Ah, mindfulness, one of those 21st century buzzwords that gets everywhere. I bet you’re already thinking about hours of cross-legged meditation, or possibly some unpleasant experience of deep breathing in a stuffy office or school hall.
I am certainly a bit of a mindfulness skeptic. I’m not into hours of silent meditation – I can barely keep up a regular yoga practice, and I enjoy that. But I do see the benefits of being mindful.
So what are we talking about? Well, think back to the last really great performance or practice session you had. One where you had that sensation of flow, when you were right there, singing and no where else, when everything felt so real because you were really aware of what was going on.
Well, best as I can understand it, that’s mindfulness. It’s when you’re right where you are, and no where else. When you’re doing what you’re doing, and not also thinking about the laundry. It’s rarely more than momentary, but it’s a really pleasant feeling (mostly) when you do realise you’ve been mindful. If I’m honest, it does a bit remind me of “The Game” that childhood amusement where if you think about The Game, you’ve lost The Game. (Sorry, now, you’ve lost the game!) Mindfulness is a bit meta like that – if you think “oh I’m being so mindful right now” you’ve probably stopped being mindful.
The best way to break down mindfulness I’ve come across is: aware, present and non-judgemental.
Aware is the external bit. Really being in the place where you are – feeling the feelings, sensing the sensations. That sensation in a performance that you can see every face, and hear every note. Like everything is a bit more real than it normally is.
This is the internal bit – getting your mind to shut up about what you did in the past, or what you’re doing in the future, and just be here and now. That really good singing performance wouldn’t have been so good if you’d been making your shopping list in your head, right? You had to be in the moment, present with the emotions and the words of the song.
And here’s the hardest part. We don’t start scoring ourselves. I’ve had performances where I’ve come away feeling really good even though I didn’t sing perfectly. I enjoyed what I was doing for what it was, not for what it could have been. Non-judgement also means accepting any thoughts you do have, so if you think “that didn’t sound very good” responding with an “ok, yeah, it didn’t” and then not starting to get in a spiral about how you’re a terrible human being because you sang a duff note.
So being mindful is about training your brain to shut up so you can enjoy where you are and what you’re doing. You can’t be mindful all the time, but you can slowly train yourself to be more aware of how you’re thinking and actually choose not to be spaced out, thinking about tomorrow or obsessively critical in the moment.
Why do singers need mindfulness?
Everyone needs to learn to be more in control of their thoughts, and be more able to say “I’m here, let’s be here” when they want to. For singers and other musicians, there are some particular benefits to our practice.
Sometimes, it’s just so hard to get in the zone. By practicing the process of getting in the zone (practicing mindfulness), we can get into that place where we can also practice our singing without worrying about tomorrow’s menu. And of course, that’s going to mean our practice is more effective. Plus, it’s going to help us when we come to a performance or exam to focus in on what we’re doing, and not worry about the outcome.
This is a biggie for me. Through my childhood, I did a lot of theatre, and although we didn’t call it mindfulness back in the 90s, we definitely did work on focusing on our bodies and movement. Later, I took up yoga (which I’ve been practicing for about 13 years now), and that has also helped me to become more able to focus on specific parts of my body, notice how they are or aren’t moving, and even identify problems.
When we practice mindful awareness of our bodies, we become more familiar with them. Our brain is used to paying attention to our hands and faces, but we can practice being aware of more subtle movements in any part of our body.
For singers? That’s going to help us fine tune our instrument. If we can identify tension points, we can work to release them. If we are aware of how we move, we can adjust that to support our sound better.
Like all anxiety, performance anxiety is rooted in spiralling thoughts – often starting very rationally, but quickly dissolving into crazy irrational ones. Performance anxiety can also have very real physical manifestations.
Working on being more mindful can help you accept the rational thoughts “I might forget the words on that one verse I’ve had to work hard to learn” with grace, and curtail the spiral from “I might forget the words on that one verse I’ve had to work hard to learn” to “I’m going to forget how to sing and the audience will laugh”.
Lots of mindfulness practices also use breathing and physical movement to tell the brain to be calmer. Extending your exhale can tell your brain that the danger has passed (we naturally have faster exhale when scared or anxious), and your brain can then tell your body to stop shaking or sweating. Try a quick square breathing exercise to feel it in action!
It’s not magic – if you have big problems with performance anxiety, you may need help from a talking therapy or specialist teacher. Mindfulness should help most people to be more able to walk out and perform with just the right level of fizz!
How do I learn this mindful thing?
Basically, to be able to be more mindful (or “in the zone”, if you prefer) in our lives, we have to practice doing it deliberately.
That’s where the crossed legs and deep breathing come in.
The basic principle is that you pick something to focus on, and then focus on it for a set period of time. Some examples of things to focus on:
- Your breathing
- Counting (perhaps in time with your breathing)
- A mantra like “I am calm”
- A religious text or the presence of God (sometimes this is called centring prayer)
- Movements you are making (this might include yoga, tai chi, Feldenkrais)
- Different parts of your body
Some of these will work better for you than others. For example, I have asthma, so focusing solely on my breathing for ten minutes is not calming… I prefer to use a bible verse, do a body scan or practice a moving meditation (yoga, in my case).
You probably won’t find it works miracles overnight, or even over weeks or months. This is one of those thing (a bit like singing) where you can often only see the results when you look back a long time later and go “oh, I really am better at this now”.
There are lots of ways to get started – youtube, podcasts, apps, or even just a good old kitchen timer will do!
I’ve found a couple of examples of the most common mindfulness exercises here for you to try.
This first one is from MyLife, who also have a subscription app, which is about mindful breathing:
If a body scan takes your fancy, try this one from the Mark Williams book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World (which is an excellent guide to beginning a practice)
Or for someone who likes to be more active, this is a good taster video on Yoga for the Mind from the YouTube superstar Yoga with Adriene:
I do a short mindfulness or focus exercise at the start of each of my lessons to help my students to be more aware and present when they sing. I mix through a few different exercises so that everyone can find something they like. All of my students have fed back that they really enjoy these few minutes.
Whatever works for you, figuring out how to do it regularly is also important. Why not try incorporating it into your practice routine?