So many singers come to my studio in a state of anxiety and frustration. They have an overwhelming desire to sing, but have had difficulties finding the right vocal training to enable them to reach a professional level. I understand what they are going through, because I experienced it myself. Singers want to achieve their full potential and achieve it now. Spending months and years studying and never reaching their goal is frustrating in the extreme.
It is naturally of the utmost importance to find the very best technical instruction possible, in order to improve the subtle coordinations involved in your vocal mechanism and thereby improve your tone quality considerably. But having the right mental approach during voice lessons and when practicing on your own is also crucial. Singers need to be calm, in order to produce an open, free sound when singing. There is no way around this. It is therefore incumbent upon you the singer to do whatever you can to ensure that you are in as serene and emotionally calm a state as possible whenever singing and to improve upon this peaceful state continually.
Why is it necessary to remain as calm as possible when singing? I have been asked this question by singers many times. This is critical for singing, because of the delicate nature of the vocal instrument. The ideal coordination of the voice is that of extremely little work from the neck up, a free and open breathing mechanism and appropriate breath resistance using the abdominal wall, back muscles and pectoral muscles. The vocal folds themselves are very small and delicate and vocal quality is so easily affected by any number of incredibly small muscle tensions in the throat, mouth, tongue and lips, not to mention the breath flow, lack of appropriate, flexible breath resistance, etc. All of these muscles that singers have to cope with on a daily basis are unseen and a number of them are below our conscious, deliberate ability to control. The very best way to deal with all of these factors is for singers to remain as calm as possible when singing, allowing all of these unknowable muscles to relax, while learning systematically the correct coordinations necessary for a wonderful, functional classical vocal technique.
As we now know, the mind and body are interconnected. They are always communicating and affecting one another on numerous levels, the vast majority of which are subconscious. When you have strong negative emotions such as anxiety and frustration surrounding your vocal technique, those emotions affect your nervous system, cueing it to rev up. Once that happens, the body reacts to these emotions in the same way it would if there was some physical harm threatening you. Your adrenaline flows, your muscles tense, you get ready to fight or flee. This reaction is completely counterproductive to an easy, freely-produced vocal sound. You have to be physically relaxed and open in order to sing well. Because your emotional state affects your physical state, it is particularly important you gain some control over your emotional well-being and your ability to calm yourself consciously when singing.
As an example of the interconnectedness of our mind and bodies, the vast majority of singers automatically calm down in voice lessons when they begin to sing better. This is not just an emotional reaction, but also a physical one. It is as if the malcoordination of the vocal mechanism itself is recognized by the body on a subconscious level and produces anxiety. Once this malcoordination is rectified and the coordination begins to work in conjunction with the design of the vocal mechanism, the singer’s body relaxes on its own, calming the nervous system and allowing the singer to feel improvement on an emotional level as a consequence. At the same time, the fact that the vocal mechanism feels like it is working much better improves the singer’s emotional state, allowing the body to relax more. In this situation, positive messages are going in both directions, from the body to the mind and the mind to the body, which reinforces the calming messages and gives the singer a greater sense of relaxation and openness while singing.
However, relying on vocal technical improvements to improve your emotional state is not enough. Many singers have unresolved emotional issues from the past, including childhood traumas, abusive voice teachers, etc. If you even think that these types of issues might be holding you back, it is important to consider seeking help from a qualified professional. Expressing painful emotions, while difficult, can be a necessary step in releasing long-held vocal tensions that hamper vocal development.
My favorite way of calming the mind and body is through the Alexander Technique. It is the only modality I know of that specifically quiets the nervous system itself, as well as calming the emotions and the body’s muscular system. The input from the teacher’s hands-on touch directly transmits a calming message to the entire body, almost miraculously bringing about a more tranquil, open state throughout the body and the mind. This consistent input over the span of the Alexander Technique lesson results in a significant, positive change in the student’s felt sense of his or her own body and a sense of tranquility and mental and emotional balance. Over time, the student learns to be able to achieve this more open, peaceful state on his or her own, giving any singer an extremely effective tool for bringing about both mental and physical calmness whenever it is needed.
Meditation is another way to effectively calm both the mind and body. There are many different meditation techniques around, so you can find the one that seems to be the best for you. Some people find working with mantras, a repeated word or phrase, extremely effective. It helps occupy the mind and keeps it from jumping around to past negative experiences or negative beliefs, allowing both your mind and body to relax. Observing your breath is another wonderful meditation practice, which is also very much in line with the requirements for good vocal technique. It is one more example of the mind calming the body, as the body calms the mind at the same time. It consists of easy, relaxed, low breathing while simply paying attention the inhalations and exhalations as they happen. As soon as you notice your mind wandering, as it inevitably will, just return back to watching your inhalations and exhalations. Repeat noticing your random thoughts and returning to observing your breath in a non-judgmental way over and over and over again. With regular practice, you will notice a considerable difference in your ability to calm yourself at will.
