Mindful Vs. Mindless Singing

“We all have issues with our own voices, whether we are listening to our speaking voices on a recording or judging our singing voices.  Singing makes us feel especially vulnerable, and being vulnerable takes courage.  So as we embark on this journey into mindful singing, let us summon the courage to become open, to feel present, and to sing.”

Jeremy Dion

In the voice studio, it is not uncommon for a teacher to ask a singer “What were you thinking of while you were singing that song?”  It is just as common to hear the reply, “Nothing.”  Only the singer probably was thinking of something…just not what they thought they should have been thinking about.  It might have been about something that happened earlier that day, or something that will happen later on after the lesson.  Or perhaps it was something about the mobile phone that just vibrated in their pocket.  

This is just one scenario that leads to mindless singing…the physical instrument is going through the motions, singing something it has sung countless times before, yet without paying it any of the sort of mindful attention that would steer it to be individual, engaging, or satisfying communication.

This blog is the first in a 4-part series which aims to explore the way your voice is the interface between mind, heart, body and soul.  We will explore how this interface can give your singing wings, your confidence strength and your storytelling sparkle.   

About the Mind

It is not in our remit for this blog to delve into neuropsychology.  However, we are just pausing to acknowledge that our brain and our mind are not the same thing.  

“For cognitive scientists, the word mind refers to that part of each of us that embodies our thoughts, hopes, desires, memories, beliefs, and experiences.  The brain, on the other hand, is an organ of the body, a collection of cells and water, chemicals and blood vessels, that resides in the skull.  Activity in the brain gives rise to the contents of the mind.”

Daniel Levitin

In my experience, my mind supplies intentionality to the functions of my brain.  When I realise how this extraordinary consciousness, which is practically impossible to map, is an invaluable resource in the way it can grow and develop and improve, it gives me hope.  Hope that I can keep developing new ways for it to govern my brain and my body into a more vivid version of myself that delivers more honest music to my listener.

“Music, which is organised auditory information, helps organise the mind that attends to it, and therefore reduces psychic entropy, or the disorder we experience when random information interferes with goals.  Listening to music wards off boredom and anxiety, and when seriously attended to, it can induce flow experiences.  …..  It is not the hearing of music that improves life, it is the listening.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Countless words have been written about the way that music-listening and music-making can transform our emotional and physical selves.  It is into this understanding and, for most of us, lived reality, that we wade to figure out how to harness the mind’s attention to liberate our singing.

About Mindfulness

“Mindfulness is a choice to stay in the present.”

Dr Anne-Marie Czajkowski

“It is establishing harmony between mind and body” and learning to “get out of your own way so that you can learn and perform closer to your potential.”

Lynn Helding

Mindfulness can be as simple as examining a leaf on a tree without comparing it to other leaves you’ve touched in the past or wondering how long this leaf will be here into the future.  Just using our senses to experience that leaf – look at its angles and veins, smell its scent, feel its texture listen to the effect of the wind as it moves through the branches and rustles those leaves together.

There is a permission-giving to let go of all sorts of thoughts and particularly negative emotions like worry, regret, and fear.

“In selfless, mindful awareness, there is a serene sense of wholeness.  Opposites such as good-bad, pleasure-pain, win-lose, right-wrong, are no longer seen as opposites at all, but as essential, interrelated components of the turning wheel of life.”

William Westney

Mindfulness in Singing

Mindful singing is going to mean something unique for each of us.  But here are some broad traits to start you thinking about what it means for you.  Do you resonate with any of these ideas?

Mindful singing…

It features:

Mindlessness in Singing

Mindless singing results from multitasking especially with digital distraction.

“…our limited attentional capacity – that is, the number of thoughts we can keep at play at one time…most of us vastly overrate our ability to do so.”

Lynn Helding

Mindless singing is characterised by:

Does mindless singing default to places of ‘near enough is good enough’?  At its worst – mindless singing cannot even tell you if you did the repeat, sang the 2nd verse lyric, included the time change, used light and shade, told the story.  Just like those times you don’t remember if the traffic lights you just passed through were green or red.  It can be disconcerting and a pretty decent prompt to return to the moment.

One of my frequent lapses into mindless singing occurs when I’m singing and playing the piano at the same time, especially if it is a new song that I think I should be able to do all at once.  I know, right?  That’s everything I teach my students not to do.  But hey, I’d be lying if I said I did it right every time.

How about you? What traits of mindlessness do you tend to identify with?

How to Practice Mindful Singing

You might want to practice mindfulness in a more generalised way outside of singing. This is not an attempt to guide you in that. The following thoughts just give you a place to start within your singing practice.

“In the same way that electrical circuits in a house can become overloaded, neurological and physiological signals can become jammed and switch off, blocking the normal flow of brain-body communication.”

P.E. & G.E. Dennison “Brain Gym: Teacher’s Edition” as cited in Bonetti

Bonetti cites a four-step process known as PACE (Positive, Active, Clear, Energetic) which can help you shift from a mindless to a mindful state of mind.  Why not try this before your warmup and see what difference it makes to your singing?  This might be particularly beneficial during times of fatigue or extra distraction.

Here are some practical things to try.

  1. Drink water.  
    “All of the electrical and chemical actions of the brain and central nervous system are dependent on the conductivity of electrical currents between the brain and the sensory organs, facilitated by water.”
  2. Breathe
    Take a moment to observe your breathing. How is your throat feeling as the breath passes through it? Where is your tongue sitting in your mouth? Does your breath seem to descend as far as your upper chest? Your upper belly? Your lower belly? Your back? Or are you holding your breath?
  3. Cross-Crawl
    Alternately move one arm and its opposite leg and the other arm and its opposite leg.  This accesses both brain hemispheres simultaneously and is an ideal warm-up to improve coordination, breathing and stamina, and enhance hearing and vison.
  4. Rhythm activities
    Nothing brings me into the moment quicker than some rhythm work.  My whole brain lights up and I start to inhabit the space between beats like a dancer as I try to move my hands in time.  I use an app called “Rhythm Trainer”.  

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Bonetti, R.  (1997).  Taking Centre-Stage: How to survive and enjoy performing in public.  Albatross Books, NSW.

Czajkowski, A. (2021) in Vocal Health First Aid training module

Csikszentmihalyi, M.  (1990).  Flow: the psychology of optimal experience.  Harper Collins, New York.

Dion, J.  (2016).  The Art of Mindful Singing.  Leaping Hare Press, UK.

Green, B. (2003).  The Mastery of Music: Ten pathways to true artistry.  Broadway Books, New York.

Helding, L.  (2020).  The Musician’s Mind: teaching, learning and performance in the age of brain science.  Rowman & Littlefield, Maryland

Levitin, D.  (2007).  This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession.  Plume Publishing, New York

Westney, W.  (2006).  The Perfect Wrong Note: Learning to Trust Your Musical Self.  Amadeus Press, New Jersey

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