How Mindfulness Can Transform your Choir

Starling Arts co-director Emily Garsin explores how mindfulness can help us better experience singing as a tool for wellbeing. 

You probably recognise these two current buzzwords - group singing and mindfulness. You’ve probably heard of them both, but very little has been explored of their potential and benefits when approached as a duo. What does mindfulness actually mean in reality and how can it enhance the experience of group singing?

Mindfulness is a technique that brings your awareness into the present moment. The breath or physical sensations are often the source of focus, breaking the cycle of worries, distractions or unhelpful habitual thought patterns. Singing, similarly, uses presence, physical engagement and the breath as the basis. An awareness of the body, a commitment to bringing your focus to the present moment and an enhanced, live experience of the activity at hand are benefits brought by both. How can they be fused and experienced together for maximum dividend?  

As an avid personal practitioner of mindfulness, I’m more than sold on its benefits to the individual. Through using a range of mindful techniques, I am working on building my own sense of focus, calm and control.  As a choir producer, conductor and choreographer, I carry out a whole range of tasks to turn a group of strangers into a singing group as part of my job, and I've been exploring practical uses of mindfulness to a group, particularly in building a community such as a choir. Through the simple application of mindfulness techniques, I've seen individuals come together with ease and create and achieve quality singing in short lengths of time.  

Here are five simple ways to bring the benefits of mindfulness to your own choir or singing:

1. Mindful breathing meets breathing for singing

Simply being aware of the sensation of breathing is one step towards being mindful. And for singers, taking control of the breath, deepening and lengthening it and working through can calm the mind and prepare the breathing apparatus for the task of breathing for singing. For both we should be aware of what our body is doing, using an appropriate strong yet relaxed posture and enjoy ‘feeling’ the breath as it moves through our bodies.

TRY: Standing with the crown of the head reaching for the ceiling and body tall yet relaxed, breathe out for four counts to relax the body. Let a new breath drop into the belly then breathe out again to a count of four. Repeat several times, feeling free to increase the counts for the exhalation. The attention should stay on the physical sensation of breathing - don’t think about breathing but really experience it.

2. Cultivating concentration

Music, like most tasks, requires a high level of engagement and presence. It’s very difficult to sing with others without being fully aware and engaged in your part. Without this concentration, we easily lose our place, drop words or consonants or ignore the dynamics of the group. By staying engaged we can focus and achieve better quality outputs. 

TRY: This exercise is an extension of our dedication to our breath. Simply follow your own breath in and out, staying fully aware of the breath at all stages: at the start and end of each breath, and the flow of air at any point. Whenever an unrelated thought comes into your mind, simply unhook it and bring yourself back to your breathing, without judgement or cruelty. Simply becoming aware of your mind wandering is the first step to bringing it back to the breath, and thus the present moment. In carrying out this level of focus for a minute or so, we are encouraging singers to stay with the task at hand, leaving worries/judgements/internal criticism at the door. Instead, by staying present we let ourselves experience the joy in what we are doing, without interruption.

3. Bringing the body into the room

Many people have jobs or busy lives that leave them stuck in their heads, with the body left to redundantly sit at desks all day. Becoming more aware of our bodies and how we use them can have a dramatic impact not only on our physical state but our mental wellbeing and health, too.

TRY: Standing, shake the limbs gently one by one and spend a little extra time loosening off and wakening any areas that have repetitive tasks during the day, such as wrists and ankles. Using one hand to pat down the body is another really simple way of becoming aware of, and re-establishing a connection with, our bodies.

4. Body scan for awareness and relaxation

The singers we work with are often busy people who’ve come straight from work - or are even singing during work hours. Thus the habitual patterns of stress creep into our postures and bodies. Too much stress is the enemy of a calm mind and certainly a major hindrance to the singing voice, so this exercise combats potential tensions whilst bringing an added awareness of the body for added power, strength and control in their singing.

TRY: Stand in a neutral position. Starting at the toes, bring a sweeping awareness through the body, surveying for sensations, heat, movement or areas of tension or relaxation. As your awareness moves slowly up your body, via the legs, torso, arms and finally to the shoulders, neck and head, bring attention to any areas of tension. The very act of noticing a tense area is often enough to relieve some of the surface stress, and by the end of a body scan, singers are often far more ready to approach their singing safely, calmly and with focus.

5. Musical Meditation

Mindfulness isn’t all about being hypnotised by our breath. It’s about being curious in the present moment. The way our mouth moves when we sing an ‘ah’ sound, the way our shoulders can relax to bring a deeper breath to our belly, the way a certain chord can speak to our emotions.

TRY: Look for new and special experiences in the music you are singing, from the sounds you make and feel as an individual and your contribution to the group sound. Instead of checking your phone between phrases, take a breath and check in with the body. Listen to others’ learning their parts and enjoy the changing patterns in the music. Even with a piece you’ve sung for years, find something you’ve never noticed before and find the joy in it. Each note can be powerful enough to bring you back into the moment.

Commit to a mindful choir session and you’ll feel less tired, more joyful and you’ll have a greater sense of achievement because you’ll have been aware of all that you have done. When you catch the mind wandering, find something to bring your awareness back - your breath, the music, your body or something else in the room. The secret is to live in the present moment, rather than skirt around it, busying ourselves with other distractions. Regular practice improves concentration, focus and enjoyment of the task at hand, so give it a go and let us know how you get on!