At the risk of some simplification, the great volume of literature written for singers may be divided into two broad categories. The first addresses the psychological or mental aspects of vocal performance and the second explains the nuts and bolts of how to actually do it. This division of mind and body reflects the dualistic thinking of the Western mind and creates a false division of “either-or.”
There is of course a third, vital, aspect to singing—the invisible but powerful bridge linking these two categories: the mind-body connection. Emotion and performance, the conscious and the reflexive, image and reality—these are all facets of the mind-body connection, that unappreciated but vital connection that ties it all together.
What is “the mind”? We accept that the mind is housed somewhere in the brain, but “mind” and “brain” are not synonymous. The brain is a complex anatomical structure with many parts (such as the brainstem) that normally have no correspondence with our mindful awareness. Somewhere in the newer part of the brain, however, lies our “mind,” an abstract concept that comprises the essence of our humanity. It is our thinking self, our will, our conscious awareness of ourselves and our environment. This is the part of the brain that articulates the question that ultimately distinguishes humans from other species: “Why?”
The “mind” is conventionally located in the cerebral cortex. But remember, every part of the brain interconnects through pathways that travel up and down and crisscross from one side of the brain to the other. The brain also sends out its emissaries, the nerves, to every part of the body. So, in theory at least, the mind can influence every part of the body.
In day-to-day reality, the control of the conscious mind over the body seems limited, but the potential for mind control is great and tantalizing. Stories of yoga practitioners who can slow down their heart rate at will are well known.
The mind can control the body by two main mechanisms, neural and hormonal. Neural control refers to the action of nerves that directly connect parts of the brain to muscles and other organs. The second, chemical pathway involves hormones, which circulate through the blood to all parts of the body. Let’s discuss the nerve pathways first.
Voluntary muscle activity is everywhere. We will ourselves to stand up and walk, to open our mouths and chew. However, much of our daily muscular activity is reflexive, not under conscious direction from the mind.
The craft of singing involves, among other things, making reflexive movements voluntary. Lowering the larynx is performed by the laryngeal depressor muscles. Normally, this muscular contraction is reflexive: When we swallow, the larynx rises, and at the completion of the swallow, the depressors return the larynx down into the lower, breathing position. Even vocally untrained people can voluntarily lower their larynxes (by initiating a yawn), but singers learn to bring this mostly reflexive movement under conscious and voluntary control, and to train both the brain and the muscles to actually pull down the larynx into a lower position than it would reflexively assume. This abnormally low (different from the untrained norm) position becomes, for the trained singer, the new resting position, the new “norm.”
The singer’s other great neuromuscular task is breath control. Depression of the larynx is for the most part reflexive, but breathing is a mechanism that somewhat uniquely straddles the boundary between voluntary and reflexive, conscious and unconscious. We breathe most of the time with no awareness of the act. Our breathing adjusts itself automatically to our level of effort, oxygen need, and other requirements. But breathing can, at the same time also be under conscious control.
Singers learn to increase their conscious control over breathing, gaining voluntary command over separate muscles (thoracic vs. abdominal, lateral vs. midline) that usually act involuntarily and as a group. Gaining mindfulness and voluntary control also affects posture, the voluntary relaxation that overrides reflex tension in the neck and shoulders (such as in Alexander technique), and other areas.
The second main avenue of mind control is hormonal. This is the area we normally think of when we speak of the “mind-body connection.” I include in this group not only adrenaline, but also other hormones from the thyroid, adrenals, pancreas, etc. This pathway is different. Rather than a direct nerve-linked connection between the brain and the muscles, hormones travel through the bloodstream. The effect is usually less instantaneous, but the response is longer lasting. The mindful brain (the cortex) sends impulses to the hypothalamus, which in turn stimulates the pituitary gland to send out chemicals that activate the thyroid and other glands.
So the “mind-body connection” is not some abstract concept. It has a name, and the name is “hypothalamus.” The hypothalamus converts electrical impulses from the higher brain centers into chemical substances. It is the pathway by which performance anxiety, elation, or depression affects vocal performance. It is the pathway by which stress can delay a female singer’s period. It is also one of the ways by which wishful thinking, imagery, and other belief systems work to produce concrete and measurable changes in the rest of the body.
It is curious, then, that learning to sing (or any other skill) is not just a matter of training the right muscles. Singers’ abdominal breathing muscles undoubtedly become stronger, but the main task is invisible and unmeasurable. This task is training the brain to consciously send signals to parts of the vocal tract that were previously “under the radar,” and, simultaneously, to become consciously aware of the signals these body parts send back to the brain.
Once a singer learns the skills of vocal technique, the emotional brain influences the momentary artistry of performance via the hypothalamus. Awareness and conscious use of the mind-body connection, this immense, invisible, two-way superhighway, is the key to true mastery of the voice.
DISCLAIMER: Reprinted by Permission, Classical Singer Magazine. The suggestions given by Dr. Jahn in these columns are for general information only, and not to be construed as specific medical advice, or advocating specific treatment, which should be obtained only following a visit and consultation with your own physician.