Singing through migraines


Me caught in a dazzle of sunlight: something like a migraine aura

A few weeks ago, 200-odd people sang Donizetti’s Requiem to an appreciative audience in the Wellington Salvation Army Citadel. And one of those 200 people was me.

I love this annual workshop, organised by the Wellington Region of the New Zealand Choral Federation. Anyone can join in, anyone at all! On Friday night we start learning an interesting choral work under an exciting director. 24 hours later we perform it, with stunning soloists. In a word, it’s a buzz — intensive learning in a supportive crowd, culminating in one all-or-nothing performance.

The migraine obstacle

Only one problem: I usually get a migraine and don’t make it through to the performance. Staring at little black marks page after page. Sunbeams striking at a particular angle. Bright lights. Heavy concentration. Yep, that’ll do it. But if I go home I’m still happy and satisfied, because I’ve still had most of the experience.

The challenge is always, how long can I last? Two hours, four hours, six hours?

A well-designed score and cunning tricks almost save the day


Some years we sing from scores that look like ants on the march. They’re tiny, cramped, more black than white, barely readable for me. Usability: fail. Page design: fail.

But the Donizetti score has good margins and layout and plenty of white space. Yes, that helps! I placed myself where the sun didn’t shine, took aspirin, drank loads of water and in short played all my anti-migraine cards. Almost made it.

Perfect timing: singing blind

The audience is waiting. We’re ready to perform. The beautiful soloists walk in. The conductor raises his baton … uh oh, is his face a tiny bit blurry?

Here comes the aura, a shimmering zig-zag lightning that grows and moves along its own sweet path. The conductor is a blank. The score is a blur. But I can’t leave now.

I know the first bit. And I feel fine, just blind, no other symptoms. I won’t lip-synch, I’ll sing. And I do, for the entire performance.

I make concessions. I skip the risky bits, like all those fabulous ff opening high notes. My greatest dread is of singing during a solo — imagine that!

The aura wriggles away in time for the applause. I’m fine, really just fine.

Life lessons for me

  • Learn your music really really really really well. I mean really.
  • You’re not a soloist. A kindly crowd will carry you through.
  • Adapt to circumstances.
  • Do your best. Your best is good enough.
  • Listen to the music in the migraine.
  • Rejoice!

11 thoughts on “Singing through migraines

  1. That’s hard but glad you made it through.

    1. Thanks Kate — I felt triumphant! But duly humbled when our own choir director said she had experienced the same thing — as a soloist!

  2. bone&silver says:

    Well done! ‘The show must go on’ and all that : )

  3. candidkay says:

    Oh my goodness. Sounds awful! I’ve had migraines that have made me want to throw up–but thank goodness they’ve been mainly limited to hormonal swings (after having a baby, etc.). I hope you find a cure for yours . . .

    1. It’s all about managing rather than curing. But I am a born optimist!

  4. Robyn Haynes says:

    I love your spunk!

    1. Ah well it turned out OK

  5. Aunt Beulah says:

    I enjoyed this so much from the experience you were describing to what you learned. I’ve read about migraines but never suffered one, and this is one of the most understandable descriptions I’ve read of the headaches because it’s tied to a specific activity.I’m so glad you were able to sing throughout. Your life lessons are wise, able to be adapted to many circumstances.

  6. I’m so glad you gained so much from this post. That says more about you than me, your openness and positive attitude. As for the life lessons, I’m thinking I should do more of these, for my own sake.

  7. Kathleen says:

    That´s so brave of you!
    I have those visual auras too, in my case they can last for over an hour. I always have to try not to freak out when it happens.
    Well done!

    1. My sympathy. And empathy. It is a truly freaky druggy experience. But aren’t they pretty, those patterns?

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