Megan has sung in choirs since she was 11. In addition to doula work, she has a position singing in a semi-professional choir at an Episcopal church in Los Angeles (yes, it’s a long drive from Orange County - but worth it!). This week she’s sharing her thoughts on lessons about birth that she first learned in choir.
I did some math this week. Turns out I’ve probably spent about 5,000 hours singing in choirs over the years.
In addition to singing some really wonderful music with some really wonderful people during those 5,000 hours, I’ve also learned many life-changing lessons.
December is the time of year when my worlds of choral music and birth intersect. In singing so much about birth during the Christmas season, a thought struck me: I’ve learned so much about birth from singing in choirs.
The arts hold so much meaning for us as humans - as artists and as those who experience art created by others. Much of that meaning manifests in the world of the soul, surpassing words. But there is a lot of meaning that I’ve personally found in the arts, and particularly in choral singing, that applies specifically to my work as a birth doula.
I spent some time after a recent rehearsal making a list of all those things I could think of, and I was surprised how many there were!
Here are 15 lessons about birth I learned in choir:
This is definitely #1. Spending years honing my listening skills in choir rehearsals has given me such an advantage in my doula work. Deep listening (to what is said and what is left unsaid) is one of the most important parts of my job working with expecting parents, especially during labor.
It’s ok to make weird sounds
Have you ever head a choir doing warm-up exercises? It’s… different. There are usually a lot of weird sounds happening as singers get their voices ready to make music. Often people in labor feel like they want to make sounds, but aren’t sure if it’s ok. As a doula, I often encourage people to vocalize in labor in whatever way feels good for them… even if it sounds weird!
The beauty of intensity followed by release
"Stress-release" is something we talk about often in choirs. Leaning into a certain word or note, only to relax on the next is part of what can make music so beautiful to listen to. Seeing the beauty in that pattern has given me an intrinsic comfort for the natural "stress-release" pattern of contractions. The resting period between contractions especially can become so powerful during labor.
The importance of atmosphere
Often the impact of choral music has a lot to do with the atmosphere the sounds create. There’s a reason choral music is such a special part of the holiday season for many people, and that choirs are used in movie scores. There’s just something really special about that sound. And spending so much time and energy learning to create that atmosphere has lent itself really well to creating atmosphere for birth. Setting the scene for a warm, comforting, and even candlelit birth room can make a big difference (and can even be done in the hospital).
The importance of rhythm
Rhythm is a vital component of choral singing, and the same can be true in birth. We often encourage our clients to find a little rhythm that comes and goes with each contraction. Sometimes what we’re primarily doing when supporting someone in labor is helping to create and sustain these rhythmic patterns. Getting into a groove of coping and support that is repeatable over and over again can be so helpful and anchoring during labor.
Singers are all about water. Of course, this advice is especially important for the person in labor, but also definitely applies to partners, doulas, and care providers!
Wear sensible shoes
Wear sensible everything, actually. Singing in a choir often means being on your feet for quite a while, and usually also involves some sweating (stage lights are hot!). Years of choral singing has taught me to always dress comfortably, and that’s great advice for labor. Whether you’re the person in labor or a supporting person, comfortable clothing and shoes is a must for getting through the unpredictable hours and physical demands of labor.
It’s ok to be quiet
There is such beauty in a group of people singing softly together. In labor, those moments of quiet stillness can be so powerful.
It’s ok to be loud
Choral music calls for all kinds of expression, ranging from whispers to full, towering, voluptuous sound. The same is true in birth! Sometimes what it takes to birth a baby is moaning, roaring, or even yelling!
“Leave your baggage at the door”
This is a favorite saying of my favorite choir teachers (shout out to Mr. Hedgecock). The concept is that when a group of people is coming together to make music, there is a certain amount of “letting go” of worries, struggles, and challenges that needs to happen in order to let the parts of our brains that make music do just that. The same applies in birth - that “letting go” can be so important in labor - for laboring people and their supporters! The importance of this statement is that the things you leave at the door on your way in will be there waiting for you when you leave the room. This doesn’t require you to get rid of the things that might be weighing on your mind, but rather to respectfully set them aside as you focus on the task at hand.
Finding the balance between thinking ahead and being in the moment can be tough
In choir, there are certain things we have to pay attention to in a left-brained, analytical sort of way. Singing the right notes at the right time in the right way is important! But… if we only focus on those things, there isn’t much music to be found. There also have to be elements of artistry and intuition. Finding a balance between the analytical and artistic parts of ourselves is often a challenging, soul-searching part of a musician’s journey. And so it is in birth.
Preparation is crucial
Every musician has had that dream… the one where they show up to a concert and realize they don’t know the music they’re supposed to perform. It’s a common nightmare for a reason, because preparation is so important! Careful rehearsal can make or break a performance. If musicians don’t know the music, it means they’ll be forced to stay in that analytical part of their brain, trying to figure out what’s coming next. And that means that the artistic, intuitive part of themselves doesn’t get to be part of the picture.
The same is true for birth. When parents don’t know what to expect, what’s coming next when they turn the page of music, it’s almost impossible to find a place of “letting go” and just being in the moment. (This is why childbirth education is so important, even for families who are working with a birth doula!)
Know your limits
The rule I learned from a wise conductor is “breathe before you need to.” If you wait to take a breath until you don’t have anything left, the sound you make at that point will not be your best. Instead, get familiar with your own limits so you can take a breath before you get desperate for air.
This applies beautifully to birth. Knowing your own limits (mental and physical) is so important when it comes to your ability to listen to yourself and feel out what is the right next step in the moment. And the same is true for support people! It’s (almost) always better to take a break, eat something, use the restroom, etc. BEFORE we find ourselves in desperate need of any of those things.
Metaphors are powerful
If you listened to a choir rehearse, you would probably hear at least one instance of the conductor using a metaphor to try to get the choir to do something differently. And depending on the conductor, you’d hear this MANY times. It’s often much easier for conductors to describe what they want to hear using metaphors than it is to give a dry, technical explanation to the singers.
In labor, the hormones at play can make communicating technical information pretty tough at times. But metaphor can be the key to helping someone understand what’s going on in their body, or get a new idea for how to think about the sensations they’re feeling. Even for people who are very left-brained (technical, organized, verbal), communicating in words that are more like images, almost poetry, can be amazingly helpful.
Magic can happen when everyone works together
Choral music is basically one giant teamwork exercise. When everyone is giving their best and working collaboratively toward a shared goal, beautiful music can happen. In birth, when everyone in the room shares an intention to work together in positive way, that synergy creates something greater than the sum of the parts in the form of harmony.
As doulas, this is why we have such a strong focus on building bridges with care providers. Helping everyone involved in a labor feel like we’re all working toward a shared goal can have such a huge impact on not only the outcome of events, but also on the way those events make us (all of us involved in the birth) feel. When the team is all working together, beautiful things can happen!