I have a vocal teaching studio in Los Angeles with about 10 students. It is incredibly rewarding to teach them and see them grow. I had one student recently who was really struggling with tension. When singing, she would tighten up usually in the face or throat to try to have more control over her voice, then berate herself for being tight. That is an awful cycle. So I wrote her this long email and thought I’d share it with you. It really applies to all singers.
One of greatest challenges to overcome when singing is tension and the letting go of it. Tension….ah that tension. We all have it somewhere in our body. I usually think tension when singing comes down to mental blocks and judgements. Tension represents something we are trying to hold on to. An idea that our voice will sound worse if we leave it to its own devices. The scary unknown if we changed and produced sound differently than we are used to. It takes courage to let go. However, the beauty is when we do let go, we let the voice do what it naturally want to do. When we release tension (usually gathered in the upper body, neck, and head) at the same time we hand over trust to the body. We give trust to the voice to “let it do its thing”. When we take a belly breath or a singer’s breath, the connection we get from breathing deeply is not just feeling the body, but allowing the body take the lead. Allowing the body to connect with the breath. Often breath gets stuck just below the head, in the shoulders or in the chest-where we are holding tension. That cuts off the connection to the rest of the body. What we forget sometimes is that the body already knows how to make sound. It knows how to breathe. We breathe perfectly when we sleep. If we can get the mind out of the way when using the voice…get rid of the little bit of judgement that says “that was terrible” or “it might sound awful” or “I’m not used to singing this way” or “i can’t listen to myself,” we give the voice room to play or experience and to try different things. We give the voice the room to be what it can be-to be as BIG or as small, strong or fragile, breathy or focused as it wants to be in the moment. OR in other words….to really grow and express. Songs and vocal exercises are the playground for the voice. Vocal exercises, especially because there are no words, allow the voice to play in that space of pitch and rhythm, and experiment. By just giving focused time to the voice, it gets stronger. By giving it time to play and experiment, your tone becomes more mature. We want to put the voice in a safe, playful environment-free of judgment and restriction. I am happy that we are slowly letting go. It is happening….we just want to set the intention that we’ll hand the trust over a bit more each lesson, each time we sing. As your teacher, I am there to help guide the voice while playing and give it direction for how to experiment.
The mind/brain is an interpreter between my vocal direction and your body, but the brain shouldn’t be in charge. The brain holds all the judgment, ego, fear, doubt, self-abuse, and criticism. (It holds the lyrics too, which is why we can’t totally let it go ) When the brain is in charge, the voice is no longer free.
An example of the brain taking over control might look like this: I ask you to make a certain sound or experiment and you are brave enough to do it….you open your mouth and start singing…the sound reaches your ears and the brain comes in (if we let it) and starts criticizing…It’s the brain that starts trying to control the body and control what is happening in your larynx, jaw, tongue, and vocal cords. The body doesn’t want to be tight but parts of your body start to tighten up…your consciousness goes to the brain and starts analyzing the sounds. There’s conflict between your brain and your body. We’ll call the brain middle management and the body the boss We just want middle management to inform the boss and send messages. “Here’s an idea” says middle management, “how about we try this.” Not “Here’s an idea,” says middle management, “we can try this but you better do it right.” Or “Here’s an idea,” says middle management, “but I know you are going to screw it up if you try it.” Don’t get me wrong, the brain should absolutely be part of the equation and has an important role…but not as a boss, as a communicator, as a partner, but not controlling the engine. The body controls the engine, the brain steers. When the brain tries to control the engine, the body can’t make sound as it KNOWS how to do it.
Let’s look at breathing. When consciousness is shifted to the breath (as in your focus your brain on the breath), the breath is in the body. The breath not longer feels like it is happening outside of you (as in something you were trying achieve or ‘get right’ or do with your mind) but inside of you. By shifting your focus inside your belly while breathing (imagine your belly button as your mouth), we bypass the mind and directly connect the body and the breath. They are essentially one and same. When we do that, breath automatically becomes deeper and more relaxed. It is a really beautiful thing to watch. AND, it sounds great. You are taking lessons because you want to strengthen and better your voice. I want that for you as well. But even more importantly, I want it to feel great. When it feels great, it usually sounds great. When it feels terrible (not in the mind…..vulnerable or open), but feels terrible in the body (hurts, is tight or strained) the sound mirrors it as well. As listeners, we can hear when you are free and we can hear when you are tight.
Letting go is the hardest part of singing. Letting go of your mind so the body can be in charge. Letting go of what you think your voice should sound like, how big or how small it should be. Letting go of criticism or judgement of the tone quality or sound. Letting go of tension in the shoulders and neck and jaw and tongue. Letting go of the fear that people won’t like how you sound. Letting go of any expectations you have for how fast your growth is or the guilt of how much more you should be practicing. Letting go of anything that is in the way of connecting with your body, especially negative thoughts. Being present in the moment and being free in the moment. That is the pot of gold, the AH-HAH, the feeling, and the connection we are searching for. That is pure joy. That is love of your voice and where you (mind/body) are in the process. All from the simple act of singing a pop song.
It’s such a beautiful thing when it happens. Singing is such a unique way to connect mind/body/spirit. I’m so happy we are on this journey together. I can see your potential and I am so excited to have the best seat in the house to hear your growth (for however long that may be).