Many of us dream about having extra time to develop our singing and musicality. Yet, when the opportunity comes, we face a real challenge: how do we summon the mental energy and stamina to make the most of this time?
This is a question faced by choir directors, choir members – indeed, singers of all types and genres. It comes to us with special force during this pandemic as many of us have extra time on our hands, but it’s really a part of a larger, non-pandemic question: how can I muster the mental energy to develop myself when I am by myself? For, when I am alone I face an enormous amount of distracting mental “chatter”, negative judgements and that lurking sense that I’m not doing enough – or doing it “right”!
As a music journalist I’ve interviewed thousands of singers, curious about how they have developed themselves alone, often facing challenges in the form of punishing schedules, the fight to stay afloat financially, and lack of access to direct contact with those who might best help them to develop. I’ve consistently seen three activities that push these singers ahead – and which I try to implement in my own life:
1. Work with the Body
In recent decades, we’ve become very aware that our brain is a part of our body. So, to develop our mental capacities we need to also develop our bodies outside of our singing voice.
This may feel a little counter-intuitive since stretching one’s calf muscles appears to have little to do with the pressure we feel to work on our arpeggios!
However, singers I know who have satisfying creative lives work with their bodies: they might dance as they listen to music, take long strolls to consider the meaning of the lyrics, allow their body extra rest, or implement a modest (and attainable) fitness regime. An artist I know who worked closely with Quincy Jones reported that “the Q” found creative energy through regular rests even in the busiest of projects.
So, how might you work with your body in a new or different way at this time? If this question resonates for you, I encourage you to come up with one new physical activity. This is an important aspect of building a strong mindset for this time we are facing.
2. Work with the Subconscious
Creative people throughout time have recognized the importance of dreams, daydreams, the imagination, hunches, and intuition in the creative life.
I remember interviewing the prolific songwriter David Stewart who with Annie Lennox (the Eurythmics) wrote a number of memorable tunes including “Sweet Dreams”. His advice to musicians is that they must have a time of the day — every day — when we open ourselves up to our whims.
Where are your feelings leading? What do you want to explore?
It’s not that we have to put endless effort into answering these questions; it’s that we usually need to take them more seriously, giving them space to “be”. This may lead to some journaling or walking down a new literal or metaphorical “path” that has been right in front of us all along.
Taking the subconscious more seriously isn’t just for songwriters, for attentiveness to the subconscious can lead to more expressive singing and creative interpretations of our repertoire.
3. Get a Handle on the Conscious Life
Dozens of singing teachers I have worked with have said that the gravity of their work in individual sessions isn’t on vocal technique, as important as that is. Rather, it is in creating a safe environment in which singers can play, and take some vocal risks in order to discover the full potential of their voice.
One of the biggest forces holding singers back is self-judgement and criticism. Now, what do we do when we don’t have someone to help us to create this environment — what do we do when we are alone?
The field of applied cognitive psychology makes some almost common-sense suggestions on how we can process our thoughts more positively:
- Identify the ways we talk to ourselves. What are the phrases that run across your mind when you are singing, working on a new technique, or writing music? Identify these and write them down.
- Identify messages that are better suited to helping us move ahead. For instance if you are singing and a message crosses your brain, ‘Wow, I really sound lame!’ A better message would be ‘I sound OK, or I sound good enough.’ Or, ‘I may not like the way I sound today, but I am going to accept that and keep going because I am worth it.’
- Actually implement these messages by pausing and saying these to yourself, or even out loud in the course of your activities.
If you are finding it difficult to muster the mental energy for this time of developing your singing, join the Club of Flawed Humanity!
So, take a look at what some members of this club have been doing to move ahead. This might lead you to implementing some changes in these three areas: the body, the subconscious mind and the conscious mind.
This post was contributed by the team at Singdaptive. Singdaptive is an online, multi-instructor learning platform for singers.
Gregory A. Barker, PhD is the VP of Publishing at Singdaptive, the first multi-instructor learning platform for singers. He is also a music journalist, a Fellow at the University of Winchester, and the editor of The Ultimate Guide to Singing, now in its 3rd edition. For many years he was the Commissioning Editor at VoiceCouncil Magazine, the leading online resource for singers. He’s also acted as a consultant for leading music companies such as TC-Helicon and TC Electronic.