Episode 132 – Mindfulness and Singing

Mindfulness is becoming extremely popular, and for good reason. The scientific consensus is that meditation has concrete benefits, including increased focus, awareness, and brain function.

The ability to direct your focus is one of the cornerstones of mindful meditation, and the practical applications for singers are immense.

In this episode, John discusses how to begin the practice of mindfulness and how it can positively impact your practicing and performance. 


Waking Up App

Episode Transcript

Episode 132 Mindfulness and Singing

Hey there, this is John Henny. Welcome back to another episode of The Intelligent Vocalist. I do so appreciate you spending this precious listening time with me this time. This time of year, at the end of year, it’s fall, except for here in LA. Looking at the weather coming up. It’s going to be 90 degrees on a day, this coming week. So those of you who are experiencing and enjoying fall, please let me know what it’s like. I’m sure it’s very, very pleasant. But here we just have endless, relentless sunshine. Some people love that. They want to come to LA. If you come here from the UK, it’s almost guaranteed it will rain. It will be one of the handful of days that it will rain but people come here and they just think the weather’s fantastic. But for me it’s kinda like eating chocolate ice cream every meal nonstop. After a while, just blinding blue skies become extremely boring. 

I got so excited the other day. There were clouds. There was texture. There was a hint of weather that quickly went away. But there’s a disconnect with weather and nature here, and when we have sunny days we don’t appreciate them and I think that’s kind of sad. So I’m actually here ruminating and complaining about good weather. So I’m sure those of you where it’s turned quite cold and snowy already are probably not pleased with me. But it is a time of anniversary for me. First of all, The Intelligent Vocalist podcast just turned four years old, which is kind of cool. And I think at last count of over 130,000 listens. So the audience is growing, and most of those listens have really– the growth of the podcast has really happened in about the last year or so. Before I would just kind of do it when I felt like it, it was just a way for me to just kind of chit chat about things. And now it’s really become a way for me to connect with likeminded people. And I really enjoy doing this. 

And the other anniversary is I have been meditating daily for about a year now. I think it’s almost exactly a year, maybe a little over. And by daily I think I’ve maybe missed one or two days in that year. And when I missed it, I was kind of bummed about it. It has become an absolute habit and it has become something that I absolutely love. I tried to meditate for a few years. I had stopped and started. I didn’t really get it. It didn’t make sense to me. I thought maybe my mind was too distracted. 

I think I’m on the spectrum of ADD, maybe undiagnosed. I’m sure if you’re a long time listening to the podcast, you will hear me meander and think that guy is possibly ADD but my mind at times can feel very out of control in that I’ll ruminate and just let things churn in my brain and jump from topic to topic, sometimes feeling that I’m losing focus. And that certainly was what it was like when I first tried to meditate. I would try and focus on something and my brain would instantly bounce around and I let that discourage me and I almost didn’t see the point. But I discovered an app, a guided meditation app, and I tried a few of them. I tried Headspace and I found Headspace to be good. My experience of it was kind of general and kind of friendly and a little bit of a tip toe into the practice. 

I looked a bit at 10% Happier, which is by Dan Harris and I really enjoyed his book, 10% Happier. That was kind of an impetus for me to try and begin meditating and that has different guests, teachers. But then I found Sam Harris’s – no relation to Dan Harris – Sam Harris’s app Waking Up. And Sam is a neuroscientist and he’s also a bit of a philosopher and occasionally controversial gure, especially when it comes to critique of religion. But the good thing about his critique of the religion is that his approach to mindfulness is, and meditation is completely and totally secular so that if you are religious, there’s really no religious aspect to it. Obviously the forms of Buddhism et cetera is where mindfulness grew from, but more and more in the West it is becoming secularized and popularized. The form of mindfulness or meditation that is becoming extremely popular is mindfulness, which is just being able to control your own awareness. 

