A Mental Shift That Could Help You Produce a More Beautiful Sound on Stage

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Did you ever have a teacher who suggested that you imagine projecting your sound to the last row in the balcony? Not by forcing things, of course, but to use the image of filling the hall with your sound, so that even your pianissimos would carry to the very back?

I imagine most musicians have been given that advice at some point or another. Because playing in a big hall does require more from us than playing in the practice room.

But sheesh, wouldn’t it be simpler to just say “play louder” and be done with it?

Or does this mental image, which shifts our focus away from our body or instrument and directs it toward the space instead, make a meaningful difference in what the audience hears?

The benefits of a “distal” focus

There is a growing body of research which suggests that what we think about or focus on when performing a skill, has an effect on how well we are able to perform that skill.

Like, whether you’re hitting a golf ball, shooting a basketball, or playing darts, thinking about what your hands, arms, and body are doing (a proximal, internal focus) increases the likelihood of screwing up. Whereas a more distal, external focus – like where you want the golf ball to land, or the front of the basketball hoop, or the bullseye on the wall – often leads to more fluid and accurate performance.

That’s all good and well, because technical execution is certainly a critical factor in performing effectively, but how might shifting our focus to filling a hall affect the more artistic aspects of our performance? Like the quality of our sound?1

Singers!

Well, lucky for us, there are a few studies that look specifically at how the quality of a musician’s performance changes when you make adjustments to what they are thinking about when playing.

One of these studies (Atkins, 2017), involved 20 trained singers2 (a mix of sopranos, alto/mezzos, tenors, baritones, and basses) at the University of Texas at Austin. On average, the participants had 6 years of private vocal lessons and 9 years of experience singing in choirs.

Each singer was asked to sing the first part of “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” as well as a short excerpt of a solo piece of their choice in a 175-seat recital hall (this was their baseline performance).

Then, they were asked to sing each of these excerpts 6 more times – but with a different thing to focus on in each repetition. The order of these was randomized for each singer, but here are the attentional targets, from closer (proximal) to further away (distal).

The 6 conditions

Singers were asked to focus on…

  1. The position of their soft palate
  2. Keeping their vibrato “steady and consistent”
  3. Directing their sound to the top of a tripod 18 inches away (right at mouth level)
  4. Directing their sound to a chair in the middle of the hall (about 24 feet away)
  5. Directing their sound to a spot on the back wall of the hall (about 40 feet away)
  6. Thinking about “filling the room with their sound”

The recordings of each repetition were randomized (to make sure there was no way to know which take was which), and then the researcher3 rated each performance in a variety of areas – from the vibrato, intonation, and evenness of the sound, to the freedom, color, and “ring” of the sound, as well as the overall quality of the sound.

And to make sure her ratings were not biased in some way, an experienced voice professor also rated ~25% of the recordings. Generally speaking, their ratings matched up pretty well, with an average reliability rating of .89.

So did telling the singers to focus on different things have a meaningful effect on their vocal performance?

What kind of focus was best?

The short answer is yes.

Specifically, most singers seemed to perform better, the further away their focus was from the internal mechanics of producing sound.

In particular, there was a statistically significant improvement in their overall performance scores and ratings of the “ring” of their sound when they focused on singing to the back of the hall, or filling the space with their sound.

But everyone’s a little different?

It’s interesting to note, however, that not all singers responded to these attentional targets in the same way. The researcher notes that:

“…some performers who focused on keeping their vibrato steady, for example, performed with an inconsistent vibrato, whereas others performed with consistent vibrato. Some performers when focused on the position of their soft palate performed with a swallowed, tense, and overdrawn tone quality, whereas others performed with a beautiful, relaxed, resonant tone.”

I think this speaks to the importance of being mindful of individual differences. And why it helps to experiment with these mental targets rather than assuming that imagining filling a hall with your sound will work equally well for everyone. After all, there might be other factors involved, such as the singer’s skill level, body awareness, etc., that could play a role in how they interpret the image and how they carry it out.

Take action

When practicing and trying to problem-solve, of course, it makes perfect sense to focus on one’s soft palate, vibrato, or the whole of how your body is involved in producing sound. Because that’s the time to experiment with, explore, and better understand the mechanics involved.

But when performing, it seems that being too focused on one isolated body part could be counterproductive. And that shifting your focus externally, and to a target further away – such as filling the room, or performing to the last row of the hall – will help you produce a more beautiful sound.

But wait…

Caveats?

