As a student of singing, you are tasked with learning and memorizing your music as well as understanding the words, musical gesture, and style. When these steps are crossed off your list, you are ready to perform. As both a voice teacher and an opera director, I work with students on developing their performance techniques and I am always trying to find ways to help singers “live in the moment” during a performance.
One effective way to practice being in the moment is meditation. What is meditation? “Meditation is a precise technique for resting the mind and attaining a state of consciousness that is totally different from the normal waking state. It is the means for fathoming all the levels of ourselves and finally experiencing the center of consciousness within. Meditation is not a part of any religion; it is a science, which means that the process of meditation follows a particular order, has definite principles, and produces results that can be verified.” 1
This month’s column is for singers looking to increase focus and authenticity in performances. By introducing meditation techniques and the benefits of mindfulness, I hope to offer you some tools to shift from feeling nervous to being boundless.
Benefits of Meditation:
Deeper, more focused breathing
Balance over chaos
Elimination of labels such as “right or wrong”
“Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” 2 —Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
As a professor, I strive to create a mindful learning environment. College can appear to be comprised of right- and wrong-based learning. When I take time in the studio to allow a singer to experience their sound and discuss the sensations for better or worse, they embody technique with a more reliable physical and mental understanding. Alexander Technique is a physical approach to mindfulness that I highly recommend for singers. Yoga and meditation are types of self-care that offer immediate vocal wellness benefits.
For singers interested in a thorough investigation of physical and mental health benefits via meditation specific to voice majors, I recommend Elena Blyskal’s 2018 dissertation, “Mindfulness Practice in the Collegiate Voice Studio: A Case Study.” 3
Her insightful research explores potential benefits of meditation for voice students, from increased physical awareness and heightened focus to improved mindset in lessons, reduced performance anxiety, and perhaps even a feeling of joy in the process
Blyskal quotes Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research on learning environments: “When a student is fully invested in a learning process—without the pressure of a perfect product—he or she may experience a feeling of joy. Among other elements, this joy includes the relaxation of everyday anxiety and the fading of self-consciousness.” 4
Rama, Swami. “The Real Meaning of Meditation.” Yoga International. 2018. Accessed: September 18, 2018.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon. “Jon Kabat-Zinn: Defining Mindfulness.” Meditation. January 11, 2017. Accessed: September 18, 2018.
Blyskal, Elena, “Mindfulness Practice in the Collegiate Voice Studio: A Case Study” (2018). Open Access Dissertations. 2043. scholarlyrepository.miami.edu/oa_dissertations/2043.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: Harper & Row, 1990): 112.
The Glittering Guru
An Interview with Natalie Levin
My friend and yoga teacher Natalie Levin is one of my favorite examples of living authentically. Levin has graciously agreed to a Q&A about meditation and she has created a five-minute meditation experience for beginners. Levin is an accomplished mezzo-soprano, an OM Restorative Yoga certified teacher, and a passionate astrologer—and she has been meditating since apartments in Manhattan were almost affordable.
Why do you meditate?
I meditate to experience moments of quiet and stillness that are extremely rare to find in today’s society.
Where do you teach, and what kind of people come to you?
I teach all over the Philadelphia area and make a rare appearance in New York City. People sometimes accidentally end up in my workshops and appear a little stunned when I suddenly break out into “O mio Fernando” with opera karaoke. They come back because they love the live opera singing and they are moved by the astrological information I am able to give to them. They also seem to come to my workshops seeking shelter and a safe space to be themselves.
Will you describe your early meditation practice? What worked? Did you ever feel like you failed?
My early meditation practice looked like me trying to sit still and immediately falling asleep and lying down on the floor. I felt a little bummed that I was so sleepy that I could not stay awake to actually practice.
What attracted you to meditation?
It was required by my teacher training at OM Yoga in New York City. Cyndi Lee, the founder of OM Yoga, made sure that meditation was an integral part of our training and also of the OM Yoga community. I am so grateful to have been exposed to meditation at that time because it is now a part of my ability to care for myself.
What are benefits you find from regular meditation?
When I meditate regularly I can feel my heartbeat slow down. I am able to respond more easily rather than react. I feel more grounded on the earth and able to be gentler with myself and others.
Does meditation help your singing?
Yes. The more I am able to know myself through meditation/yoga/therapy/trauma work/astrology, the better I sing. Truly. It feels like an organic process.
I’ve heard people set intentions for meditation sessions. What types of intentions do you recommend for a beginner?
For a beginner I might recommend an intention like “For the next five minutes I invite myself to gently bring my mind back to my breath when I notice it wandering.”
How do you respond to people that label yoga and meditation as non-Christian?
I did have a man in my classes in New York City who asked me about that. He said he was worried that “I was doing something to him” by teaching him yoga. He said he thought the devil was coming out and making him “feel things.”
I told him that if one were to scientifically look at what is happening when one is doing a yoga pose, one would see that the poses act like maps or channels to unblock energy in the body that might be trapped. When the energy is freed, one might experience sensations such as tingling, pain, delight, shaking, trembling, etc. I reassured him that it is simply energy that needs to move and has been blocked for whatever reason. He did continue to return to my classes over and over.
Natalie Levin’s Guide to a Five-Minute Meditation Session
Find a place to sit that allows you to be comfortable and upright. If possible, sit on a neatly folded pile of blankets or pillows. The purpose of elevating your sitting position is to allow your knees to be lower than your hips. This will create the possibility of your spine being long and somewhat free.
If it is not possible for you to sit cross-legged, then it is OK to sit in a chair. I recommend sitting with your spine upright, as opposed to reclining and relaxing into the back of the chair. I tell my meditation students to “sit as if you truly believe that you are magnificent.” What would that look like for you? Can you invite a sense of regalness into your seated posture?
Set your timer for five minutes. Turn off all alerts and vibrations on your phone. If it is comfortable for you, close your eyes. If that causes anxiety, you can allow your eyes to gently rest on the floor about three or four feet in front of you.
A soft gaze is most appropriate here. Relax your teeth and lips. Soften the space between your eyebrows. Breathe naturally and softly. There is no need to manipulate the breath here.
Perhaps you can inquire, “How am I now?” and see what comes up. Can you sit with whatever is coming up for you and not judge it as good or bad? It simply is. Perhaps you can allow the mind to rest on the exhale.
When the mind wanders, which it will, you can notice it and imagine touching the thoughts lightly as if you were touching a bubble with a feather. It is neither good nor bad that the mind wanders. It is human. When you feel fidgety, notice that and perhaps try not to indulge the physical movement impulse. See what arises for you.
Eventually, when the timer rings, allow your eyes to open if they were closed, perhaps bring your hands to prayer position in front of your chest and bow your head to your beautiful heart. You can offer appreciation to yourself for your efforts in the form of that bow. “Easy does it” and “gentleness with yourself” are very helpful things to remember when starting a meditation practice. If five minutes seems too long, start with three. Slow and steady wins the race.