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.

Singing and Mindfulness

In the past months I've been getting very much into mindfulness. By this I mean mindfulness meditation, but also mindfulness as a whole.

One really good resource from this has been Diana Winston's free recordings from the Mindful Awareness Research Centre at UCLA. In her recordings, Diana defines mindfulness as, "the art of paying attention to our present moment experiences with openness and curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is".

Now, regardless of whether or not you partake in meditation or believe in its uses, there are a few really helpful things that happen when we apply this mindset to singing...

1. Holding yourself with kindness during the learning process.

One of the biggest road-blocks that some students tend to go through is the belief that they are expected to get everything right, or the feeling that they are required to be impressive. In reality however, this is not at all how the learning process works. If a student already knew everything there was to know and could do everything perfectly, there'd be no point in coming in for lessons. If you think about the first time you did anything- learning to ride a bike, your first job, the first time you learned something at school - you made mistakes right? Mistakes are what enriches the learning experience, rather than detracting from it. How are you meant to learn exactly what the right way is unless you've learned what it's like to do it the wrong way? As a student it's your responsibility to get things wrong at least some of the time. If you can manage to hold this experience with a level of kindness rather than self-criticism, you are more able to focus on the learning part of making mistakes rather than just beating yourself up.

2. Staying focused during the performance process

Nerves before or during a performance are totally normal. But once we get caught up in our nervousness, we become unable to break free of it. The art of mindfulness is all about choosing what to pay attention to, and not letting yourself get caught up in the emotion of it all. Now try this the next time your nervous about a performance! Say to yourself (silently or aloud) the following:

  • Nerves are perfectly normal.
  • Nerves are just gearing me up to do the best job that I can do. They are a superpower.
  • I am accepting of the fact that I am nervous. It shows that my fight or flight response (my body) is working, and that I really care about the outcome of this. That's a completely reasonable way to feel.

After saying this to yourself, the whole idea of being nervous seems kind of normal (or even boring) doesn't it? Now rather than allowing yourself to think of the future and what it may or may not hold, try grounding yourself in the present. Try standing still, closing your eyes, and cluing into the following:

  • How does my body feel?
  • What are the sounds going on around me?
  • What does each breath feel like in my body?

Try not to make judgement calls about these things, just be aware of them happening.

This is a really great way to stay grounded and focused during and in the run-up to a performance. Once you learn how to stay in the present moment, nerves don't really seem so bad, do they? And if you still find yourself getting nervous, you know what to do. It's perfectly normal, just "[pay] attention to our present moment experiences with openness and curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is".