Sometimes it's in the doing...

This blog is really just one simple idea to take away with you today...

Something I see a lot in singers (and in humans in general) is the tendency to want to check how to do something before we go for it. Sometimes this is a GREAT idea. IKEA furniture is one of those times. Or knowing what you're allowed to take on a flight.

But often with singing I get questions like "Is this a good song for me?" or, "Does this suit my voice?" or, "Is this song to challenging?", and my question is always "Have you tried singing it?"

All of these questions imply a certain self-imposed limitation - as though there are only certain things we're allowed to do, or express, or expect of ourselves. But I say, go for it! And this is where the fun (and learning) begins.

Once you've had a run through (perhaps along with a recording of the piece), ask yourself some questions.... 

- How did it feel to sing the song? Physically? Emotionally?
- Was it lower or higher than is normally comfortable?
- Was it louder or softer than you might normally feel comfortable singing?
- Did you manage to stay in tune?
- Did you manage to connect with the emotion or the story line of the song?

There are probably a tonne more questions you could ask, but the main thing is to see what comes to mind and see if it has anything to tell you about your current strengths an weaknesses - skills or areas for improvement. You'll learn a lot about how your voice works, how it sounds in comparison to other singers, and where the edge of your comfort zone lies.

Sometimes you've just got to start doing.

A Practice of Thankfulness

Here's something I've been thinking about a lot lately. Sometimes singers start to get their heads all in a funk. Nervousness starts to take over - sometimes before a performance, or sometimes even in a lesson or when trying to practice at home. So here's just a little idea that could help change this around if this is you...

Try introducing a practice of gratefulness into your singing. There's a whole lot of research already out there about how gratitude can help you through the hard times. Even Oprah has endorsed the idea of using a gratitude journal daily as a way of keeping your mindset positive. After all, it's difficult to feel fear when you're doggedly focusing on what you're grateful for.

So the next time you start getting nervous while singing, say or think to yourself:

prayer and singing

It is not about me.

I am singing today in service to this song.

This song is wonderful. Its flowing melody and harmony take me to another place.

I'm so grateful for this melody. It is such an honour to be able to replicate this beautiful melody that I love to hear. Thank you.

If you are religious or spiritual, you could incorporate this into your gratefulness practice. Or you could leave it as is, and just mindfully be aware of any feeling welling up inside you; being kind to yourself the whole time. And see if, for a little while, you can JUST focus on the undulations of the melody - and perhaps the lyrics if there are certain lyrics that give you an enjoyable emotional reaction. Sing through the melody slowly and with focus - explore the highs and lows with interest and enthusiasm for where the song can take you. Just ride that wave and think of nothing else. Don't think about whether your voice sounds "pretty" or "breathy" or "strong" or "soft"; don't think of "quality" or of "getting it right", or even "what would my teacher say right now?"; don't think of performance. Just take a deep breath, close your eyes and trace in your mind's eye the beautiful patterns in the melody you're singing.

I'd love to know if any of you have tried something like this and if it helps. This may be something that other people haven written about, but it's something I've come to in my own experience. Feel free to comment below with any feedback you may have!

Whatever You Do, Don't Lose the Joy

Recently two people I highly respect have been communicating quite the same message (see links at the bottom of the post). And that message is: Don't take things so seriously that you lose the joy. Do everything with lightness and take care of the joy you find in creativity.

It’s dark because you are trying too hard.
Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly.
Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply.
Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.
— Aldous Huxley

Sometimes when we start to take things more seriously, the joy starts to seep out. All of a sudden we're putting ourselves under pressure to achieve certain outcomes. All of a sudden we don't want to be "amateurs". Why do we feel this way? Well it's usually for the simple reason that we feel the great IMPORTANCE of what we're doing, and we want to do it justice. This is a very real and legitimate feeling, regardless of whether you are doing paid creative work or taking up a hobby. We want to be proud of our creative output, we want it to be perfect the first time and every time after that. After all, why would we risk putting that little bit of ourselves out there in the world? Why would we risk that vulnerability?

But there's another way to look at this. Many people don't realise is that the word "amateur" means "lover" from the Latin amator. When this word came about, it was something to be proud of! You could be proud of the love and commitment you gave to a certain thing. It was about the LOVE of the activity, not the "expected objective quality of the output" of the activity. The negative loading of the word "amateurish" only seems to have come about to distinguish between those being paid for their work and those who aren't. As if monetary compensation for an activity is the paragon of achievement in your chosen field, and anything less is not worth trying for.

But it is. It is worth it. Be a proud AMATEUR. Be a lover of creativity; a lover of the joy that it gives you. And never let that go. After all, isn't that why you took this thing up in the first place? At the end of the day it's not even about you, or how "good" you are at any one thing. It's about the love.

I highly recommend reading Austin Kleon's enlightening post titled Don't Lose The Magic. And this piece of advice from the wonderful mezzo-soprano, Joyce DiDonato.

A challenge, and the risk of doing something just for you.

Hey dear readers, I have a challenge for you today. My challenge is that each day for the next week, when you get home from work, or at some other time during the day, you should put on a song that you love and sing along to it.

