Food for Singers: The Diva Diet

How do you feed a singing voice? What do you eat? When do you eat? What foods should you avoid?

For a singer, eating right is a balancing act.

Food is fuel, and you need enough fuel to get through your show. But too much food could make you lethargic on stage, and the wrong kind of food could irritate your throat, ruining your performance.

So you have to juggle everything that you know about nutrition… with everything you know about your own body. This photo is by She Knows Health & Fitness, a good resource for health tips.

When people travel to far-off places, they usually relax their diets and enjoy the local cuisine. But singers do not have the same luxury. When we travel to Rome or Tokyo for an opera gig, we have to think about how the food will affect the voice.

This week, I asked my singer friends what they like to eat before a performance.  I got responses from opera singers all over the world! And the results* are fascinating.  Here are their answers: the 5 best foods for singing … and the 5 worst foods for singing!

5 BEST FOODS FOR SINGING

1. Water – Dehydration is a singer’s worst nightmare. Dry vocal cords are less flexible and more susceptible to damage.  But don’t wait until the last minute to get a drink! The vocal folds are one of the last places in the body to get hydrated. So you can’t moisten your throat (from the inside) until you have consumed enough water to hydrate all of your vital organs. The singers in my survey reported drinking up to a gallon of water on the day before a performance. They drink more water as soon as they wake up the next morning. And they keep a couple of water bottles backstage during the performance.

2. Veggies & Fruit – Singers pile their plates full of green leafy vegetables. These help the body shed toxins and fight diseases. For optimal vocal performance, Aaron Lim, author of Your Personal Singing Guide, recommends fruits and vegetables rich in Vitamins A, C & E. One of the singers in my survey is a vegan and she selects raw foods packed with nutritional value; before singing, she drinks a green smoothie with kale or chard, juicy fruit, flax seeds, dates and water.

Fermented vegetables, like sauerkraut and kimchi, are cancer-fighting, mood-improving, probiotic superfoods! But wait until after your performance to indulge your saurkraut habit, because salty foods absorb water.

3. Protein –  Just like athletes, singers need protein to maintain their strength and stamina. Many singers like fish and poultry, because they are high in protein but low in fat. But a couple of the singers in my survey reported needing iron-rich red meats on the day before a performance. Vegetarian singers prefer protein shakes and energy bars.

4. Small “Combo” Meals – Many singers eat a small meal about two hours before the curtain goes up. They can’t afford to get dizzy onstage, so they avoid sugary and starchy foods that could spike their blood sugar. Instead, the singers in my survey picked foods with a low glycemic index. They also balanced their proteins and carbs.  Favorite meals included salmon and salad, eggs and toast, or chicken and rice.

5. Vocal “Lubricants”– Food and water never come in direct contact with the vocal cords. But there are some snacks that stimulate saliva production, bringing relief to singers who suffer from “dry mouth.”  These include apples, lemons, hard candy and ginger tea.  If you’re feeling hoarse or scratchy, a spoonful of honey will soothe your throat and fight off bacteria.

5 WORST FOODS FOR SINGING

1. Alcohol – Many people only sing in public if they’re tipsy, but opera singers finally stop singing when they drink.  Here’s why: alcohol causes the tissues in the larynx to swell, reducing vocal control.

2. Heavy Foods – Singers avoid fatty foods, greasy foods, and anything that might give them gas. Remember that food is fuel, but don’t overtank! Singing depends on good breath management. If you eat too much, your digestive system will slow down and your abdominal muscles will relax and you’ll find it harder to support your air.

3. Caffeine – Caffeinated drinks steal moisture from the body. Also remember that caffeine is a real drug and it can hype you up. Performing is exciting enough by itself; you don’t want to flood your body with caffeine and adrenaline.

4. Spicy Foods – Garlic and other spices are fantastic for the immune system, but they are hard on the vocal folds. They can also irritate the stomach, causing acid reflux. You’ll also want to avoid foods with nuts or small particles that could get lodged in your throat.

When I was singing and teaching in Kathmandu, I lived on naan and tea for days at a time. Why? Because my digestive system was in shock. I couldn’t tolerate yak’s milk at all. And I loved the spicy boar, but the spicy boar didn’t love me.

5. Milk – Dairy products have been linked to sinus infections.   To a singer, there is nothing worse than having a raging infection in the ears, nose and throat. For many years, we were taught that drinking milk actually produced phlegm.  This turns out to be a myth, and yet some singers do get congested when they use milk products.

I was lactose intolerant until I moved to Austria, where my digestive system cured itself. (Note that this is medically impossible, but it happened anyway.) I thank Austrian cows for my current ability to eat cheese — after all, Austrian cows appear to be happier and healthier than American cows, and they have better cowbells, so I think they deserve the credit. 😉

It’s best not to be too neurotic about what you eat. Anxiety does not help you sing better. But clearly, food plays an important role in the singer’s life.  If you want to stay in peak vocal condition, you need to choose your meals wisely. And that concludes this episode of the Diva Diet. Bon appétit!

* Please note that this was an informal survey with a very small sample size. It does not attempt to be a formal study with statistical significance.   

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Starving Artists in Moscow

This is another “blast from the past” blog post. For some reason, I’ve been thinking about all the travel adventures I had before I ever started this blog! In my last post, I took you on a wild ride through Nepal, and this time, I’d like to take you to Russia…

There’s a certain mystique about the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. It’s a prestigious classical music contest, and it has a very old-school Russian atmosphere. But Americans have been quite successful there. Famous gold medalists include Van Cliburn (piano) in 1958 and Deborah Voigt (voice) in 1990.

So I felt humbled to be the only American vocalist invited to compete in the XIII International Tchaikovsky Competition in 2007. This is, after all, a serious international medal competition with several events (piano, cello and voice) and it only happens once every four years. I felt like I was going to the Olympics!

