Do something – (Other than what you’re doing)

I’m currently enrolled on a course, CoreSinging with Doctor Meribeth Dayme. The module today focussed on consciousness (in its various forms). Writing this blog is a way for me to process one of the many concepts that were explored and I sincerely hope it may ignite something positive in your singing and creativity.

Do you sometimes find that it seems impossible to get out of your own head when you sing? Like its ridiculously difficult to just open up your mouth and trust the sounds that you are going to make? If I’m honest, this is a battle for me. My conscious mind wants to constantly kick in and evaluate every single gesture, note, line – its pretty exhausting and stifling from a creative perspective! Happy to say that
I don’t have this problem when working with my clients – its like my inner critic is reserved especially for me (grrr!)

The fact is, our conscious mind is far too slow to cope with whats needed when we sing (it processes about 7-40 pieces of info per second) making spontaneity and fluidity almost impossible. We need these skills to create beautiful, honest, in the moment interpretation of song. On the other hand our subconscious mind has the ability to process millions of pieces of information per second – pretty amazing right? Even better, higher consciousness transcends both of these! Higher consciousness is that deep knowing, peace, freedom, creativity.

A possible entry point into accessing  our subconscious/ higher consciousness when singing  may be distraction therapy. Which is literally what it says it is! Getting out of your own head mean “do something other than what you are doing”. If you are familiar with your learning style this may be an amazing way for you to utilise distraction – for example if you know that your learning style is Kinesthetic (movement) then purposeful gestures of the arms or steady dance moves may awaken your sub/higher consciousness. You can find out more about your learning style by taking this VARK questionnaire.

Once you have found out your learning style, utilise this so that the next time you practise and are feeling stumped by your own thoughts or criticisms, try distraction therapy by doing something that relates to your learning style, deliberately moving your attention away from singing. Take a recording of yourself without using distraction, then another whilst using distraction. Can you hear any subtle or even dramatic differences as you let go of your conscious mind? It may be worthy to  write down your emotional response to each process – did you feel greater ease whilst being distracted? Did you feel a deeper connection to the song and your body?

I believe that our learning style is something that is unique and innate in all of us and so its important to have some understanding of this so that it can be utilised when we need to. Distraction may be a pathway into letting go of our inner critic when we sing –  moving us towards a “trust” of what is within.

I hope this helps you!

Playful learners

Perhaps the major inhibitor of creativity is too much activity in our prefrontal cortex (nerd alert!) – the part of our brain used for analysing. Let’s be honest folks it’s a very important part of the brain that deserves due credit, but if we linger there during what is meant to be a creative experience or process we may find ourselves in a deeply discontented place.

CUE the perfectionists! THIS is totally all about you. YOU GOT TO SHUT THAT THING UP! I mean it. You can’t change who you inherently are, but if you’re looking at being creative, you must silence that inner critic, perhaps you should become “playful learners”?

At the very core of creativity you must explore and be totally open and embracing of imperfection (whatever that is?) Have you perfectionists ever released your inner goofball when you’re practising? (Relax – I’m not asking you to do this in public… yet!) record yourself being DELIBERATELY playful and experimental in your singing. There are NO rules. You can do this with a made up song or chant, or take a song you know really well and totally messs it up – melody, sounds, grunts, groans, rhythm and even words.

In my studio I take humour and playfulness seriously (is that an oxymoron?). When someone has an issue with an aspect of their voice I often rely on experiment and play as part of the process, especially when my “go to”approaches are not working. Experimenting with sounds and ideas outside of my usual approach keep both me and my students on our toes. The outcomes are often positive, but when they are not it’s important to not meet them with stern judgement and analysis. Sometimes simply laughing and moving on creates the scene for greater creativity and development.

I close this post by admitting that I have the wiring for deep analysis. This has both helped and hindered me as a creative being. Never more did this come to haunt me as it did after my vocal injury and surgery. That inner critic is an SOB (excuse me!)  and serves no other purpose than to slam my creative and expressive side. I believe this is why I can write this post. I identify intimately with the perfectionist, the analyst, the critic. To keep them quiet I have to consciously exercise my playful inner child, my joy, my creative self. This is not default, it’s deliberate and intentional. The next time you practice, make an artistic choice or even hear yourself approach it as a “playful learner” – don’t judge, just allow yourself to express and be kind and gentle with your self talk as you would a child.

enjoy!

 

protect what is special

I’m writing this post in response to a student request. Andee asked that I blogged on the “7 best ways to look after your voice”. For research purposes I Googled Andee’s question and for the most part the answers were all common sense stuff which everyone should do anyway (most importantly singers)! Hydrate, avoid excessive alcohol or caffeine  (I admit I enjoy a little of both!), don’t clear your throat, don’t shout or whisper, exercise regularly, eat balanced foods and try to keep acidic foods to a minimum, and so on… Most of this reads like a healthy lifestyle to me.

To focus a little closer on how singers should take care of there voices, regular (and directed) vocal warm ups, quality focussed practise (not in the car on the way to a gig or lesson!), occasional check ups with an ENT, voice rest when needed (ie after excessive use or sickness), continued study with a trusted teacher, voice physio therapy including massage, physical work to improve posture and core strength like pilates. All of this should at least give you some grounding in voice care (and i think i just covered 7 ways to help your voice Andee!).

