Journal of Singing Article
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A Holistic Review of the Experiences of Classical Singers During Pregnancy
The experience of pregnancy is transformative for many women. As singers, the significance of the hormonal, emotional and personal changes which pregnancy heralds are magnified considerably by the fact that our bodies are our instruments. Surprisingly, this experience has not been fully documented.
I became pregnant just after finishing my coursework for my doctorate. Partly to quell my own curiosity about how pregnancy would impact my singing, I took a look at the shelves in the university library to see what I could glean about the subject. I was dismayed to find that the only reference to singing while pregnant was tucked away in a volume which discussed vocal health disorders. In a brief paragraph devoted to the subject of pregnancy I read an admonition: if the pregnant woman’s breath support was compromised by her growing fetus, she should stop singing.
I decided at that moment to focus my doctoral research on the experience of pregnancy for the classical singer. Not only was I curious about how my voice would change, I also had many more questions that were beyond mere breath capacity. What would it feel like to sing while pregnant? Would being pregnant change my voice? Would pregnancy impact how I memorized and prepared roles? Would being pregnant affect my career choices? Although we understand much of the physical impacts of pregnancy on the singing voice, the topic as a whole remains generally under-examined, especially with a holistic view to understanding the ways in which pregnancy affects the complete singer/performer. With the intent to fill this void in the literature, I developed and implemented an in-depth survey in which I asked many questions regarding the physical, emotional and career implications of singing while pregnant.
Research Methods. My research involved an extensive literature review as well as in-depth interviews with three pregnant (and one recently pregnant) classical singers. Throughout this process, I became aware of areas of interest that had not yet been explored and I began to take note of them. When it became clear that I would also do a survey to complement my research, I used these notes to form the basis of my questions which ranged from physical impacts, to the emotional and social ramifications of pregnancy for the classical singer. While creating the survey, I allowed the needs of each question to dictate the type of question that was used. This resulted in a varied questionnaire which used a variety of question styles, including multiple choice and Likert scale questions. Although surveys are thought of as quantitative, it is possible to maintain a relatively qualitative perspective by filling the answer grids with qualitative information. Wanting to maintain a loosely qualitative feel, I often used a wide variety of adjectives or descriptions instead of number ratings. It was important to me that women felt they were able to share their stories in more depth than a typical survey might provide; I wanted to hear in their words what it was like to be pregnant as a classical singer. Therefore, I offered a comment box to most questions so that women could add their own thoughts and clarifications, and I was pleased to see that women used these boxes extensively to share their stories. The overall popularity of the comments indicated to me that the subject was an important one to the participants: they weren’t simply going through the motions of filling out the survey but were engaging with it in a thoughtful and genuine way. I was especially grateful for the way in which the comment boxes allowed me to maintain a qualitative feel throughout much of my survey, providing me with rich, detailed descriptions from the women who participated.
Defining Parameters. My initial focus throughout the proposal process of my study was to interview classical singers who were currently pregnant in order to acquire fresh insight on their experience as it evolved. However, in order to include a broader scope of experiences, I decided to include classical singers who had been pregnant with one or more children, as well as those who were currently pregnant. I am grateful that my survey garnered responses from over 400 women world-wide and I would like to share my findings here.
Who took the Survey? The majority of the women who participated in my survey were from the United States (69%) with the next biggest group being from Canada (19%). European countries represented 8% of the participants and smaller numbers came from countries as far flung as India, Switzerland and Portugal.
Almost half of the participants were between the ages of 30 and 40, but many were in their 20s and a few are older than 70. 70% of women who participated gave birth between 2005-2015, indicating more recent experiences for the women surveyed. 23% of the singers were pregnant at the time they filled out the survey.
Vocal Changes. We are aware as singers and voice teachers that our vocal folds house hormone receptors, and therefore, hormonal changes of any kind have an important impact on our voices. I was curious to understand how classical singers perceived their own voices throughout their pregnancies, and more specifically, if the women perceived fach changes resulting from their pregnancies. When asked to respond to the statement, “My voice type changed after/in connection with my pregnancy/pregnancies,” 31% percent of women surveyed agreed. More sopranos said their voice type changed (34% compared to 24% of mezzos), but both numbers were higher than I anticipated. When continuing to filter the data based on voice type, I found that the lighter the instrument, the more likely the woman to experience change. Lyric mezzos and lyric sopranos had very similar rates of change, around 20%. Soubrettes were most likely to experience a change in their voice type (52%) followed by coloraturas (48%). The voice type least likely to experience change was contralto, with only 10% reporting changes.
