6.7.22 – Technique – What if you could stop thinking entirely?
Michael Dahl Rasmussen
Something to think about….
Thinking is a virtually unavoidable part of our lives. We think about a math problem, we think about what we want for dinner, we think about someone we like, or a movie we just watched.
Thinking is also an integral part of most singing lessons. How many times have you been told:
Think about your posture!
Think about your phrasing!
Think about your breathing!
Think about the lyrics!
There’s just so much to think about!
Simultaneously, there is a seemingly higher and higher amount of people who are (self-)diagnosed “overthinkers”: People who get in their own way because of their incessant thinking.
But when exactly are you an “overthinker”?
How much do we need to think when we sing?
How much can you actually think about at any one time?
Do we need thinking at all!??!
This is what today’s blog is all about.
Wait, what the fudge even is thinking?
Thinking, as I lay it out here, is usually one of three things:
1) Problem solving — mental abstractions in order to find a solution to for example a math problem, where to build a house, or what stocks to invest in.
2) Processing the past — to see if there is something to learn from for the future. This often takes the form of worrying about something you said or did, or longing for a time gone by.
3) Predicting/visualising the future — handy for figuring out whether a predator might be lurking in the darkness and how to react. It most often takes the form of worrying about whether you will get what you want, making plans for your career, or hoping for something to happen.
A crucial aspect of all the above is that NONE of them care for the present moment. The first one is dealing with abstractions, and therefore not with what is right in front of you in its current state. The second and the third one obviously deal with the past and the future respectively.
Now, why is this important to note?
Because music (and thus singing) ONLY TAKES PLACE RIGHT HERE AND NOW!
If you look at a painting, think about it for a while, and then look again, the painting will still be there – exactly the same.
But if you listen to a song, think about it for a while, and then pay attention again, the song will suddenly be in the chorus and not the verse. Music is constantly dying and being reborn every instant, always fleeting, always changing.
And that is probably a reason we like it so much: It’s just as transient as life itself! Okay, that sounds really deep and stuff, but what has that got to do with thinking?
It’s simple. You cannot think and be present with what you are singing at the same time.
So wait, thinking is just, like, never okay?
Of course thinking is okay. In the context of singing, we need thinking when we for example:
Study a song’s context.
Undertake some forms of character work. Plan a song’s journey.
Map out intentions.
Try to solve technical problems.
Notice how none of these actually take place during the act of singing itself! Can you think of a time when thinking is necessary during the act of singing?
The most common such situation would be when you forget your lyrics, and then need to think in order to try and remember them. But that kind of work should ideally take place before the performance 🙂
The moment you start singing, what is there to think about?
A great way to think about it (lol) is this:
THINKING IS A TOOL – NOTHING MORE
There is a saying: If you are holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
In the same way, if you are constantly thinking (in other words, holding the tool of thinking), everything starts to look like something that needs to be thought out: A problem to be abstractly solved, something that reminds you of your past, or something that gets you preoccupied with the future.
Just as we don’t go carrying hammers everywhere we go, there is no need to be constantly thinking. At a deeper level, you could say that every time you think you miss out on the life which is taking place right here in front of you. But if we just stick to singing for now, thinking will as a minimum make you miss out on the joy of singing!
I thought overthinking was the problem. But now you are telling me that not even a little bit of thinking is okay?
You could look at thinking like scratching a mosquito bite. The more you scratch it, the more it will itch. But even if you scratch it just a little bit, it will still itch a little bit more, making it more tempting to scratch it again.
Every time you think while singing, you are implicitly telling yourself that something else is more important than what you are doing right now. Maybe that thing is whether people will like you, or whether they noticed that one flat note, or whether you will one day be on the West End. And the more you think about that thing, the more importance you give it, and the more you will want to keep thinking about it, making it harder to be present with what you are doing.
So just as the advice is to not scratch the mosquito bite to begin with, try not thinking to begin with and see what happens!
Whoa, but I have to react to stuff on stage! Like my fellow cast members or musicians!
Sure, you have to react to spontaneous impulses in certain situations. But reacting does not involve thinking. Try balancing a bottle vertically on your fingertip. The moment you start doing this, your hand will start moving immediately, doing its darnedest to make that bottle stay upright. Does this require thinking? Does it remove you from the moment? Of course not.
If you ask people whether Putin is a good lad for invading Ukraine, most people wouldn’t have to stop to think to tell you their opinion about such a question.
In the same way, spontaneous reaction to events on stage do not require any thinking whatsoever. Even if you are acting that you are thinking, it is possible to be completely present with the fact that you are thinking – as opposed to being carried away or losing yourself in thought.
