As a singer, you already know that sleep is the first thing that goes when you're busy preparing for a performance. With new music to learn, rehearsals, and promotions for the show, your already overcrowded schedule spins out of control. Instead of sleeping, you stay up so you can tick one more thing off your list. Before you know it, you're running a massive sleep deficit.
In many ways, singers are like athletes. The healthier you are, the more stamina you'll have to perform and manage all the other aspects of your vocal life. When your body is healthy, your voice is healthy — and your artistic potential is limitless. But when your body is unwell, knowing what the problem is and what you can do to feel better will help you show up for that all-important performance.
So, what are the two most essential building blocks for good vocal health? Hydration (which I've written about here) and sleep.
In this blog post, we'll focus on the importance of sleep for a singer, and how to get more of it.
My Own Search for Sleep
In our culture, it's common for people to work themselves to the bone, and wear sleep deprivation on their sleeve like a badge of honor. I also did that until my body burned out, and I became sick with breast cancer.
Thankfully, the cancer was caught early (yay for mammograms!), and I've been in remission for seven years. But cancer was a wake-up call — a call to slow down and take care of my body. Now, instead of pushing myself to the point of collapse, I give my body the rest it needs.
I've become a sleep junkie, and you should consider becoming one too. What I've learned since my cancer diagnosis is how essential sleep is. Studies show that a good night's rest keeps us from getting sick in the first place, and plays a vital role in recovery when we become ill.
Sleep & Your Immune System
When you're sick with a cold or flu, what's the first thing your body wants to do? That's right — sleep. That's because your immune system is powerfully affected by how much sleep you get. Lack of sufficient rest, even for one night, makes it difficult for your body to fight off infection or the common cold. If you're well-rested, you'll also respond better to a flu vaccine.
Matthew Walker, a neuroscientist who has studied sleep exhaustively (pun intended,) says that studies show that a lack of sufficient sleep can even affect cancer-fighting cells. And if you're a night-time shift worker, which most singers are, it's even more important to get a full night's sleep because the disruption of circadian rhythms increases your odds of developing cancers of the breast, prostate, endometrium, and colon.
Your Body/Your Voice
Getting enough sleep isn't just about fighting off the common cold, or more gravely, keeping your cancer-fighting cells in good shape. You can also hear the lack of sleep in your voice. When I taught privately, some students would come to their lessons sounding like they'd been up all night drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes after singing a four-hour show. Sometimes this was the case, but more often, the gravel and noise in their voice were caused by a lack of sleep.
Cells regenerate during a good night's sleep. Whether you're talking or singing, the vocal cords need time to rest and repair. Your breathing and support system is affected too. If your body becomes sluggish because of fatigue, taking a breath becomes more difficult, and the in-and-up lift of your abdominal muscles to create support is harder to activate and sustain.
But lack of sleep doesn't just affect you physically; it also affects you mentally and emotionally.
Your Brain: Learning and Performance
Your brain also needs sleep to function well. When you're in a deep sleep, the cerebral spinal fluid works to flush out toxins and create neural connections. When you're learning new material, a good night's rest will help you memorize more easily, and recall what you've memorized in performance.
Dr. Walker says, "We've learned that sleep before learning helps prepare your brain for the initial formation of memories. And then, sleep after learning is essential to help save and cement that new information into the architecture of the brain, meaning that you're less likely to forget it."
Emotions & Creativity
Your emotions and creativity are also affected by the amount and quality of sleep you get.
Imagine this: you're in rehearsal and sleep-deprived. You're stressed because you don't have the music memorized. Your mind is filled with negative self-talk — I'll never learn this song, I'm not good enough, why am I doing this in the first place… you get the idea. While you're singing, one of your band-mates looks at you with an expression that seems to say, "Oh my God, she sounds horrible." Now the voices in your head have the evidence they need to get even uglier.
So, what's really happening here? Your amygdala, the part of your brain that triggers strong, negative emotions, is more easily hijacked when you're tired. And the prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that helps to manage these negative emotions, can't do its job when you haven't had enough rest.
