Migraining Member of the Band

One of the most rewarding and fulfilling activities that I have the pleasure of participating in is playing and writing music with my band. Not only do I get to write music with my wonderful partner and caregiver, I also get to use music as a psychological and emotional therapy of sorts. It is a way for me to express myself, my desires, and my dreams while exploring and developing my talents. Away from all the stressors of work and other daily commitments, music gives me a place to let out my emotions, considerations, and thoughts. It's often incredible and satisfying.

Challenges of being around loud noises

But...it isn't without its own challenges, especially as someone who suffers from chronic migraines. Loud noises, hot practice rooms, sweaty music venues full of odd smells, and the task of carrying heavy gear blocks from the car to the stage don't quite mix well with my migraine symptoms, and a lot of my migraine triggers are constants in the music world. Writing and practicing with amps and drums necessitates that I wear ear plugs, for instance, to dull many unexpectedly sharp sounds.

I previously wrote about how to navigate migraine symptoms and triggers when going out to concerts and seeing live music here. In the following article I talk about some of the ways I balance my music-loving lifestyle with attentiveness to my migraines as a member of a band, particular during band practice and while playing shows. While a lot of my preparation for seeing shows is similar to actually playing them, I find that there are unique challenges to being a performer with migraine.

Practice makes a perfect system

No matter how 'practiced' I am when it comes to preventing a migraine attack, there are still many factors over which I do not have control and I can very well end up in the midst of an attack even with thorough preparation. However, I have found ways to minimize the sharpness inherent in making noise with my band.

Imporatance of communication

During practice, I often set the pace for when we take breaks. I am the lead singer and the lyricist, which is a position that lends itself naturally to direction. This position allows me to be able to use a single hand signal to denote that a break is to be held. This signal is something I learned while in chorus as a section leader when I was a young teen and it comes in handy when everyone is playing their instruments very loudly! Instead of shouting over four instruments to grab everyone's attention, I just put my hand up and make a closed fist signal, and that says to pause. When everyone falls silent, we can decide to take a break.

This communication with my band is very practiced and is indispensable when it comes to migraine triggers, because often times there will be sudden, abrasive sounds that aren't in the music: a breaking of a string, or an instrument falling. These are unexpected and when they happen usually I need everyone to stop right away. Since I know my migraine could be triggered at any moment during a band practice, having this sort of routine communication gives me a painless out to a break when needed.

Sectionals allow for breaks

Sectionals are so important for any band, but particular for my band. Sectionals essentially are time when a few members of the band break off into a smaller group, allowing for a more intense and regimented look at smaller parts and how they are working together. Sectionals are usually quieter, so as to be able to intently focus in on harmonies and rhythms of the smaller part. Sectionals also allow for some members to take a break without halting the entire practice altogether, and this is great for when I start to feel throbbing in my head or pain in my teeth. I can suggest a sectional for two or three parts and that way, I am not required to participate actively nor hindering practice, and can take a break or call it early.

These are just a couple of ways I navigate communication and commitment with my band in the moment. But there are other issues that arise particular to my experience performing when I have migraine symptoms, especially on the go.

Canceling on the team

Many who live with migraine know well the ever present need to cancel out on events and commitments. This is true for work, family outings, and friend gatherings, as well as for shows. Unfortunately, there are a handful of shows I have had to cancel on because I was too ill to follow through, and this is rough because that usually means a lot of planning, effort, and time goes to waste, and it means I have to tell my bandmates once again that the efforts we have all put together in preparation for a show won't be displayed again. This is hand down one of the most difficult things to navigate, and there is no easy way to do it. Being honest and going back in and working hard towards the next show is usually the approach I opt for, but it really feels terrible having to cancel. Luckily for me, all of my bandmates are more than understanding, but I still often feel guilty for not being able to pull through for each show.

Show time

Actually being at the show and getting ready to perform is often exhilarating. Showcasing your creativity, being in an energetic and lively environment, and working through the show jitters are all interesting parts of performing that take adaption and effort. When a migraine hits, however, it can often times for me take over and preoccupy me, and make for a difficult performance. Sometimes it might be that I can't hold a 'positive' face while on stage, sometimes, it is difficult to keep standing and powering through the set. One of the things that I deal with most frequently is just not knowing when to quit. See, canceling before the show ever begins is rough but at least the decision has been made. When I am already on stage and I begin to have symptoms of a migraine, I get anxious, a feeling of dread comes over me because I begin to feel trapped. At the same time, I also feel like I need to power through, this is what we work so hard for after all.

Enter: awesome bandmates. My bandmates are always checking in with me to see if I am doing okay (and I do the same for them). Particular my partner. Often times my partner can see the effects of my migraines and will offer help before I ask. Sometimes this is in the middle of the set as we are tuning, or just after we finish. They will ask me if I need medicine or water, if I want to go home right then or stay. My partner and caretaker makes playing music a much more comfortable and safe endeavor and I feel lucky to have them in my band. Having that assurance that I am being looked out for helps me to power through and focus on giving a good show a lot of the time.

Saying no, thank you

Now, this is not true for every venue, town, or scene I know, but here in the college and music town in which I live, drinking is as much a part of the culture as the music itself. I used to enjoy having a beer or cocktail with my bandmates before the show, sometimes just to loosen up and unwrap the pre-show nerves. However, over the years I have garnered a lower tolerance for alcoholic beverages and particular at shows. I noticed that over time drinking just a single beer made my migraine symptoms pronounced and sometimes itself was a trigger. Now, I tend to avoid any drinks before playing a show. Sometimes I can get away with a pain free night and have a beer, but that seems rare, at least currently, so I opt to say no, thank you these days when offered a drink.

Worth it, every time

Even though having to pay extra attention to details when playing shows, being hyper alert to the many varied and bright sounds, and sometimes working through symptoms while in the middle of a performance can be stressful, I love sharing my art so much that I think it is genuinely worth the effort every time. It helps that often my partner packs up the gear and drives us right home soon after, where I immediately get into the bed and rest.

Are you a performer who also suffers from migraines? How do you navigate the sometimes abrasive nature of life as a performer while remaining attentive to your migraine triggers? Let's discuss in the comments!

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