Ironsinger: The Synthesis of Sport and Art
Fitness is not a new topic in the opera world, in fact, it seems to be one of the hot issues in the field now, more than ever. We are a far cry from those Camel cigarette ads featuring Risë Stevens or Patrice Musel telling us about the soothing effects of a good smoke. Although there is some enlightening research on the effects of exercise and singing, this post will be a subjective perspective into a type of exercise that doesn’t seem to attract singers en masse and perhaps the benefits of another one of many options to our fit band of operatic artists, triathlon. More specifically, Ironman™.
My assumption that triathlon has yet to attract our singing elite in large numbers is based merely on my own personal speculation. I’ve been involved in the sport for over 20 years (with a brief hiatus between age 24-40) and have yet to come across another singer/triathlete. I know they exist, because I’ve done some very superficial digging on the internet, but I have yet to see them exist in the longer distance triathlon, such as Ironman™, which is a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and a 26.2 mile run.
After competing in my first Ironman™ event in May (Ironman™ Texas) of 2016, I wondered if I really was the only opera singer out there attempting such a thing. And of course, the next question was, why? Again, because I couldn’t find any other kin in this triathlon world, I looked to my own perspective as to why this sport was the fitness option I wished to pursue. In doing so, I found many parallels to singing practice and performing that I thought might be useful to any singer in search of a fitness outlet right for them.
I began training and competing in triathlons in my twenties while I was working on my bachelor of music degree in vocal performance. I found it to be a great way to release stress, and the long hours swimming, biking or running were conducive to memorizing and rehearsing music. I only did smaller distance triathlons early on, such as sprints or Olympic distance triathlons and had heard about the longer distance of the Ironnman™, but never thought that I would attempt such a feat, because it seemed out of my reality. I attempted one half-Ironman™ without really training for it and was a DNF (did not finish), it was a race that would haunt me and keep me wondering if I would ever conquer long distance triathlon. Looking back on the entirety of my triathlon experience, it seems similar to the journey of studying/performing Caro mio ben and later perhaps fathoming the idea of a Verdi Requiem. Having been through the latter transformation as well, the study of Caro mio ben was absolutely necessary for what would be a successful Verdi Requiem run later in life. One needs solid training that evolves over time as the singer improves in talent and musicianship, perhaps including a few DNFs along the way.
“Because I can…” Upon researching mental preparation and strategy for long distance racing, I ran across the slogan, “Because I can…” in several triathlete forums. Another variation of this is, “Someday I may not be able to do this, today is not that day.” I remember going into my first half Ironman ™ (Ironman 70.3™) repeating similar mantras. I began training and competing in longer distance events in my forties, partly as a way to commemorate and bond with my mother’s seven year battle with breast cancer which resulted in her death in 2010. We were extremely close and watching her strength and conviction during that time was not only inspirational, but left me wanting to exercise my ability to function in not only normal activity, but extreme activity. From my perspective, nothing I could experience in an ultra-distance triathlon could compare to what my mother and other terminally ill patients experience on a daily basis. This same mantra applies to those of us who are lucky enough to perform in this beloved art that demands so much discipline and conquering of the mind. Whenever nerves kick in before a gig, I try to remember that at that moment, I am the best qualified person to do what I am about to do, or “Because I can…”
While on the topic of mental strategy for singing or sport, it might be good to heed the advice of a beloved heroine of song, Measha Brueggergosman. The following are quotes on the topic of inner dialogue from The Walrus Talks entitled “From the Inside Out, The Art of Conversation:”
The ongoing conversation or the dialogue we have with ourselves is arguably the most important.It is the well from which all motivation springs forth.
Backstage, I am usually talking myself off the ledge, trying to convince myself to move forward, swallowing the fear.
All number of things that could go wrong, I expect will go wrong.
And I focused on looking pristine, like I’m in total control and wondering what the first words are.
Don’t panic, it will all be over soon.
You are, along with the music, enough.
As I was about to enter the water at Ironman Texas, I saw these handwritten words on the inside sole of a sandal in the swim transition area: “It’s okay to be scared, it means you are about to do something very brave.” How many singers think what they do on stage is brave? I think many of us think that term should be used for honorable or noble acts. Is what we do on stage anything less? Perhaps it comes down to intention, but we will save that for later in our discussion. As with all of us, what couldn’t we achieve if our inner dialogue was only positive? Impossible maybe, but nice to know the doubt is normal, maybe even a necessary step in any maturation process.
Another piece of advice given to me when doing these longer distances was, “Race your own race!” I wouldn’t quite know what was meant by that statement until I began feeling competitive in these races. In that surge of emotion, you can easily feel defeated when attempting to size up your competition. In all of my races, short and long, I found myself more successful and at peace if I only compared myself to my own stats. I know this resonates with singers (pun itended) whether they are in the learning, auditioning or performing stage. We are constantly told by teachers that we must sing repertoire good for our voices and accept roles suited to our fach and most of us can understand that, but more often than not, we find ourselves comparing accomplishments in school, at the audition or on stage. Race your own race, sing your own song!
The importance of a teacher is another parallel easily made between singing and triathlon and cannot be underestimated in either discipline. I did not enlist the help of a triathlon coach until my second go-round with the sport, and I am ever grateful for Kevin Danahy and Bruce Clayton of TriCoach in Rehoboth, Delaware! Part of my earlier hiatus from triathlon came at my own physical expense. I was injured in my twenties after participating in a marathon, because I wasn’t being smart about my training and was trying to go about things on my own, without the guidance of those who had degrees and experiential knowledge of the sport. Like any singer might do, when seeking a new teacher, I did my research and asked around about being coached. The process is very similar, you should come with prepared questions about their style and plans, goals for yourself, and not expect for you to automatically be allowed entrance into the coaching studio. Like most singing teachers, coaches like working with athletes who are serious and put in the time. I cannot speak loudly enough about the benefits of having a coach and what it has done for my training and racing success, but most importantly staying healthy and injury free throughout that time. I love having a daily/monthly plan to get me to my next goal. Most of us that pursue classical studies in singing, get hip to having a teacher pretty quickly, but how many of us really take our teachers practice/performance suggestions in the practice room or performance hall? And if we don’t, what is preventing us from doing so? Nerves, conflict of other teachers input, our own beliefs?
Ironman™ Texas was my longest race to date, truth be told, it fell short of the full Ironman™ distance, due to heavy rains in Texas last year washing out roadways and causing the bike course to be shortened to 95 miles, rather than usual 112. Another interesting thing to note about the race was that during the marathon portion of the race, runners faced rain, thunder, lightning and hail for most of the evening, after battling 98° temps on the bike. Due to these tough conditions, this was not only my longest race, but my toughest race mentally and physically. I wanted Ironman™ Texas to be my first Ironman™, because it was in my home-state. While on the route, many familiar sights, such as armadillos, snakes and chorizo cooking on the grill made me feel so at home and were quite comforting during that long day. How often do we gravitate toward music that gives a sense of home or pieces which we find comforting or gives a sense of home? My friends often ask what’s next or why I felt the need to do this. I don’t know what is next, because I am still processing the May event. In fact, it’s a little like post recital or post opera blues, where you kind of float in between projects. I have a feeling I will be chasing another Ironman™ with the complete distance, or a full 112 mile bike, in the future. As far as my need to do this, well, that brings us back to intent. Much like singing, I can say that my reasoning for wanting to sing or do these long distance races is too vast to narrow down to one solitary reason. Going back to Brueggergossman’s thoughts about our inner dialogue, motivation comes from that very personal conversation in our head, and I’m not even sure they always make sense. I definitely feel a need to do them as I do to sing, but there is also something that just feels right in that moment in the water, on the bike, on the run, or on the stage.