You’re Always Practicing Something
Nov 24, 2023
In this podcast, I talk about singing as a liberation-oriented practice. Anything that promotes the flow of experience and expression, and reduces qualities of friction or rigidity that can impede that flow, will make your singing freer and more enjoyable. When I use the word liberation, what I mean is liberation from anything that might impede that flow, and liberation to express yourself more creatively and powerfully. When you view this process of enhancing flow and reducing friction as a practice that can impact not only your music-making but also all of your activities, your singing practice becomes a liberation-oriented activity in the broader, Buddhist sense: a practice that heightens awareness, and enables you to become more mindful and present generally.
What I would like to point out today is that, whether you are intentionally engaging in a liberation-oriented practice, or you are not, you are always practicing something. At any given moment, the way you move, breathe, think, communicate, and respond to your experiences, is effectively what you are practicing and reinforcing.
At any given moment, most of what you are doing as you move, breathe, think, and so on, is unconscious and habitual. This is the way it is for all of us, and there is nothing wrong with that! It's the way we function. Our movements, feelings, and thoughts, are complex and interrelated, and we cannot be conscious of all of them at one time. When we walk down the street, we rely on habituated leg movements to get us where we are going, not thinking about the mechanics of ambulation the entire time. When we aren't thinking about breathing, we nevertheless continue to breathe. Most of our bodies' processes are fully automated and unconscious, and that is necessary. It is what frees us to focus on specific things, and to create new habits and movement patterns when desirable.
So, we're always practicing something. Either we are practicing and reinforcing our habituated movements and thoughts, or we are exploring new movements and new ways of thinking, and intentionally practicing and habituating these new and different things.
Practicing new and different things requires that you be more present and intentional about what you are doing, more intentional about what you are focusing on. Meanwhile, all of the movements that you are not intentionally focusing on, will continue to unfold in the way you have habituated them. This is as it must be, because you can't focus on everything all at once.
So when you are practicing singing, you can't change everything all at once. This is why it is so important to narrow your focus. If your focus is very broad, if you try to practice singing for the general purpose of "making it sound better," you will almost certainly in for a deeply frustrating experience. If you're trying to make your sound better, you'll be continually evaluating the sound you are making while you are making it. The quality of your sound is the result what you are expressing in real time, so if you are evaluating yourself, what you are expressing is your internal process of self-criticism, and the sound that result is unlikely to please you.
So what would it mean, to be more intentional about what you are practicing, more intentional about what you are focusing on? Singing as an activity, that you engage in in real time. Where an activity as complex as singing is concerned, most of the movements involved need to be habituated, and so does the coordination between these habituated movements, so you don't have to think about them, like when you walk down the street without thinking about your legs. This means habituating movements related to breathing, movements related to vocal fold vibration and pitch change, movements related to the creation of resonance, and movements related to articulation. Anything you wish to change about any of these movements, you need to intentionally narrow your focus to what it is you wish to change, while all of the movements that you are not intentionally focusing on, continue to unfold in the way you have habituated them
Suppose you are working on a phrase that includes a sustained high note, and you notice that when you sing the high note, you experience a sensation of tension in your throat, and hear a quality of resonance that sounds comparatively shallower or duller than lower pitches had. You will have a far more successful practice session if you investigate and work on what is going on in your throat, and what is going on with your resonance, separately from each other.
See if you can detect what exactly is tensing in your throat, where you feel it, when it starts. When you sing this high note, how do the sensations in your throat differ from when you are singing a lower note? Do you detect movements and sensations elsewhere in your body that seem related? Try to focus on the movements and sensations that you notice, rather than the sounds that result. In the end, whenever you feel tense somewhere, it is because you are tensing. If you continue to tense in your throat when you sing a high note, you are actually practicing tensing in your throat when you sing a high note. If you would like your throat to feel free on high notes, find a way to practice keeping your throat relaxed when you sing your high notes. You may find, at first, that when you relax your throat, the high note doesn't come out, or it sounds weak, and that's okay! What that means is that there is additional coordination for you to develop and practice, so that you can sing more fully on high notes. But make no mistake, you will not develop free high notes by practicing with a tight throat. You will only reinforce the tightness, because that is what you are practicing.
You can similarly focus on the movements and sensations related to your resonance. When you sing the high note, ideally with your newly relaxed throat, even if you don't love the sound, how does your sense of the resonance space and quality differ from when you are singing and resonating a lower note? Do you detect a sense that you are hitting a ceiling? Are you compensating for it by trying to open your jaw wide and spread your lips sideways? What might create a more expansive sense of your internal resonance, so that you can find the space you are looking for while allowing your jaw and lips to stay relatively relaxed? Again, try to focus on the movements and sensations that you notice, rather than the sounds that result. If you feel like you are hitting a ceiling, that felt sense is something you are creating inside your own body, so yawn, stretch it out, and explore other options. If instead you continue to push up against a "ceiling" when you sing a high note, what you are practicing is creating, and pushing against, a ceiling when you sing a high note. Explore what might happen when you create more internal resonance space, and relax your jaw and lips, being mindful that you won't know what that feel or sound like until you experience it. There is some new coordination for you to discover, develop and practice, that will enable you to resonate your high notes more fully. You will not develop full resonance for your high notes by continuing to sing in a way that makes you feel like you are hitting a ceiling, because when you sing in a way that makes you feel like you are hitting a ceiling, that is what you are practicing.
Tightness in the throat and a sense of hitting a ceiling are two very common things that singers experience when working on high notes. The marvelous thing, in my experience, is that if you can explore each of these phenomena separately, so you become capable of really going for a high note while keeping your throat relaxed and experiencing a sense of internal expansion of your resonance space, the result may be a surprisingly free, full high note! When you worked on these issues separately, the resulting sound may not have been at all pleasing to you, but developing new, freer, more intentional coordination in both areas may be exactly what leads to your having the quality of experience you desire on your high notes, as well as the quality of sound.
Thank you for listening. If you would like support for narrowing your focus to learn or fine-tune the individual components of your singing technique, consider enrolling in my Vocal Fundamentals self-guided course. I am offering a 20% discount on the course through the end of November, and you will find links with details about the course and how to enroll in the episode description.
You're always practicing something. Here are suggestions for how to ensure you are practicing in a way that yields the results you desire.
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