All it takes is a few minutes. Sounds simple right?

You may have seen articles in the news or online that talk about how singing is so good for you. And it is. It's great for your respiratory system, it's great for your mind (I've heard that the combination of maths and creativity involved is good for making connections across the brain hemispheres??), it's AMAZING for you psychologically, and when done regularly, it can become an invaluable part of your self-care system, keeping you healthy along with yoga, eating good things, etc. etc.

fun singing and dancing

But let's be honest here, that's not really why we sing is it? We don't sing because it's "good for us". We don't coax our friends into a (perhaps drunken) session of karaoke because it's good for our health. We don't join a choir to lower our blood pressure (although it might). 

We sing because something truly extraordinary happens when we express ourselves by sending our voices out into the world. It may be a sense of catharsis or of pure joy.

But the problem is that we humans in the modern capitalist world aren't great at doing things just for us. We're great at doing things that contribute to the economy, or to our families, or to our jobs, or to peoples' perceptions of how successful we might be. The more strong-willed of us are great at going to the gym, but often this is more about changing how we appear to others, rather than creating a practice of joy (this is partly why so many new years resolutions fall by the wayside).

So my challenge is that every day after work for the next week (you don't have to do it on weekends if you don't want... I struggle to keep any habit that isn't tied in with the Monday-Friday routine... but if you're feeling extra keen, go for it!), put on a song and sing along. Have a dance as you do it. Make it silly. You can just do it alone in your bedroom if you want - no-one has to know. If your family or housemates are home and you don't want to look like you're taking yourself too seriously, get them involved with it. Choose a pop banger that everyone loves, get into your pyjamas, dance around the house together and sing even louder. Make it stupid. Make it joyful. Make it a habit.

singing at home

And see what comes up for you when you do this. Is it hard to let go of a day of stress? Is it hard to do something that isn't an obligation? Even though it's only 3 minutes? Does your brain come up with all sorts of ideas about why it isn't possible?

The number #1 rebuttal I get whenever I suggest people make singing a part of their lives is "Oh, I could never do that. I'm not a singer. I can't sing". But you know full well that this is irrelevant. The joy that comes from singing has as much to do with "being a good singer" as it has to do with "it being good for your health". Zilch. It's not about ability, or about the neighbours, or even about singing in tune! It's about joy. Just joy. Just 3 minutes of joy.

I'd love to hear how you go with this if you take up my challenge. I know how "out there" it can feel to do something just for yourself, without justifying it in some way. It's challenging. But give it a go and see what happens!

Love, hugs and encouragement from me.  x

What Taoism can teach us about learning how to sing.

Lion-mindset singing.

I've been thinking through this idea for a while now. It all started with the idea of efficiency. When we're singing our best, it's when we're at our most efficient. No extra energy is being wasted, no fretting, no overthinking. Just pure and simple. I like to think of it as a lion vs. a yappy dog. The yappy dog runs around desperate for something, using up all its pent up energy any way it can, while the lion is about pure power; getting things done with only what effort is necessary. Sounds impressive, right?

But of course we don't start out like this. When ever we start out with a new skill, we tend to be all uncoordinated and unbalanced. Subtleties are difficult to grasp at the start, so movements start out bigger, more exaggerated, and more effortful than they need to be.

This poses a question of how do we get from A to B? Often the way we learn things in school is that we're taught that if we just TRY HARDER it will all get better. And often it does. After a bit of persistence that maths problem will make more sense, and that spelling will be more ingrained. But trying harder means exerting more effort, more energy - which might be taking you further away from the spontaneous, natural efficiency you want to have at the end (lion-mode).

And then, while studying the basics of Taoism for some light weekend reading (as you do), I came across this (chapter 3 of the Zhuangzi):

Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee - zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music.

cook Ting and the ox

"Ah, this is marvelous!" said Lord Wen-hui. "Imagine skill reaching such heights!"

Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, "What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now - now I go at it by spirit and don't look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

"A good cook changes his knife once a year-because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month-because he hacks. I've had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I've cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there's plenty of room - more than enough for the blade to play about it. That's why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.

"However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I'm doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until - flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away." 

"Excellent!" said Lord Wen-hui. "I have heard the words of Cook Ting and learned how to care for life!"

What I LOVE about this passage is the idea that difficulty can be overcome by allowing the spirit to be spontaneous! And technicalities are able to be overcome by following the true nature of things. The way I'm able to interpret this as a singer, is that, although at the start we must make mistakes and push on through, the most beautiful skills come out when we are just following what our souls and bodies want us to do. The aim of vocal technique should not be to go against nature; it should be to set free the body and soul to express itself in the most authentic way possible. At some point a skill must stop being a skill and start being pure expression.

Like Cook Ting sizing up the difficult part of the ox, we shouldn't be discouraged when challenges come our way, but take our time and pay attention. When you are attempting to master efficiency in a certain skill, struggling and blindly working hard may not help you achieve what you're hoping. It's the quiet, mindful attention that comes from following what is natural that will show you the way.