Happy Holidays! December is finally upon us, and that means with Christmas around the corner, this is the season of giving. In addition to our normal jobs and activities, that means shopping, decorating, cooking, visiting relatives, socializing with friends, wrapping gifts, attending additional church services, and participating in charitable activities. And for singers, both professional and amateur, it means something else besides– LOTS more work! This is a good thing, of course, but it also means that on top of regular life activities, Christmas activities, and then performing, singers get stretched to the absolute limit. It’s time now for some serious self-care!
“Why is this an issue?”, you might ask. After all, singing is “fun”, right? It’s not like going to a “real” job? If you can ask those questions, you’ve probably never experienced the profound mental, physical and vocal exhaustion that can come from an insane performance schedule. For a singer, your body IS your instrument. If it becomes too fatigued, it’s a recipe for vocal strain and illness, not to mention burnout and depression. That’s why more than a few singers (including some big names) wind up having to cancel performances and even tours. No matter how good your vocal technique is, if you’re tired or sick, singing well becomes much more difficult, and in some cases, impossible.
At the height of my performing career (and when I was a good deal younger!) I used to push myself to the max. A typical December: in less than a month, I was driving to and singing over thirty Christmas caroling jobs all over southern California, often outdoors in the cold (yes, it can get cold here in SoCal in December, especially at night). This, while also rehearsing and performing solos for several Handel’s Messiah concerts with various choirs, and also rehearsing and performing additional holiday concerts with my church. Some years I was also singing with my Top 40 band at a number of Christmas parties! Add to that the extra Christmas Eve and Christmas Day church services, on top of normal life responsibilities, my multiple teaching jobs, and all the additional demands of the Christmas season. AAAAAAH! It’s a wonder I survived!
So how can you save your voice, and your sanity, at this time of year?
The answer, my friends, is Self-Care. You MUST learn to take time out to nurture your body, mind, and spirit. Self-care is not selfish, it is survival! It’s the best Christmas gift you can give yourself. I’ve learned this the hard way, over and over, so many times in my life. I can be a workaholic and drive myself very hard. I had a friend who used to say “I’ll sleep when I die! There’s too much to do right now”. That was my philosophy, too, but then life comes and sideswipes you with vocal problems, illness, and exhaustion. When you’re flat on your back and have to cancel gigs, voice lessons or a recording session, you’ll be wishing you had taken some time out to rest, and to feed your soul a bit, too…
The concept of self-care has been brought home to me yet again this last year. As regular readers of this blog know, I have been caregiving my 92-year old mother, who is an invalid in bed after breaking her hip 8 months ago. At the same time, my almost- 93 year-old father has been having profound medical issues as well. Their struggles have become my struggles. From life-and-death problems to the most minute details of their physical care and finances, the daily demands have been beyond stressful, especially because I am still working full-time, teaching voice at a college and in my private studio, and even singing the occasional performance. I face mental, emotional and physical exhaustion every day, and at times am either crying, laughing, philosophical, or just plain numb.
Lately, more than one dear friend has kindly reminded me that I won’t be any good to my family if I don’t take care of myself. Ding-ding-ding-ding-ding! Right answer! And, I certainly won’t be a good vocal role model to my students or sing well in a performance if I don’t take care of my body and voice. So, as Jonathan Livingston Seagull author Richard Bach famously wrote: “We teach best what we most need to learn”. I’m going to remind myself, and you, of the multitude of ways we can practice self-care during this busy Christmas season, and all year long…
Self-Care Tips for Singers (and for “normal” people too!)
1. Learn the power of “No”. That’s right. Learn how to nicely say,”No”. You don’t have to accept every invitation, take on every Christmas task expected of you (maybe this is the year you order Christmas dinner from Sprouts or Costco!), or run to the rescue every single time someone has a problem and wants you to solve it. Saying “no” is one of the hardest things to do, especially for women, who are programmed to put their needs on the back burner, in order to take care of everyone else first. But, with a little practice, you can sweetly and firmly learn to cut away at least some of the draining demands on your time.
2. Take Advantage of “Found” Time. This is one of my favorite things in life right now! Maybe that doctor’s appointment you thought would take two hours only took one, and nobody knows that you suddenly have an hour of free time. This is your chance to play “hooky”! Go get a cup of coffee, drive to the beach and take a walk, close your eyes and listen to music in your (parked!) car, or visit your favorite shop just to browse. This found time is a gift— use it any way you want! See my earlier post: You Deserve A Break Today— and I Don’t Mean McDonald’s
3. Do the opposite of what you normally do. We all have routines and habits that we fall in to on a day to day basis, as well as each Christmas season. Shake it up! One of the best ways to refresh your mind and body is to do the opposite, or at least, something different, than you normally do. Are you always indoors sitting at a computer? Get outside and move! Do you always make handmade gifts for everyone that take hours and hours out of your life? This is the year where everyone gets a gift card to their favorite store! Do you always drive to work by the same route, and do your shopping at the same places? Try driving alternate routes and explore a new neighborhood you’ve never shopped in before.
4. Step away from a project that is causing you stress. We all have things in life we want to achieve, whether it’s a work or school project, or something on the home or personal side of life. We may not be able to put off the requirements of our jobs or education, but we can certainly take the pressure off in other areas. Maybe you have been meaning to overhaul your closet or clean the house, and you just can’t summon up the energy right now. Perhaps you have finally started that new business you’ve dreamed of, but can’t fully pursue it now because of other demands on your time. Or, you’ve finally started taking voice lessons, or are laying down tracks for a recording project, but feel frustrated because you don’t have time to practice the way you should to be really successful. See my post: How to Find Time to Practice Singing— Even When You Don’t Have Time!
Instead of constantly worrying, berating yourself and lying awake at night thinking about how you’re not getting things done, temporarily take a new tack. While I’m not advocating procrastination as a rule, sometimes, you just have to draw a line in the sand and say, “I need a break from this, and I’m not going to worry about it for awhile, until I’m ready.” The weight will come off your shoulders immediately!
That’s what I had to do with this blog last month. After consistently posting every week since last March, things became very critical with my parents, and I just couldn’t spend any time on it. I consciously decided to set it aside, and remove all the stress-inducing deadlines I had given myself. I told myself I’d get back to it when I could, with no worry or guilt between. HUGE relief! This is true self-care.
5. Take some time to do absolutely nothing. Seriously. Sit in a chair and stare into space. Or pick something lovely to look at— the sparkling lights on your Christmas tree, a flickering candle, or the flames crackling in your fireplace. Depending on where you live, you can look out the window at the leaves on the trees, or watch the waves breaking on the shore, or just watch the snow fall. I’m not talking trying to meditate here, unless it’s something you already know how to do and enjoy. Lots of people get stressed-out trying to meditate (including me), wondering if they’re doing it “right”. Sit or lie down and just let yourself relax, and feel your breathing slow down and deepen. No goals or “shoulds” or “how-to’s”. Just BE. Close your eyes if you prefer. And if you fall asleep, fine!
6. Actually take a nap— on purpose! Speaking of sleeping, when’s the last time you gave yourself permission to take a nap? I’ve never been a fan of daytime naps myself (always too much to do!) but lately, I am beginning to see the wisdom of it, especially because as I get older, I don’t sleep as well or as long as I used to at night. But what a difference a nap can make! Get comfy in your favorite chair or in bed, and use whatever else you need to foster sleep— a warm blanket, an eye mask to block out light, your favorite relaxing music (I prefer New-Age, spacey instrumentals, like you’d hear in a spa). Whatever puts you in sleep mode, do it. If you’re worried about oversleeping, set an alarm. Sleep experts say the optimal duration of a daytime nap is ten to thirty minutes, but if you don’t have to set an alarm, just enjoy whatever sleep you can get! Americans are perennially sleep-deprived, so it will do you some good to catch up on your Zzzz’s.See my post: Singers Need A Good Night’s Sleep— How to Get Yours!*
7. Go to bed earlier, and stay in bed later in the morning. One way to get more rest, or at least to get more “found” time, is to go to bed earlier. Tell everyone you’re going to bed a half hour earlier than normal. If you want to actually get to sleep, great, but also, you can use this time to read, listen to music, knit, draw or do whatever else relaxes you and feeds your soul (no electronics!). By the same token, when you wake up in the morning, perhaps you can stay in bed for a half hour before getting up. It might mean setting your alarm a half hour earlier, but this helps you slowly ease into the morning and start your day in a calm and gentle way. Again, read, make a list to plan your daily activities, or do some stretches in bed, whatever you like.
