Mindfulness & Community through Song
In this age of busy-ness, anxiety and stress, song can be a wonderful vehicle for mindfulness, for staying in the moment. The human voice has been used for millennia to calm the mind and to take us to a place of deep stillness through toning, chanting and singing of sacred material.
Yet even the singing of uncomplicated secular material, especially in a social context such as a choir or a voice workshop can be most effective in bringing the mind back to the here and now.
Without exception, at voice workshops I have attended or had the privilege of facilitating, participants have reported
- lower stress and anxiety levels,
- a greater sense of community
- a wonderful sense of being in the moment,
- greater levels of self confidence,
- and an enhanced sense of joy.
Lowered anxiety levels
Of course, for some prospective participants, the very thought of singing together with others can itself be a source of anxiety. The important thing to realise here, though, is that you are not alone. Others participating in a workshop will have similar anxieties, worried that the minute they open their mouths, the rest of the group will shrink back in horror. And in my experience, each participant carrying such anxieties thinks they are the only one with the “horrible” voice.
Once we realise we are not alone in fears such as this, we can treat ourselves with more compassion. What is more, we are in a better position to offer our fellow singers compassion and support – after all, we understand their fears all too well. When we know that others share our anxiety, it’s a relief. We can begin to let it go.
Our voices – our means of externalising our innermost thoughts so that the outside world can hear them – are so fundamental to our humanity, our communications, our connections. That nasty X-factor-judge-style inner-voice really has no place, continually beating us down with nothing constructive to say, so perhaps the first thing to do is to evict it. Flick the “Jiminy Critic” off your shoulder!
It is important to give ourselves permission to get things wrong, to be out of tune, to explore what our voice can do than to worry about what it can’t (yet). After all, notes are just notes, and if we don’t dare to sing them, to listen to ourselves, and be prepared to make adjustments along the way, how are we to learn to sing in tune?
In my workshops, the simple singing/humming/toning of single notes with no judgement either of ourselves or our neighbours can become a vehicle of non-judgemental mindfulness, the beginning of appreciating what an amazing thing the voice is. Humming and toning on notes are themselves very relaxing activities and frequently help to bring anxiety levels down.
Greater sense of community
Many times at workshops and retreats I have observed how a group of strangers -fearful that others in the group may laugh or mock - quickly becomes a community of like-minded singers, making joyful sounds together, not taking themselves too seriously, laughing together when things go a bit wrong, and – dare I say it – having a great time.
From my own perspective I am amazed how little time it takes for the group to sound good and am regularly moved by the beauty expressed through these combined voices. This is certainly true for the one-day courses. More so on weekends or retreats; over the course of a week or two, the group transforms into a joyful choir.
Some of the groups have been known to break out into song while we were out eating. On one occasion, the whole restaurant joined in, much to the waiters’ amusement. On two other occasions, at a Greek shorefront restaurant, the group has temporarily left the restaurant to stand by the shore and serenade the moon to the accompaniment of the waves. Overheard by restaurant-goers, they were invited to come into the restaurant and sing their songs to the diners.
These simple, yet unforgettable events have made me realise how a sense of community through song can spread so easily and bring so much joy beyond the workshop group.
Being in the moment
Learning songs, focusing the ear in order to refine our tuning and to hold simple harmonies and to keep in time with our fellow singers, staying aware of the breath, feeling how the developing voice can be experienced as increased resonance in the body, all of this requires our full attention, in the moment.
Whilst we are making our joyful sound together, we can let go of intruding worries, plans for the future, regrets of the past and simply enjoy this time singing together. There is no need to be obsessed with some future perfect performance of the song; we can simply enjoy singing it, and noticing ourselves singing it.
Many participants arrive at a workshop full of anxiety and dislike of their own sound, yet leave with a greater trust in their own voices and an increased sense of self confidence. How can singing together achieve this?
I hinted at one of the keys to developing self confidence through song in the last paragraph: shift the focus away from “performance” and the need to “perform perfectly”, and move it towards engagement with and exploration of the voice, e.g. how does my voice actually work? What can I do to make it work better? How does tension in the body affect my voice? How do my habits affect my voice? How does the way I stand, move and have my being affect my voice? How does my attitude towards my voice affect it?
If I were to ask a child to perform a task for me, and at the same time continually told the child that I hated it, how effective and willing to please me is that child likely to be? With that in mind, why are we so unreasonable towards our own voices?
On the other hand, if I choose to investigate what my voice can do, engaging mindfully in such activities, for example,
- feeling in my body where the resonance in my voice becomes a discernable vibration in my bones and tissues, becoming aware of how powerful and pleasant this experience can be,
- exploring without judgement the range and texture of my voice (is it high, low, reedy, nasal, gritty, gravelly, bell-like etc) and discovering the rich variety of sound a human voice can make
- discovering what happens when I power the sound with more air, allow the sound out by opening my mouth,
- letting go of unnecessary tensions in my body in order to sing with more freedom
- exploring tools to increase the richness of my voice
- learning to use my ears more effectively
then my relationship towards my voice can begin to change.
Working on the voice with an interested, enquiring mind rather than a fearful contemptuous attitude to its sound can do a great deal to enhance self confidence; indeed it becomes impossible not to be awed by what such a small organ located within the throat can do.
In my experience as a voice workshop facilitator, it doesn’t take long for serious faces to soften. There is an increase in smiles, laughter (of the “with” not the “at” variety as groups muddle along together), and a great many participants over the years have reported feelings of pure joy by the end of the session or retreat.
For a period of time their attention has been focused on how they, as a group, can make a joyful, harmonious sound together. They have, quite simply, enjoyed themselves.
In conclusion, singing, and the togetherness of singing is, in my view, a far more important activity than perhaps we realise. It brings us opportunities for mindfulness, community, joy and laughter so utterly necessary in the stressful, anxiety-laden society that we have created.
Choosing to come together to sing can help pull us out of auto-pilot, focus our attention, helping us to discover and refine tools for creating more joyful, moment-by-moment lives.