In other words, you can be aware of the fact that you are presently holding the tool of thinking, just like you are usually aware of the fact that you are holding a hammer in your hand. The moment you don’t need to be “thinking” on stage, you put the tool down immediately and stop thinking, returning to the present.
A common problem for people who don’t enjoy/are not good at improv on stage (which is pure reaction and no planning) is that they simply cannot stop thinking!
Right, so thinking while singing is not good, I suppose. But what are the benefits to all this non-thinking, exactly?
Manyfold. In fact, there are so many benefits that it warrants several blogs, and maybe even a book or two.
1) It allows you to fully enjoy the act and art of singing as it unfolds. Feel the vibrations in your head, neck and chest. Feel the tingling on your skin. Feel the adrenaline rush. Hear the music in all its lush detail. Move with conscious awareness on stage as your character, or to the music. Enjoying all the things fully which can never be quite the same as just a memory.
2) When you stop thinking, you can tap in to a kind of creative state which you cannot find by thinking. When you stop imagining how things should be – for example how a note should sound – then you open yourself up to the infinite ways it could sound.
When you start singing without a thought in your head, you will most likely surprise yourself quite a lot, making choices that you didn’t even know you were capable of.
3) It is the key to NOT WORRYING. 100% of performance anxiety, worrying, stress, and depressive thoughts can only take place while thinking. Now why is that? All these negative emotions are all bound to either the past or the future.
Being anxious that you won’t pass the audition, worrying that you chose the wrong song, stressing about an upcoming gig, or being sad about losing someone close to you.
But when we stop thinking, we also stop relating to the past and the future, and what is left is the serene present moment. In the present moment there is no judgement or worry — it just is!
As Shakespeare said: There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so!
So if you suffer from the above negative emotions, consider letting thinking take a break (at least) while you are singing.
Okay, okay, maybe I’ll try this no-thinking business, but how do I go about it? There always seems to be a thought in my head!
The key is awareness. Now let me clarify what I mean by that word.
I could tell you that you have a stain on your shirt, and you might reply: “I’m aware”. In this context, it means that you have registered it once, and the fact that your shirt is stained is now logged in your memory. You are not in this very moment experiencing the sensation of having a stained shirt.
This is NOT the way I mean it.
I mean awareness as something you feel viscerally right here and now. For example, try and be aware of the feeling of your sleeve against your arm.
Go on, try it now!
Feel the texture of the fabric, the roughness, the contour. This is the kind of awareness I’m talking about. Now see if you can take it to the next level: Feel your clothes against your entire body at once. Maybe it’s easier if you close your eyes. Notice how this is totally possible! You can zoom out, as it were, being fully aware of your whole body at once.
Now try and be aware of your breathing as well as your clothes against your body. Now try and include the objects in the room in your awareness.
And the sounds inside or outside the room.
Maybe even the smell.
With a bit of practice you can be aware of all these things at once. Even while singing!
And if you did this little experiment just now, you probably also noticed that while you were aware of all these things, you didn’t feel any worry or anxiety!
The problem with thinking is that we can only really think about one thing at once. Try solving a math problem while translating a text from French to English. Or try thinking about your breathing while thinking about the lyrics. It’s impossible! You have to at least switch very quickly between the two.
The cool thing about awareness is that you can be aware of all the music, of your breathing, of your posture, of your scene partner, of the audience — all at once! Sure, your “sphere of awareness”, so to speak, will increase in size with practice, but you get the above mentioned benefits immediately, even with a tiny sphere of awareness.!
To be clear: Thinking is not the same as awareness. To think about your posture is not the same as being aware of it. When you think about it, you are creating an abstract image of your body in your head, but when you are aware of it, you feel it right here and now — in the body — with no naming, labelling, judging, or evaluation.
So if you notice that you are thinking, try asking yourself one of these questions:
Can I hear the music?
Can I see the room exactly as it is right now?
Can I feel my feet beneath me and the clothes on my body?
Can I feel the vibrations of my voice?
Can I see the face of my scene partner in all its detail?
Can I feel what it feels like to be me in this moment, without naming or labelling it?
If you can answer yes to any of these questions, then you are no longer thinking.
Your journey then becomes to maintain this awareness for longer and longer periods of time… If you want to.
Start with being fully aware during just a phrase. Then a verse. Then a verse and a chorus. Then the whole song. Then the whole show/set.
And bit by bit you might find that it is possible to stop thinking entirely 🙂
Upcoming classes & courses at The Sing Space:
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As singers, performers and facilitators it is essential to look after our vibration, the signal that we put out into the world so we can maintain clarity of vision and avoid the blocks that prevent self-expression. In this inspirational course we will explore practical sound and movement journeys in mantra and voice.
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