Non-Judgmental Practice

I am no meditation guru, by any long stretch of the wild imagination. But when I meditate, I always become a better version of myself. I’ve been studying meditation a bit more, recently. And one of the basic concepts is the art of non-judgmental noticing. 

Follow your breath, in, out, in, out, in, out, in— mind went somewhere else? Did you notice that? Minds do funny things. That’s ok. That’s interesting. But, back to the breath, in, out, in, out, in, out. One of my favorite truths of meditation is that there is no doing it badly. Even if your mind wanders over and over and over and over, as long as you’ve shown up, you’ve begun to receive the benefits of it. 

This makes me wonder about vocal practice. I know this is a place where many of my students struggle. It is much easier to get everything working as well as possible when a teacher is sitting in front of them, constantly reminding them of every little thing. In fact, in terms of being technically correct, I know that their practice will only be maybe 80 percent as effective as our lessons. But this may be a destructive way to think of it. After all, no practice is zero percent effective. 

Last night, I chose to meditate without a guide. I played music and began to follow my breath. I am a novice at this. My mind wandered. I brought it back. My mind wandered again. I brought it back. Eventually, my mind began to contemplate (which seemed different than wandering), making connections that would have never been made in daily life, emotional breakthroughs of sorts. Maybe this wasn’t the assignment. This wasn’t what the teacher said to do. But somehow it led to deeper understanding and a real sense of peace. I don’t even know if that was what some people would call meditation. I know it checked all of the boxes for me. 

People are so different. I like a lot of freedom. I thrive off of creativity. I need a loose structure that affords lots of exploration. Some people function really well off of a tight structure and direct effort. I am conceptual. They are factual. And there is everyone in between. So how do we practice?

Well, it’s very easy for me to say, “Start with a warm up that goes in the direction of the piece of music you want to practice, then use exercises to strengthen any weak places that you know will show up in your song, then move onto the song and practice it strategically.” Depending on the voice, just following those instructions can be really, really difficult. What’s wrong with a little contemplation? 

One thing I do know about me is that I cannot do anything I don’t want to do. If I don’t want to exercise, it won’t happen. I have to find some amount of joy in it, some amount of real personal interest. Same with meditation. Same with practice. As a vocal coach, I am at a point where all practice is exploration to me, and the exploration itself is joyful. I am excited to know what will happen “if”. I also have the gift of not really having a timeline. I don’t have to get “X” to happen before my tour/audition/recording/show. This too, reminds me of mediation, in which there are immediate and long-term results. 

Leaders of meditation remind you not to have expectations. Showing up is all you can do. It’s all you need to do! Follow the breath, quiet the mind, non-judgmentally redirect your efforts when they wander. When working with the voice, we sometimes get so wrapped up in the results that we began to negatively impact our own efforts. We possibly 1) don’t practice because we are overwhelmed or don’t trust ourselves outside of professional supervision 2) are too judgmental, hating the sound of our own voice 3) practice, but beat ourselves up over not getting it right instead of doing as well as we can in the moment and giving ourselves grace 4) we don’t explore.

When meditating, once you learn to quiet the mind, you will see that you “are not your thoughts,” but instead, you “have thoughts.” That idea sounded like gibberish until I experienced it. Lots of people feel very tied to their voice. They seem to identify that “they are their voice.” I think this puts a person in a dangerous place, no matter how their voice sounds. You are not your voice any more than you are your body. You are expressing through it. It is your tool, your built in instrument. Practicing can help you understand, build and control it better, but at the end of the day, it is not you. This little bit of distance from it has helped me to not be emotionally judgmental about imbalances that remain or any sub-par singing I may do. I just think… “Well, I have some work to do.” 

I grew up in a family of musicians, and to me, “practice” meant anything from my sister begrudgingly spending hours at the violin, to me going through phases of intense “motivation” about piano practice as well as long phases of giving up. But I always sang. I always explored vocally. I stood in my room, reversing Kelly Clarkson’s first bluesy R&B/pop album learning every single note of her too many riffs, because I wanted to. I didn’t think of it as practice, but it was. Meditation is also referred to as practice. But when I hear the term “practice” in regards to meditation, I don’t think of it as “time spent getting better at something.” I think of it as “time set aside to recharge, to be with myself and tune out the noise.” While I assume that I will grow and progress in how meditation works for me, I don’t think of it as “trying to get better at it.” I hope that that time spent finding the silence inside me will help me be more centered in life. 

Maybe this is what vocal practice should be. Time spent with your voice, non-judgmentally, without expectations. If this were consistent in your life, how could it not lead to mastery of your instrument?


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