Mindfulness: the state or quality of being mindful or aware of something. I’ve tried mindful meditation before and found it hard to get in to. I felt self-conscious and found it difficult to remain calm, without over-thinking every action.
I’m curious to know what difference it makes to approach mindfulness from another angle. Whether it’s easier to learn how to achieve mindfulness by focusing on something else. So, this week, I’m interviewing Helen Ellwood from WellBeingDerbyUK. Helen is an experienced mindfulness teacher who uses singing to teach mindful techniques. How can creativity help us explore mindfulness? Let’s find out.
Hi there Helen, why don’t you tell us a bit about yourself and your experience with mindfulness and creativity?
My name is Helen Ellwood and I’m a writer, artist, singer and an occupational therapist specialising in mental health. I’m also a trained mindfulness coach. I offer one-to-one mindfulness training and I have just set up a business called WellBeingDerbyUK with my colleague, Jon Morris.
I’ve always been involved with creativity. I’ve written plays and novels, I enjoy painting and making three-dimensional paper-mâché sculptures, which I sell at local exhibitions. I have many years experience running choirs and smaller singing groups.
Sounds interesting! So why mindfulness and singing?
It was through being part of a local singing group that Jon Morris (professional vocal coach and singer) and I began to see the similarities between his teaching of singing and my work with mindfulness. We agreed that the more embodied, aware and compassionate you are, the easier it is to learn a physical skill like singing. We now run a singing group in which our students learn how to become mindful singers.
Creativity alone is a wonderful thing. Simply singing for the joy of it can’t be beaten. If you want to learn a good technique or you want to improve your confidence in your voice, then using mindfulness can really help. Our brain has many modes of operation. In normal day-to-day life, our brain works one way (often called doing mode) and when we practice meditation our brain wires up differently (often called being mode). With regular practice, we can learn to shift modes at will. When we learn in being the mode, we are more receptive to new ideas, to creativity, to flexibility and we see reality as it is, not how we think it is.
In your opinion, what are the benefits of mixing creativity with mindfulness?
Mindfulness teaches us how to stop getting in the way of our learning. One of the problems that face singing students is that they can end up thinking too much about the technique that’s being taught, rather than feeling it in their body. The mind/body integration that happens when you practice mindfulness enables the students to become more aware of what’s going on in their body and so learn vocal techniques with ease.
In my opinion, the benefits are:
Mindfulness techniques help us balance out the natural negative bias of our brains (Dr R Hanson). You can see a blog about this here.
Looking on the bleak side of life is a hardwired brain pattern that we’ve inherited as a survival skill from our early ancestors. We still have the same brain structure now, even though the sabre-tooth tigers are long gone. As modern humans, we have to learn to exercise the approach based areas of the brain (left prefrontal cortex) which help us to see things clearly, in a less doom-laden light.
If you’re a singer about to go on stage, your mind might naturally tell you stories about how dreadful your performance is going to be, or you might find yourself criticising you afterwards because of that one bum note.
A mindful singer will be able to recognise this and challenge their thinking. When we think more clearly, our confidence usually rises and we learn to deal with our destructive inner critic.
One of the beautiful things about singing is that feeling of connection we have with others. If we’re singing in a group, there is a connection between all the other voices. If we’re singing solo, there’s a connection with the audience. We have to be able to be aware of ourselves and others to blend our voices and tell a good story through music. If we’re self-preoccupied, the music will suffer.
Singing is fun. However, a lot of people have been told at school that they can’t sing. This is often not true. In small, warm-hearted, mindful singing group, people can come together and express themselves maybe for the first time. They can undo some of those negative messages and have fun.
A lot of people are resistant to self-compassion – they see it as selfishness. Regular practice of compassion-based meditation changes the structure of the brain over time and can lead to a kinder, happier inner environment. We learn to beat ourselves up less when we make a mistake and to be kind to others. Being kind helps us concentrate and build upon our strengths.
How do you run the mindful singing classes?
In each session, we try to keep things varied and interesting. We start with a warm-up, emphasising awareness of the body and deep breathing. We follow this with simple round singing, designed to be unthreatening and fun. Then we do a mindfulness practice such as a brief body scan to bring people into a mindful state of focused relaxation.
After that, we teach some vocal techniques and sing a more complex song in harmony. There is the opportunity for discussion about how the techniques and the song feel for each student. We finish with a short mindfulness meditation.
So basically, each session is a combination of mindfulness and vocal technique, alternating between the two to keep people’s minds engaged and happy.
Do you think it would it work with any other art forms?
I feel mindfulness could be a useful component of any creative learning, whether that’s art, sport, writing etc. Anything, where we work with our own skills, body and inner critic, will respond well to a mindfulness-based learning technique.
Thanks, Helen! It seems that creativity and mindfulness are the perfect pairs. What creative art should I try to learn with mindfulness? Perhaps circus skills? Let me know what you think in the comments.