Fach Comparison: Pre-Pregnancy and Current Fach. In most cases, if the voice type was to change during pregnancy, it happened in the first pregnancy (60%), with percentages lowering drastically on each consecutive pregnancy: (28% for second pregnancies and 12% for third or more pregnancies). However, some women whose voices changed more drastically didn’t experience these changes until during their third or more pregnancy. One example of this phenomenon was a survey participant who began as a coloratura and ended up as a dramatic soprano, a change which was initiated during her third pregnancy. Another woman began as a lyric soprano, but after her third pregnancy, stabilized as a lyric mezzo. The following comment illustrates her experience with changes in range:
While I was pregnant with my third child, I was actually able to comfortably sing in the contralto range but hadn't [yet] lost my high notes. Within six months of stopping nursing, I began losing some of the lowest notes as my muscles thinned out & my ligaments tightened up.
Of those women who experienced change in their voice type, 43% found that the change was permanent. This effect was more evenly dispersed among voice types; Despite the fact that the coloraturas and soubrettes who participated in this survey were much more likely to experience pregnancy related changes to their voices, they were not more likely to experience permanent change.
Trends in Vocal Change; Increased Richness. My survey found that most fach change experienced during pregnancy resulted in women either taking a step up in heft of the voice (for example, starting as a soubrette and ending up as a lyric soprano) or dropping in range and/or tessitura (starting as a soprano before pregnancy and ending as a mezzo afterwards); The women I surveyed showed a trend toward “heavier” voice types post-pregnancy. Among the comments from those women who experienced change, adjectives used also correlated with this general trend. The phrase “more richness” was most often used to describe these timbral changes, but other adjectives with similar meanings when describing vocal timbre were also common, including “heavier,” “warmer,” “fuller,” “bigger” and “more dramatic.” Many women shared how these timbral changes impacted their voices:
My voice became easier throughout the range, rounder, darker and fuller. I always knew I had a low voice, but pregnancy helped me find my true contralto.
My voice felt heavier and richer in my second and third trimesters, especially. The upper register felt harder to access the further I went along.
My voice had a richer tone and body during pregnancy. Being a coloratura soprano I enjoyed the ease and fuller sound that was present in the low and middle range while pregnant.
Another participant describes an increase in richness as well as a change in range. Though still pregnant at the time she took the survey, her attitude regarding the changes she is experiencing is one of curiosity and excitement.
My voice seems to have shifted down about a half step. Some days I wake up swearing I could be a mezzo! I am definitely a soprano, and still a soprano in my pregnancy but I have noticed my lower register is stronger than normal and the timbre of my voice seems to be darker and richer. It's a sound I really have enjoyed, however finding my squillo particularly in my third trimester has been a new discovery. I'm really curious to see how this all unfolds postpartum.
Trends in vocal change: Loss of high notes…and gains! Many women who experienced change said that the highest notes of their range were either more difficult or even inaccessible at some point during their pregnancies, an experience which impacted their choice of repertoire. At times, this resulted in choosing repertoire outside their original fach:
Near the end of my pregnancy, I noticed a substantial drop in my tessitura. It lowered by nearly a major third. As a lyric soprano, I began exploring mezzo rep with shorter phrases and with less melismatic passages.
Other singers remained within their current fach, but made adjustments to repertoire based on their timbral changes:
I consider myself a lyric soprano with a coloratura extension. Although my upper range never left, I found it a bit more difficult to negotiate the right balance of subglottic pressure in the passagio and upper register. I performed repertoire which did not require me to dwell in those areas as much.
So I would still call myself a lyric coloratura, but I used to just love to sit on the top. I could stay there all day. Now it is not that way. I have the same range, but not the same ease.
A few women’s voices evolved in the opposite direction, starting in a lower fach and ending up feeling more comfortable in a higher range, although change in this direction was rare. One participant switched from lyric mezzo to lyric soprano, and one woman who was a contralto prior to pregnancy became a coloratura soprano afterwards. Two women (one a mezzo and one a soprano) described gaining an extra extension in their upper ranges and two others went from lyric mezzo to dramatic soprano. Two women who experienced greater ease in their high notes describe their experience this way:
I feel my higher range is more comfortable and now I experience difficulty in the lower passages. I'm not sure if this will stay around or go but there is more ease singing higher now. I always moved between being a sop and mezzo but feel that although I have retained the warmth in my voice the lower range is not as strong. Perhaps this is linked to breath.