Sleep also helps us to read social cues. Not enough of it, and you've got a recipe for miscommunication with your band-mates and your audience. Turns out, REM sleep (rapid eye movement) is essential for our social empathy skills. Dr. Walker makes the analogy, "we can think of REM sleep like a master piano tuner, one that readjusts the brain's emotional instrumentation at night to pitch-perfect precision, so that when you wake up the next morning, you can discern overt and subtly covert micro-expressions with exactitude."
Without enough REM sleep, facial expressions become harder to read. That expression that you saw as disdain on your drummers face probably has nothing to do with you. Maybe she missed that drum fill that she's been working on, or just remembered that she forgot to feed her cat before rehearsal!
Sleep Sparks Your Creativity
REM sleep also helps your brain make creative connections and problem solve. One of Dr. Walker's studies shows an increase in problem-solving of 15-35% after a good night's sleep. If I'm fighting off fatigue at the end of a long day, finding the solution to a creative problem feels impossible. After a good night's rest, I wake up with fresh insights and ideas — creative solutions that wouldn't have occurred to me the night before. REM sleep to the rescue!
How Much Is Enough? How Do You Get More?
Evidence-based studies show that a healthy adult should be getting at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night.
But getting that many hours of sleep isn't easy. It's tough when you have a crazy schedule; a day job that you have to be up early for, performances that keep you up into the wee hours of the morning, small children that wake you up in the middle of the night, or changing time zones when traveling. My sleep life is never perfect, but I've learned a few things over a lifetime that might be helpful to you:
For A Good Night's Rest:
No caffeine after 2 p.m. (or the midpoint in your day since caffeine has a half-life of 4 - 6 hours)
Stop pushing the envelope trying to get that last thing done on your list. Slip into bed an hour before lights out and read, write, or meditate.
Melatonin, taken an hour before you go to bed, helps some people fall asleep more easily. It also comes in patch form.
Magnesium contains the neurotransmitter GABA which promotes relaxation and deep sleep. I take magnesium malate (a form of magnesium that's gentler on the digestive system) an hour before bed along with my melatonin.
I have a Fitbit that tracks my sleep. It's highly motivational to see what kind of sleep I'm getting and for how long. To get 7 or 8 hours of sleep, I discovered that I have to be in bed a whole extra hour to make up for the short waking periods that happen during the night without my knowing it.
A cool, dark room that's free of distractions is essential. I have black-out curtains in mine, and I use a sleep mask and earplugs. Not everyone can tolerate earplugs, but learning how to use them has come in handy for sleeping in hotels and on planes when the whole world just won't shut up, and I am desperate to get some shut-eye.
Try to keep a regular sleep schedule, waking up and falling asleep at the same time every day.
Exercise regularly — 20 to 30 minutes a day. But don't exercise right before bedtime or you'll end up energized and ready to take on the world when it's time to hit the hay.
Sleep patterns and circadian rhythms are varied and highly individual. Experiment with what works best for your body. If you're still having trouble getting enough rest, talk to your M.D., or naturopathic doctor about strategies for sleeping.
Get On The Sleep Train
Sleep is essential — not just for singers, but for everyone. We learn, store memories, and access our emotional intelligence and creativity when our body has had the rest it needs. And, when you're a singer, you need every cell of your body on-line, functioning to support your artistry.
That being said, there are times in a singer's life when getting enough sleep can't be the priority. If that's the case for you, be gentle with yourself. Stressing about a lack of sleep won't help either! When you've fallen off the sleep train, take small steps to move toward better sleep health, and do your best to get back on track as soon as you can. A lifetime of sleep deprivation is a prescription for illness and burnout. Two things everyone can do without.
Are you a singer who's overcome sleep issues? Please let me know how you did it in the comments below or over in my Facebook community for singers HERE.
More from Dr. Walker:
Articles Referenced in this post:
More Sleep Resources and Information: