such as the NY Giants and the NY Knicks, and her work with Broadway shows, all inform the work that she does with musicians, dancers, and actors.

The first question that I asked Heidi was how she defines nutrition. “Nutrition and eating are not the same thing,” she answered. We all eat because we are human, but food is many different things: cultural, functional, social, nourishing. “Nutrition is what you are providing your body with through the foods that you eat.” When it comes to being a singer, she noted, we can approach food and nutrition more strategically. 

Heidi spoke about a “foundational,” or core, diet. We are people first, and we have to stay healthy. We eat food, but for health, we must talk about nutrients. For example, we need to ensure that we get adequate calcium through our teen years into our twenties, when we reach peak bone mass for life. If you choose to go dairy-free, then you must be thoughtful about getting calcium from other sources. If you become more active, you have to add to your core diet in order to stay healthy. 

Where do you start having better nutrition that will support your development as a singer? Heidi’s advice is to focus on function. Whatever body you are starting with, get it into functional shape. Maximize your general health, well-being, and stamina. “Where your body is, is where your body is,” Heidi says, and it will take practice to find your balance. Here are some things to think about as you are developing as a singer:

  • Hydration
  • Sleep
  • Fitness
  • Rest
  • Stress management

In addition to the points above, Heidi talks to Juilliard students about planning—understanding nutrient timing, caloric distribution throughout the day, and a balanced-plate approach to meals. The underlying concept is that consistency outside the rehearsal, classroom, and audition room leads to consistency inside those spaces. Your needs can vary from day to day, and you have to figure out what works for you. “Compare and despair,” Heidi said, is not a good approach. Rather, focus on functional goals—Do you want to be stronger? Have more energy or stamina? A better immune system? Note that “weight is not a behavior” and “don’t eat a cookie” is not a goal. Try different approaches to supporting your functional nutritional goals, but don’t be afraid to pivot if an approach isn’t working for you. 

As a practical example of nutrient timing on an audition day, you need foods that are easy to digest and that work for you. Avoid spicy foods, eat blander foods, and don’t eat too much food at once. You may eat a very light meal early, perform your audition, and then eat a more robust breakfast after the audition, for example. Skipping meals may backfire, as you can be lackluster and find it hard to concentrate and perform with energy. If you have an early audition and callbacks later in the day, you may have to plan out when (and what) you eat. Bring your food and liquids with you to the audition site, so that you can take care of your nutrition needs throughout the day. 

I will leave you with some final thoughts from Heidi: You don’t have to eat perfectly to be healthy. While the “right” approach and the “wrong” approach can differ from person to person, if something feels like punishment, rethink it. Choose a balanced-plate approach, including all food groups with a wide array of choices according to your taste preferences. Focus on functional goals. Instead of eating to look good, eat for energy, or strength, or stamina—or all three. Learn what works for you, so that your body, mind, and heart enter each performance space in harmony.

Kathleen Tesar

Kathleen Tesar, BM, MM, EdD, is the Associate Dean for Enrollment Management at The Juilliard School. A former professional violinist, she was previously the Associate Dean at the Colburn School Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles, and Director of Admissions at the Eastman School of Music of the University of Rochester. She presents frequently on topics related to performing arts admission, and is co-author of College Prep for Musicians (Bosler, Greene, Tesar).