Tabula rasa, a term coined by the 17thcentury British philosopher, John Locke, is not a term usually applied to singing. It means a clean slate (or clean sheet of paper) in Latin and he used it to refer to an infant’s mind when born. Locke theorized that there is no knowledge that a child is born with, but instead the mind is a clean slate upon which learning from life’s experiences will be written.
Singers, and indeed instrumentalists, need to be able to find a “clean slate” or tabula rasa constantly when practicing and performing. In this sense, it is a release of tension and anything at all residual from a completed musical phrase, wiping the slate clean in an instant for the onset of the next phrase. This also includes any emotional reactions or beliefs. At the end of every phrase, you as a singer need to strive to completely drop everything and start afresh with a new, relaxed breath, a new focus and a positive attitude.
To be able to accomplish a tabula rasa state after every phrase is definitely a skill that needs to be cultivated, but it is well-worth the time and effort it takes to do so. Performers have to be able to stay totally in the moment and not get upset or distracted by what might have just taken place, be it a missed musical entrance, a less-than-perfect high note or a colleague bent on making mischief. Complete, relaxed focus on what is happening now and in the next phrase is a crucial skill for your success as a singer. Every new phrase is a new opportunity to offer the gift of vocal beauty, touching musicality and emotional authenticity to the audience and you need to make the most of it.
When the slate is not wiped clean at the end of every phrase with the new inhalation, it is very easy for small tensions to accumulate, grow phrase after phrase and end up obstructing a healthy vocal technique. These tensions can interfere with the ability to take a relaxed, low breath, activate the right breath resistance, relax the larynx, release the jaw and tongue, etc., etc., with serious, negative effects on tone quality. It is also easy for emotional reactions to build up that can affect vocal technique and the composure of the singer. It is crucial that you learn how to release everything unnecessary and wipe the slate clean.
So, how can you find your tabula rasa when singing? Practice, practice, practice. But this type of practice focuses on not singing versus singing. After you sing a phrase, don’t automatically continue on to the next phrase. Stop, wait and give your muscles and emotions time to quiet down. When you feel like you have reached a tabula rasa state, take a relaxed breath and sing the next phrase. Then stop again and wait for everything to quiet down. This type of practice takes a great deal of patience and I am certainly not advocating that you do it all the time! However, taking 5 – 10 minutes to work your way very slowly through one song or aria in this manner will definitely teach your body to relax at the end of phrases. With time and consistency, finding this clean slate will be easier, allowing you to access it more and more often.
Using inhibition as taught in the Alexander Technique is an additional tool to help achieve a tabula rasa state. Instead of simply waiting for the body and mind to calm down, quietly saying when pausing between phrases, “I leave myself alone,” calms the nervous system, along with muscular tension and emotional reactions. Gradually, the body learns to associate this request with a relaxed physical and emotional state. Having Alexander Technique lessons in which the teacher uses hands-on to bring about a calmer nervous system definitely helps speed up the association process.
A wonderful way to learn a more neutral bodily state is to lie in semi-supine daily. That procedure, also from the Alexander Technique, is described in previous articles. By letting yourself simply rest in this position regularly, your body passively learns to let go of unnecessary tensions and takes you much closer to a tabula rasa state. Adding specific thoughts during semi-supine enhances the experience. I plan to release an audio download to guide your thoughts during semi-supine and make the experience even more effective at releasing tension.
An important part of finding your tabula rasa is achieving a free and easy inhalation for the new phrase. Your breath does not have to be pulled into your lungs with effort. Work on freeing your body with semi-supine and try to achieve the reflexive inhalation described here. The rib cage reflex will not work effectively if there is a lot of tension in the torso, so it is important to work on releasing tension as well, if you are having issues with achieving a reflexive breath.
Like everything else in singing, finding a tabula rasa state is a learned, physical skill that involves a large number of different muscles and coordinations throughout the entire vocal mechanism. It takes time for the body to change. Try to be patient with yourself and celebrate small steps in the right direction. They are all victories! Each step adds to your technical prowess and will help you on your journey to your eventual goal, a clean slate for the onset of each new phrase.
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