Having toured in Europe and North America as an opera singer, Katie Malik is living a life that most people would be envious of. But, as she has CF, it hasn’t come easy for her. In this interview we delve into how two of her passions – singing and yoga (she’s also a yoga instructor for the fitness site Pactster) – have helped her in the fight against CF.
Martin) Did you know from a young age that you wanted to be a singer? And did you ever think it wouldn’t be possible to pursue a career that is so dependent on your lungs?
Katie) Yes, absolutely. I have been singing as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories is sitting on the swing outside my childhood home, singing every song I could think of at the top of my lungs. I thought nobody could hear me… I was in my own little world. It wasn’t until many years later I learned out that the entire neighborhood could hear me when I was out there…I was mortified!
I didn’t really plan on singing as a career though. I knew that it would always be a part of my life because it brings me so much joy, but singing professionally really wasn’t in the plan. Not necessarily because of my CF, but because I’m such a practical person and I knew I was going to want a job with a steady income. Health benefits were a big factor too, of course. The funny thing is that my top career choice when I was in high school was “Astronaut” and that was really outside the realm of possibility because of CF. So a bachelor’s degree in Vocal Performance, with a few good scholarships to put toward it, was actually a big step closer to practicality.
After graduation I kept singing because I was passionate about it, but I wasn’t working toward a professional career right away. I started getting jobs because I kept putting myself out there, learning by doing it. It was a combination of tenacity and some good luck that brought me to sing in bigger and bigger houses, and eventually I started singing solo operatic roles.
M) How do you find singing helps your lungs? Is it something you recommend to all people with CF to improve their health (even those of us who sound like a strangled cat while singing!)?
K) I think anybody can benefit from singing, whether they have CF or not… even if they think they don’t have a musical ear (or a rather cat-like tone)! But yes, I do especially think that singing helps improve the symptoms of CF, and my doctors agree that it has been a factor in keeping me healthy. There are numerous physical ways that singing helps…
– Vocal resonance creates vibrations in the airways, originating from the vocal cords and larynx of course, but also spreading up to the sinuses and down all the way down to the lungs. It’s excellent airway clearance, especially when I sing high notes! (So much so that I always do airway clearance before a performance, otherwise there’s gonna be some stuff rattling loose while I’m on stage.)
– Diaphragmatic control is very helpful for the different breathing patterns that come in handy with CF, like the one I use everyday for autogenic drainage after I do my nebs and flutter.
– Singing requires deep and long sustained breaths. Those long breaths need air from all the small peripheral airways, so it’s great for preventing accumulation of mucus in all those nooks and crannies.
– Singing regularly makes you very in-tune with what’s happening in your body, and especially your lungs. I usually can tell when an exacerbation is starting because of a change in the way singing feels… tightness, getting winded, or feeling a rattling that isn’t usually there. It’s like my early warning system, so we can head off an infection before it really takes hold.
M) How do you prepare for a tour to ensure you are fit to perform all the dates?
K) It’s mostly about balance, ensuring that I’m taking care of myself in the weeks leading up to the performance period. Giving myself plenty of time to sleep and exercise are really critical, as is hygiene and germ control – I have a whole protocol I do when I have to travel. I am that person on the plane who rubs down the armrests and tray table with alcohol wipes the moment I get to my seat! Lots of hand sanitizer, and I wear a scough (scarf with built in filter mask) if I’m going to be on bus or train transit. If my lungs feel marginal and there’s any question about whether they’re up to snuff, I have also been known to schedule inhaled or IV antibiotic cleanouts in-between contracts. Just when I can tell I need a boost if I’m going to stay healthy throughout the entire filming/rehearsal/performance schedule. And when I was in Sweden to film a reality TV show for six weeks, my doctors sent me armed with a course of oral antibiotics I could take, just in case something developed while I was there.
M) Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve been ill with a performance coming up? How did you handle it?
K) Not because of CF. There was one time when I was singing in the chorus for the opera Pagliacci and there was a terrible virus going around the cast (it’s one of the biggest hazards of performing, really). I woke up with a 103 degree fever on the morning of our last show so I had to miss closing night, but it was really just lousy timing more than anything. That’s the only time I’ve ever been unable to keep a performance commitment.
