Monday, August 02, 2021

Why you can only focus on one thing at a time when singing

Singing can be daunting at first because there are so many things to remember: posture, breathing, smiling, tuning, balance and so on.

But if you try to focus on all these at once, it will end in disaster (especially in performance). Here’s what you can do instead.

multitasking is a myth

People have believed for many years that it’s possible to multitask. That is, to be able to do several things at once effectively: reading and listening to music, driving and making a hands-free phone call, texting whilst attending a lecture.

It turns out that this is a myth. Research in neuroscience has shown that the brain doesn’t do tasks simultaneously, but switches quickly between one and another. Which means that we aren’t really giving our full attention to any of the tasks we’re doing because we’re constantly stopping and starting them. In short this means that ...

... you can only focus fully on one thing at a time.

An everyday example of this is when you go upstairs for something then forget why you’re there. You might consciously decide to go upstairs to get a book. But half way up the stairs you notice that the rungs need dusting or that you need to go to the shop to buy something for supper. Your focus has shifted and removed the earlier task from your consciousness.

unconscious competence

When you first start learning to drive it can feel overwhelming. You need to pay attention to so many things at once: clutch, throttle, mirror, gear stick, road ahead, etc.

But over time, most of these tasks become second-nature so you can focus on the most important thing: the road ahead.

When driving a car, we’re not multitasking (switching quickly between the many different tasks), instead we’re driving without consciously thinking. The tasks have become so familiar that they are being processed unconsciously. This is called unconscious competence.

It’s similar when we’re learning to sing. At first there seem to be so many different things to remember that it feels overwhelming. We’re constantly switching between many different tasks: tuning, watching the conductor, balancing our voice with our neighbour, checking our posture, releasing jaw tension, breathing well, etc.

After lots of practice we hope to get to a stage where we are singing with unconscious competence, i.e. most of the tasks like breathing, posture, tuning, relaxation and so on are dealt with at an unconscious level.

However, even when we become better at singing, we can find ourselves back at the conscious competence level (i.e. having to consciously think of each task as we do it).

This can happen in rehearsal when we’re tackling new music or trying to stretch our vocal skills, and most frequently when we’re in performance and the nerves start to kick in (what was I supposed to do on the chorus repeat? did the director say faster at this point? it’s strange not having my friend standing next to me giving support).

Whether you’re a beginner singer or you have a big concert coming up, remember ...

... you can only focus fully on one thing at a time.

There are times when knowing this can be useful.

choose your focus of attention

The secret is to be aware that you can only focus on one thing at a time, try not to multitask, and calmly choose your different points of focus when needed.

For example, just before you start to sing, your focus could be on posture and bodily tension. You can afford to give it your full attention. Then stop consciously thinking about it. Trust that you will continue to stay relaxed and alert, and move on to the next area of focus.

Before each song, you can choose a particular focus. For example, dynamics, breathing, balance. Just don’t try to do more than one.

If you have rehearsed thoroughly and paid attention during all the choir warm ups and vocal development exercises, you shouldn’t have to even consciously consider any of these points of focus.

It’s only when you’re under pressure or lacking experience that it might become necessary.

You might also find this post useful: When you sing, forget everything you’ve ever learnt.


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Chris Rowbury




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