We were even treated like Olympians.  Our travel and housing expenses were covered by the competition. (Even my pianist’s expenses were covered, so I invited Ayako, a friend and colleague from the Mozarteum in Austria, to perform with me in Moscow.) We received free T-shirts, tote bags, commemorative pins and magnets. We all lived in the same mega-hotel, right outside the center of town, just like an Olympic Village.

The officials posted intricate schedules, where hundreds of competitors were organized by name, instrument and nationality. (“Lindsay Feldmeth, voice, USA & Ayako Watanabe, piano, Japan” — I learned to recognize our names in the Cyrillic alphabet.)

The competitors traveled into the city together by bus. (Well, Ayako and I often escaped and used the subway instead, but we’re rebellious like that.) We even took a group field trip to the Tchaikovsky Museum in Klin!

So when they announced that we would also receive a certain number of free meals, we were delighted. Like most young artists, Ayako and I were on a tight budget, and good food can be expensive in Russia. We were issued several blue “meal tickets,” for use at the cafeteria in Tchaikovsky Hall.

On the first day of the competition, we landed in the cafeteria after a long and exhausting rehearsal. I surveyed the dishes underneath the glass and pointed to a delicious dish of lamb. But the man serving the food shook his head emphatically. “Nyet.”

“Oh!” I said, looking down at the blue ticket in my hand.  “Well, that makes sense,” Ayako whispered to me in German.  “After all, it’s a free lunch. They can’t give us all lamb.”

I nodded, smiled, and pointed at a smaller dish of chicken breast. “Nyet.”  Hesitating, I indicated a corn salad.  “Nyet.”  Confused, I looked to see what the other competitors were eating. When I saw what they had chosen, I pointed sadly to a burnt piece of meat that resembled beef tongue.  “Da!” said the man happily, scooping it onto my tray.

We were still grateful for the free lunch, but it really wasn’t the best meal of the year. After that, Ayako and I ate out as often as possible. Restaurants are pricey in Moscow, but there are a variety of good places to eat within steps of Red Square, if you know where to look.  I can recommend this website.

But even if the food was underwhelming, nothing could match the experience of singing onstage at Tchaikovsky Hall.  It was a magic moment.  Afterwards, I gave a backstage interview (in English, thank goodness!) for a Russian radio program.

Throughout the experience, I was deeply touched by the Russians’ love for classical music.  I could not believe how many spectators showed up to watch the preliminary rounds of the competition — even on weekday mornings!

After the quarter finals, I went out to the lobby to get some air.  I had only been standing there for a few minutes when I was approached by an older Russian gentleman.  He pointed to my picture in the program.  “Leensee Fyeldmet?” he asked hopefully.  “Yes, that’s me,” I said. He pressed a pen into my hand and asked me to autograph his program.  Then he threw his arm around me and had his son take our picture! It was a sweet moment.

I didn’t win any medals at the Tchaikovsky Competition. But I will always consider Moscow my “Olympic” experience. до свидания!

Florence for Beginners: Part III (Music, Books & Food)

How to eat, drink and be merry in Florence

So you’ve been to all of the museums and parks and now you’re thinking: where can I get something to eat around here?  Well, you’ve come to the right country. There are many culinary pleasures here.

Very often in Italy, I find that the food gets better the further you get from the city center.  The center of Florence is a touristy area and restaurants cater to an international clientele.  You will find that the food is less authentically Italian and also far more expensive than it should be. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t get good food in the center of town.  Here are a few of my favorites:

FOOD

Osteria del Cinghiale Bianco Borgo Sant’Iacopo 43r, Florence

Good traditional Florentine cuisine.

Trattoria Mamma Gina Borgo San Iacopo, 37, Florence
I like the lasagne and the desserts.

Moyo Via de Benci 23/R
If you’re looking for a big fresh salad, this is your place.

Taverna Divina Comedia Via Cimatori 7r
This café is based on the works of Dante. Very funny. I prefer the Purgatory Pizza.

ICE CREAM

You shouldn’t have trouble finding wonderful gelato in Florence. It’s everywhere. But if you’re in search of the very best ice cream, try:

Vivoli Piero Il Gelato Via Isola Delle Stinche, 7/R – near Santa Croce
–quite possibly the best gelato in Florence. Certainly the most interesting flavors. But always crowded!

runners up:

Gelateria Carabe’ Antonio Via Ricasoli, 60 – near the Duomo

La Bottega Del Gelato  Via Por S. Maria, 33/R. – near the Ponte Vecchio

So now you’ve had lunch but you also need something to read? Never fear:

BOOKS
I include bookshops for two reasons: 1) bookshops are cool and 2) bookshops have public restrooms.

Paperback Exchange (near the Duomo) – Via delle Oche, 4R

English books and good service

Feltrinelli International
Via Cavour 12-20/r (near San Marco)

Libreria Edison
Piazza della Repubblica 5

So you’ve picked up an Italian phrase book and some British paperback novel, and now you’re looking for some ear candy.  I can help:

MUSIC

Florence is the birthplace of opera.  It was a group of poets, musicians and thinkers called the Camerata who invented the art form in the late 1500s. And 400 years later, it’s still a great place to see a show!

This site gives you a bit of the history of the different theaters, as well as the famous opera festival, Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.

When I lived in Florence, I sang with Concerto Classico.  The company performs at St. Mark’s Anglican Church (Via Maggio 18), just steps away from the Ponte alle Grazie. Easy to overlook from the outside, the building houses an ornate and hauntingly beautiful chapel. The church is part of an old Medici Palace that was once owned by Machiavelli and later renovated in the neo-renaissance style. Concerto Classico offers classical concerts and full-length operas. You can get up-to-the minute information here.