In pursuit of adding another dimension to Andee’s question Im heading down a more philosophical path. The blog title “Protect what is Special” is a response to something that Ive noticed over my years of teaching contemporary singers. Most who walk in for a first lesson have never had any training before, and have come to see me as a last resort to fix up some vocal problems or glitches they may have. Now, I totally get this – for many years I didn’t take lessons. In fact the only time i took my vocal health and training seriously was when I encountered problems. Why? Is it because there is an attitude that singing lessons are only for beginners? Or maybe for “serious” music like Opera or Music Theatre? Could it be pride or shame? Or worse still an attitude of Im good enough as I am? To be completely honest, in my own case it was all of the above and I will be the last person to judge anyone negatively for this.

If your singing voice is important to you, it must nurtured and protected to the best of your ability, whether its your profession or hobby you must VALUE it enough to invest time and effort into developing great health practices and voice training. Enlist the help of quality health practitioners, and a well connected singing teacher to be certain that you are covering your voice from a holistic perspective. No one teacher or health professional can have all the answers. Ultimately what we value most in our lives does have a cost – be it time, money or effort. As a contemporary vocalist you must respect yourself enough to understand that you are a vocal athlete and athletes must protect their talents and invest in them. If you take the time to train, study, and look after yourself physically you have a greater chance to optimise your talent and maintain longevity.

So, to summarise my advice to Andee (and you) –  protect what is special!

 

 

Know your zone

Recently I watched a TED Talk on “How to get better at the things you care about”, this wasn’t a talk aimed specifically at those involved in the arts but I thought that the principles were totally relevant to our world. The presenter, Eduardo Briceno suggested that we spend a lot of time living in a “performing” zone. Carrying out tasks that are either mundane, or built on skills that we may have acquired long ago. Its fair and reasonable for us to spend much of our time in the “performing zone” considering how limited free time (and headspace!) we have. The trouble is if we stay there it will eventually make us stagnate, become bored or maybe professionally fall behind the times in our field of work.

screenshot from TED talk Performance

So, what’s the solution? Briceno suggests we spend time in a place he refers to as the “learning” zone. A space to focus very precisely on the elements of our work that we may need to brush up on or wish to expand upon. This could involve reading, formal study or employing the use of a coach or mentor or any other strategy that brings you into a zone of learning and not performing, its critical to distinguish between the two. The “performance zone” is usually a high stakes environment (if you screw up it actually matters), whilst the “learning zone” is a low stakes environment (safe to mess up and explore). The interplay between these two zones should provide you with a place to evaluate yourself (the performance zone) and a place to improve yourself (the learning zone). Once you have identified an area from your performing zone that needs improvement it is time to get to work!

As a teacher I can certainly fall victim of operating almost exclusively in the performance zone. After all, people come to see me for what “I know”. As a young teacher (probably my first 2 years) I invested very little into my learning zone. I was fresh from Uni, had done a stack of gigs and recorded an album, I was pretty confident in my abilities. Lucky for me I did eventually stagnate and instinctively I understood that learning was not something that ever really finished. This led me on a path of constant self improvement which hasn’t always been to do with teaching or singing directly, at least 40% has come from reading coaching and psychology books which has had a considerable impact on how i teach and treat my students (and myself!! – more of that in another blog).

It is important to mention at this point that employing a coach or a teacher can be incredibly beneficial when learning a new skill or refining an old one. Make sure the coach is a good fit for you, and know what outcome you are looking for. This will prevent you from wasting time and money – a good coach or teacher will be aware of their skills. If they don’t match what you are looking for they should be able to point you in the direction of someone else.

So before I go, I want to encourage you to think about any areas in your performing zone that you need to improve on. Next time you sing, play, act or dance take a recording (even if it makes you cringe!!) Spend time evaluating, and find one thing –  just one – to improve on. Dedicate yourself wholly to improving this one thing. Take yourself freely and without judgment into the “learning zone”!

 

 

 

 

Less fear, more confidence!

The body is an amazing system of energy. Our psychology plays a significant role in how our body reacts.

“if we believe we are under stress, we manifest stress in our physiology” - Dr Bruce H Lipton.

All of us understand how stress or negativity feels – Our heart rate increases, muscles tighten, increase in saliva, sweat and so on. One of the major problems for a singer under stress is how the throat tightens, thus losing range, support, tone and varying other undesirable symptoms. These physical signs are a product of the brain sending fright flight signals from the amygdala and are totally opposed to optimum vocal set up.

Much of the text I’ve read concerning anxiety in singers relates to “performance anxiety” ie “greater scale outcome” like singing publicly, public speaking etc. I like to focus on positive “small scale outcome”  lighting up the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (responsible for confidence) as I believe that if we can get this right the overall outcome can bring out permanent positive change. Examples would be – a student discovers a new but unrefined part of their voice in a lesson, or they realise they can now sing that song they have been wanting to sing or they feel a release of tension in their voice after relaxing their tongue and jaw. Small but significant improvements. If the goals set by the teacher or perhaps more importantly the student, are too high for the individual there is every chance that the part of the brain that is connected with fear (the amygdala) kicks in. The outcome is likely to be bad posture, tight throat, and inhibited breath which all work against the voice.

The key to progress is that we acknowledge improvement, be it small or large. Keep in the present, keep your self talk positive, use positive affirmations. Don’t get caught up in pursuit of big, perfect or unattainable goals as they will fill you with anxiety. A good teacher will set realistic expectations during a lesson according to the students experience, health, psychology and physiology. If this is done it gives the opportunity for the small scale wins to take place and the steady gradual growth of confidence.

When you start to appreciate and acknowledge your improvements (even if they don’t initially match up to your long term expectations) you are actually changing your bodies response to new vocal challenges making crucial steps towards your ultimate goals. Keep positive, keep realistic and make certain you are dimming your amygdala and  lighting up your prefrontal cortex as much as possible!