Or at least this is my understanding of it. I’m certainly no expert in meditation. I have found my way into it in a way that works for me. But mindfulness works really well because it’s a way to calm my brain. And I think for the singer, this ability, this control, this skill is invaluable because singing takes so much focus on things that you don’t really have direct information from, or the information is misleading. I mean, when we’re singing our nervous system is essentially lying to us as to what is occurring. That’s why so much misinformation is out there about singing. It’s far less than it used to be because of science. But still our experience of singing is misleading, you know, singing in our chest and then the sound waves feel like they’re splitting behind the soft palate and then going up back behind our eyes. 

It’s doing nothing of the sort, but certainly the sensations are that way. This idea of being on top of the note and pressing down in all the ways we try and describe these odd sensations and they’re very hard to track. They’re very hard to control and for me, especially when I was studying singing intensely, my constant frustration is what am I supposed to think about. I would be trying to balance my voice or work on a sustain and my brain would just be bouncing around like I don’t know what to focus on. And the skill of meditation and getting greater control of your awareness will give you a greater ability to adjust your focus at will. Now for those of you who have tried meditation and your brain has bounced around and you’re just busted by thoughts skipping around to and fro and you think that this is something you can’t do, that’s the point. When you sit down to focus on your breath, and that’s usually where we start in meditation is focusing on the breath, it’s something that is called an anchor. 

Your mind is going to wander and you are not going to realize your mind is going to wander because you are going to be captured in thought and this is the condition we want to be able to break to be aware of and break. And what will happen is you will catch yourself that you’re no longer focusing on the breath and you’re worried about an upcoming appointment or are you running out of dog food and you’ll get a little annoyed with yourself and bring it back to the breath. But that’s actually the whole point, especially in the beginning is the catching. When you catch yourself in thought because your mind is going to wander, you’re not going to know how to do this. You don’t pick up a guitar expecting to know how to play an E chord, a C chord in a G chord. 

You have to learn to do this and the learning of meditation is learning to catch yourself as your mind wanders. As you once again become consumed by thought and you get a moment of waking up of awareness that you’re thinking and then you can guide your thoughts back to the breath. That essentially is being in the gym and taking one repetition. You’re taking one bicep curl. You’re not going to get strong from it, but you gotta take one curl after another. You need the resistance to build the muscle and you’re building the muscle of focus. And when it wanders again, you bring it back to the breath. And this may take a few weeks, a few months to where your brain is not running away as quickly. Your rst sessions may seem like they’re not doing much, but they really are. I can attest a year later that it really will do something for you and when you bring it back to the breath and you have this awareness. 

And if we want to focus on something, we can turn that down so that the ashlight is focused on a very small point, maybe just a few inches. And then if we want to see what’s going on in a greater part of the dark space, we can turn the beam and the beam will widen. It becomes less intense, but it becomes more open and we can see more of the dark space. And that’s essentially what you can do with your awareness that you start to open up from just your breath to all the sensations in the body and then to sounds and then to site. 

And even with your eyes closed, just all the little patterns and ashes that you see behind your eyelids. And then even being aware of thoughts. It’s often alluded to as like waves on the ocean. That consciousness is the ocean and then thoughts and the sensations are like waves. They can’t be separate. They’re just part of it. And once you have that, then there is a further level that’s been called awake awareness, a more general awareness. And you become aware of being aware. And if you haven’t done this, if you haven’t experienced this, it sounds a little bit kooky, but this whole idea, well not idea this, what we live in consciousness is rather mysterious. No matter what your religious beliefs are, at our very core there is a mystery as to awareness. Who’s listening to my voice, how you’re listening to my voice and the thoughts that my voice are provoking within you. 

And it really is beyond our comprehension, the nature of consciousness and whether that will be revealed to us at some time. Eh, different beliefs have different thoughts about that. But I don’t think anyone will argue that the totality of our reality is beyond our comprehension. But you can get these little glimpses into the nature of consciousness and the nature of awareness and being aware of being aware and you’re just completely in the moment and everything falls away. And rather than a subject-object reality, where you are essentially the subject looking out at different objects, or you are the subject controlling the object of your voice and controlling the object of the sound. But rather, consciousness becomes non-dual awareness becomes non-dual where there just is the voice where there just is sound, where the letters of the brain are able to tune down. 

And they’ve done scienti c research on meditation. It looks promising. It’s not concrete. More studies need to be done, but as they map the brain, the different letters are tuned down. As you begin to open up awareness and in terms of singing for you to be able to analyze your voice, and I talk about the three questions. What, why, how. What? What am I hearing? What is happening? Why is it happening? How do I x it? You get the why and then you make an adjustment of the how. Then you’re able to, depending on what the why is, focus your attention on that. Whether it’s there’s too much muscle, you need to own more air, you need to drop your job more. You need to resist this squeeze as you go higher and relax. 

Whatever that is, you can focus and then you can do it again with a more general awareness feeling not only what you’re focusing on but the result in sensations and the other elements of singing and then you can go to open awareness, awake awareness, just being with the sound, with the voice within the experience and that is magical. I had an experience just last week where I was actually doing something rather mundane, but I accessed just this non-dual awareness of just being there. And there’s an incredible peace and beauty in that in being able to turn on the churning mind. This mind that’s constantly criticizing and questioning and that’s not right. And that singers are doing better in petty jealousies and judgments, all of these things that consume us. Not that we’re completely crazy, but it does take a portion of your day. Someone’s upset you, you’re steaming about it that you feel some slight has been handed to you on work or somebody said something rude on social media in your attempt to launch into an argument, which I never allow myself to do. I think that is the greatest, most extravagant waste of emotional energy is to argue with people, especially strangers on social media. Your thoughts and your emotions are too precious for that. 

But to be able to step out of that, catch yourself and just go into awareness where you’re not caught on that level, where there’s a greater reality. There’s a greater energy, there’s a greater sensitivity. And for you as a performer to be singing, and on certain parts, you come to a di cult part of the music. You can focus your awareness, but then you can open up and if you can go into this open awareness and be present in the room completely and to go into a non-dual awareness where there is just music and voice and other musicians and audience and energy and the moment and emotion and connection, you can start to create absolute magic. 

I really think that mindfulness training should be part of the curriculum within a music school, especially for singers. It’s absolutely invaluable. I look at this now, a year into this, and I would be sad for all the time that I didn’t do it. But I know through mindfulness I’m just not gonna let my emotion go there. I can be in a better place. So I recommend you get an app. I highly recommend the Sam Harris app Waking Up or one of the other mindfulness apps. But a guided meditation. Incredibly helpful, especially in the beginning. I do guided meditation every day. It’s 10 minutes. The Sam Harris app is literally 10 minutes every single day. And if you can and 10 minutes, and the beauty is in that 10 minutes, all the chaos of the day, even on a bad stressful day. You will end 10 minutes of a mental oasis and then you will be able to punctuate that stress throughout the day. 

You’ll learn with just even just moments of awareness and it’s like just this easing of the tension, and you can escape just for those moments. It’s incredibly powerful. It can really, really get you through some stressful times and it can really make your practice sessions and your performances more powerful. 

Hey, if you want to know more about me, please go to my website, johnhenny.com. Also, if you want to check out my brand new belting course, go to boldlybelting.com and in this course I have created these special mini songs I’m calling “lyricizes’ ‘ that will work your voice and guide you into belt through text and melody, not just exercises. I do have exercises in there to help you get prepped, but these are to bridge that gap between exercises and songs. If you’re frustrated, this could be the answer for you. So go check that out. If you use the coupon code podcast20, you can save $20. Just use that there at checkout. It’s at boldlybelting.com. And until next time, to sing better. Thank you so much. Bye. Bye.