Singing is a whole body activity. Depression is a whole body situation. When a singer experiences depression, the voice is very often effected. Speech quality changes can even be a predictor of clinical depression. The very real vocal changes related to depression are rarely addressed in voice studios, and they deserve more attention. I intend to focus more on that in coming months.
The most common discussion I hear among voice teachers and singers related to depression is a change in motivation. Singers experiencing depression often have a decrease in motivation and more negative perceptions of their own singing. Part of the decrease in motivation can be trouble with decision fatigue that makes it hard for singers to decide what they need to work on in any given moment. It can also be more difficult for voice teachers to make lesson plans.
A very practical way to address decision fatigue is to have a decision-making mechanism in place. This can be as simple as making a routine that is followed for every lesson or every practice session, so a singer can move from one activity to the next every time without having to decide what to do. Routines can be incredibly helpful by making the order of rehearsals or lessons predictable.
Another way to eliminate decisions while keeping a bit of chance in the process is using an online decision wheel or a physical spinner with various exercises or tasks written on it. You can steal one from an old Twister game if you love the act of spinning the arm as much as I do. You might include things like "sing through a song," "practice diction," focus on dynamics," or even non-singing activities like "meditate" to keep it interesting.
I've also created a graphic that you can print or save online to use if you need a way to design a practice session or a lesson without having to pull ideas out of thin air.
Here are some of the ways you can use the choices I've included above:
You can stretch, jump around, play with a fidget toy (highly recommended in regular lessons, too!), or march in place to move the body around and get a little bit of awareness going.
To engage the brain, try telling jokes (you can scroll through my Sunday Punday posts on Instagram if you need some inspiration), meditate, ask questions about the music or a random topic, or do some research on the songs you're working on or an interesting thing about your voice. Check out the resources page on my website for some quick hits of vocal goodness.
Other Non-Singing Activities
Perhaps try acting out a song, either in the correct character or in a caricature. (How might a Shakespearan actor deliver the lyrics to Justin Bieber's "Baby"? I'd wanna see that.) You can do some score study, looking for interesting things in the score that can be emphasized in the singing, or even just looking for how the composer wrote in certain ideas. Listening to other singers and making plans for the rest of the month or semester are other things to try.
If you do feel like singing, try focusing on the dynamics, the breathing plan, diction, phrasing, or mic technique. By focusing on only one thing at a time, it might make some of the singing a little less overwhelming.
Repeating a song over and over can be a way to help memorize or solidify a technique aspect. You can spot check a few sections. You might even try changing things up and doing the opposite, such as singing every written forte as a piano, and every slow tempo as a quicker one to see how that changes the feel of a piece. If you have a multi-movement work, try singing the various movements in different orders. I love going backwards from the last movement to the first, or singing all the slow movements and then the fast movements. And you can work on memorization.
If you have a client that is okay with deciding what to do from a list, you can hand this graphic over to them and have them choose from the different options and go from there. If you need to take it down even further, you can roll dice to see what comes up and do those things. The point of reducing decision fatigue is to be flexible and go with whatever you or your client can handle on any given day.
It's my hope that this tool can be something that you can use when you need it. You can absolutely make your own graphic or decision wheel, too, based on what you use often in your own studio. It's all about what you need!
Depression is incredibly common among musicians, and rather than trying to just plow through and hope it gets better, we can best serve our clients when we address the whole singer in front of us. If you find you need more help, I would encourage you to reach out to a therapist in your area or a music therapist who can help you with more tools to successfully work with the challenges that depression can bring. Singing with depression can be harder than singing without it, but there are ways to help.
For more information or to get help for depression, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness website.
Scherer, S., Stratou, G., Gratch, J., & Morency, L. P. (2013, August). Investigating voice quality as a speaker-independent indicator of depression and PTSD. In Interspeech (pp. 847-851).
Hashim, N. W., Wilkes, M., Salomon, R., Meggs, J., & France, D. J. (2017). Evaluation of voice acoustics as predictors of clinical depression scores. Journal of Voice, 31(2), 256-e1.
Lawlor, V., Webb, C., Wiecki, T., Frank, M., Trivedi, M., Pizzagalli, D., & Dillon, D. (2020). Dissecting the impact of depression on decision-making. Psychological Medicine,50(10), 1613-1622. doi:10.1017/S0033291719001570
Vaag, J., Bjørngaard, J. H., & Bjerkeset, O. (2016). Symptoms of anxiety and depression among Norwegian musicians compared to the general workforce. Psychology of music, 44(2), 234-248.