Singing through migraines

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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

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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!

Waiting: it’s a hobby

waiting

The seminar would be late starting, because of a technological hitch.  The famous choreographer said, “I’m good at waiting. It’s my hobby.”

This startling statement has stayed with me longer than any of his brilliant insights into dance. I decided to adopt this hobby myself. Since then every slow queue, every delayed airline, every lonesome minute in a cafe or a dentist’s lobby is an event in itself for me. I’ve got to wait anyway: why fret about something I cannot change? Waiting is not a void: it’s an event.

A friend said, “What I don’t like about waiting is the fact that nothing is happening.” But something is happening: you are waiting.

A glimpse of angry waiting

I went to Warehouse Stationery for a small urgent printing job. One machine was out of action and a staff member away sick, so there was going to be a delay. OK, can’t change that. In bustled an upset person with angry hair.

P. from K. “I’m a proofreader and I’ve just come in from Karori” (a 15 minute bus ride) “and my job will only take two minutes so can you do it straight away?”
Staff. “I’m sorry / delay / 15 minutes / machine / away / queue.”
P. from K. Repeats her speech.
Staff “Many people are waiting, that lady” (me) has been waiting a long time.” (Actually only 5 minutes so far.)
P. from K. (To me) “I’m a proofreader from Karori, etc, will you let them do my job first?”
Me. “No, that will throw everybody out.”

P. from K. then rushed off town to find another printer willing to do her job instantly. Which would have certainly taken longer than 15 minutes.

Waiting under a tree

I understood her position. I felt sorry for her. And life had handed me the gift of ten minutes to ponder on the mysteries of waiting. I sat on a bench and watched clouds racing each other across the sky. Was I witnessing celestial road rage?

  • Does angry waiting sprout from that deadly seed, a sense of entitlement? This is always puzzling to an outsider: why should a proofreader from Karori take precedence over a writer from Mt Victoria? A Hummer over a VW Golf? Storm cloud over fluffy white cloud?
  • Does angry waiting hurry things up or slow them down?

Some waits are harder than others. Waiting for test results. Waiting for news of a life-and-death nature. Waiting for news that will determine your future. You feel frightened, powerless and frustrated.

But when these life-or-death waits occur I try to at least remember that waiting can be a positive thing. To perceive waiting not as a vacuum but a state that I experience for better or for worse. To wait mindfully. Perhaps to fill my mental waiting room with small good things and thoughts and helps and hopes. I can’t change the outcome, but at least I can avoid contaminating others with the toxin of my angry waiting.

Let me remember the tree and let the clouds do what they will.