M) Let’s talk yoga. How often do you practice and how long for each session?
K) I *should* say 3 days/week for 1 hour/day, but that hasn’t happened lately – I got out of the habit during my last opera which ended a couple of weeks ago, and I haven’t started back up again. I need to get back on the stick! I aim to do 30 minutes/day of some sort of exercise, whether it’s yoga, HIIT, TRX, hiking, dancing, etc.
M) What are the benefits of yoga for people with CF?
K) They’re actually really similar to the benefits of singing! For me breath awareness is the biggest thing. I start each yoga session with conscious breathing, allowing myself to notice the physical sensations of the breath and also what’s happening in my mind. I prefer a “flow” or “vinyasa” style of yoga where breath is linked with motion. It makes me feel like my whole body is awake, and like I’m feeding my body with each breath. Some people also have experienced improvements in their digestive issues once they added a yoga practice, and there are certain poses (like twists) that are thought to improve those symptoms.
But beyond the physical, yoga has taught me to practice gratitude for my body and for what I’m capable of… focusing on what I can do rather than what I can’t do. And the more I do it, the stronger I get. Since CF is a progressive/degenerative disease, it can be easy to get down on ourselves when we’re not able to do something we used to… or not do it as easily. Yoga turns that on its head because you gain strength and awareness; it’s a positive progression. It’s powerful to have something that makes you feel stronger and more capable and feel more in control of your own life and your own body. I’m so much more aware of what’s happening in my own body (again, it’s that early warning system), and I’m also much more comfortable in my own skin.
M) Are there any exercises other than yoga that you do that helps to increase your lung volume (and hence helps your singing) or just to improve your general well being?
K) I love mountaineering, but I have to do a lot of training in order to get into good enough shape that I can exert myself at altitude and keep up with a team. When I’m training I keep up yoga but add some HIIT and TRX for cardio, intermixed with some stair climbing and running. But I have to have a goal I’m working toward or I tend to get lazy. I was really good about training up before my trip to climb Mt. Kebnekaise in Sweden, and before Mt St Helens. Gonna have to put another peak on my list soon so I can get motivated to hit it hard again!
M) Do you have any other advice for people with CF who want to pursue a career in music?
K) Keep showing up. Keep getting into a room with musicians who are better at it than you, it will challenge you and make you grow. You might feel like your CF holds you back or like you’re not really one of them, like you’ll never be good enough, like you’re just faking it.
So know this…you are the real deal. You are legit. You can do it, and you will. CF will make you fight for it every step of the way, and you might take a little longer than others to get there. But it will make it all the sweeter when you find yourself standing toe-to-toe with those you’ve admired for their skill at what they do, and they embrace you so as to say, “yeah, you’re one of us.”
M) Finally, do you have any resources that people with CF can access if they’re interested in developing their singing or yoga to help with their CF?
K) In the UK, a study called BreathCycle has been training people with CF in classical singing technique and the results were been very promising (the pilot study was quite small but there are hopes to expand it). There’s a website with some vocal exercises composed specifically for people with CF by Gareth Williams – a great and fun way for new singers to learn about sustaining breath: http://www.breathcycle.co.uk/
In the US, my friend Ashley Ballou-Bonnema (who is also a classically-trained singer and voice teacher) is spearheading a new program called SingSpire to give voice lessons to people with CF, either in-person or via Skype. The CF Foundation is supporting SingSpire with a grant to get things started, and I’m really excited to see (and hear) the results! http://www.breathebravely.org/singspire-program/
And finally, in addition to the yoga videos I did for Pactster, we had a bit of extra time while filming so I made a short video of some vocal exercises that I use myself. You can find all my videos on Pactster at https://www.pactster.com/workouts?keyword=katie%20malik
A huge thank you to Katie for taking the time to do this interview. You can follow Katie on Twitter on @katiemalik or find out more about her work on her website, katiemalik.com.
*ALWAYS ENSURE YOU SPEAK WITH YOUR MEDICAL TEAM BEFORE MAKING ANY HEALTH RELATED CHANGES TO YOUR LIFESTYLE*