A great voice is the product of great thoughts. The delicate balances of singing require precise thoughts to control the many muscles involved in the process.
In this episode, John discusses the importance of a clear, focused mind, and how to approach thought in your practice and performance.
Episode 137 – The Voice of Your Mind
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. I started up my YouTube channel or, suffice to say, restarted. I attempted previously something I was calling ‘why I love this vocal’ and what I did is I found multi-track versions of songs so I could isolate the vocal and really break down what was happening between the artist and the track and to highlight certain parts of the track against the vocal. Really put a lot of thought into it. And I think the listeners were me and my mom. Didn’t set the world on fire. So I decided to go ahead, stop fighting and do a reaction video. Just me watching somebody sing on YouTube and reacting as a voice teacher and analyzing. And that seems to have caught on. Specifically, I just did one on Adam Lambert, and there are a lot of Adam Lambert fans.
My goodness. So, that one’s getting a bit of attention. I also just did one on Whitney Houston that I think is quite honestly a bit more instructive and insightful, but not quite keeping up with the Adam Lambert video. Anyway, if you want to check out my reaction videos, just go to YouTube and look for John Henny Vocals. I’ll also put a link to my YouTube channel on my website for this podcast. Just go to johnhenny.com/137 for episode 137. You can get the link to that. But I’m interested to know what you think of the reaction videos. I’ll tell you what, they are a whole lot less work. You just put on the video and start talking. But it’s actually, it’s a pretty good format, as a voice teacher.
I liked that on YouTube the licensing allows you to do this, which is great. What they do is they monetize the channel for the artist. So I don’t make anything off of it, but I think that’s fair. I mean, I’m commenting on their copyright material, but I do like that YouTube has agreements where you can do that, and use music to educate and explain music. I mean, you have to listen to existing music in order to teach on it. And that’s where copyright laws get a little tricky. So I’m not really able to share these videos on other platforms like Facebook and such because they, to my knowledge, don’t have the same agreements that YouTube has. So I’m quite happy with that until things change.
So today is a pretty crazy day for me. I have at my Music Academy the biggest event of the year. It’s our annual Holiday Stroll. And I’m in an area, or this little place, called the Glendora Village. And Glendora is a city that’s about 20-25 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. And it sits in the foothills of, I’m still in Los Angeles County. If you ever watch the Rose Parade on New Year’s and you see all those beautiful hills in the background, I’m just a bit east of that, east of Pasadena in those same foothills. And it’s a wonderful little village. And what they do is on the Friday before Thanksgiving, they close down the street and they do this thing called the Holiday Stroll. And Santa comes down the street in a fire engine and they light up the trees, like Christmas trees, and I think 4,000 or 5,000 people show up. And what we do is we have our students perform there and it’s really fun.
It’s low stress, but behind the scenes it’s quite high stress and there’s a lot going on. And, that’s what I have to do later today. So in order to prepare for the quiet chaos backstage, I as I do every morning now, I meditated. I go through a guided meditation and, on the app that I use, the Waking Up app from Sam Harris, he was talking about how the quality of your mind dictates the quality of your day. That all we really have is our mind. That’s how we go through life, our awareness. And if our mind is not in a good place, it’s very hard to have a good day. The extraneous circumstances– circumstances would have to align in such a way to knock you out of that, and most days that doesn’t happen. We’re not going to get amazingly good news that will knock us out of a poor mindset.
So that by cultivating the right mind, quality of mind, you can get through days like today or at least a day like today for me. And I was thinking there’s a book that’s very popular amongst voice teachers, or at least my circle of voice teachers, called The Voice of the Mind by E. Herbert Caesari. I believe it was written in the 50s, 40s or 50s, and it predates voice science, but it’s a really good book on the sensations of singing and how that works within the mind. What you have to be aware of and the basic premise was, when you’re making adjustments in the voice, you don’t want to do them so much physically as mentally, because if you do them physically, you’re going to overshoot that. And that’s more applicable to advanced singers. But still, it reminds us that the quality of thought is paramount when you’re singing, when you’re practicing singing.
And if you are not in a good frame of mind, if you don’t have a quality of mind that’s conducive to learning, you’re going to get frustrated. So what you need to do is to start to cultivate the right awareness. When you go into the practice room, have a sense of what it is that you’re going to practice, what you’re going to learn, and then have a mindset that is open and nonjudgemental. I go into mindset a lot in this podcast because we sing from our minds and the voice, more so than any other instrument, because we don’t have direct physical control. We have an indirect control of the voice. It’s not like wiggling our fingers and toes. We are controlling muscles that we don’t see and we don’t have a true awareness of. It’s just a vague awareness and we’re guiding by sensations and sensations that are all often misleading.
