I believe in equality - so I believe that like the best sportsmen and women, musicians should understand their physiology in order to perform at their best.
Here's an example. Over the years I've found that I perform better when I'm slightly hungry. I concentrate better... I put this down to some evolutionary necessity which developed to give our hunter-gatherer ancestors an edge when they were hungry. It's just a theory but I stand by it! I build this awareness into my pre-concert planning.
Most women have menstrual cycles, and musicians with female bodies between the ages of (roughly) 12 - 50 perform during ALL phases of their menstrual cycle.
And pregnant. We even do it pregnant too...
So, as someone who has been managing these variations all my adult life, I have decided to share some of the things I've learned.
Brace yourselves ;)
The other day I was preparing for a concert and I was also getting my period. Deep joy.
The first day of my cycle generally sucks a bit.
Unanimous advice from my friends in the changing room: take the painkillers now and don't wait for it to get worse. Voices of experience.
Now I don't like to take many pills, but in some situations I'll make an exception and this was one of those situations. I needed to be able to concentrate for the gig, and pain can be distracting! I chose to take ibuprofen (in case you're wondering), because I've noticed that paracetamol can also dull my brain a little. Have you noticed this? Perhaps not, but it's a powerful drug and studies have shown that paracetamol does seem to affect the way the brain functions. So it's worth bearing in mind.
I've also noticed that there are times when I can find breath control more challenging. Often this is before a period when my progesterone levels are higher. Of course, there's a physiological reason for this too, oxygen consumption increases in the luteal phase of your cycle. Top athletes build this kind of awareness into their training regimes. Similarly if I notice this happening I can simply manage it & I have strategies for doing so! I quite like breathing as it happens, and I'm good at it ;) I also noticed similar challenges when I was pregnant.
Now it's possible that some of you are thinking to yourselves:
'See, THIS is why women aren't up to the job'... Well, sorry boys, I've got news for you!
Whilst these changes may make some aspects of performing a little more challenging for women, it turns out that our bodies are well up to the challenges :) It is possible that many people are totally unfazed by these subtle changes too, everyone is different. What's important is that (if necessary), we can learn to manage these things, but we don't do that by pretending they don't exist!
Studies on top athletes have concluded 'that, while a woman’s body will change during her monthly cycle, her performance is unlikely to be significantly enhanced or weakened.'
Lower testosterone levels are also associated with enhanced cognitive empathy - something which lies at the heart of our art-form. Empathy may enable us to better connect with, and respond to, our colleagues and our audience.
'Females on average outperform males in this cognitive empathy, and the male sex hormone testosterone is thought to be involved. '
'A high testosterone, low cortisol profile has been linked with competitiveness and aggressive behaviour. This profile has also been associated with psychopathy, a mental condition defined by anti-sociality, egotism, and impaired empathy.'
Let's hear it for those empathetic beta-males eh?
Recognising how our unique bodies work and learning to navigate the changes this may present is not something we should avoid discussing in my view.
I believe it can only enhance our profession and deepen our understanding of how we do what we do.
Do you have anything to add? I'd be interested to hear from you!
Thanks for reading.
(PS. I have found that using a period-tracking app on my phone has really helped me to look after myself and work out when I need to be particularly mindful!)