I do remember singing with a more beautiful tone, and greater ease in the higher register, as well as a smoother transition between vocal registers.
All other participants who experienced change either stayed within their main vocal designation, (lyric soprano to dramatic soprano) or moved into a lower fach (lyric soprano to lyric mezzo). Of interest was the fact that some women who answered that they experienced changes in their voice type listed themselves as the same fach before and after pregnancy. They did, however, clarify in the comments that their vocal changes related to changes in registration, tesssitura, range, loss of high notes or timbre. These changes must have felt substantial to the women involved to warrant their answering “yes” when asked if they experience permanent vocal change, despite the fact that their vocal fach remained the same.
A vocal shift in timbre or fach can take place for various reasons during a singers’ career, regardless of whether the singer experiences pregnancy. To complicate things further, the women who participated were in a wide variety of career and vocal developmental stages: thus, there may have been reasons outside of pregnancy for vocal changes. However, most of the women surveyed attributed the changes they experienced to their pregnancies, either from the changes in their hormones or from the new physical sensations brought on by pregnancy. Some of the participants did acknowledge the difficulty in attempting to isolate each factor that contributed to their vocal changes. One woman wondered if her feeling of exhaustion contributed to a loss of high notes:
I've lost my high notes but I wonder if that's also because I'm just worn down and haven't been singing as much.
Another acknowledged that the overall vocal changes she experienced may have had more to do with her maturity rather than the pregnancy itself:
Well, my timbre was slightly fuller/darker during my pregnancies. However, my overall vocal changes, I believe, were more due to my own maturity than to pregnancy. It's very typical for light lyric coloratura sopranos to develop into full lyric sopranos. I didn't lose the coloratura facility, but I've developed a fullness that is more common for a lyric soprano.
Of the women I surveyed, roughly half made some adjustments to their repertoire because of the physical changes they experienced during pregnancy. Mezzos were more likely to either answer “yes” or “no” to the question of adjusting repertoire; Sopranos were 10% more likely to say that they “somewhat” made changes. Perhaps this is due to the fact that sopranos have more fach designations. According to Richard Boldrey in his Guide to Operatic Roles and Arias, there are ten soprano fach designations and only three possibilities for mezzos. Sopranos are, by definition, known for their high notes. Minor adjustments to their repertoire could have been as subtle as sustaining a high note for a shorter period of time or re-working a cadenza to include a more comfortable range. One soprano alludes to this idea in her comment on the question of making repertoire adjustments:
I still sang my repertoire but adjusted cadenzas as the top of my range was a challenge. It seemed that no amount of water was enough and I often felt dehydrated. I can normally vocalize to an F6 and perform a D6 in public. The D was very challenging for me after my first trimester and I was only comfortable singing to a C6 in public.
Various participants of all voice types commented on the changes they needed to make during their time performing while pregnant. One woman describes the adjustments she made to accommodate her vocal changes:
While pregnant my voice dropped at least an octave and I lost the top octave. I had to rework an entire solo recital in Switzerland as I could not sing the repertoire I had planned. This remained the case until 15 months after giving birth.
Another regretted that she did not make more changes, but instead went ahead with her original program, despite the fact that she was experiencing some vocal difficulties due to her pregnancy:
I found at the beginning of my 2nd trimester my top got really fuzzy and hard to control. I was to give my graduate recital that month- but decided to keep the top-heavy pieces in recital. I wish I had just scrapped them.
Other women described the need to cut out repertoire that highlighted their challenges, especially towards the end of their pregnancies:
Towards the end of my pregnancy I didn't have as much air capacity, hence [I] chose arias for auditions with shorter phrases... it did limit options.
Up until month 8 I was able to sing most of my repertoire very well. In month 9 I made an audio recording for a job interview and removed "Dove Sono" because my breath support was not as good. I was VERY pregnant with a big baby by this point.
Many of the women I surveyed cited the need for flexibility during pregnancy, especially as it pertained to their repertoire. Being flexible with repertoire choices allowed many of the women I surveyed to continue to sing at a high level, despite the on-going timbral and range changes they experienced while pregnant.
Technical Adjustments. The need for flexibility during pregnancy was not restricted to repertoire; as voices and bodies changed throughout the trimesters, vocal technique was also adjusted. Many women spoke of the need to change the way in which they breathed, especially as the baby grew during the final trimester. Some women made reference to breathing “behind” the baby, accessing part of their ribcage and diaphragm that were not as intimately affected by the growing womb. One survey respondent noted, “I had difficulty breathing until someone suggested I breath into my back more during my later trimesters. Once I figured that out, it made breathing and my support easier.” The idea of breathing into the back while singing pregnant was common among respondents:
The biggest change in my singing was breath capacity. Because the baby was sharing the same space as my diaphragm, I found that I had to change my phrasing or breath "into my back" to get the air I needed.
Being able to respond to one’s evolving physical needs during pregnancy was an important factor for the women I studied. One survey respondent points to her training as a singer as a key element in the success she found during pregnancy:
During pregnancy, I was incredibly grateful for the muscular training of a classical singer. My breath and posture had trained my core muscles for the incredible demand placed upon them for the duration of the pregnancy. Though I felt like I had no room in my own body in the final two months, I am certain it would have been much more difficult without my vocal training to guide me and calm me as my body grew.
Learning through physical change. The adjustments that many women made during pregnancy led to some interesting technical discoveries, particularly in relation to breath. In the second and third trimesters, 71% and 75% of women felt they gained a greater understanding of appoggio. One can surmise that the increasing girth of the woman’s womb puts more pressure and awareness on that part of the body, perhaps aiding in a sensation of width and openness, and helping to understand the sense of “lean” which defines appoggio.
One survey respondent describes her experience this way:
I found that with the uterus expanding in my front lower abdominals, I could not access a low breath, which actually helped increase my reliance on rib expansion for a good inhalation. Into the second trimester, I am finding it increasingly difficult to access my epigastric abdominals to "pulse" for tricky notes. As a result, I need to support more steadily through maintaining a sense of appoggio through the back and sides of my ribcage - all the better for sustained, legato singing, of course! Having a baby bump highlighted my dependence on my lower abdominals to support high notes, and actually helped me learn to rely more on actual breath support using a steady supply of air.
Another felt similar improvements in her concept of appoggio:
Pregnancy was one of the best things that has happened to help me understand the breath! Wow- within 2 months and a little more weight in that specific area- I felt that appoggio like never before.
For some women, the muscle memory and physical learning that took place over the course of the pregnancy continued after the baby was born:
Towards the end [of my pregnancy] there was an increased awareness of breath and abdominal engagement which made a lot of things seem easier. I still use the feelings / experience / awareness found in that time.
I learned how to breathe from being pregnant. It changed my concepts of breath control!
My biggest challenge was simply breath capacity, but pregnancy also taught me better breath management!
Though 82% of women surveyed found they had greater ease in breath support and 82% had greater ease in abdominal engagement in the second trimester, by the third trimester, only 44% of women agreed with these statements. This suggests perhaps that once the baby had grown to a certain size, many of the benefits of expansion in the torso were overshadowed by feeling too much width and pressure, as well as the decrease in space required for a complete inhalation. Many women found breath support to be challenging, especially in the final trimester. One survey respondent wrote, “[I] never felt like I could get a good breath, even when not singing. [I] felt like I was drowning for the last three months of each pregnancy.”
Pregnancy’s Impact on the Singing Brain. I was also curious to see whether or not the women I surveyed felt that pregnancy changed their ability to focus and learn music. From a personal perspective, my attempt to memorize the spoken pre-amble in John Kander’s “Letter from Sullivan Ballou” was remarkably difficult during pregnancy, when I had previously encountered no memorization issues. Although studies on the classical singer’s brain during pregnancy have not been conducted, research on the brain during pregnancy for the general population sheds some insight as to the possible impacts for the classical singer in particular. For example, Hoekzema et al’s study on pregnant women indicates pronounced changes in the structure of the brain during pregnancy, and researchers were able to consistently identify whether or not women had been pregnant based solely on an examination of their brain structure. Additionally, researchers Jessica Henry and Barbara Sherman found that pregnant women scored significantly lower on verbal recall tests and processing speed, both pre- and post-partum. Despite the lack of research on singers specifically, the tasks of memorizing foreign languages, staging and other complex directions may be impacted by the cognitive changes which occur during pregnancy; I was curious as to whether my survey participants had noticed these changes.
