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Being a Skilled Musician While Still Being Open to "Play"

When we have the confidence to call ourselves singers, it’s crucial that we can technically execute that task.

Vocal freedom, expert musicianship, & proficient performance ability are all things that we singers must practice and have in our bodies.

So how do we do that while still remaining free in the moment when it’s time to sing?

Musician Laura Riley writes of this perplexing phenomenon,

“You never hear someone say, ‘I’m going to manipulate my fingers on my instrument now.’ We say, ‘Im going to play my instrument.’ Manipulation is left-brained, while play suggests a degree of freedom, which is right-brained. But we have to learn both or the play will have no structure.”

It’s not easy being a skilled musician and an empath to our own art. When we sing, we are required to both have an emotional experience and execute something that is extremely technically difficult.

To do this, we first have to understand how our brains process music. You see, being a singer means having a highly sensitized brain.

Musicians have increased responses to all sounds, not just music. Peter Schneider et. al at the University of Heidelberg in Germany showed that the auditory cortex in musicians is 130% larger than regular people’s. Being a musician means having the ability to take in all sounds, not just musical, with a keen ear.

Musicians also have faster nerve impulses. In the Bengtsson et al. Nature Neuroscience study, they found that people who practiced music often had more myelin, which increases the speed of nerve impulses.

Lastly, musicians have more control over their motor functions. Rosenkranz et al. Journal of Neuroscience conducted a study that found that musicians on average have a higher number of synapses in their brains, which control motor functions.

With all of this going on in musicians’ brains, how couldn’t we be in our heads while singing?

On the flip side, humans are biologically wired to have emotional responses to music, even when they can’t analyze it.

One particularly moving study is on a woman who goes by I.R. for confidentiality. I.R. suffered brain damage that affected her auditory regions and made it so that she could no longer discern between one piece of music or the next, no matter how varied they were.

Incredibly, her ability to emotionally respond to music was still completely intact. Music would make her feel different emotions, even though she could not make out the auditory difference in them at all.

Even though our brains functionally process music, it’s part of our innate biological makeup to react to it emotionally.

So, as singers who strive for great vocal technique while telling truthful stories, we must train like Olympic athletes.

Singers must put significant time and energy towards:

  • Learning the pitches and rhythms of our music

  • Finding the freest way to vocalize our pieces

  • Warming up and practicing in a way that promotes excellent vocal health and musicianship

However, we also have to leave room in our performances for unplanned emotional responses.

Singers may practice this by:

  • Making practice time that is solely devoted to experimentation and play

  • Getting your voice in as free a place as possible and instead of drilling a phrase or a piece, letting it go and trusting that it’s within you

  • Exploring your piece by singing it a variety of ways, finding flexibility in your voice and signaling to your brain that the piece is never “set”

The whole purpose of practice and study is to ultimately be able to live freely in the moment. To do this, we simply have to get out of our own ways. Learn your piece technically, explore it inside and out vocally, and then go on the emotional journey that we as humans are all predisposed for.

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