I have never been the sort of singer, or person for that matter, that spent much time either getting, or even thinking about getting fit. It just wasn’t on my radar. I suppose in the early days of my vocal training, when I was still at school, I had the basic level of fitness achieved by compulsory games. Proficient enough to make a team but uncommitted enough to stay in the second XV. Savvy I thought as there was far less chance of being called upon on cold, rainy days and even less chance of being flattened at the bottom of a scrum. This lack of effort is something I must admit that I regret on occasions, although, like many other guys, we all still recall fond memories of our heroics on the field, and “Of course we only stopped playing due to injury…” All we have left of our younger, fitter days are these misty eyed remembrances, the compulsory pint of Guinness and the armchair analysis of the awful on and off pitch decisions made by players and coaches alike during the six nations. Other sports available of course, but rugby makes my point in this case.
So my life and singing continued. Of course I felt that I was taking care of the essentials, lessons, practice, coaching, upping my water intake massively on the day of a show like all conscientious singers. But something was missing that couldn’t be found in a post show pint or at the bottom of a tube of Pringles. I felt sluggish, not always, but more of the time than I felt I should at thirty something. Multiple times over the years I made the decision to get fit, change my habits and really start taking care of myself. I joined the gym, invested in running gear, tried fad diets but nothing would stick. The membership would lapse, the trainers would gather dust under the bed and my diet would quickly see the return of everything I had preached as evil. Something had to change.
We are often told, or tell others, that as singers our body is our instrument and as such must be treated so. But how many of us really take this on board. Yes, we wear scarves, carry around portable steamers and do our fair share in propping up the British honey industry, but how fit are we? Now I’m not talking about becoming a health freak and droning on about the regenerative power of wheat grass, or only eating ‘super foods’, or even massively changing our lives. It’s just, as with practice, about making manageable changes that we can put into place to build habits and lay foundations for future development. In an age of instant gratification it’s all to easy to quit at the first hurdle. An extra hour in bed in the morning, or a another episode of the latest box set in the evening will always be more preferable than exercise, but it needn’t win the battle quite so convincingly once you redirect your mindset. I must reiterate again, I have not become a saint and am certainly not preaching as a reformed coach potato, God forbid I ever do, but I have in the last few months, for the first time in my life, introduced regular exercise and I feel much better for it. Plus, whether corroborated by others or not, feel like I am singing better for it too.
It’s well documented the effect that exercise has on our health, both mentally and physically, so it’s not my place, or even slightly my area of expertise to discuss this. All I can say is the effect that it has had on me. Almost without realising it I have changed some long ingrained habits. I have been ‘keeping fit’ for nearly a year now and have gone from feeling out of place in the gym, with an aversion to running outside, to completing a half marathon in February in, so I’m told, the fairly respectable time of two hours and three minutes. As with many people I spoke to both before and on the day of the marathon, my decision was made in the wake of family illness and the want to give something back to the charity that made such a big difference. I registered my place, downloaded the training plan and got stuck in.
I go back to my earlier reference to practice. In learning a role you don’t expect to sing it all perfectly from the off. It has to be taken in bite size pieces, learnt and the stamina needed built up to over a period of time. As with a marathon it is not a sprint. It is about learning to pace yourself and preparing so that you can hopefully finish strong and still able to give something near your best without collapsing at the end. Singers are often compared to athletes and I think for the first time I am really beginning to see why. The preparation, the training, the performance psychology all lead to the same end. Work hard and hopefully produce the goods when it matters. A world record on the training track or nailing the top note in the practice room count for little unless you can reproduce it on whatever stage you put yourself on.
With these parallels in mind it makes sense to me to at least consider the disciplines of practice/singing and exercise in the same breath. Think of all the potential gains of being even a little fitter. I’m not talking about getting skinny and pandering to our size zero society, but just simply feeling a bit better. Feeling more alert, more positive, improvements in breath management (in terms of support, dental hygiene is up to you..), stronger, greater stamina, not to mention overall health, the list goes on. Once I got into the mindset of exercise I found that I was considering other areas of my life as well. I was eating better, drinking less and being generally more productive. As it is often said ‘Busy people are the most productive people.’ I certainly found that by adding more into my schedule my time management improved.
I also found that I was creating better routines. On days when I didn’t have to be up and out too early I was getting up, going for run and then coming back, showering and feeling awake and ready for practice. I found that my approach to practice was changing as well. I started to treat my singing like exercise. I would work on specific areas of my voice and be more appreciative of incremental gain rather than berating myself for not being the polished article. I have found through this that my practice is more productive and certainly less frustrating. I haven’t thrown a score across the room for months now!
There is nothing particularly new or groundbreaking here, just the thoughts of someone that has made a few simple changes and is feeling the benefits of them. Week one was tough. The next few weeks weren’t a whole lot better. But slowly I saw and felt results. I still enjoy eating what I like, I still enjoy a pint, or two, I would never choose going for a run over the things that really matter, or enjoying a Sunday morning lie-in, but I do try and build it into my week. Getting started is always the hardest thing but once you are on the road, both figuratively and literally, it will get easier and you can enjoy the fruits of your labour, as a singer and as a budding athlete. Running is not for everyone and I am not suggesting it is the only route to take. Anything that you do to even slightly improve your overall fitness will have an impact.
Completing the half marathon and raising funds for St.Barnabas Hospice, who made the final days of my Nan’s life comfortable and dignified is something that I am proud of. I feel that pride in ourselves can be discouraged by the naysayers and by the fear of being seen as arrogant. Don’t be that person. Encourage and congratulate others for their achievements and revel in your own.