Singing is such a high-level skill that it can be a struggle to know what to think about or focus on.

In this episode, John breaks down the different levels of mental focus, from the practice room to the stage to help you get clarity of mind when singing.

Episode Transcript

Episode 113 – What to Think About While Singing

Hey there, this is John Henny welcome back to another episode of the intelligent vocalist. I do so appreciate you spending your precious listening time with me. Alright, I am in a new location. I usually record the podcast at my music academy. We’ve got a demo recording studio there, but honestly the academy is just getting busier and busier and my access to the recording studio was getting less and less. I kind of get bopped around there. The coaches there have priority over the rooms, so I have less and less access to the rooms there, which is great for the business. But it was making the podcast a little trickier. So I’m now recording it from home, but I have five yes, five bulldogs and you may hear interjections from them here and there, so I apologize on their behalf. Particularly, you may hear my little Frenchie we man, he’s kind of our little special needs dog. 

He’s kind of not all there and he thinks I’m in here talking to somebody. So he wants to know what’s going on. So you may hear him give off here and there. Today I want to talk about sorry, a bit of a frog in the throat. Today I want to talk about something that really drove me crazy when I was getting my voice together. And it’s this idea of what to think about when you’re singing. What do you focus on you know our brains were not completely in control of the next thought. We are going to have and I’ve done this little experiment on the podcast before and it’s this idea of thinking of something and you’ll be surprised at what jumps into your brain. Go ahead and think of a song, any song, first thing that comes into your head. 

Now think of another, now another, now another. Are you surprised by how random those thoughts are? The things that jump into your head, you may have thought of a song that you hadn’t thought of in a very long time or even songs that you don’t particularly like. My brain is incredibly fond of songs that I don’t like and will tend to play loops of songs that I don’t enjoy for my internal listening pleasure. And not only that my brain will actually tend to focus on snippets of a song, usually a rather unenjoyable part for me personally and just loop it endlessly. My brain doesn’t like me, don’t know why we have a very odd relationship, but my brain is kind of a jerk. I don’t think I would have my brain as a friend. Especially some of the internal dialogues my brain likes to have but, isn’t that part of the curse of being human. 

Those non-stop internal dialogue loops and annoying music loops. So our brains and learning to sing this can be particularly tricky. And what I do is I break it down between practicing and then performance. And performance when I’m performing, I’m really focused on communication. All the other hard work and heavy lifting has hopefully been taken care of beforehand in the practice room. So I just want to connect with the lyrics, connect with the audience. I’m thinking more about my intentions, what it is that I’m really trying to say in the moment, but in the practice room, that can get really, really frustrating. I remember asking my voice teacher, what am I supposed to think about I’m trying to sing, I’m working on a scale and my brain is banging around in a hundred different places and I would actually frustrate my voice teacher. 

He would say, John can you just do the scale the same way at least once because I was micro correcting and trying different approaches from note to note. I was literally like trying to herd cats was trying to teach me to sing. I have much empathy for my voice teachers because I tend to overthink things. So what I’ve really come down to is going between the macro and the micro, the bigger picture and then focusing down and the voice were really steering the ship. A few ways because of the relationship we have with this instrument, the interface of this instrument. It’s unlike any other, the piano, the guitar, the violin. These are fixed instruments where we can see we have physical relationship is very strong. We have direct conscious control of our fingers or in the case of drummers your hands and your feet where we don’t have that in the voice. 

Most average people, if you ask them where their vocal chords are, they just kind of point to the general area of the neck, but they’re not sure. Even though they use these muscles all day long, they don’t have a direct awareness of them and we don’t have direct conscious control of the muscles. So we guide a lot by results. We guide by sensation, we guide by the sound, we have to guide by creating very strong thoughts in our brain that are kind of abstract in terms of intensity and pitch and these signals meander down that’s very odd, long nerve all the way to the larynx where it then makes these really fine micro adjustments to these little vocal folds, the size of your thumbnail. And if you think about it, the ability for us to hear a pitch and match it with muscles, we don’t really feel it’s quite remarkable. 

And to be able to be really precise with that, it’s incredible. So how do we get this working? Well, this is where I really go into the three questions. So let’s say I’m having a vocal issue now having fixing an issue is different than reinforcing a good result. So you have two different modes of practice. You are fixing, balancing adjusting, and then when you get it right, you’re reinforcing and you’re locking that into your nervous system. That is why I really suggest if you’re working on a particular exercise and after three tries, that’s not working, go to something else. Don’t keep reinforcing the bad result. So when I’m needing to balance or fix something, I run the three questions. What is happening? Why is it happening? How do I fix it? What is the easier question? What is straining? 

It’s flipping. It sounds shouty and it sounds nasal. The second question is the deep question. And this is where voice science can be very helpful. I’m a big advocate, in knowing as much as you’re about your voice as is helpful. You don’t need to become a voice scientist, but you really should understand how your voice works and how vowels work. And the fact that you listen to this podcast would lead me to believe you are interested in this. So voice science gives you the deeper why it’s happening, which then allows you to answer the final question. How do I fix it? How do you adjust it? So you’re constantly in that analysis loop and that is more of the micro, you’re focusing down when you are able to get the result that you want or close enough that this feels okay, this sounds okay, this is something you want to reinforce. 

Then I pull back to the macro, the bigger picture and it’s what this feels like? What does this sound like? What is it? And I just allow myself to experience it, to feel it. And this is where the sensations come in and then you are drilling down on your muscle memory. You’re getting this into your nervous system and I will continue in that mode as long as it’s successful and then one or two things are going to happen. Either I really have success with that and choose another aspect of my voice to focus on whether it sustains vibrato, more power, extending my range, a tone, and then I start the process over again or at a certain point my good result is going to leave me. I’m getting really good sustains. I’m getting good sustains into that transitionary of the voice. 

But then as I begin to leave that first transition or passaggio that handover from one registered to another, some people will talk about chest and head voice going into mix again. Now we’re dealing with singing terms that people will debate. But there is a feeling of a shift. As I begin to leave that and get into the high register, suddenly the sustains don’t work as well. So now I have to go back into the micro. What is happening? Why is it happening? How do I fix it? And that remains a constant loop. Now digging in a little deeper, because when you are in success, that’s when you want to go into almost a state of meditation. And if you can go into a state of meditation so much, the better because it really is just allowing the brain, the mind to take those little pictures and you can’t control completely what the brain is going to focus on. 

Even when you’re going to the micro, the brain may jump around a little bit. You may suddenly be captured by thought. You start wondering, you start worrying about, Oh my gosh, I forgot to go grocery shopping. I’m running out of dog food, with five dogs. Whatever that is, that’s okay. You just allow that thought. A good way to do this when you find your mind is wandering and jumping around is when that thought comes. Just really focus on it for a second and it will tend to disappear and you can go back to your focus again and when the mind jumps around, it’s okay. Just gently bring it back. When you’re in the macro, just give no effort. Allow the mind to be completely open. Allow your focus to be open. Observe what is there. Observe the sensations. You may feel the sensations in different ways. 

You may be very conscious of what it feels like at your stomach. As you’re pressing the air up at your abdomen. You may be more conscious of the vibrations in your throat. You may be more conscious of the resonance, yet may jump around here and there. Just experience it all. Just keep taking those snapshots because here’s what you want to do. As you keep building this awareness, you are cataloging sensation. And the ultimate goal is when you go to sing a note, you eliminate the question mark and you probably know what I’m talking about. You have a tricky note that you have to sing in a song. And how often in that moment before you sing the note, it is just cross your fingers and jump with your eyes closed. You don’t know what’s going to happen. And our goal is to make it so that event has happened so many times that our expectation is crystal clear. 

There’s no question. It’s very much like when you wake up in the middle of the night in an unfamiliar hotel room, you’re kind of unsure how to find the bathroom. You need a little bit of help, but when you do it in your own house, you know exactly where it is. You have an expectation of the event and so we need to make our voice like waking up in our own room rather than random hotel rooms. You know who you are. So just building that anticipation and that awareness. And then another really good mindset and this comes from the book, the voice of the mind by E Herbert Caesari, which is a really good book. It’s out of print. If you can find it’s a wonderful read, especially on kind of the thought process and the sensations of singing. 

But he talks about as you’re building your range and building your voice, you very often need to think up. You need to be aware of the lifting of resonance and that expansion and then you need to start thinking down and that’s the resistance and the building of power and energy in those spaces and then ultimately you’re thinking both ways. And that is more of the macro you move from the micro and the focus to the macro and the bigger picture. One thing that’s really helpful is when you are practicing have one specific goal because your brain will jump around all different places. So if your goal is to extend your range, don’t allow your mind and your inner critic to start going, yeah but that’s not very powerful, yeah but that tone is not great. Those are areas to focus on at another time and then when you’re focusing on getting a little more power, don’t worry if you’re not singing as high, you can’t fix everything at once. 

So have your one area that you can focus and go micro on and then go macro. The bigger picture, what is this event? What am I experiencing? Really be open to that? Just as Lennon said, turn on your mind, relax and float downstream pure experience to the degree that you can and allow that to build in your little vocal bank. You make that deposit of experience, which then, when you go to do it again, your mind, your body knows what that experience is and you will be able to go into it and you can then do what great singers do is when the note comes, they just leap. They know they’re going to land, they know it’s there because they’ve done it so many times. 

Hey, if you want more information about me, please visit my website, And if you are interested in learning to be a voice teacher, I have a whole teacher training program that will take you from never having taught a lesson to being quite a competent voice teacher. And then, I also have an aspect of that where I will give you support as you start building your studio business advice, all of those things. So you can just go to my website, click on the teacher training tab at the top. And if you find this podcast helpful, please review it wherever you subscribe, iTunes, Stitcher, and consider sharing it. Let your friends know about it. I’m just really a nice boost to my ego when I see that as the downloads keep growing. And it’s nice to know that this is reaching people. So I appreciate your support and until next time to sing better singing. Thank you so much. Bye bye.