And of course, music is a wonderful way to calm the body and mind! We singers know how effective music can be in changing our mood from a negative one to a positive one. Pay specific attention to how your body and emotions react to various types of music, as well as specific pieces. Build up a playlist of those pieces that help you feel wonderful and uplifted. Use these as a tool, just as you would the Alexander Technique and any meditation practice, to bring yourself into the more relaxed and peaceful state that is an absolutely necessity to achieve your singing potential.
There are other important tools that singers can use to help them calm their emotional and physical state when singing and in daily life. Singing is just one activity we do, after all. It is extremely important to us, but we all have lives outside of music. How we live those lives has a direct impact on our singing. The calmer you are in general, the more you will be able to calm yourself consciously when practicing, rehearsing and performing. Therefore, it is ideal to bring more of a sense of calmness and tranquility into our lives overall and let that affect our singing in a positive way.
One important step to calming yourself is noticing your own thought patterns. Everyone experiences highs and lows in life. Have you ever noticed that when everything is going particularly well, the small details seem less important? If you are feeling wonderful, the little things don’t bother you as much. You are impervious to outside influences. On the other hand, when things are going badly or you are under considerable stress, the small issues seem bigger, take on a much greater importance and affect you and your mood significantly more. In essence, you have a more balanced perspective when you are happy and tend to overreact when you are unhappy. What is interesting is that the problems themselves are exactly the same, but your reaction to them is completely different, all dependent upon your state of mind.
Compounded with this is the fact that many singers do not have strong personal boundaries separating them emotionally from other people. Those without strong boundaries tend to be more affected by others, giving greater weight and import to other’s beliefs compared to their own. This accounts for the over-sensitivity of a number of singers. Counterbalancing any tendencies to overreact and being unduly affected by others is key to having more control over your own emotions.
Once you recognize that your feelings about occurrences in your life are much more about your initial emotional state when they take place than about the occurrences themselves, you have a great deal more insight into your own feelings and much more power to make effective changes. It is then possible to rationalize overreactions that would upset and unbalance you emotionally. Pay attention to how you react to situations. Do you have a calm, composed reaction to events that arise, believing that you will be able to handle them easily or do you get flustered and upset quickly by even small hurdles? Recognizing the difference in your reactions is the first step. When you can do that, try to gently talk yourself out of any overreaction. Remember other times you have managed to accomplish tasks that seemed difficult at the outset, but turned out well. Recall successes in the past that showcase your special capabilities. Then start telling yourself that this situation will be the same. Everything will turn out well. Try to give yourself perspective. Realize that in a year or two, this situation will most likely seem trivial, unimportant and difficult to recollect, just a small blip on the radar screen of your life.
By minimizing any overreactions to events both small and large in your life, you will calm your nervous system and stem triggering a stress response that will cascade throughout your entire body, tensing your muscles and affecting your voice. Keep up this practice as much as possible and you will notice a distinct difference in your mood overall. You will feel calmer and more able to cope with any challenges that come your way. This is also the key to success in many avenues of life. It is well-known that high-achieving executives and CEOs manage to remain inwardly calm even in pressure situations. The more you can raise your tolerance threshold and ability not to react to outside stressors, the better you will handle the situations you will come across in life.
Another extremely effective tool for calming your body and mind is low breathing. Within a certain range of oxygen intake on inhalation, the body relaxes and works better on many levels. When enough oxygen is not being taken in, the body becomes stressed and functionality is compromised. In order to remain relaxed, cultivating deeper, slower breathing is an important tool for singers to integrate into their daily lives.
The fact that so many meditation techniques include deep breathing is not an accident. Even without our much more comprehensive, physiological knowledge of the human body, people have understood for many thousands of years the relaxing, calming effects of taking full, free breaths. That is why so many modalities incorporate deep, slow, comprehensive breathing into their practices. Meditation, Tai Chi and yoga are just a few examples. So, don’t discount the importance of noticing how you are breathing as you go about your daily life and consciously try taking more consistent, low, relaxed breaths. When you start to feel stressed, takes a few deep breaths to help you calm down. Then look at the situation again. Does it seem as bad? Stopping the stress response might help you see the issue in a different light.
Both having perspective on stressful events and taking deeper breaths more consistently will help you achieve a calmer state that will help your singing. A great advantage of taking low, free breaths throughout the day is that it will make your low breathing freer and more accessible during your singing, as well!
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