Health: The phenomenon known as After Singing Syndrome

JOYFUL NOISE The Old Capitol Chorus meets weekly at the Robert A. Lee Recreation Center.
The Old Capitol Chorus meets
weekly at the Robert A. Lee Recreation Center.

Although this particular diagnosis cannot be found in medical textbooks, the syndrome’s effects are very real. My former accompanist and vocal coach, Marcelina Turcano, first coined this phrase during a vocal competition where five sopranos, including myself, were giggling, screaming and yammering at a mile a minute: “You are just being an ass,” she said, “You have after singing syndrome.”

Through years of vocal discipline I have continued to observe the effects that Marcelina so succinctly described. The designation “After Singing Syndrome” (A.S.S.) has stuck, and I continue to use it to explain the intoxicating high that comes from singing.

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Initiation of A.S.S. is simple. Okay, not exactly. Before a single note is sung, simultaneously lower the larynx (Adam’s Apple), widen the pharynx (throat space) and raise the soft palate (the fleshy area on the top, back area of the mouth). Then, as singing begins—with perfect diction, of course—toss in an expert blend of dynamics, artistry, emotions and acting. Evoke the spirit of a song like a Shakespearian Al Pacino.

Sound easy? Great, you are ready for your debut performance at the Metropolitan Opera House. If not, have no fear: With or without these skills, every level of singer—even you—can experience the effects of A.S.S.

The remarkable act of vocal performance, whether you are a beginner or an expert, causes neurons to fire from every region in the mind. Each lobe of the brain will be in complete synchronicity, pulling personality, emotion, language, memory, visual stimuli and auditory signals together like a finely tuned instrument. A.S.S. is triggered by this accelerated brain mobility. For some reason, though, the primal part of your brain that controls involuntary bodily functions appears to slack off during this vital time, so please, don’t forget to breathe.

A.S.S. can be an integral part of the development of a vocal performer, playing a large role in bolstering spunk and tenacity in the early stages of singing. Despite being early in their training, the exhilarating side effects increase fearlessness and add a little bit of chutzpah, helping young students grow surprisingly confident and eager to take on the high flying arias of the most talented opera singers, like Luciano Pavarotti.

This added boost of confidence can also explain why the infamous label “diva” has been given to the most self-assured opera singers, as well as those swagger-ridden pop stars. In Beyoncé Knowles’ Super Bowl performance earlier this month, the world-famous diva beamed intense energy that could be felt through the T.V. screen. You could see her euphoria building as she sang, her face glowing as she danced to “Single Ladies,” laughing at herself as she simultaneously rotated both her left AND right hands to show off her ring finger. By the end of her performance, the effects of A.S.S. were clearly visible: You could almost see her heart pounding while she smiled with elated pride and finished her eye-popping performance.

In effect, A.S.S. is the result of incredible multitasking. Let’s imagine how efficiently our brain would have to work in order to perform an operatic aria in a different language, with a beautiful supported tone, keeping one eye on the conductor and one eye on the woman you are swooning. The audience must believe the only way you can evoke your tender yet passionate feelings for the soprano is with perfect soaring vocal lines that cut past a 90-piece orchestra and bounce off the ceiling of a 1,500-seat theatre. If the stage director is kind he will let you stand in one spot while you sing, and move during the musical interlude, but not every director is so kind. You may have to walk, dance or even depict the act of making love. I have even heard of a director who had a soprano sing upside down while nude! (This is not a technique I would recommend.)

Cassie McNally, a chorus member at the Minnesota Opera who graduated with me from the University of Northern Iowa, described what went through her mind while performing Roselinda in Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus. She said, “My nerves are channeled into focus, excitement and adrenaline.

When in front of a crowd, there’s an insane amount of information that passes through my mind, although strangely I feel out of body. My heightened awareness makes it seem as though I am outside of myself watching my own performance.” She continues, “Time seems to stop, and before I know it the performance is over.”

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This extreme balancing act that we call singing, in essence, ignites the brain in such a way that the social, intellectual, emotional and spiritual aspects of our lives become more accessible. Don’t believe me? Before you study for a big test, or make a big speech in the boardroom, consider learning all the words, notes and rhythms to Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.” Once you’ve quickly learned and memorized all 36 lines, try performing it in front a loved one and feel the effects on your mood and energy from your brain’s neurons firing from all corners. The invigorating endorphin and dopamine rush that I call A.S.S. is the product of a concentrated mental process that could be compared to walking across a tightrope while juggling.

If a spontaneous performance of Gilbert and Sullivan is out of your comfort zone, try singing in the car to the radio, and attempt to memorize all the words to a new song. If you are feeling more ambitious, learn a song in a different language, and translate the words in your head while singing. (The profound capabilities of your brain are mind-blowing!) Arguably, one of the fastest ways to ignite your mental processes and create a feeling of elated confidence is through the power of song.

Megan O’Brien is an opera singer and voice instructor who has recently opened a studio in downtown Iowa City. She received her Master of Music in Vocal Performance from UNI, and her equivalent Bachelor’s from the University of Iowa. More information can be found at