Ramona M. Wis
Cloudiness on Groundhog Day is a good thing because, legend has it, this means the groundhog will not see its shadow and Voila! No more winter!
We might be rooting for clouds today, but cloudiness of a different kind—lack of clarity or understanding—can obscure our best work. How frustrating to not be able to “see,” in any sense of the word; to not know a path forward or a way out of a musical challenge or a leadership dilemma. How do we find clarity, or at least, move towards finding clarity?
Begin with Awareness.
Awareness means shining a light on an idea, emotion, musical concept, or a physical sensation, like breathing. We need awareness to find clarity, to really learn (not just regurgitate information), and to act in appropriate ways. Think of those “aha” moments you had as a student in a voice studio, when awareness of something as simple (or profound) as tongue placement led to an entirely different, freer singing experience.
Awareness is the starting place for everything. If we are not aware of our body in space, we fall. If we are not aware of how we sound as we sing, we can’t change it for the better. If we are not aware of the impact of our words, we can harm relationships or defeat our goals or misdirect our energies. And the choral rehearsal is the perfect place to teach awareness. It is an awareness lab, if we design it as such.
“Awareness, working with discrimination and memory, encourages a creative mind, not a mechanical one.” (B.Y.S. Iyengar, Light on Life, p. 155)
Teaching for awareness begins with our own awareness as conductor/teacher/leaders. Are we aware of our art form as a powerful doorway to waking up our senses (isn’t that what the arts do?), aware of how our rehearsal methods impact the singers’ experience, aware that what singers learn in our choirs can shape their lives outside the rehearsal? Start with a check on your own thinking, a reminder of what we really do in music and the opportunity we have to create significant change.
Teaching for awareness in rehearsal begins with small but powerful tweaks in our words. Along with skill-based directions (“take in a deep breath”) add or substitute awareness language (“become aware of what happens when you take in a deep breath”). This small change reaps big benefits. By having singers notice their breathing patterns and inviting them to balance energy with a deeper inhale (energizing) or longer exhale (calming), we give them tools to discern and manage their emotional, physical, or psychological state. Teach singers to come inward, focus on what they are doing and feeling; to notice, judge, and see the cause and effect of their actions. The more we envision our role as a guide, the more agency singers have and the more they can grow as musicians and as people.
Teaching for awareness creates rehearsal direction and momentum because there is always a follow up. When singers become aware of the malleability of their facial muscles, for example, the natural next step is to experiment with shaping vowels using their newfound awareness and then, noticing how the sound changed. And on and on it goes, each step of the way, each subsequent rehearsal, deepening the learning and enriching the experience by creating greater awareness.
As a yoga teacher, I guide students to draw attention to what they are doing, feeling, and thinking as I cue them in their alignment or breathing. But in yoga or in choir, I want to lead students towards greater self-awareness without self-consciousness. This is an important distinction:
“Self-consciousness is when the mind constantly worries and wonders about itself, doubting and being self-absorbed. . . . When you are self-conscious, you are going to exhaust yourself. You are also going to strain the muscles unnecessarily because you are thinking about the asana [physical postures] and how far you want to stretch and not experiencing the asana and stretching according to your capacity.
“Self-awareness is the opposite of self-consciousness. When you are self-aware, you are fully within yourself, not outside yourself looking in. You are aware of what you are doing without ego or pride.” (Iyengar, 31)
This is key—when singers are trying to “get it right,” they shift into self-consciousness mode. Helping them learn self-awareness instead depends on how much we are willing to trust and let go as conductors so singers can focus less on pleasing us (sounds like a blog post for a future time). Bottom line, stay singer-focused and know that this will lead to the goals you have, musical or otherwise.
As you lead rehearsals this week, try inserting these phrases—“become aware of ”/“notice”/“tune in to”/“shine a light on”— and see what shifts might occur. In engagement, physical changes, sound, memory, or in attitudes. Then “invite” (another great word) singers to apply their newfound awareness to something else—to the next step in rehearsal, to a new piece, or to their life in broader ways.
“When we ask ourselves, ‘What am I doing?’ and ‘Why am I doing it?’ our minds open.
This is self-awareness.” (Iyengar, 31)
Groundhog Day or not, I will always take the sun. Here’s to building clarity through awareness, one moment of light at a time.
Dr. Ramona Wis is the Mimi Rolland Endowed Professor in the Fine Arts, Professor of Music, and Director of Choral Activities at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois and the author of The Conductor as Leader: Principles of Leadership Applied to Life on the Podium. Dr. Wis is a 500-hour CYT (Certified Yoga Teacher) with training in yoga history, philosophy, meditation, energetics, pranayama (breath work), anatomy, Sanskrit, and the teaching, sequencing, and adaptations of asana (posture-based) practice. Reach her at:
Collection, 3 Book Set by B.K.S. Iyengar (Light on Life, Light on Yoga, Light on Pranayama)