It was during an MU Committee meeting where we were informed that temperature checks would be part of COVID testing for musicians entering rehearsal rooms and Studios, that I laughingly said, “What about us women of a certain age? We do get a little hot from time to time. How will it tell if we are warm from a flush or COVID?”
We chuckled but it was for serious consideration. It was comforting to hear that those with an elevated temperature could take a seat, cool down and retake the test, hopefully passing with flying colours.
But I did wonder whether some women may dread temperature checks because they may not want to explain their health if they feel they will be subjected to detrimental treatment or capability procedures at work.
What is the Menopause and does it affect Men?
In simple terms, the menopause is a natural biological journey in every woman’s life. It is the stage where their hormone levels change over a period of years and fertility comes to an end.
There are three stages of the menopause: perimenopause, menopause and post menopause and there are various treatments which intend to bring some relief, not removal, of the menopause. You can locate much more information on medical sites such as NHS or watch informative videos by the British Menopause society.
I will say that this biological journey for women is marked by any one or more of over 30 symptoms such as hot or cold sweats, joint ache, insomnia, low mood, irritability, decreased libido, memory loss, hair loss, depression, heart disease, changes in bone density and so on. Some symptoms can be quite severe and worrying, others might go unnoticed as each woman is unique with her own experience of the menopause.
The Menopause or sometimes referred to as ‘going through the changes’ is not a modern phenomenon and in the Victorian age menopause was seen as a “deficiency disease”. Like most women, born at a certain time, I was brought up to keep ‘women’s problems’ private. If you had a bad day you pretended you were fine, especially in the work place. Men do not have this dilemma as according to the NHS Men do not experience menopause.
Is it time to stop your music career now you are a menopausal musician?
My own journey into menopause began as a result of a surgical procedure for Fibroids. I was told by my GP that within 2 years I would experience menopausal symptoms - yikes! After 12 glorious months of feeling great, symptoms appeared. I kid you not! It was highly distressing, life changing. I was irritable because I worried about the doom to my music career. How can I perform with a hot flush? How do I function without enough sleep? What if I become ugly? My husband found me unbearable, I was in denial, and many an argument was had!
Femininity is cherished and exploited in the music industry. Producers make their fortunes by selling a version of feminine sexual perfection and we see this through comments such as ‘You sound ok but you just don’t have the right look’ which is mentioned in TV music competitions. The winner goes through a complete make-over with additional air brushing to personify ultimate beauty and achievement. What happens when the menopause hits? Hollywood shows that many females going under the knife to keep their youthful appearance to stay in work.
The body of work on menopause and the female musician is very small. In writing this article I found a couple of articles about singers such as Belinda Carlise of the Go-Go’s, Michelle Heaton of Liberty X, Tori Amos and a post about ‘vocal menopause.’
In my journey with the menopause I spoke with friends who were older than me to get a sense of what was to come and to decide whether it was time to leave the music industry. My friends are not musicians so I did not know of other musicians who were going through the menopause. From these conversations I realised that my symptoms would be with me which ever career I chose to go with, so I decided ‘why not stay with what I love and make the best of things?’
It was a case of trial and error to find ways to cope on Stage, in rehearsals and meetings where sometimes I am the only female, and also in the classroom. I’d like to share five tips that have worked for me so far which may be helpful if you are journeying as a menopausal musician:
1. Embrace it! The first step of any difficulty is acceptance as it is only then you find solutions. I accepted that this was it for the next few years of my life very early in my journey. This was my new normal. Like a roller coaster there are good points and not so nice points but it is what it is and seeing it as normal and natural has kept me positive through it, even if at times I felt a little shy or under the weather.
2. Insomnia, meetings and teaching – Sometimes it’s duvet on or duvet off. My husband is either my hot water bottle when I have cold feet or banished to the outpost of Divan when I’m burning up. LOL! If you are self-employed you can plan meetings, rehearsals and lessons at a time that suits your body clock so you can have a few more minutes to get ready and put your game face on.
Alternatively, and if you are employed, go to Bed early. I believe if I am in bed for at least 8 hours, which is the recommended time, I have given myself time to cope with being awake or asleep as my body wills, but more importantly I have rested. Don’t go on your phone, research shows it only awakens your senses. Have a radio/music player with ear bud, so not to disturb your spouse, and listen to soothing music or a relaxing story for a few minutes to help you relax and nod off.
3. Kick out the stigma! - There is a stigma in British society that if you put your head down on your desk or shut your eyes in the staff room it is in pertinent. The thing is our body is going through massive change and our energy completely goes. You can chew everybody out, walk around with a grumpy face or call time. Use part of our lunch break to go for a walk, or to go to the changing room, the car or somewhere quiet to rest for a few minutes. If you’re working from home, have a cat nap for a few minutes to recharge.
4. Hot flushes and the Stage – I used to perform without a music stand but during this time I’ve invested in a sturdy music stand with a solid back for my Stage work. I can attach or place a small but powerful black battery operated fan which I can switch on and off easily. Experiment with the best place to site your microphone so it doesn’t pick up the noise from fan. Sometimes I have a quick blast of cool breeze in between songs while talking to the audience. I hold the fan, make a joke about my ‘personal summer’ and some people get it! Also the stand is great for hiding a small flannel for a quick dab of the brow – don’t wipe your make up streak and you’ll look a bit weird in photos. Make sure your flannel is a dark colour to hide make-up stains.
Although nice, alcohol isn’t good for hydration. Water, on the other hand is refreshing, but my clear bottle irritated my photographer as it refracted the lighting in her shots – you decide.
Natural fibres like cotton are breathable and it makes sense to have your stage outfits made from them. On the other hand, man-made fibres like polyester looks great, don’t crease and have flow but they lock in your body heat. So think about the best fit and shape for your look and something that will allow the air to flow around you. Wear layers so you can remove when warm or replace when cold.
5. Remedies, Diet and Exercise – There is a lot I could say about remedies (natural or pharmaceutical) which is be best left for another article but make up your mind by researching and speaking with your GP or nutritionist.
For me, my diet excludes, as much as possible, hot peppers, alcohol, carbs, excessive sugars, as these exacerbate my symptoms. In short, assess your diet, make sure it is balanced and reduce any items which make your symptoms more severe.
Exercise helps to disperse excessive energy in your body and it also releases endorphins which makes you feel good. It’s a medical recommendation as it helps to stave off certain illnesses and it’s helpful during the menopause journey. We’re not all Gym-bunnies, so find the type of exercise you enjoy and do it regularly. I’ve found exercise has rejuvenated my agility and self-confidence and it increased my lung capacity for playing my saxophone and enhanced my stage stamina.
How menopause may affect trans people
Trans people may have a different menopausal journey. Some trans people use medicines to promote or restrict certain hormones depending on the gender they are transitioning too, but how do they cope with the menopause? Read more about their journey.
In closing, it is great to read that Menopause is added to the Secondary School curriculum. Although only a one word mention on page 29 and 49 of the ‘Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) and Health Education Statutory guidance for governing bodies, proprietors, head teachers, principals, senior leadership teams, teachers’ updated July 2020. This brings the hope that the next generation will be more understanding of each other and of the menopausal musician.
About the author
Millicent Stephenson is currently serving on the Executive Committee of the Musicians Union and also on the Midlands Regional Committee, BAME Committee, Royalties Sub Committee and the Digital & Communications Sub-Committee. She is a multi-award winning saxophonist, Podcaster of ‘Success Beyond the Score’ and curator of ‘Time For My Music’ an online community for women in music.