lessons from singing

I am singing my final concert of the year tonight, and I wanted the opportunity to reflect on how my musical journey influences my running journey. Here are a few things I have learned as a singer that really help my running practice:

Breathe into the back and side of the ribs. We are often tempted to either breathe into the throat (shallow breath), or into the abdomen (classically described as a singer’s breath). Our lungs are protected by the rib cage, and pretty darn flexible, when it comes to organs. They are coated by a kind of viscous material. If we direct breath to the back and side of the ribs, we expand the capacity of our lungs. I have found that breathing into the ribs is an excellent way to combat side stiches and other cramps during long distance runs. By keeping the ribs in mind as an anchor point for breath, I often feel like the top half of my body is more engaged and supportive while my legs are doing their thing.

To get through the passaggio, don’t think about the passaggio. The passaggio is that magically awkward gap between vocal ranges. Mine is right at a high E. A passaggio can feel like a brick wall, and when we become aware of it, the natural inclination is to clamp down the throat and struggle through. This is painful, and doesn’t sound great. My vocal teacher gave me a wonderful trick I still use when I am singing in a higher range… which is, put your body off balance when approaching the passaggio. Yes, I literally pick up one foot (discreetly), which engages my core and my mind in the act of balancing. The end result is a seamless transition to the higher register. I am sure there is a lot of physiological science behind why this works, but the simplest explanation that I can give is that balancing on one foot creates a diversion, and causes the body to tense up somewhere other than the vocal chords and airway. Throughout the course of a long distance run, there is usually some kind of passaggio (some might think of it as a wall or a threshold). I find the comparison of these concepts to be helpful because, just as a singer knows to anticipate and work through their passaggio, a distance runner becomes aware of their walls. When I set out for a long run, I know that I hit a threshold sometime between four and five miles. If I can overcome that, I am solid for the rest of the run. Although I do not physically shift my balance to get through the wall, I shift my mental balance by employing a few different tricks. I listen to upbeat music. I pay extra attention to my natural surroundings. I focus my thoughts on working through a research or work problem, and take my mind off of running for a bit.

Hydrate and eat properly. Neither a runner nor a singer want to burp up the spiciness of yesterday’s burrito or suffer from cottonmouth. So, we plan accordingly.

Do a physical warm up. If you walked into the beginning of one of my rehearsals, you would think you were at an unusual yoga class. We stretch, swing, wiggle, and literally pound (lightly!) our lymph tissues before singing. Blood circulates oxygen, which is required by our brain and our muscles to perform. Before singing or running, I’ve developed the habit of briskly massaging my rib tissue, armpits, upper sternum, hips, and thighs. It’s a mental signal to remain present with my whole body during the activity. It also stimulates blood flow to different areas of the body.

Practice the challenging parts frequently and with intention. We all want to sing the stuff that is fun… the melody, the easy and delightful sections. However, as tempting as that is, this approach misses the deeper learning that occurs as a result of diving into the challenges. Sometimes, a conductor will guide the musicians by flipping the rehearsal so that the piece is worked on from the end to the beginning. This is one method of making sure that the beginning of a piece isn’t perfected over and over again, only to ignore the tricky components later on. The way I relate this to running is by reversing my routes, so that the hills are not in the same place every time, and focusing my attention on running the challenging parts of a route, even when it might be most appealing to walk. My running buddy excels at self-regulating in this fashion, and will often strive to run up every hill, and take walk breaks during the easier parts of the route. It is less fun in the moment, but the payoff is huge… just as it is when you can perform those challenging intervals or rhythms with ease and artistry.

Never lose sight of the artistic endeavor. At the end of the day, music is not what is written on the page. Neither is a run what is marked on the map. Our embodiments of these experiences are living moments that are unique to each individual. The achievement that feels best is when we are finally able to let go of the intellectual considerations, and truly feel what we are creating.

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Happy Trails!

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One thought on “lessons from singing

  1. “Sometimes, a conductor will guide the musicians by flipping the rehearsal so that the piece is worked on from the end to the beginning. This is one method of making sure that the beginning of a piece isn’t perfected over and over again, only to ignore the tricky components later on. The way I relate this to running is by reversing my routes, so that the hills are not in the same place every time, and focusing my attention on running the challenging parts of a route, even when it might be most appealing to walk.”

    This is so clever! I never realized the parallels of working end to beginning as a method for both musician and athlete.

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