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  • Jeni Houser

(In)stability

I’ve been thinking about mobility (last week’s topic) in relation to an opera career. The lifestyle is uniquely mobile, even compared with those of many other performers and artists. Opera vagabonds travel for each gig, spending anywhere from a few days to a few months in a location, working on a different project each time, staying in temporary housing and operating out of a suitcase. We are separated from family and friends, oftentimes including spouses and children. We don’t get to have regular routines like attending a church or synagogue, going to a beloved coffee shop every week, or attending classes at a yoga studio or gym with a favorite in-person trainer.


I think there are a fair number of people who love the art form of singing, work hard at technique and artistry, and then get out into the performing world of an American operatic career and discover that the lifestyle is unsustainable. (Side note: the European fest system operates differently and presents a unique set of lifestyle challenges and rewards.)


This lifestyle requires mobility. Folks who thrive when taking care of houseplants, walking well-known paths, and cooking regularly with favorite pans may not love existing on the extreme end of the mobility spectrum. On the other hand, there are those among us who crave variety, love the new hiking trails and restaurants available in each gig location, and enjoy spending time with colleagues who become fast friends.


According to an anatomy book I’ve been reading (The Key Muscles of Yoga, Ray Long MD), mobility and stability are both important and they have a yin/yang relationship: “greater mobility means lesser stability.” So opera singers emphasize mobility and sacrifice some stability. We find small ways to maintain an appropriate yin/yang balance: we may put up photos in the AirBnb apartments, buy familiar groceries, keep a regular routine, and have video chats with family and friends. Sometimes those efforts are enough to help us feel stable and grounded while we’re on the road, sometimes we struggle. The balance between mobility and stability shifts on a daily basis, but almost always staying firmly on the mobile end of the spectrum.


Until now. Because, as discussed last week, we are all existing in a smaller sphere, mostly staying at home, keeping distance from humans outside our immediate living situation. Have we opera folks swung the pendulum back during this pandemic and grounded ourselves?


Does being less mobile automatically create stability?


Jay demonstrating stability

What does it mean to be stable? Merriam-Webster gives two pertinent examples in its definition of stability:

the quality, state, or degree of being stable: such as

a : the strength to stand or endure

b : the property of a body that causes it when disturbed from a condition

of equilibrium or steady motion to develop forces or moments that

restore the original condition


In the world of bodywork, “the strength to stand or endure” means that we increase the tension that acts against gravity, allowing our bodies to carry more load. We can lift more, hold postures longer, remain steady in the face of opposing forces. We become stronger.


But, as Jay pointed out to me in a recent coaching session on shoulder stability, strength really comes from rest. Fatigued muscles are not strong. And building up strength piece by piece with rest in between is the method that works to increase strength without injury and with the appropriate balance between effort and ease.


Are you feeling, as I am, that it is hard to maintain the strength to endure emotionally on some days? It is difficult to remember what my core values are, what projects I am passionate about, what my reason for being is. Although I am staying in one place for the longest period since my career began, I do not feel grounded.


And yet, I believe that we are inherently stable, the same way we are inherently mobile. Our bones are just there creating a stable framework. Our core being is also there, whether or not we are checking in with it regularly. The second part of the above definition tells us that stability is “the property of a body [...] to develop forces or moments that restore the original condition.” Our bodies have built in ways to return to equilibrium, and the more we build up strength through putting ourselves into states of tension and then (and this is the important part!) resting and giving ourselves space to just be, the more stable we will feel. And sometimes all it takes for our mental states to rebalance and find equilibrium is a few moments. Of breathing. Of reveling in beauty. Of laughing. In other words, of rest. Acceptance of our limits. The more we rest during this period of instability, while our mental states are being stretched and put into tension, the stronger we will be on the other side.


It is ok to feel unstable. It is ok to feel immobile. We still have the capacity for stability and mobility within us. May we each find rest in our individual (and ever-changing) balance points between the two.


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