In my last post, we looked at the brain’s response to stress and the importance of understanding stress not only as a “feeling” thing but also, a “thinking” thing. The effects of stress can negatively impact our short-term memory and our ability to manage the details of our professional and personal worlds and can have a long-term impact on our brain health. Today we build on this topic by looking at the first of three ways we can bring brain-healthy habits into our rehearsals: stress reduction through breathing, movement, and centering.
Let’s start by asking how you did on my invitation to mitigate stress and support your brain by taking 5 minutes a day to remove yourself from the action and sit well, close your eyes, focus on your breath or a short uplifting phrase, and just breathe. Did you try this?
For me, those 5 minutes were in my office in the middle of a non-stop day, or at home in between emails and personal tasks, or sometimes, they were in rehearsal with singers. Some days I didn’t take this time . . . and those were the days that I got less done and found myself still mentally processing in the evening, with an active brain that couldn’t shut down.
What I experienced when I did take the time was that simply stopping was invaluable. We can’t do anything well if we move from one thing to the next without purpose or clarity. Stopping, without needing to engage with people or tasks, was the single most important part of this exercise for me.
When we pause, we begin to breathe naturally and evenly and that cues the body to balance our nervous system so we can come back to homeostasis, to “center” ourselves. We detach from the small (emails, schedules, tasks) to see the big (the larger context for what we do and who we are) and this regulates our pace to teach, lead, and rehearse better. When we are more aware, less frenetic and less attached to outcomes, we can be more purposeful and effective. We feel more like our true selves. When we operate from this place, our lives flow more easily, and others see us as authentic and impactful.
Our singers are just like us. Though their circumstances differ, they are human and experience the same challenges. Stressed singers can appear as active and scattered or dull and lethargic, both mind states which interfere with the brain’s ability to “be in the moment,” concentrate, and focus on a goal. Rehearsal strategies to alleviate stress and build focus can be a natural connection to what we already do and can help singers develop habits which have personal and musical benefits.
Breathwork is fundamental to stress relief and to singing so this should be a normal part of the warm-up process. (You do warm up, right? Don’t think you are saving time by skipping warm-ups; they not only get us vocally ready but more importantly, mentally ready for what lies ahead.)
Start rehearsal with primarily non-verbal cues to begin stretching (seated or standing). Take your time. Don’t let singers whip their heads around in circles and fling their arms out of their sockets. Mindful stretches make room in the body for deeper breathing and provide the pause singers need to release stress and transition to rehearsal brain. Moving with awareness is itself, a concentration activity.
As you breathe, encourage singers to balance the length of their inhale and their exhale, never forcing it. Invite them to use gesture to reflect the pace, quality, and location of the breath (low belly, mid-ribs, or chest and collarbones). Notice how a deep, rib-opening inhale encourages the arms to gently float away from the body and the exhale returns them to the start. Try incorporating half sun salutations into rehearsal. This one-breath, one-movement flow both calms and energizes, teaches singers to use their breath for those long phrases ahead, and brings them inward toward focus. And it quiets the room, lessening the distractions.
As you guide this process, welcome singers and connect the day’s goals to your activity in a simple way (no ten-point laundry list here; that will only stress singers more). As they release stress they will begin to focus on this hour, this space, this activity. They become more engaged and centered. Good for community, for an effective rehearsal, and for developing the healthy brain habit to breathe and center before we begin, in any area of our lives. (I often remind singers they can use these tools before a test, job interview, or just on days when they are feeling overwhelmed.)
Throughout rehearsal, continue to encourage deep breathing and centering—rehearsal itself can create stress, depending on any number of factors (including our intense demeanor or pace or too many directions). Revisit breath-centered and stretching activities in between pieces as a transition “re-set” or at the end of rehearsal, as you thank singers, remind them of what you accomplished, and wish them well until you see them again.
Remember that we always adapt and use our creativity to work from where singers are to where we want them to go. If you need a quick, energetic start to get them in the room, do that. You know them and you know when you are most effective but take the time to see your singers with fresh eyes. What do they need today? How can I adapt my plan to include strategies to help them as humans even as we accomplish our musical goals? Even a small change toward releasing stress can make a big difference and help bring all those amazing singer brains to a unified whole.
In my next post, we will look at “brain aerobics” and rehearsal. Until then, contemplate these ideas and try one thing. Just one. See where is leads.
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) and a certified Brain Longevity® Specialist, a research-based certification on yoga and integrative medicine for brain health and healthy aging. Reach her at:
ARPF on stress management:
Seane Corn tutorial on Half Sun Salutation:
Adam Hocke Yoga tutorial on Half Sun Salutation (beginners):
The Conductor as Yogi: This Is Your Brain on Stress