Have you ever noticed that so many of the tools and ideas I give you to help you sing without tension have a component of mindfulness in them? I realized recently that I don’t always explain why I do that, or why mindfulness plays such a big part in reducing tension and the way that I teach. So today I really want to circle back to the “why” of it all and also give you an exercise for how to sing without tension in your own practice.
So why is mindfulness so important to help you sing without tension so you can sound better and feel better singing?
As singers, our body is our instrument. You’ve heard me say that about a million times, right? And just like a trombone player or a cello player makes sure that their instrument is in good working order, we too need to make sure our instrument (our body) is set up to work our technique as efficiently as possible.
For singers, the main thing that compromises our instrument and our technique is tension.
I know so many of you deal first hand with the discomforts of tension in your singing and would do anything to get rid of it.
What I have come to learn is that tension is actually not the cause of the problem, it’s is a reaction to it!
Tension is our body’s response to uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.
It’s just a part of being human, all people have physical reactions to our thoughts and feelings. And tension is one of the ways our body protects itself from a difficult or uncomfortable thought or feeling. Whatever the cause and whatever the feeling, it physically lives in our body. But as singers, it means the physical reactions to our thoughts and feelings also live in and effect our instrument. Energy and vibrations need to flow freely through the body for optimum singing technique and sound, and tension blocks that from happening.
So keeping our instrument in optimum shape to make the best possible sound means becoming aware of our physical tensions and undoing them.
In my experience, the best way to sing without tension is by understanding and addressing the part that your mindset plays in creating your tension in the first place.
This is where mindfulness practice comes in and why it’s so important. It is a wonderful tool to help you identify and let go of the tension to arrive at that next layer of free, healthy and powerful singing – the kind of singing that sounds amazing, feels wonderful and most important, really connects to your listeners.
Incorporating mindfulness into our singing is a journey that is achieved over time which involves peeling away layers to arrive at a deeper understanding of why we sing the way we do.
The main mission of my work is to show you that it IS possible for you to sing without tension powerfully and freely, and to show you how. It is why I designed my 4 Month Intensive, why I teach the way I do, and why I started sharing my ideas via this blog in the first place.
Here is an exercise that will help you begin to understand why you sing the way you do.
It uses mindfulness to optimize your singing at a very basic level. You will need a journal and a pen.
EXERCISE TO SING WITHOUT TENSION
We begin with awareness. A noticing. A witnessing. And then an exploration. To do so we use the three W’s:
Where, When and Why.
Start by choosing a phrase that’s been giving you difficulty. Sing the larger section of the song containing that phrase (making sure to start a few phrases before the difficult one) and as you sing, ask yourself:
- WHERE do I feel tension? Do a body scan while you sing and as you approach the difficult phrase check in with your jaw, neck, base of your skull, tongue, shoulders and ribs (those are the most common places singers tend to hold tension). You might need to sing the section several times in order to witness what’s happening in these different places in your body while singing. Notice what you feel. Write it down in your journal.
- WHEN do I feel tension? Sing the section again while focusing on the part/parts of your body you identified above where the tension is being held. Ask yourself: at what point do I feel the tension begin? Is right before the difficult phrase, perhaps on the inhale? Is it on the onset of phonation? On a rising melody? On a descending melody? At the end of the phrase? When the melody has a large interval between two notes? On a long held note? Etc. Notice each part of the body you identified above and notice when you feel the tension begin. Write down what you discover.
- WHY do I feel tension at this moment? Once you’ve identified the when, you can start to understand the why. They have a lot to do with one another. Sing the difficult section from above again and be very present to the moment your tension comes in, then notice any thoughts or feelings that come up right before that moment. Where might that thought or feeling come from? Journal about it.
One of my singers has offered to share her ah-hah moment discovering her “why” so you can see how this works.
“I used to have SO much tension in my jaw when I sang. That held feeling was so ingrained for so many years it was like I couldn’t imagine how I could possibly sing without tension. Especially on high notes, it was the worst as I’d get higher in my range. Everything would feel squeezed and pushed. As I did the mindfulness exercises, I realized that the feeling I always had right before my jaw would start to grab was a fear of not being good enough and the need to prove that I was. As I reflected more on my “why” and getting clear on where these feelings of not good enough were coming from, I had a flashback to this moment with my 7th grade choir director who insisted that I was an alto and would always be an alto because my high notes were not already there. Now, that’s just wrong for so many reasons and such an uninformed thing to tell a singer at such a young age – don’t get me started. But the main point is that I totally internalized what she said, and from that point on, without even realizing it, my story became “I’ll never sing high”. I have taken that story and the feeling it gave me of not being good enough into all my singing throughout the years and I was not aware of how it was effecting me or my technique until that moment in the mindfulness exercise. Even once I actually started training with a great teacher who gave me good tools and actually helped me expand my range to realize I was, in fact, a soprano, I somehow still carried that old story of “I’ll never sing high” with me . And now I can see how it’s been playing out in my jaw on my high notes. I finally understood the “why” behind the tension. And it’s amazing how once you have that awareness, something crazy happens and it just starts to loosen bit by bit if you cultivate a new story ” – Laura H., Santa Monica, CA
Laura’s old beliefs were still affecting her body when she sang.
Her jaw was literally still trying to protect her from feeling the discomfort of that old “not enough” story by trying to control the sound in an effort to prove she was “enough”. When she sings from that place, she’s not in the present moment. The present moment tells her that she actually can sing high notes, that she does have the tools and technique to do it effortlessly. But her subconscious is still in her old story shaming her about the past and creating anxiety about her future causing her to tense and over-control.
Once Laura uncovered the “why” behind her tension, her new mindfulness around the old story lifted it from her subconscious and brought it into the light of her awareness.
Now her mind and body can work together with present moment awareness in a collaborative way enabling her to let go of her old story and in doing do, let go of her jaw tension and sing high notes with much more ease and beauty.
It may not sound like much, but awareness is a powerful thing.
The mind and body are inextricably linked, especially when it comes to how tension plays out in our singing.
If you are one of the many singers who struggles with how to sing without tension, start with the exercise above. See what you discover. And if this resonates with you, consider stepping into even more transformative work like the 4 Month Intensive which is filled with a lot more of this kind of discovery and high level technical training.
Whatever path you chose, know that your body can not do what your brain is sabotaging.
Walk in the direction which will illuminate and care for ALL aspects of your instrument, both mind AND body, to give yourself the best chance at sharing your your talent with the rest of the world.
Because, as I always say, your voice is a unique gift that the world is just waiting to hear. Open your heart to a new way of looking at your training and your technique and you may just find that the kind of singing you desire is right at your fingertips.