The singers in this study just had to perform a few seconds worth of music. And it wasn’t necessarily the most difficult or complex music in their repertoire.

So would these findings still be relevant if you had to perform a full recital? Like, does it make sense to think about filling the hall, continuously, for an entire performance? 

Because maybe this is an effective technique for producing a better sound, but what if it comes at the expense of accuracy or consistency in the more challenging and technically demanding passages? 

And would this be as applicable to instrumentalists as well? Or just singers?

Don’t worry – these questions do have answers! And we’ll get to them next week when we take a look at a recent study which explored these questions with a diverse group of instrumental musicians. ’Til then!


References 

Atkins, R. L. (2017). Effects of Focus of Attention on Tone Production in Trained Singers. Journal of Research in Music Education, 64(4), 421–434.

Footnotes

  1. And yes, one could totally argue that we should stop making such an artificial distinction between technique and music-making, because they go hand-in-hand, but maybe that’s a topic for another day…
  2. Not all were enrolled in music or performance degree programs (a couple were music business majors and one was majoring in biomedical engineering), but most were either music performance or music education majors).
  3. (an active vocal performer and teacher herself)

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Comments

5 Responses

  1. I was often told as a piano student in college to “play into the key” in order to have a full sound that would carry throughout any size of hall, no matter the dynamic. There were technical and body movements I was taught to accomplish a full sound. This is a concept I use in my teaching. When my students use the “play into the key” concept they notice the difference in their sound immediately.

  2. This is an emerging and very important area of research that impacts performers of all types. In her seminal book, Attention and Motor Skill Learning, kinesiologist Gabriele Wulf provides a clear and well-researched picture of how “attentional focus” impacts motor skill performance. And as an Alexander Technique teacher who teaches at a performing arts college (I’m also a professional saxophonist), I myself for the last nine years have been researching and experimenting with “where” and “how” attention is placed in order to optimize performance (including, of course, resonance, tone color, dynamics, etc.). In my experience, the “more distal the better” isn’t necessarily true. I’d say it largely depends upon where/how the individual is “habitually” placing attention during performance (and practice!) I’ve actually encountered students whose attention was too distally focused, at the expense of not being able to notice the interchange of energy between themselves and their instrument (very important!), as well as the habitual patterns of “misuse” of themselves as they play that is preventing them from accessing their optimal coordination.

    And for sure, far, far too many performers are bringing their focus of attention too “close” (i.e., to the movements of the specific parts of their bodies they believe to be most responsible for playing their instrument). When this happens, it seems to interfere with the structures of the brain (e.g., the cerebellum) that need to be “left alone” to do what they need to do, unencumbered. I believe this could be one of the prime factors involved in developing such devestating neurological conditions (like focal dystonia) some musicians struggle with.

    I’d say (referring again to Gabriele Wulf) it is not simply how “distal” your attention is, as much as it is about this: Is your attentional focus primarily on the movement itself, or on the “movement effect”? Dr. Wulf discovered time and again that bringing attention primarily to the movement effect (which by design is more “distal” than the movement itself) is far more likely to call upon optimal skill and coordination (which is what is ultimately impacting the quality of your sound). Finally, I would encourage us to replace the idea of attentional “focus” with the idea of attentional “integration”, and not just in performance, but most certainly in daily practice. Developing an integrated, flexible attention (one in which we are able to easily notice ourselves in relation to our external environment) is without doubt the quality of attention that helps my students the most (and me, too!)

  3. Wonderful to see a post so specific to singers! As a voice teacher I often get students and their families commenting on how “big” my voice is for my size. In fact I don’t have a particularly large instrument; on the operatic continuum it would be described as “light lyric.” What I do have is a well developed ability to project my resonance into just about any space. This is what I always try to teach the young singers I work with. I always tell them that their voice isn’t really their instrument: they must learn to use it to “play” the room. I think this must be true of other instruments to some extent – of course some instruments will naturally “speak” better than others, but I have heard of performers being granted the use of a top-notch instrument such as a Strad, and struggling at first to create the kind of sound they know it is capable of. Is it a combination of the individual instrument and the acoustic of the room one must learn to play? As a singer I never get to try out anyone else’s 🙂

  4. I totally believe your mental image (what I call sound concept to my students) is key in producing good sound. I’m not a great technical player, but I spent one summer in undergrad listening more than playing exercises to give myself a better idea of what I wanted my horn to sound like. Professors and colleagues also backed up the improvement this made.

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