the one thing to do to succeed (in singing)
I used to pride myself on being able to manage a million things at once. I’m a MultiTasker! It’s on my resume! And lemme tell you, my mind is quick and agile and bouncy, and while this may seem useful (it can be), it is also a major complication to actually, well, getting things done.
Then I read an article a few years ago that mentioned the fact that the human mind cannot actually multitask. It can – literally – only do one thing at a time.
Multitasking means trying to perform two or more tasks concurrently, which typically leads to repeatedly switching between tasks (i.e., task switching) or leaving one task unfinished in order to do another.
(from Multicosts of Multitasking, published 2019 in Cerebrum)
This did not flow into my worldview, especially when it came to singing.
In traditional vocal pedagogy, as well as choral singing, we are taught that in order to create an ideal sound, we must manage approximately one million tasks simultaneously. This usually leads towards some highly-charged situation like a performance or audition. Sometimes, we even find ourselves in rockier emotional territory, like sight-singing, or sight-singing in an audition, or worse yet: sight-singing on Zoom!
And to do all these things while sounding beautiful. And for God’s sake: Don’t. Mess. Up.
That is a tall order for anyone. This is way too much pressure, expecting some perfectionistic ideal, and in my experience will result in a total letdown.
This approach is simply ineffective. Here is why we will be let down: we are simply not able to manage it all at once.
Why? We think we can do all the things, but it’s not possible.
The scientific study of multitasking over the past few decades has revealed important principles about the operations, and processing limitations, of our minds and brains. One critical finding to emerge is that we inflate our perceived ability to multitask: there is little correlation with our actual ability. In fact, multitasking is almost always a misnomer, as the human mind and brain lack the architecture to perform two or more tasks simultaneously… We have a hard time multitasking because of the ways that our building blocks of attention and executive control inherently work. To this end, when we attempt to multitask, we are usually switching between one task and another. The human brain has evolved to single task.
(from Multicosts of Multitasking, published 2019 in Cerebrum)
You know what this means? It means that we inhibit our functionality to execute tasks when we give ourselves too many tasks. Let’s break that down further: if you expect to do anything well and effectively, you can only do one thing at a time.
The article quoted above does not even begin to skirt the realm of emotional and spiritual wellbeing, which I believe are a fundamental aspects of our creative experience.
But I hope the point is made: in order to feel successful in our singing, we need to simplify.
We must be focused on one thing in every moment. Not many things over many moments. Just One Thing in Every Moment.
And there is a way. It is so gloriously simple, you may not believe me. The medium is the most foundational aspect of our being. It is the thing that marries every aspect of our self into a unified whole. It is the thing that allows us to be present in every moment. It is the thing that bridges our human experience to the divine. It is the thing that marries our humanness to our consciousness. It is the thing that, when trusted, will open the gateway to your higher mind, increasing your intellectual, physical, and emotional capacity in any task you pursue.
It’s your breath, of course.
But what exactly do I mean? How does that translate in real time, in the real world?
It means that when we prioritize the flow of the breath, other tasks are inadvertently removed. This is actually a good thing. Because when we are unable to take action (because you are busy breathing and your mind is not roving), we are able to create intention.
Intention is a byproduct of inspiration and creativity. This is what flows into our practice when we are not bound up in the mind, our thoughts pinging like tennis balls. Tennis ball thoughts are constant distractions, and not only do they slow down your processing speed, they can stop your breathing. Which makes you anxious! And the very thing that you want to attain (I’m assuming beautiful and accurate singing) is very, very difficult to achieve.
how to simplify
Let me lay out some clear points here to help guide you towards a more effective practice. I refer to this process as transforming your role in your own singing from Oompa-Loompa to Willy Wonka. Line worker to CEO. Worker bee to Queen Bee. (You get it.)
You want to be operating at a higher level. This may be very challenging at first, but you will begin to see how much more effective you will become, and this builds confidence.
1) Determine Your Objectives
Before you enter any situation, you need to get clear about your goals. What defines success for you right now, in this situation? Be specific, reasonable, and objective. Our egos prefer us to be Absolutely Fantastic at all times, and when we fall short of this we are pretty surely let down. So dial this back, and get really clear: what do you hope to manifest or achieve in this moment?
2) Eliminate Distractions
This is a biggie, and it’s also the toughest. Your inner tennis ball machine needs to understand that it’s not time to shoot balls at you. It’s time to get quiet. This means, in my own practice and the Sacred Voice Framework, that you enter into the heart space and tap into the inner voice and self. Here is where I become embodied and whole. Not just a tennis ball machine (even a kindly one) making some sounds.
3) Become Breath Aware
Once we are still enough to notice, the awareness of the flow of your breath is the single most crucial element of our practice. I do not exaggerate. Your practice is now to maintain your awareness of your breath. You may not feel great about your breath, that’s fine. But you need to let that go. (That’s a tennis ball.) Keep the breath flowing: this is it.
Your practice will transform from multitasking to activating one task: maintaining awareness of the flow of breath. You will learn how to manage all of the other things that are happening (score, notes, text, dynamics, conductor, etc.) by watching the breath, rather than darting around trying to manage them all separately yet simultaneously. Which you can’t.
I will warn you of the inherent challenge: your ego will not be eager to engage in this practice. Especially when your fears are activated. This is most likely when you meet a challenging place in the music, or feel under pressure in some way, or have some emotional trauma built into your body and/or voice. Most everyone does.
But the medicine is that when you lean into the breath, when you really stick with it, you discover that you are capable of just about anything you choose. You experience personal success and realize your objectives. You will feel buoyed and supported, rather than let down and unsatisfied.
Try it out on one little phrase, and see what happens. You don’t need a major overhaul here, just a little taste.
Speak inwardly: I am breathing. My breath is flowing. Then start to observe the breath as you go. Bring your awareness back when you stray. Go from there.