During the first and second trimesters, 43% of women agreed with the notion that their pregnancies affected their ability to learn and memorize music. In the third trimester, almost 60% of women agreed with the statement; the women who participated in this study were more likely to feel their cognitive function was impacted in the third trimester. Several participants commented on the impact pregnancy had on their cognitive functioning:
Whether it was due to illness, great emotional changes, soreness in my body or the actual physical change in my belly - there were definite changes in my ability to perform. Most notably, my third trimester brought a great difficulty in sight reading. I don't know if it was just an inability to focus, but I made many more errors later in the 8th and 9th months.
Memory!! I'd never struggled with memory work before, but I was doing Frauenliebe und Leben, studied for months and could barely remember the words. This had never happened before!!
Challenges like changes in cognitive functioning for classical singers during pregnancy deserves further exploration to be fully understood. However, the women I surveyed found the physical and mental changes experienced during pregnancy became interwoven with their singing process. Though the changes they experienced sometimes created difficult performing situations or required adjustments, many women learned to be flexible and in doing so, made positive technical discoveries which lasted beyond their pregnancies.
Emotional Impact. As singers, we understand that our emotional state has a direct correlation with our ability to perform successfully. Women have also shared that the experience of pregnancy has immense emotional repercussions, both due to the hormonal impact of pregnancy and the resulting life changes that a new baby brings. And yet, the combination of these two experiences has not been explored academically. I was curious as to how classical singers navigated their pregnancies emotionally, particularly as it intersects with their sense of selves as performers. I asked the women I surveyed to share whether or not the emotional changes that they experienced during pregnancy impacted their interpretation and emotional connection to their repertoire: 70% said that pregnancy had a noticeable impact. Of special interest was the fact that many women experienced a priority shift connected to their pregnancies. This shift often resulted in women feeling that their performing improved. One woman shared, “Singing became less important and helped me to be a better performer.” Another said, “I will say this: having two children has greatly increased my "IDGAS" [I don’t give a #$@*] factor. I have almost zero performance anxiety now, and thoroughly enjoy performing.” In fact, 50% of women surveyed felt that their attitude towards auditions and rejection changed once they became pregnant. One woman explained:
Most of the effects I've experienced have been mental, I think. It has more so affected my perspective on auditions and helped me not [to] take them over[ly] seriously- there are more important things in life now!
Many women described feeling that their pregnancies gave them more fulfillment in performance because it was no longer their sole priority.
Performance Anxiety. I was curious to find out whether or not pregnancy changed the experience of performance anxiety for the women I surveyed. While 84% of women surveyed experienced some form of performance anxiety prior to pregnancy, 19% of women said they had a noticeable decrease in pre-performance anxiety and 22% felt there may have been a decrease: a total of 41% of women surveyed described a possible positive impact on their performance anxiety through pregnancy. One woman shared:
I was generally a lot calmer and a lot more easygoing while pregnant. My nervousness before performances was more like excitement, agitation, butterflies in the stomach.
Although my research focuses on pregnancy, many of the women I surveyed had already given birth and were eager to share with me how motherhood had impacted their performance anxiety. 37% of women who had already had children describe feeling empowered by their pregnancies which resulted in increased confidence while performing. The following comments display this new sense of confidence which arose after childbirth:
Especially after giving birth, I felt like I could conquer the world after doing what I did, and no other "performance" in my life I’d face with fear. This has remained true for performing since I gave birth three years ago. No anxiety. Much more confidence.
I think because I went through so many physical and emotional changes during the pregnancy and I was able to do more than I thought I could, so it was empowering. So now, I think, hey, you did this while pregnant - you know you can handle this.
Although many women found that pregnancy and motherhood were positive influences as far as their performance anxiety went, 9% of women felt an increase in anxiety during pregnancy, mostly related to physical symptoms that were unpredictable.
I had nervousness before pregnancy but I was always confident that I knew what was going to happen. I was prepared and I knew what my voice would do. During pregnancy I became VERY nervous because I didn't know what my voice would do that day. Would my high notes be clear? Would they come out at all? Would I have a dizzy spell? I had a fear of the unknown. Now that I am no longer pregnant, these feelings are no longer there and I am one again confident onstage.
