“Do Not Listen To Yourself Sing!”

“Do not listen to yourself sing.”

“Try to get an inner sense of what your voice is doing without actually listening to it.”

“Do not yawn!”

“Do not clear the throat.”

“The student must obliterate from their minds all concepts dealing with how they think they sound, or how they want to sound.”

“The singer must not conceive, think, hear, or in any other way sense effort.”

All of these are quotes from published books by singing teachers – in most cases very successful teachers with a good track record of students with great singing careers. Why then do so many students have problems following what seem to be, on the face of it, straightforward instructions? The problem lies, it seems, in the issue of positively attempting to carry out a negative command. An instruction to not do something will very often have us thinking about what it is we don’t want to do. Saying in front of an audience “don’t clear your throat” will probably result in more than several muted, muffled coughs. It is very difficult for us to think of not doing things in a positive way. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that the only way the mind could conceive of negation was through the positive thought of negation.

In psychology, this is known as the Paradoxical Effect of Thought Suppression. Psychologist Daniel Wegner writes about this in his “White Bear Story” (Wegner and Schneider, 2003). Participants were asked to speak freely about whatever came to mind, except they had to avoid thinking about White Bears. Members of a control group were told the same but were specifically prompted that they could think about White Bears. The incidence of White Bear thoughts amongst those trying to suppress it was far higher than those who were told they could think about White Bears. Again, Jean-Paul Sartre observed “I have to think of it constantly in order to avoid thinking of it” (Sartre, 1958)

How about not thinking about anything? Is that possible? Sartre argues that we are positively thinking about blankness, rather than not thinking about anything. If we try not to think about something, something will pop into our thoughts, as Dr Ray Stantz, Ghostbuster, found out when he uttered the immortal words “It’s the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man!”

When Wegner observed the White Bear effect, he thought that thinking of something else would be a good aim – a distraction. This was also spontaneously thought of by many of the experiment participants. After time, however, Wegner found that the distracting thought became so connected with the thought being avoided, that it did the reverse and made people think more about what they were trying to avoid. I have found this myself. Now, whenever in a film or book I see or hear a character saying “clear your mind and don’t think of anything”, I instantly visualise Dr Ray Stantz, Ghostbuster, uttering the immortal words “It’s the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man!

One practical way around this is rather than think about something else, actually DO something. Specific tasks to be achieved can be a great focus for the mind and are used in the treatment of some neurological conditions that require distraction. Functional Neurological Disorders – sometimes also referred to as Conversion Disorders – are typically movement disorders that cannot be explained by any organic or pathological damage. Unlike other neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis, or Parkinson’s Disease, there is no brain or nerve damage or degeneration. To use a crude analogy, it is a bit like the software no longer communicating correctly with the hardware. Unfortunately, we don’t really have the option of turning it off and back on again when it comes to the human brain. To allow the correct parts of the brain to start communicating with the body, it sometimes helps to distract the “executive control” part of the brain, and to let the rest of it get on with its job without interference. The brain can start to behave like the really bad manager who attempts to interfere on the production line and creates more problems than they solve. In the same way that the factory workers may want the manager to get distracted by some really important meeting so that they can get on with doing what they do best, it often helps to distract the executive decision-making part of the brain to allow the other functions to occur unimpeded. A commonly used diagnostic tool and therapeutic option for functional tremor is the entrainment test. You can see an illustration of this in this video, and a second where a doctor is using physical entrainment with a patient with a tremor. As the patient attempts to match the doctor’s movements with his right hand, the tremor in his left hand is significantly reduced. This idea of distraction through action is known as task-orientation, and there are a number of task-oriented exercises used in the treatment of FNDs.

Distracting the executive control part of the brain can simply take the form of rapid exercises. Rapid vocal exercises have been advocated in the past by Cornelius Reid and Nicolai Gedda, amongst others, for evening out the quality of the voice. The approach of using a rapid exercise, where the conscious brain is no longer able to concentrate on all the details of the task, is illustrated clearly, and very movingly, in this video where a young teacher in Australia lost the ability to walk, but it was found she could still run. It is thought that this type of occurrence suggests that there is a strong, intact procedural memory for movements that is being disrupted by conscious interference (Pareés et al., 2013). Given that we are born in what Stephen Mithen once described as an immature state and mostly helpless for the first eighteen months of our lives, the fact that infants are adept at vocalising needs suggests that there is a very strong procedural memory for the movements required in voice use (Mithen, 2005). We just need to learn how to get out of the way.

How can we make use of this in singing? Well, many aspects of musical vocalisation can be viewed as tasks. Cornelius Reid broke down the necessary tasks of vocalisation as being pitch, vowel, and intensity (Reid, 1972). Perhaps adding speed to warm ups can help, as advised here by Nicolai Gedda. We might add further musical ideas such as rhythm or articulation, or physical aspects such as balance/alignment. Can adding a metronome to vocalises change them more into a task-oriented exercise? Standing on a balance board? These are ideas that are already used in the teaching of singing, but can really make a difference to an over-thinking student.

In the next article I’ll be looking at some more specific exercise ideas, and hopefully including some video demonstrations. Do come back.

Mithen, S. (2005) The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Pareés, I. et al. (2013) ‘Failure of explicit movement control in patients with functional motor symptoms’, Movement Disorders, 28(4), pp. 517–523. doi: 10.1002/mds.25287.

Reid, C. L. (1972) The Free Voice: A Guide to Natural Singing. New York: The Joseph Patelson Music House.

Sartre, J.-P. (1958) Being and Nothingness. London: Methuen & Co Ltd.

Wegner, D. M. and Schneider, D. J. (2003) ‘The White Bear Story’, Psychological Inquiry, 14(3), pp. 326–329. doi: 10.1080/1047840X.2003.9682900.

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