8. Take a bath or shower. This is the ultimate “me” time! If you can actually make time for a luxurious bubble bath, do it! Add Epsom salts to your bubbles, so that the magnesium in the salts can help your muscles and nerves relax, as it draws toxins out of your body. Don’t do anything else except just soak and unwind. If you don’t have time for a bath, at least make the most of your shower with the perfect temperature of water and a decadent shower soap with your favorite scent. If it relaxes you, sing! But this is singing for fun, not practicing, if you’re just trying to relax. Better yet, I prefer absolute silence, and just tuning in to the sound and feel of the water flowing. Studies have shown this actually helps to “wash” troubles and stress away! Imaging yours just going down the drain…
9. Get lost in a really good book. There’s nothing like an entertaining and engaging story to take you out of everyday reality, and into another world. A great book will provide profound relaxation and the feeling like you’ve actually been “away’ for awhile. Add a cup of tea and a cozy reading spot, and you’ll feel your worries melting away in no time! Your levels of stress-hormones will drop, your breathing will slow down, and your body and mind will thank you. The whole point of self-care is to refresh yourself! Time with a good book will do just that.
10. Indulge in your favorite magazines. Sometimes when I’m very stressed, the thought of reading a book is actually overwhelming. That’s when I get out my favorite magazines, usually home/decorating/cooking themes, with beautiful photos and minimal reading involved. I can flip through the pages and soak in the gorgeous images, without too great an investment in time or energy. It provides a relaxing break, but I can also pick it up and leave it as needed, especially if I’m having a busy day with lots of interruptions. Pick up your favorite magazines (or subscribe, so you always have them around), and give yourself some mini self-care breaks whenever you need them.
11. Get a massage, pedicure, or get your hair done. I know a lot of women (and men, for that matter!) who rarely get a chance to do this. Either because of time or money constraints, many of us cut and color our own hair, do our own mani/pedis, and wistfully wonder what it would be like to get a REAL massage. Wait no longer! There is nothing like having someone else pamper you, for a change. It’s worth the money, not only for the resulting fabulous hair or nails, but for the marked psychological boost it will give you. And, it doesn’t have to be as expensive as you think. Go to Groupon or Amazon Deals to find special offers at local and away locations (if you’re going out of town). There are VERY reduced prices available on all kinds of personal services. Book one today!
12. Go shopping– for fun only! One of my favorite activities is to browse in little specialty shops, for no particular reason other than my own entertainment. Just wandering through, browsing the displays is so relaxing for me. Shopping for a specific item, or Christmas gifts, is NOT. I don’t particularly like malls, either, and prefer to seek out cute little neighborhoods with unique emporiums that have something other than the same-old-same-old at the mall or big-box stores. You’ll avoid the holiday crowds, too!
If you happen to find something you love, though, wherever it may be, BUY it! Spoil yourself with one item that won’t break the bank, and can give you a little boost that lasts for days. My best friend would always tell me to “buy a new red lipstick” from time to time. Good advice! It can be an article of clothing, a new cookbook, or a new tool you’ve been wanting. Whatever it is, indulge once in while! Every time you look at it, you’ll be reminded of your pleasant shopping trip, and your feeling of valuing and rewarding yourself. It will make you smile.
13. Make writing Christmas cards or wrapping gifts a pleasure– with music and wine by a twinkling tree! Take any task that may be overwhelming or that your dread, and set yourself up for success and enjoyment, rather than for tension and fatigue. I love quiet time where I put on my favorite timeless Christmas music (Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, or a fabulous choir singing all the traditional carols), I pour myself a small glass of wine, and turn what could be a cumbersome task into a pleasurable holiday experience. Make yourself hot cocoa or hot cider if you prefer, nibble on your favorite Christmas treats, and just be in the moment.
I have just finished a busy weekend singing in some beautiful concerts, and also just turned in grades for all my college classes. As much as I love what I do for a living– teaching and singing, I am ready for some down-time! I have many more ideas about how to make self-care a part of your holiday season, not to mention engaging in self-care the rest of the year! But for now, my self-care is to post this blog, and then use my morning to catch up on some things that I need to do for Christmas. They will be tasks I mostly enjoy doing (or more importantly, that I will approach in an enjoyable way). It will help me feel calm and in control of my day, before I’m off to my parents, and later back to teaching voice lessons for my private studio.