Why Singers Need To Get A Wiggle On
When teaching singing or watching others sing, it is a curious thing to note that very often, people who are animated and expressive when speaking become very still when they start to sing. I have seen this equally and often among performing arts students, nervous beginners, choir members and even experienced professionals. Sometimes it happens with performing arts students because they are so often instructed to hit neutral, or assume ‘the position of readiness’ before they sing, and it becomes entrained into their bodies to be still before singing; for members of more traditional choirs, the conductor often requests stillness so as not to detract from the piece being sung; professional musical theatre performers have often been told not to have ‘fidgety feet’ when they sing. None of these instructions is incorrect or damaging in and of itself but equally, they can lead to an unnatural stillness in performance – because people forget that they can be ‘in motion’ whilst standing still, and instead become locked down and stifled.
However, the more usual reason for a singer being locked down, frozen, too still, too physically ‘quiet’, is fear or anxiety of one kind or another. whether it be fear of failing an audition, fear of letting down the choir leader or singing teacher, or (often) an unknown fear that might stem from an unremembered criticism as a child. “I’m not good enough”, “I’m going to make a mistake” and “I feel horribly exposed” are all common experiences of the ‘still singer’. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with apparent stillness – it can be extremely powerful when we sing! There is little more compelling than singers who confidently hold their space, shoulders back, head up, eyes blazing – but the singers who are capable of performing in that way actually aren’t ‘still’ at all, but are in reality rocking with an energy freely given and uninhibited in nature. These singers know on a subliminal level is that sound is movement, and singing is sound – and thus singing must be an act of motion, not one of stillness.
Music is hardwired into the human brain to make us move – this is why music therapy works so well with people with Parkinson’s Disease, whose bodies have seemingly ‘forgotten’ how to move, often making walking difficult. Skilled therapists have found ways to bypass the primary motor cortex in the front lobe of the brain, enabling to dance those who struggle to walk! At base, this is done by playing them music with which they have a strong emotional connection, or which looms large in their memory. It appears that movement is task related rather than muscle-led, by which I mean that instead of the brain sending signals to specific muscles to move a finger, a leg and so forth, it comes from various areas of the brain dealing with accomplishing a task rather than making a specific movement.
“The brain organises movement by task, not by muscles. It uses a synergistic approach. So muscle-led singing instructions don’t work – task-led ones do”. (Alex Ashworth)
It’s a fascinating subject and one that is too complex to go into in this article, but what it means for singers is that we must work with the intention to accomplish a task (for example, singing a specific note with a particular emotion or tone colour) rather than trying to control the muscle groups related to making sound. This is why telling a singer “open your mouth in this specific way, make sure your tongue is forward, engage these support muscles” and so on, is really far less effective than saying something that engages the imagination in task and movement (for example, “walk across the room whilst singing the word ‘hey’ as if calling to an old friend”). This is a very basic example of course – there are many layers of musicality to address! – but when dealing with someone who freezes when they sing, it’s an easy way to show them how easily and freely a sung sound can be achieved. In other words, imagination is far more important in singing than is intellect, because imagination is the precursor of intention, and both movement and music-making are products of intention.
If we take everything back to the simple fact that there can be no sound without movement, it becomes clear that we must be in motion when we sing. Most people know about the body’s fight or flight mechanism, whereby a lot of adrenalin is released into the body in response to a perceived threat. In more primitive times, this helped people to either fight the threat, or to run away from it. Now, if we transfer this into the context of a singing lesson, audition or performance, the perceived threat is often that of failure, or of being judged and found wanting. The problem is that the threat is not external – there is nothing outside of ourselves with which to fight, and usually we can’t run away either! Thus, a third F arises – freeze!
‘Freeze’ is extremely detrimental to the singer: remember, sound is movement, and singing is sound, so singing must be an act of motion. If the singer goes into ‘freeze’ state then he or she will literally shut down every part of the brain that feels the inclination to sing. The areas of the brain responsible for movement light up when we listen to music, and the brain actually pulses rhythmically in time with the music to which we are listening, so if we shut down our movement centres we are switching off our musicality, and certainly switching off the instinct to make music in a vocal way.
“If we think about the conditions that had to have existed when music evolved… [ ] if you wanted to make music, you had to make it yourself, and there was no way to make music without moving.” (Prof. Jessica Grahn)
What this all comes back to is that the human brain and body struggle to engage in music-making if there is no movement involved, so it is vital both for singers and singing teachers that we allow the body to move when we are singing. A singer in freeze state is very easy to spot: the eyes stare or glaze over rather than watch or engage (the archetypal ‘bunny in headlights’), the jaw tightens and the body becomes overly still. It is commonplace for singers who are thinking too hard – or who are nervous or anxious about the task of singing – to freeze, but we can break out of that state by adding a very simple degree of movement, whether that is clapping, tapping a foot, walking around the room, swaying from side to side or any number of other things. The movement doesn’t have to be big, or choreographed, but it does have to be present! I have often been directed to plant my feet and deliver a song from that apparently still position, but standing in freeze state is very different to standing confidently still. If you find that your body edges towards freeze state because you are standing still, there are ways around it: the best possible way is to imagine that you are moving, because your body doesn’t know the difference between what is real and what is imagined. Try this simple exercise: plant your feet and sing a song from a position of physical stillness. The first time through, deliberately hold your body still, as if in fear or even as if you have been frozen in a block of ice and can’t move your limbs. The second time, stand just as still but imagine that you are moving – whether that be walking, dancing, or spinning around on mountain tops in the manner of Julie Andrews… hear and feel the difference in the sound, and measure the difference in effort between the two.
On the other hand, movement that you have to learn (choreographed steps, for example) distracts the singer’s ‘thinking brain’, which can get in the way when singers are trying to sing something new:
“Movement is essentially governed by the cerebellum and the basal ganglia. When these parts of the brain aren’t working freely (for example, when performing unfamiliar movement) then the “thinking brain” gets distracted, and we end up being good at neither movement nor “thinking level” things. This is a problem for singers trying to remember movement and words at the same time.” (Maria Simeone).
However: natural, unforced movement will release the voice, because movement and music making – in very basic terms – come from the same impulse (intention). Simeone tells us that when we move to music, we release serotonin (the ‘feelgood chemical’) into the body, and that this in turn this stimulates the limbic system (the ‘emotional brain’) and in turn again, this has an impact on every other part of the brain. Music is pretty unique in that it’s an activity embedded in almost every part of the brain – we must not shut down our instinct to move. It’s very important that singers don’t confuse movement with dancing though! It doesn’t matter if you are not a natural or gifted dancer, it only matters that you allow your body to move when you sing – even if it is only in very small ways or indeed only in your imagination at first. Next time you’re struggling with a note, a particular tone, dynamic range, power, or any number of other components of singing, remember that simply walking across the room can make a huge difference to the results! Sound is movement; singers, get a wiggle on!
see also: Singing is More Than Pulleys and Levers