So this mindset is incredibly important. The quality of your thought is the quality of your voice. If you have trouble singing in tune, if you have trouble matching pitch, it’s not that you’re tone deaf. It’s that the quality of the thought of the pitch that you’re creating in your mind, the quality is not strong enough. It’s not vivid enough to send the correct instructions to the vocal folds. And so if this is something you’re struggling with, it’s not a matter– unless it’s a higher note that you’re struggling with the balance. But let’s say you’re trying to match pitch within your comfortable range, which you should be doing when you’re working on matching pitch. It’s not that your vocal folds can’t do it. It’s not that you can’t hear the pitch. It’s that you’re not forming a strong and clear enough thought. If you are struggling with your voice, if you’re cracking on certain notes, it’s not that you likely can’t reach the note unless it’s in the extremes.
If you’re feeling a note is too high, it’s probably not out of your range. It’s just the quality of thought is not there. You can hit these notes already. You can sing strong already. It’s just the balance has not been worked into your nervous system, and the balance is created by your mind. I used to think it’s all about, I have to build strength, I have to build strength, but quite frankly, if you’re going to grunt and push, well then, that’s you showing strength within the vocal folds. You can yell and scream. You’re already strong. It’s just being strong within more refined balances. And again, you have to have the thought, the experience. Your brain has to create that balance within the body. That’s the only place it can be created. That’s the only place it can exist prior to creating sound. It’s in your mind. It’s the quality of your mind.
So if you’re in the practice room and you just think that you’re simply working in developing your physical voice, you’re missing a big part of the picture. You’re working and developing your quality of mind, your quality of thought. And if you’re allowing yourself to get frustrated in the practice room or your mind wandering– And this is something I had a problem with. I would think as long as I was physically doing the exercise, that’s all I needed and I would allow my mind to wander and be distracted. But what I really needed to do was not only to use my mind to guide me into the right balance with the exercise, but I need to have an awareness of why I was doing the exercise, monitoring if that was being achieved. If not, figuring out why not and changing. But let’s say once I’m in the balance, then it’s a matter of opening my awareness to what that experience is.
What does it feel like to sustain a high note in my head voice? What does it feel like to belt a healthy note? And you have to take that mental picture because the next time you go to do it, your mind has to be able to draw on a high resolution mental picture of that experience the microsecond before you do it so that your mind can tell your body what it needs to do, so those muscles within the vocal folds that we have no awareness of can make those fine adjustments and you can send the breath and you can set the right resistance at the vocal folds to create the sound wave. And then you can set the shade of the vowels so that the resonators interact with the sound wave in an optimal way. You need to be able to do all of those things instantaneously and it is from your mind that it’s done. And it’s not a long, involved intellectual process. You don’t have time for that in the midst of singing.
You have time for it in practicing and that’s what practicing for, is breaking that down. But when you are singing, the only thing you have is the quality of thought. And your mind being able to recreate that optimal condition instantly and sending those instructions through your nervous system to all of the muscles to make those fine adjustments. So the quality of your awareness and your attention and your recall is paramount. We have to develop high quality mind, high quality thoughts instantly. So in the practice room when you are breaking all of this down, the more that you can develop an open awareness, a non-judgmental awareness, I will say this again and again, but when you go to practice, if you do something wrong and all you get is frustrated or dismissive, you’ve wasted that event.
Something’s going to go wrong. In the analysis of the Whitney Houston vocal, which is nearly flawless, she has one bad note where she grabs and she doesn’t flinch. She doesn’t even make a grimace. You see nothing in her face because she keeps the quality of her mind on the performance and she knows that that moment is gone. She’s an absolute professional. And I’ve seen singers where something like that happens and it’s suddenly– it just grabs them, and it takes them a few moments to shake it off. Some singers almost never recover from it. The rest of the song is just spent second guessing and frustrated. But even if it throws you for a moment, now you’re living in the past and you’re living with that event that you weren’t happy with, and now you’re second guessing the next notes coming up and now the quality of your mind is poor and it is shaded.
Don’t practice that way. Don’t allow that because it will show up in performance. What you need to do is in a non-judgmental way, analyze what happened, why it happened, and then how are you going to fix it. Let the event instruct you. Let the event allow you to keep a positive, open quality of mind so that when it happens to you in performance, just as it does for Whitney in front of a national television audience, it doesn’t throw her. And just moments later she’s got the audience in a standing ovation even before the song is done. She’s that good. So practice this quality of mind. I highly recommend that you start getting into mindfulness and awareness, but you don’t have to. If meditation is not your thing, there are things in your life, there are hobbies, there are activities where you feel this. Maybe it’s just walking through nature or exercise or gardening or something that really creates this non-judgmental awareness where you can be in the moment. And that’s the quality of mind that you need to bring to your singing, to the practice room, to the stage, to the recording studio because it really is the voice of the mind.
Hey, if you want to know more about me, please visit my website, johnhenny.com. If you’re interested in learning how to teach voice, I have my Contemporary Voice Teacher Academy. It is open for registration. Just go to johnhenny.com and click on courses. You can find the link to the course there. And my Boldly Belting course is getting some really good reviews and feedback. I’m very excited about this. You can use the coupon code podcast20 to save $20. Just go to boldlybelting.com. And until next time, to better singing. Thank you so much. Bye bye.