Some women also felt that their anxiety regarding performing lingered after giving birth, and they connected this directly to their new role as mothers. One survey participant described how her new role as a mother impacted her performance anxiety:
After having my children, the adjustment to the many life changes of motherhood were intense. I experienced several years of extreme performance anxiety which had never been an issue for me before. This wasn't apparent to me during my pregnancies and was much more related to my feelings of isolation and relevance to the industry as a mother. These feelings were the most difficult after my second pregnancy and they are ones I have been actively (and messily) working through this year in my performances.
I was grateful for the willingness of the survey participants to share their experiences as far as anxiety; overall, pregnancy had a positive impact on the performance anxiety of the women I surveyed.
Pre-performance Routine. I wanted to know if pregnancy impacted singers’ pre-performance routines. The survey found that 42% of women either agreed or strongly agreed that their pre-performance routines were impacted by their pregnancy, while only 24% strongly disagreed or disagreed and 34% remained neutral on the subject.
The question regarding pre-performance routine had the most responses in the optional comment window than any other survey question. Out of 297 women who answered this question, 107 wrote additional comments to supplement their answers. There were definite patterns in the comments that these women made regarding their pre-performance routines. The most common theme was that of balancing food and liquid intake; 53 of the 107 comments mentioned a change in the amount and timing of eating or drinking that happened before and during performances. Women also made mention of the need to plan bathroom breaks and control water intake because of an increase in urination frequency. Participants also described needing to make more time for naps and resting before performances than they did prior to pregnancy. Often it was a combination of these factors - adjusting food and drink, planning for bathroom breaks and taking time to rest - that created a change in the women’s routines. Some indicative examples of these changes are as follows:
I am more conservative with my physical energy. Before I was pregnant, I would go to the gym to try and get rid of some of the excess energy, to release my muscles and to calm down. Now, I have a nap.
I just had more considerations for my diet--making sure I had a variety of items ready and available for frequent, little meals. I drank water like it was going out of style. Trying to carve out more time for a brief nap or rest in my day became critical.
Less time practicing and warming up, more time eating.
Some of the women interviewed found that their pre-performance routine became calmer and less anxious during their pregnancy:
I've found that any pre-performance nerves I used to suffer from before I was pregnant have disappeared. And my attitude has become more relaxed- I'm just relieved to get through the concert at the moment and am far less critical about my own performance. So my pre-performance routine has also become more relaxed.
Usually I am a perfectionist when it comes to appearance. During my pregnancy I wasn't as focused on spending a full hour doing my hair, etc. I have found a more relaxed and I would say, mature and calm ritual. My warm-up routine has also been less intense. I work on specific sections and feel more trust in myself- I would describe it as surrendering to the music.
Many women made mention of warming up in a more relaxed fashion. The inclusion of stretching and yoga routines were also frequently mentioned:
Warmed up in a gentler way: rather than in one large chunk right before the performance, I sing throughout the day for shorter amounts of time - 10 or 15 minutes. Also added stretching similar to a warm-up for a workout - some very light prenatal yoga.
Most of the women who commented spoke about changes in their routine. Of the 24% of women who said their routines did not change, very few made comments. One woman regretted not changing her routine and preparation while pregnant:
I should have practiced an aria I have sung a million times when not pregnant more than I did before an audition, because I ran out of air at the end of phrases twice during the audition and surprised myself. So my prep should have changed but didn't!
Relationship to body. The singer's relationship to her body is a complex one. Guides for singers abound regarding weight management and proper attire, often with the intention of promoting the health of the singer, but always stressing the importance of “the whole package.” In a survey conducted by Classical Singer Magazine, singers were asked, “Do you feel your body image impacts your singing?” 93% of respondents said that they felt their body image impacted their performance and success in communicating while singing. The implications of weight gain associated with a healthy pregnancy (approximately 25-35 pounds as recommended by most resources) may be complicated by the classical singer’s desire to “look the part” or simply to keep contracts made before the pregnancy.
I wanted to know how women viewed their bodies onstage, both prior to pregnancy and during pregnancy in order to understand the impact pregnancy had on women’s body image and self-esteem. 79% of women said they generally felt comfortable with their bodies while performing prior to pregnancy, leaving 12% who felt neutral towards their bodies, and 9% who did not feel comfortable with their bodies on stage. I then asked women to respond to the sentence, “I feel/felt comfortable on stage with my pregnant body.” The answers were very similar to the first question: 77% of women felt comfortable with their bodies while performing during pregnancy, 11% remained neutral and 12% disagreed with the statement.
