On thoughts and fears and practicing

Today, in one of my vocal coaching sessions, I worked with a classical singer who is preparing for a series of concerts. One of the songs she is singing is Norma’s aria Casta Diva (by Bellini).

We had been working on fine-tuning some technical aspects of the song already before Christmas break. She is a trained singer and technically skilled. Still, she felt that some of the passages were heavy to sing and some of the high notes felt, in her own words, like she “didn’t own them”.

We had worked on economizing her breath support, as she had been using active breath support in parts of the song where she did not need to support. She had discovered the twang to be a very useful tool for her. By twanging (more) she could access the center of the mode with more ease. The notes became crystal clear, her pitching was wonderful and it seemed all so much easier.

In today’s session things were going much better thanks to her previous work. The singer was very happy about her progress. Her sound was better. The higher notes were flying out with more ease than before. But everything was not easy all the time. I asked her what it felt like. “It’s so much work!”

The problem was not that she wasn’t working enough. The problem was that she was working too much. Perhaps not even physically. But mentally. I had looked at her face while she was singing. I could see the technical concentration on her face. Not only her facial muscles, but her whole body was ‘seriously singing’. This was beautiful music. But was she enjoying herself? A thought came into my head. Maybe it was all too serious? “Smile!” I said.



Smiling is one of the tricks to access the (necessary) twang we need in order to sing the notes in the center of the mode and with more ease. She needed to be reminded of the tool she had discovered in our last session, because the technique had not become part of her muscle memory yet. But there’s more to smiling than just technical benefits. I believe smiling has a huge impact on the psychology of singing – both as a physical tool to access the twang, as well as a thought, a mental picture or state of mind.

A lot of thoughts can cross our mind while we sing a (challenging) piece of music.“There’s that high note again! That tiring passage. That place where I feel like I almost run out of breath every time I sing it. That rhythm that doesn’t just ‘sit’ quite right. And of course: I should have learned it by now!! How can I be that stupid and untalented that I’m till struggling with this…”

Have you ever caught yourself thinking or saying these kind of things to yourself while singing or practicing? I have. God knows how many times. That’s not exactly kind talk towards yourself!


Your thoughts matter!

I am not suggesting that we can magically solve technical difficulties by ‘thinking happy thoughts’. Naturally, we need to work on the correct technique. I will write more about technique in future blog posts. But for now, let’s say we have been practicing on the technical aspects like the singer I worked with today. It’s getting better and we are noticing results, and that way, we know we are doing the right things and we are on the right path. But it is still difficult.

Here are two things worth while checking:

1) Ask yourself, hand on your heart, how do I practice?

Are you experiencing difficulty because the (new) technique has not become part of your muscle memory yet? If you are practicing the right things but not noticing results, you might be rushing through the exercises.

Kenny Werner writes in his book “Effortless Mastery” about Fear-based practicing. Fear can ruin our practicing by

…rushing you through the material, rendering you unable to absorb anything. You try to cover too much ground every time you practice, barely skimming the surface of each item, then moving on. You ignore the fact that you can barely execute the material, because you have no time to notice that. After all, there’s so much to practice and so little time!

Allow yourself time to grow. (Re)-building muscle memory does not happen overnight. Yes, when performed correctly, a technique should have the desired effect right away, that way we know we are doing the right things. But it takes time to work a (new) technique into a habit.

Fear-based practicing can sabotage not only technique practice, but all other kinds of practice as well. We might rush through our runs, not being quite sure about every note we have to sing. So that one particular run will always feel a bit difficult. Or we might be rushing through rhythmically difficult passages. Every time we have to sing that specific rhythm it’s not quite right, because we have not worked it into a habit. And every time we experience the difficulty again, we end up sabotaging ourselves with more negative thoughts.




2) Are you making it (more) difficult because you think it (has to be) difficult?

Like I mentioned earlier, sometimes we are ‘beating ourselves up’ as we sing, constantly internally commenting on the things we do (technically, sound-wise, and so on). This is self-sabotage and not leading us anywhere (except to frustration).

Some singers I have worked with are beating themselves up already before they even make a sound. They imagine what the sound should come out like, and by doing this they create pressure on ‘sounding perfect’. Even if it’s just an exercise they are singing! I used to be like that myself. For every ‘not perfect sound’ that came out of my mouth, I was internally beating my head against the wall like Dobby the house elf from Harry Potter. Did that for instance make it easier to give the exercise another shot? No.

So be kind to yourself! Learn to say and think “This is unfamiliar – not difficult”. And so what if you miss a note, or if the sound that comes out of your mouth is not perfect. It’s just a note! You are still alive and well. Try to be a bit kinder towards yourself when you make ‘mistakes’, and you might find that learning becomes easier.

I’ll quote Kenny Werner again:

Mastery is available to everyone.
It’s true that it comes to some people more easily, but mastery comes to all who wait for it. The ego may taunt you with thoughts like, “You should have learned that by now”, or “You should be playing better by now”, but focused work habits, determination, and a positive outlook will compensate for talent to a surprising degree.

I can sing sounds that my Ego finds beautiful, or I can produce sounds that it’s not satisfied with. By no means am I an enlightened singer who is never tormented by negative self-talk. But I am learning one thing. The kinder I am to myself, the easier it seems to get.

Let’s return to the singer from today’s session. What happened when she smiled?

Suddenly the problems were gone. The smile might have added that necessary twang to her singing. But one thing was for sure. When she started smiling and thought about the beautiful music and lyrics she was singing, she was enjoying herself. Out went the difficult thoughts, and perhaps they were replaced by the joy of making music and some kindness towards herself. She could feel the difference, and I could both see it and hear it.




What are your experiences on these things? How important do you think the role of ‘positive thoughts’ is to practicing or performing music? Have you experienced getting stuck in fear-based practicing? Have you been sabotaging yourself with negative thoughts? What helped you get on another track?

I would love to hear your thoughts!

©2012 Katja Maria Slotte


This article was originally published in my blog katjamariamusic in January 2012


Photo credits: DarkB4Dawn, WFilmLiquidnight via Photopin


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