Our recent posts have focused on the impact of stress on the brain (not just on our “feeling” state) and how we can mitigate it by taking time in our day and in our rehearsals to pause and move and breathe. Today we look at another way to enhance brain health for us and our singers: “brain aerobics.”
The Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation outlines four pillars of brain health: Diet/Nutrition, Stress Management, Exercise (physical and mental), and Spiritual Fitness, including community and having a sense of purpose. All but the first of these pillars have a natural place in our rehearsals. And brain health is not just a concern for “mature” singers—it is just as important for young people, like the college students I teach. Their schedules, poor sleep habits, and stress levels can create zombie-like states and negatively impact their memory (“remember what we did last time?”), so creating opportunities to support their brain health is something I consider as I plan rehearsals.
Physical exercise has long been shown to improve brain health by increasing oxygen and blood flow to the brain. From walking to running to yoga to strength training to movement in rehearsal, physical exercise is fundamental to brain health. But mental exercise, what ARPF calls “brain aerobics,” is also necessary because it plays a “critical role in strengthening existing neurons and adding additional brain cells, as well as creating the pathways between those cells.” (ARPF curriculum, 103). ARPF goes on to define brain aerobics:
“In order for an activity to be considered brain aerobics, three conditions must be met: 1) It needs to engage attention; 2) It must break a routine action in an unexpected, nontrivial way; 3) It must involve more than one of the senses.”
Is it just me or doesn’t this sound like an outline for “best practice” in rehearsal—engage and maintain attention with new approaches to skill development and musical learning that activate more than one of our senses. Rather than predictably drilling parts for performance, a routine more mind-numbing than stimulating, could we develop ways to use the mind-body connection to our singers’ brain advantage?
Engage attention. Just because singers are looking in our general direction and making vocal sounds doesn’t mean they are engaged; their minds can be somewhere else completely. I am a big fan of structure, but I regularly make small changes to our tried-and-true techniques in order to call singers’ attention to what is happening “today, at this time” (as yoga teachers often say) and to pave the way for the brain to engage in an effective rehearsal. Start rehearsals with a smile and non-verbal cue to stand and breathe, stretch, do a clapping exercise or a sun salutation. Begin to assess the atmosphere of the room, the energy of the ensemble, so you can adjust your plan accordingly. Visual, non-verbal, and movement cues work well to engage attention and remind everyone this is not a lecture class, faculty meeting, or corporate Zoom; we are a choir. We engage differently and use our entire body. Passive observation is not an option.
Break routine in an unexpected, non-trivial way. We don’t need to throw out our warm-ups but how about varying them in some way—sing them in a round, add simple harmony (invite singers to improvise harmony), sing ascending vocalises with a decrescendo (less expected and more challenging to control), sing in different styles (“opera voice now”), split the choir to sing in two keys simultaneously, or alternate singing aloud with audiating to build subtle awareness to sound and feeling and get the mind focused. Call attention to something new and challenge singers just beyond their comfort zone, whether in warm-ups or during the rehearsal of repertoire (think Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development”) and brain activity is likely to increase meaningfully.
Involve more than one of the senses. The choir-conductor relationship is built on connecting sound with sight, so let’s start there. We teach singers to bury their heads in their scores when we habitually verbalize cues (“here comes that crescendo”) instead of compelling them to watch us. And when they do watch, are our gestures expressive, subtle, and appropriately sized; are they predictable or fluid, responding to and creating the moment in real time? This is a teachable skill, one that starts in warm-ups and connects to the repertoire. But it only works by challenging singers to use their ears and their eyes and their bodies, their own gesture; to conduct or “paint phrases” (engage their sense of feeling) to experience the sound in a different way and enhance their memory recall and experience.
The common denominator here is a sense of exploration, play, and challenge. Develop techniques that make sense to you and your ensemble and don’t assume you don’t have time or that young, inexperienced, or mature singers won’t buy in to expanding their practice. Our job is to shape the choral experience to create beautiful sound while engaging hearts, bodies, and minds in an ongoing journey of growth. Everyone wants to grow, even if they don’t appear to be interested. If we remind ourselves of the power of moving forward every time we give the downbeat, we will unleash potential that we can’t yet envision . . . and what rich experiences lie ahead!
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:
To learn more about the Four Pillars and Brain Aerobics: