The Choral Meditator

Can meditation make you a better singer? Yes, and that's not all. Meditation can improve relaxation, concentration, and even health.

There are many different kinds of meditation, just as there are many kinds of singing. Singers sing, practice singing, study singing and continue singing because their own experience tells them that it is fun, engaging, uplifting, and maybe even physically helpful to them in their lives. In my experience, meditation can be all of those things as well.

There are many different kinds of meditation, just as there are many kinds of singing. Perhaps the best known in the West these days is Vipassana, or "insight" meditation. This is the practice of sitting quietly, usually with the eyes closed, and focusing the attention on an object, usually the breath. Other styles include:

  • Metta, or loving kindness meditation: a practice of wishing happiness to yourself and others.
  • Mantra practice: a meditation in which a word or phrase, chanted out loud or heard internally, is used as an object of concentration.
  • Tonglen: a meditation practice in which one visualizes taking onto oneself the suffering of others, and giving one's own happiness and success to others.
    Zazen: a sitting meditation, often with eyes open, to calm the body and mind.
  • Healing meditation: imagining light or energy moving into areas of pain or dis-ease in the body, mind, or soul.

Training for the mind

The common goal of these practices is liberation of the mind. Liberation from what? Well, liberation from suffering, especially suffering brought on by patterns of thinking such as craving, aversion, and delusion.

Practicing meditation is a kind of training for the mind to keep your attention in the present moment instead of off somewhere else in the future or the past. The mind, being the mind, likes to think and keep thinking, often imagining some event to come, reliving a past event, or just re-telling one of your top-40 stories about yourself and your life. What you practice when you meditate is letting go of these thoughts and focusing instead on what is happening here and now.

The common goal of these practices is liberation of the mind. Liberation from what? Well, liberation from suffering, especially suffering brought on by patterns of thinking such as craving, aversion, and delusion.

The practice you choose will be determined by your own attraction to a certain practice. As a choral singer, you may feel you have enough discipline, and choose to stay away from zazen, or sitting meditation. Or you may feel somewhat out of touch with your body, and choose to include a physical practice such as Yoga or Qi Gong to open the body before meditating.

If you feel that you are very hard on yourself and have a harsh "inner critic," you may want to try Metta (the loving kindness practice mentioned above). Or, if you have an intuition that really needs some calm and stillness, then you may want to try Vipassana.

Help for singer multitasking?

If you want more proof that meditation might help you to be a better choral singer, consider this intriguing study from the National Institutes of Health. Richard Davidson and colleagues gave participants intensive meditation training to see if it would reduce what is called "attentional-blink."

"Attentional-blink" occurs when two pieces of information are presented to a person in very close succession, and the brain doesn't perceive the second piece of information because it is still processing the first. The researchers found that the participants who had gone through the mental training were more likely to perceive both pieces of information instead of just the first. Apparently, the brain used fewer resources to detect the first piece of information, leaving more resources available to detect the second. The researchers also noted that this study supports the idea that "brain plasticity, or the ability of the brain to adapt, exists throughout life."

I can hardly think of a situation where such an improvement might be more welcome than in choral singing. Effectiveness as a singer depends upon taking in many different pieces of information at once: your own vocal process, the conductor's cues, the sound of your colleagues, the music on the page, and more. The choral singer is a multitasker extraordinaire and no one wants to be the singer who's lagging the beat, or still singing forte even though there's a diminuendo clearly marked.

Finding the flow

There are countless other studies that show that meditation improves relaxation, concentration, and even health. But the real reason to try it, the real reason you're probably still reading this article, is that you have a sense of something missing. There is some level of happiness or ease in life that you think you'd like to find.

Our culture often teaches us to look externally for happiness (just buy the right car, the right lawnmower, the right wrinkle cream, and happiness is yours!). Meditation offers a different message: Happiness is possible right now, in this moment for you, as you are (without the car, without the lawnmower, and with the wrinkles!).

Performers have long recognized the importance of being totally aware of the moment. Greater presence allows for greater responsiveness, flexibility, and skill. Some call these deep moments of concentration the "flow" state. Athletes call it being in "the zone."

Meditation can help to cultivate that level of concentration, along with qualities of equanimity and calm. In general, the same things that are true for the practice of music are true for meditation: practice regularly, find a good teacher, and join a community of people who also practice.

Getting started

  • Choose a time you can commit to regularly. Any length is fine, but many teachers suggest at least twenty minutes to really let yourself "drop in."
  • Choose a place where you won't be disturbed. Doors shut, phones off!
  • Choose a practice and stick with it for the whole meditation.
  • Choose a posture that is comfortable. Allow the spine to be straight. If you are seated cross-legged on the floor, make sure that your knees are below the hips. Sit on cushions if necessary.

Vipassana 101

Close your eyes. Bring your attention to your breath as it comes in and goes out. Choose a focal point, such as where the breath enters the nostrils, or the rise and fall of the belly. When you find that you've lost track of the breath, see if you can bring your attention back, without judgment or recrimination. This may happen many, many times in a sitting.


A term singers can relate to! This refers to the practice of labeling thoughts or feelings as a way of detaching from them. For example if, in your meditating, you find yourself lost in thoughts of what you want to do tomorrow, you simply say to yourself, "planning" or "thinking." If you find yourself steaming about a recent argument, you might simply say silently, "anger." Then, return the attention to the breath or other object of the meditation.

Meditation offers the message: Happiness is possible right now, in this moment for you, as you are.
One teacher describes this as letting your thought go by as if it were a movie on a screen. Another describes it as allowing a train to pass. Just watch it pass without jumping aboard!

Meditating with your chorus

Consider inviting someone other than your conductor to lead a group meditation. If there is an experienced yoga practitioner among your singers, perhaps he or she can lead the stretches. If there is an experienced meditator (sometimes called a Yogi), perhaps he or she can lead the meditation. If your conductor is comfortable in this role, then he or she would be a natural leader in these practices.

Have the choristers sit as described in Getting Started above. Let them know how long you will meditate (five minutes or so can be adequate). As they begin, offer simple instructions about how to follow the breath and return their attention to the breath if the mind wanders. Then fall silent.

At some point during the five minutes, speak again and remind them that if their attention has wandered, to bring it back to the breath. At the end of the allotted time, you can end the meditation with the following mantra practice, or by simply ringing a small bell.

More food for thought

The increased popularity of meditation means that access to books, meditation instruction and meditation groups has never been easier in the West. Meditation has been on the cover of Time magazine, and is even prescribed by doctors.

Vance George, former conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, went so far as to share his practice with his audiences, leading them through a loving kindness meditation at holiday concerts.

More and more, meditation is recognized as an effective tool for a richer, more meaningful life. The sense of connection and inspiration that music provides is one that every singer has known. Mediation can be a wonderful tool to cultivate even greater levels of sensitivity, and to experience that beauty more fully.