On the surface, these numbers indicated that women who were confident on stage prior to pregnancy remained so. I wanted to do a little further digging, however, and so I checked to see if the women who were confident pre-pregnancy were the same ones to feel confident about their bodies while pregnant. Interestingly, the groups were not the same. 22% of women who felt confident prior to pregnancy no longer felt this way during pregnancy. The opposite was also true; 71% of women who felt uncomfortable in their non-pregnant bodies on stage gained confidence during pregnancy. Happily, the majority of women were confident in their bodies on stage, but it was interesting to see how pregnancy either improved or worsened some women’s perception of their body on stage. Some women explained this transformation in the comments sections of the survey:
Body image changed hugely for me during and following pregnancy. I felt more beautiful and proud of my body while pregnant, and even though I gained weight following my pregnancy (had been very thin before) I had so much more love and respect for my body, and quit judging myself over petty little imperfections that had plagued me my whole life before. This anxiety about my body always added an element to how I felt onstage, worrying about how I looked to others. Having my son freed me to love my body and be confident.
My body structure has always been tall and full, and as I've been pregnant, I always found it encouraging that I was proud of my belly, whereas before I constantly felt the need to hide that area.
Pregnancy gave many singers a new appreciation for their bodies, however some participants experienced awkward interactions that arose before their pregnancy was obvious. One woman shared:
I took a major audition at the beginning of my second trimester and wanted to say something because I didn’t want people to think I’d gotten “fat” (as an accompanist asked me before I walked in). Later in my pregnancy, I didn’t bother, because it was obvious.
One scene partner ‘wondered why I was getting so fat’… then I laughed and said I was pregnant. He looked relieved…
One woman lost a job because of her pregnancy and this affected her own perception of her pregnant body:
I was asked to step down out of a Zerlina because of my pregnancy which affects how I felt about my body. And, with the bed rest/no exercise rule, I got bigger than I anticipated and again, felt huge on stage. Plus, I had audience members tell me after that they just thought I was a “heavy” girl and then realized it was me and I was pregnant. UGH.
Yet another woman wrote that during pregnancy she felt “gigantic and unwieldy.” The issue of body image, while already at the forefront of some singer’s minds, was magnified by pregnancy for many of the women I surveyed. For some, the changes they experienced in their body provided a vehicle for further confidence, while for others, these changes led to insecurities and even job loss.
Whether it was a re-ordering of priorities, a deepening of emotions, changes in performance anxiety or body image, pregnancy had a significant impact on the emotional landscape of the classical singers I surveyed. Based on this study’s findings the subject of emotions and pregnancy for the classical singer deserves further in-depth study.
Overall Impact. When I asked women to respond to the question, “Overall, becoming pregnant positively impacted my singing career” only 27% either strongly agreed or agreed with this statement. 44% remained neutral and 30% strongly disagreed or disagreed with the statement. There were many comments to clarify these findings and many women discussed not only their pregnancies, but how becoming a mother influenced their careers. One woman writes, “the ‘becoming pregnant’ did not impact my singing. The ‘becoming a mother’ afterwards changed everything.” Although my study focused on the experience of pregnancy, it was natural that stories about motherhood were shared in the comment sections of the survey. One woman explained her struggle with balancing motherhood and pregnancy this way:
I can’t say how pregnancy impacted my career. Trying to have a career and get through school with two children might have had a negative impact in a lot of ways. The biggest impact is that many people assume that you are either not invested enough in your artistry because they think you will want to be in one place and that your family is a fixed location. They also make judgements about what you are capable of because you have obvious other priorities. People make assumptions about what you want and where singing fits into that. I think it is much different for men in the same position.
Another woman shared her views on how her pregnancies affected her voice and her career:
I feel that I have been punished for having a family even though my voice has greatly improved through the process. While breastfeeding my voice changed dramatically and had a wide vibrato. I breastfed for 6 months before introducing food to my child. When the child started on solids, and I was breastfeeding or producing less milk, my voice started to sound like the old me. A week after stopping breastfeeding altogether, the voice was back to the way it was before I was pregnant with daughter number 1. After daughter number 2, my voice deepened and became larger and fuller I but did not lose any high notes. The industry does not want to know that you as a woman have kids. They see it as an inconvenience for them. It is not family friendly.
