Have you ever noticed how relaxing it can be to do a routine task, like folding laundry or washing the car? Your mind wanders as you go about a simple task. Maybe you have the TV or radio on while you’re doing this “mindless” activity, and without even trying, your focus goes to the program.
Do you find golf to be a tranquilizing activity? Do you enjoy relaxing with a good book? Maybe you like to decompress by knitting or needlepoint, or by surfing the web. How often have you fallen asleep to your favorite music? (And yes, if you’ve ever suffered from insomnia, you’ll know that successfully falling asleep can be a matter of focusing the mind on counting those sheep.)
Just what is it that all of these activities have in common? They are all potentially relaxing. But why? They all lure us into a state of trance, a kind of hypnosis – in simplest terms, a place of deep concentration.
“Concentratus Interruptus.” Now imagine that your concentration is repeatedly broken. Sometimes this break is induced by outside sources. Often it comes from within ourselves – we can be our own worst enemy when it comes to inhibiting our concentration. In either case, I’m sure you’ll agree these interruptions are anything but relaxing, and can be deeply irritating.
Concentration is relaxation. This is common knowledge, stated by many experts on effective performance of any kind, whether it be music, theatre, public speaking, sports, or what-have-you. And yet, it’s all too easy to overlook.
We might sometimes think of intense concentration as some sort of tense, stressful condition. We are confusing intense concentration with the kind of intense frustration we may feel when we’re unable to focus, but really need to.
It’s Only Natural. True concentration is the opposite of tension. It’s so natural, we usually don’t notice we’re actually doing it. As a personal example, I really enjoy typing, especially when I can establish a flow over a long period of several minutes. It is very hypnotic, relaxing, soothing. And I’m actually producing something, so there’s an extra note of gratification.
The same goes with music. For those of us involved in choral singing, performing music is not only gratifying, it can be a remarkably effective way of unwinding. This is in part a result of the deep breathing required for singing – taking deep breaths is relaxing and cleanses our mind and body by reconnecting us with a steady oxygen flow. But it also has to do with the mental concentration required.
For effective choral singing, indeed for any sort of accomplished ensemble performance, concentration is key. That’s what it takes to really tune in to one another: to enter and cut off together, to blend our vowel color and our consonants, to feel each and every nuance of articulation, dynamics and tempo, to be at one with the music, and with one another. And when that chain of group concentration is broken or torn by even one person not fully participating in it, it can be frustrating for all concerned. But don’t let it get to you!
Concentration is Focused Attention. This means attention to what’s being requested of us during rehearsals, listening carefully to the conductor’s (hopefully clear and succinct) instructions, and then an equally sharp focus on carrying out those instructions in the music. But each and every individual has to do his/her part in this communal concentration – a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. And it takes practice.
There’s really no mystery about concentration – just focus your mind on the thing at hand. (And try not to be lured into that pitfall of stopping to notice how well you’re focusing, because that’s not focusing!)
In the context of singing, there are a whole set of specific things to concentrate on. It’s impossible of course to focus on too many elements all at once – that’s why we must learn and rehearse the music over time and build it into our minds and our bodies. Then the notes and rhythms and our coherent sense of form become second-nature, and we can focus in on energizing and selling the music to our audience.
Practice Makes Perfect. Once you get to know first-hand the synergistic magic that can happen when everyone is concentrating, the communal experience of effective music-making can be unforgettable, just as it can be in an effective team effort in sports. And the more we practice both individual and communal concentration, successfully tuning in to each aspect of the music, the easier and more second-nature it becomes. And the better our choir will sound.
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