This post represents a cross between two of the larger facets of my life story: Music and meditation. Because I work as a facilitator of both studies, I thought it might be interesting for vocalists and other musicians, as well as artists or athletes who rely on the cycle of the breath to facilitate their activities. This particular narrative focuses on the singing process, but it can easily be applied to other practices.
The more a person engages in a meditative practice, the more the experience changes. No session is ever exactly the same (although it may sometimes seem that we are doing the same thing over and over again). Of course, this can be said of anything that we devote ourselves to in a systematic way: Sports, painting, acting, building, working, fitness, etc. Moreover, if we are engaging in a meditative practice in conjunction with some other kind of focused activity, we begin to find places where the processes overlap, where what happens within meditation isn't limited to a finite period of time. We start to realize that we can bring insights from our silent sitting, which can seem so separate from the rest of our lives, into our daily activities.
The closest parallel in my own life has been vocal music, so we'll be taking a view through that lens in this post. More specifically, we'll be talking about what I call the "Zero Point": The point of suspension following an inhale, and the point of release at the end of phonation. We'll just focus on the somatic, felt-sense experience for now, leaving the specific psychological and emotional implications that come along with it for another time.
As musicians, it is easy for us to become quite focused on-- and sometimes myopically caught up in-- the mechanical use of our instruments. After all, one of the the points of music is to create sound, and as professional musicians we endeavor to do this in as refined a way as possible. Developing a healthy, sustainable technique as a vocalist is of paramount importance as we grow as singers, and it is the foundation of what we are talking about in this article. There is plenty of thinking, concentrating, and analyzing to be done when it comes to building a solid technique.
That being said, many of us (especially in the professional operatic world) focus so much on the quality and volume of sound when we actually get to singing a piece that we miss the Zero Point and, subsequently, the opportunity it gives us to realign between phrases. This means our breath can easily begin to stack on itself, leaving us feeling over-pressurized. As a potential remedy, there are many meditation techniques that advise us to look at the space between breaths as one of the most important pointers we can have during practice. Once this idea is applied to the art of singing, it can greatly clarify what is happening within every phrase, and applying a mindful lens to these incredibly brief and important moments of our technique can be of great technical benefit.
First Zero Point: Suspended Fullness
With every inhale of every phrase, before phonation starts, there is a period of suspension--air has entered the lungs, but the exhalation hasn't begun yet. On the physical level, this is the moment when many of us do everything else we need to in order to make a balanced, healthy sound:
-Prepare the vocal resonating spaces, whatever that means within our technique
-Engage the body in preparation for a controlled release of air, whatever that means within our technique
-Bring aware attention to our body, the music, and our surroundings
Once all of those things have happened, however, there is a total pause, a kind of alert readiness. In this brief fraction of a second, there is openness and fullness--literal, physical openness, in the space we intend to sing with and through, and fullness in the lungs and the body. If we are attentive to this open-fullness when it happens and maintain it throughout phonation, singing doesn't feel like a lot of work. If we allow it to collapse anywhere along the way, we have to compensate. How many of us have found this Zero Point, and then immediately compressed or contracted rather than riding the wave of freedom it provides? I practically made a career out of it!
Being present and attentive to this suspension, the place where our inhale is nothing but potential, can help guide our phonation toward a healthy and sustainable expression.
Second Zero Point: Suspended Emptiness
On the other side of every phrase we reach the Zero Point again, but in a different presentation: Where the inhale suspension gave us openness and fullness, the landing suspension gives us release and emptiness.
The body, which has remained engaged throughout a phrase in order to keep the ribcage open and expanded, the body active, the spine aligned, etc., briefly releases into neutrality. The lungs are empty of breath. The resonating chambers, filled just seconds before with oscillating air sounding as thousands of vibrations, are silent. Not even breathing has begun again, as an inhale has yet to start.
This moment is also pure potential-- not the full, expansive potential of a focused, prepared, and suspended breath, but rather the absence of any focus or preparation whatsoever, an open space where anything can happen. This deep, neutral, restful place is where we are free without any conditions whatsoever. After all, whether we sing the next phrase or not, our breath doesn't need our permission or effort to keep cycling. However, if we do sing the next phrase, the rest afforded to us here is what will make forward momentum possible.
As we sing, we oscillate between these suspensions, these Zero Points: Expansion, release. Focus, neutrality. Sound, silence. Activity, rest. Our attention can become more and more sensitive to what is happening--and what is not happening--within each pause. We begin to understand that our open observation and presence through our singing is just as important as the focused technical forethought and practice.
As one of my vocal teachers said to me a long time ago:
"If you aren't always returning to zero at the end of each phrase, you're attached to something that isn't happening now. Come back to now. Come back to zero."