One woman described how physical challenges negatively impacted her career:
I had to cancel so many gigs (7 in all) between treatments and the bed rest that I needed a year to get back to my normal schedule. I couldn’t help but feel I had been discriminated against for being pregnant - and worse - having to deal with complications to said pregnancy.
While stories of challenges associated with pregnancy and motherhood were commonly shared by the women I studied, other women had positive experiences to tell. One woman explained how her pregnancy shaped her career choices:
I really changed repertoire and career direction after the birth of #1 because he inspired me to sing the music I wanted to sing and not what other people thought was appropriate or I thought would get me hired. I’ve had more success, frequency of paying gigs, and happiness since I made that change.
Another woman shared the positive effects that pregnancy had on her voice:
After the birth, I am much thinner, younger-looking and happier - and because it as a later in life pregnancy, people think I am younger than I am (although I am honest about my age). Also my voice has stabilized in the middle register, and I worry less about singing, so it also has improved.
Many women felt that pregnancy had improved their singing for a variety of reasons. I asked women what they felt overall about their singing since pregnancy. 68% of participants felt that pregnancy positively impacted their singing. This number contrasts the 27% that felt that their careers were improved by pregnancy. Of the women who felt their voices improved due to pregnancy, many shared their stories in the comment section of the survey. One woman described her experience this way:
For all the heightened emotion and worry of pregnancy, I have been given a gift of calm that is pretty incredible. I am plagued with concerns, new challenges, and dozens of daily tasks like any new mom, but I am learning to dram from this calm that deep down, I know what to do, and it will be all right. Pregnancy has taught me to be aware of all that I am, all that I trained to be, and that I actually can do more than I ever thought possible.
Some women felt that the physical experience of pregnancy improved their technique:
I learned how to expand my rib change while pregnant, a breathing technique which I continue to find hugely beneficial after pregnancy has ended.
There was new weight and new stretch to muscles that before had seemed invisible. They were always working but not in a way you could easily feel and manipulate. Having them working overtime allowed me to feel exactly what they were doing while I was singing and more easily manipulate them. Afterwards I had a much better sense of how everything was working.
Other women shared how the emotional changes they experienced impacted their voices and their careers:
I sing so much better now! My anxiety levels about my singing and career have totally flipped and knowledge that I can walk away at any minute and still be fulfilled has made my singing so much more passionate and my technique so much stronger. I am singing more in the moment and for the right reasons now.
Some women weighed the challenges and the benefits of pregnancy this way:
It was a tough time for me emotionally because of how many ups and downs there were physically and professionally. However, I do believe I’ve taken that heightened sense of appoggio with me and my singing has only improved because I experienced childbirth. I wouldn’t trade it, but also wouldn’t want to re-live it!
If women feel that they sing better after pregnancy, why is it that they feel pregnancy has a negative impact on their careers? Is this by choice, from the reality of juggling motherhood with performing or by assumptions made by others? Further study is needed to understand this discrepancy.
Final Thoughts. As I think about the women that shared their stories with me, I am so grateful for their candor and their willingness to share both their painful and positive stories. Women all over the world are singing while pregnant and doing it with success and poise! These women are balancing physical and hormonal changes, as well emotional ups and downs with career choices in a competitive environment, yet so often their stories are left untold. What I realized from my own experience and from the stories of the women I surveyed is that pregnancy is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to continuing to manage careers, emotions, voices and perspectives once the baby is born. Happily, researchers are beginning to explore the previously untold stories of women singers, particularly as women experience hormonal changes such as pregnancy and menopause through the lens of women’s own experience. Nancy Bos, Joanne Bozeman and Cate Frazier-Neely’s important new book, “Singing through Change: Women’s Voices in Midlife, Menopause, and Beyond” is a significant contribution to our understanding of women’s experiences of their voices throughout their lifespan. As we continue to delve into this important subject, more questions arise! Further study is needed to more fully understand the experience of pregnancy for the classical singer and its long-term impacts. I am grateful for the women who are willing to share their stories with me as I continue to explore all the ways in which women are “singing for two.”
Dr. Catherine Gardner is an assistant professor of voice at East Carolina University. She sings, teaches and conducts research out of Greenville, North Carolina where she lives with her husband and their six-year-old daughter. Most recently, she became a certified Koru Mindfulness teacher and is now exploring the impacts of mindfulness on classical singers. To learn more about Catherine, please check out her websites: www.singingfortwo.com and https://catherinegardnersopr.wixsite.com/catherinegardner.