Recently one of my students who takes voice lessons in Marin with me was expressing frustration that after so many years of vocal studies, her voice still wasn’t “flowing” like she wanted it to. It got me thinking about flow and what it means in terms of our singing and performance. In the book “Finding Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, flow can occur when you set a challenge for yourself and have the skills to achieve it. (To listen to his wonderful 2004 TED talk, read HERE.) The psychologist describes “flow” as being “in the zone,” when your “identity is temporarily suspended” because you are so focused on your activity that it simply flows out of you. Let’s look at some of the ways we can set up the environment to experience a taste of this all-encompassing, “ecstatic” consciousness (if not the complete consciousness itself).
The Tao Te Ching calls it “trying without trying.” The Alexander Technique calls it “non-doing.” Serenity in action. You can define it as being focused and present in your activity but at ease.
I got a wonderful lesson about flow from talking recently with an Alexander Technique teacher who is living with Parkinson’s. Parkinson’s can affect the voice, leading to slurring, mumbling and decreased vocal volume, among other issues. The disease messes with a person’s sensory feedback – they feel they are speaking at normal volume when they aren’t. He was saying that to speak well, he had to do four things: pause, direct spaciousness above him – the all-important head-neck relationship – and all around him, around the jaw, etc. Then, before speaking, he had to have a very clear idea of what he wanted his voice to sound like – strong, flexible. Finally, as he started the sound, he had to completely stay out of interfering with himself. This might sound like a lot to think about, and it is. But it was essential for him to create this habitual process to have a more normal-sounding voice.
I often teach the importance of thinking in singing. One of my teachers used to say that if you are constantly listening to yourself, you can’t be “creating” forward. She would always tell me to breathe into the next phrase, imagining how I wanted it to be shaped. If you’re mind/creative spirit is in motion, your body will produce what you want. If you are stuck in listening and “producing” the voice muscularly first, you are putting the cart before the horse. Of course, singing is also a muscular activity, but it is a very fine balance of thought, muscular engagement and ease in action. When we directly “do” singing, inevitably we “overdo” muscularly.
Now, this Alexander teacher’s “method” IS the Alexander Technique in its pure form. But when we’re performing, sometimes we lose the trust to practice AT fully. So, I made a commitment, during a recent show, to follow this teacher’s method. I was the pianist and the opening number always gave me trouble because there was one section where the right hand had to play very fast. I decided to pause (as the lights went down), create space around me, thinking of long arm bones and fingers, breathe deeply (to sense my breath and torso) and, when the conductor’s baton started, I began playing. Throughout the overture, I made a mental effort to continue to direct my body in expansiveness and to clearly be singing the music in my head. It was a bit of an out-of-body experience. My fingers felt miles away (because I wasn’t compressing?) and – surprise – I watched as they flew over the keys with no mistakes. What a trip!
So back to Csikszentmihalyi’s theory: Skill must be high enough to meet the challenge. That means that you must practice for flow to happen. I don’t think I would have been successful on the piano if I hadn’t practiced the music. He states that one of the elements of flow is “knowing what needs to be done and how we are doing it.” However, once you’ve done the work, trust comes into play. Trust that you have done the vocal work that needs to be consciously released to a certain extent when you hit the stage. If I’ve done the tongue-root relaxation work in the studio for a year, I must trust that when I sing on stage my body will know how to do that – if I stay out of its way.
“Staying out of the way” is a skill like any other. You can call it psychophysical serenity work and it needs to be practiced in the studio so that when nerves kick in during performance, we are ready for them. Practicing “directing” while singing (that’s unlocking the head-neck joint, creating the space around you, learning not to compress) teaches your body not to tighten while performing. When our breath “disappears” from nerves, that’s often that we are unconsciously clamping down on our spine and ribs. Practicing expansiveness may not mean that your breath will feel completely in control on stage, but you will not be constricting it even further. You will have enough at your disposal to support your phrases until you “calm down.” I think this practice of presentness, especially in our fast-paced, technologically addicted society, can only be good, not only for our art, but our health.
I also believe that much of the joy we feel when singing and performing is our ability to experience our bodily selves positively in our musical activity. As the Buddhists say: Being in the world but not of it. Learning a certain detachment that allows music to, well, flow through us. In my singing lessons for kids and adults, I try to teach not only excellent vocal technical skills but to increase awareness of how the “gerbil mind,” the ones that spins and spins around like on a wheel, can adversely affect our bodies and sound, getting in the way of flow. Quiet and focus the mind, and the body, once taught balance and activation, ecstatically sings.