“No one move, no one speak
Please don’t say that it’s just me
It’s not just me
And even though I won’t forget
Just don’t want this to end just yet, not just yet
But if I had one chance to freeze time
And stand still and soak in everything
I’d choose right now
If I had one night where sunshine
Could break through and show you everything
I’d choose right now”
– Newton Faulkner, If This Is It (album: “Rebuilt by Humans”)
Do you dream of a performance that is so in the zone, completely in FLOW, that your heart would echo this song lyric? I do! I have experienced it in a variety of ways…and also missed it in a variety of ways. I’m sure that’s true for all of us.
But what if…just maybe…we could have more control over the occurrence of such a performance than we currently think we have? I believe it is possible and hopefully the ideas we’ll explore together will lead us to some surprising realisations.
“There’s a fundamental difference in values between kinds of musicians, one that mirrors the philosophical divisions in our society as a whole. One side favours order, structure, and excellence in execution. The other favours free expression, individuality, and an embrace of the unfamiliar. One places the greatest value on the end result, while the other is more focused on the process of creation.”
Mindful singing performance carries us into the “embrace of the unfamiliar” where we allow ourselves to make music that is true to ourselves in the here and now. This feels quite different from music-making that aims to get us sounding like someone else sounds – or like we think someone else wants us to sound.
And it is squarely aimed at trusting the work that has been invested before arriving at the performance space. Can I surrender my cognitive preoccupation with perfection and be fully present in the moment, in the music, in the story?
There are a lot of ways we could think about mindful singing performance, and they are all vital and valid. Breath work, relationships with other musicians, muscle memory reliability, how you set up your stage…the list goes on.
However in order to keep this blog concise and immediately practical, we are are going to choose to focus on storytelling and task relevance as tools that you can use to enhance your mindful vocal performances. Plus a dash of revising our “mistake psychology”.
Last week I published a blog focussed on this area, so I won’t repeat that content here.
Storytelling opens the door to your individual expression as a means to “embrace the unfamiliar.” The audience and the performance space might feel unfamiliar – but the story you will invite the audience into will be as familiar and welcome as sunshine on a rainy day. Especially if you invest time, intention and perseverance to develop your storytelling skills, and your expressive “voice” – that distinctive that makes you you.
“Because of the creative and emotional nature of performing, the artist is encouraged to give himself up to his role or the music. The performance process can be so exacting that it retries the artist’s attention to be narrowly focussed on the task (task-relevant) and not on aspects outside the performance (task-irrelevant).”
Dr David Roland
The process of building up self-trust will be slightly different for each of us. However you could start out by spotting the task-irrelevant aspects you carry into your performances and practice redirecting your focus to relevant tasks.
Dr Roland describes a task-irrelevant thought as “one that has nothing to do with your performance time.” Conversely, and obviously, a task-relevant thought is “one that has its focus on aspects that are helpful to the performance.”
- What I’ll be eating later.
- What my teacher expects.
- What my friend in the audience thinks.
- What my competitor in the wings thinks.
- How to fix the mistake I made last chorus.
- Whether my hair still looks ok.
- What is the most helpful thing for me to focus on right now?
- What is my goal for this performance?
- How do I want to breathe?
- What is the story of my song?
- How do I want my body to feel?
You might think that the most important thing to do is observe and eliminate your irrelevant mental tasks. But I propose that you practice:
- Identifying the relevant tasks you want to focus on.
- Swiping your mind’s eye back to the relevant task list when you notice you’ve edged towards irrelevant.
Mistakes that Flow
“I have a jazz musician’s view of mistakes. If you play a wrong note, you can always make the same mistake again on purpose and make it sound right. Insistence on the mistake can be quite musical. Indeed, ‘once is a mistake, twice is jazz,’ a quote often attributed to Miles Davis.”
Ben’s attitude takes presence and purpose – and a confidence in your musicality (honed in lessons, private practice, group rehearsals and in performance experiences) to recover and press into the moment of discomfort.
For most of us, this musical skill is still a way off. But, we can adopt his philosophy about mistakes. They don’t have to be a traumatic, catastrophic or emotional black hole unless we predetermine that they will be. And we only predetermine that if we decide that mistakes are unwelcome, invading aliens that scream to other people that we don’t belong, that we aren’t good enough.
Mistakes are normal, everyday occurrences that belong in the human experience. Developing our skill as a performer is NEVER about eradicating mistakes. It is about embracing them and moving past them to the next jewel we want to show the audience.
As we draw our two-month shallow dive into a few applications of the concept of mindful singing to a close, how can you take something useful from these ideas? I propose that you find your point of reference from flow theory.
Parncutt & McPherson summarise Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s phenomenal flow theory in this way:
Flow theory is a balance of PERCEIVED CHALLENGE + PERCEIVED SKILL.
LOW CHALLENGE + HIGH SKILL = BOREDOM
HIGH CHALLENGE + LOW SKILL = ANXIETY
LOW CHALLENGE + LOW SKILL = APATHY
Flow is the result of:
- Increasing complexity of activity
- Developing new skills
- Taking on new challenges
Flow looks like:
- Clear goals
- Unambiguous feedback
- Focussed concentration
- Outcomes within control
- Distorted sense of time
- Loss of self-awareness
- Intrinsic reward
Can you see anything in this description of flow theory that gives you clues about why you find mindful singing elusive – whether in your kinesthetic awareness, your practice, or your performance?
Perhaps it is time to review whether you are making things too easy or too difficult for yourself? Are you skipping over some important steps that will allow you to enjoy your music making – feeling good about the stage you are at, and understanding the next stage you are working towards? Or are you holding yourself back from taking the next step because you’re a wee bit overawed by it?
Maybe you’d like to take stock and review your goals – check out this blog for some simple points of reflection.
“Even when children are taught music, the usual problem often arises: too much emphasis is placed on how they perform, and too little on what they experience…By doing so they succeed in perverting music into the opposite of what it was designed to be: they turn it into a source of psychic disorder…Learning to produce harmonious sounds is not only enjoyable, but like the mastery of any complex skill, it also helps strengthen the self.”
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Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. Harper Collins, New York.
Folds, B. (2019). A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A life of music and cheap lessons. Simon & Schuster (NSW)
Isaacs, D. (2019). The Perpetual Beginner: A Musician’s Path to Lifelong Learning. Nashville Guitar Guru, USA
Parncutt, R. & McPherson, G. E. (Eds.) (2002). The Science and Psychology of Music Performance: Creative strategies for teaching and learning. Oxford Universtiy Press, New York
Roland, D. (1997). The Confident Performer. Currency Press, NSW