Anthony F. Jahn, M.D.

Articles and Tips

Mindful Practice: A Medical Perspective


Over the years I have seen many singers who habitually over-practice. They are usually serious and driven students, and typically they develop vocal problems- swelling of the vocal folds, at times small nodes, along other signs of excessive muscle engagement, such as elevation of the larynx with excess tension in the area of the larynx above the vocal folds. The voice often sounds muscled, the vibrato tight, the singing effortful. The contraction of the supraglottic resonating space reduces the loudness and the ring in the voice. When I ask some of these patients about their practice habits, they proudly tell me that they sing many hours, up to six or more every day. And now, they're in trouble.

To practice optimally, we need to consider what the learning process involves. While there is no doubt that years of practicing and performing brings about physical changes in the vocal tract - just palpate the abdomen of any well-trained singer - building singing muscles is not the aim of practicing. Learning to sing, like acquiring any other skill, is primarily a mental process. Becoming aware of and gaining conscious control over normally reflexive movements takes place in the mind. Mindful control is involved in learning to raise and lower the larynx, integrating sound, proprioception, position sensation, coordinating breath and voice, and the list goes on. These are all abilities that involve training the brain, and not the muscle. So, rather than endless repetition, the key to successful practice lies in the ability to focus, to single mindedly concentrate.

The larynx is not a muscle that can be simply strengthened as one might do with repetitive exercises at the gym, and a "muscular" larynx (if there were such a thing) would not necessarily be a better larynx, as a biceps might be. Rather it is a delicate and composite structure whose function, both respiratory and vocal, depends not so much on strength as on responsiveness and coordination.

Furthermore, there is a physical limit to how much mechanical trauma the vocal folds can take. Over-singing, whether in practice or in performance, can damage the larynx. So, unlike piano practice, which can go on for many hours at a time, vocal practice needs to be better, not more. While you have no control over the length of a Wagner opera, you do over your daily practice. It needn't be long as much as meaningful: you need to extract every bit of gain from every minute of singing, and feed that information to train to your central nervous system.

Why? Because the brain is where learning takes place. Anatomically and physiologically, this process takes many forms. During practice, central nervous connections are constantly rewired and potential pathways activated. There is now evidence that listening to sounds not only opens new nervous pathways in the brain, but can actually (at least in experimental young animals) cause new neurons to grow. Furthermore, these neurons are tonotopic, that is, they are selectively responsive to the specific sound frequency that caused them to form.

Memorizing music, like memorizing anything, initially involves electric storage of information, somewhat like a battery stores charge, and eventually the synthesis of proteins, both brain activities. Hearing music, seeing a performance, activates mirror neurons in the brain, which prepare you to sing and perform yourself and to vicariously experience the event. So, although singing a long piece or role obviously requires stamina and repetitive run-throughs, the real learning is about intensity rather than length. Optimizing your practice therefore means making use of every repetition, and everything else you do during practice, to stimulate the brain. And this requires constant awareness and attention.

One way to improve your yield from practicing is by developing concentration in other ways. Yoga, meditation, visualization, Qi Gong and Tai Chi are some of the techniques that you might use to train yourself to focus on specific areas and at the same time to disregard distracting and competing external stimuli and mind-noise.

Ask yourself: what you are trying to achieve from today's practice? Are you learning new music? A great deal of music can, and should, be learned and memorized without singing or playing a single note. Even muscle memory originates in the central nervous stem, although not in the conscious cortex. The great German pianist Walter Gieseking was renowned for his concentration, and could commit music to memory without ever touching the keyboard. He was able, so the story goes, to learn an entire program by just looking at the music and analyzing- all this while sitting on the train, travelling from one concert hall to the next.

On the other hand, if the purpose of your practice is to test your stamina to get through an entire recital or operatic role, that will obviously require a different sort of practice. You just need to be clear at the onset, what the purpose of your practice is.

You might test the quality of your practice, by playing a little game. Imagine that you were allowed a limited time to practice, say 20 minutes a day. How would you change what you do, in order to suck every bit of learning out of your practice during this time? You would set concrete goals, prioritize, and fully engage, physically and mentally, in the moment. Distractions, external and internal, would fade away. The ability to be intensely and consistently "in the moment" will maximally engage your brain and improve the value of your practice..

And the habit of mindfulness, once acquired, can then extend to, and enrich, every aspect of your daily life. A famous Chinese story tells of a young Buddhist monk who, after joining a monastery, requests permission to speak with the abbot, a wise old man. Bowing, he asks "Master, how do I attain enlightenment?". The abbot looks up, points to a broom in the corner of the room, and says, simply: "Sweep the floor".

Mindfulness, being fully aware and in the moment, is the key, whether you're practicing, performing, eating your dinner or sweeping the floor. Being fully engaged, body and mind, wholly in the present, will not only maximize the benefits you derive from vocal practice, but will enlighten everything you do, as a singer and as a sentient human being.