THE J. W. PEPPER BLOG | DELIVERING MUSIC SINCE 1876

THE J. W. PEPPER BLOG | DELIVERING MUSIC SINCE 1876

THE J. W. PEPPER BLOG | DELIVERING MUSIC SINCE 1876

Incorporating Yoga into Choral Classrooms and Rehearsals

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Did you know yoga can help you become a better singer? Yoga involves focusing on aligning the body and paying attention to the breath, both of which are required for singing.

To learn more about this interconnection, we spoke with an expert in the field, Dr. Ramona Wis, about the benefits of teaching yoga to vocalists, how to integrate it into choral classrooms and rehearsals, and what to consider when tailoring its practices and principles to different age groups. Whether you’re a yoga practitioner or simply wish to learn more, you’re sure to find a few yoga-inspired activities to bring to your choir!

Ramona Wis, Ph.D., is the Mimi Rolland Endowed Professor in the Fine Arts, Professor of Music, and Director of Choral Activities at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, and the author of The Conductor as Leader: Principles of Leadership Applied to Life on the Podium. Dr. Wis is a 500-hour Certified Yoga Teacher with training in yoga history, philosophy, meditation, energetics, pranayama (breath work), anatomy, Sanskrit, and the teaching, sequencing, and adaptation of asana (posture-based) practice. She is a certified Brain Longevity® Specialist, a research-based certification on yoga and integrative medicine for brain health and healthy aging. Reach her at rmwis@noctrl.edu or ramonawis.com.

You have emerged as an advocate for incorporating yoga into choral rehearsals. What inspired you to integrate these practices?

I remember vividly the first time I formally used yoga in a rehearsal—a gray, cold day in February, at about midterms, when my college singers came in dragging. I knew I needed to do something to change their state, their mind-body-spirit readiness, so I taught them half sun salutations, a breath-initiated series of upward lengthening and forward folds that is a common part of most yoga classes. The energy level, smiles, fluid movement, and readiness for rehearsal all increased in a big way through that short activity. Magic? It felt like it, but it was just the power of connecting the pieces of the amazing beings we are (aka yoga!). From that day on, I have used sun salutations in every rehearsal, adapting to the ensemble or age, and I began seeing rehearsals in a more holistic way, knowing that the best choral work would be done when everyone in the room was grounded, focused, free of self-judgment, and physically more open by the power of the breath and the movement of the body.

How would you define yoga, especially for those that might be reluctant to explore it?

The ancient texts on yoga define it as the “stilling of the fluctuations (or disturbances) of the mind.” Not a hot sweaty class with you standing on your head in expensive athleisure attire. Yoga is an eight-limbed practice, which includes the postures, but also breathing, meditation, and concentration, all grounded in universal principles relating to how we deal with ourselves and with others—principles such as nonharming, gratitude, energy moderation, nongrasping, and right effort. Yoga is a science of living, a template for strengthening the mind, body, and spirit and developing our awareness so we can get back to who we really are and live our best life. Every person can practice yoga, on and off the mat, with adaptations and applications that are suited for them.

How can teachers and choir directors incorporate yoga practices into their classrooms and rehearsals?

So much of what we routinely do is already a yoga practice. We already instruct singers to breathe deeply, but if we invite them to inhale through the nose and exhale longer than the inhale while teaching them to be aware of what they notice, we have done what any yoga class would do. As singers become aware, we can teach them not to judge but just notice and let go—and then help them see how this practice applies to other areas of their life.

Posture instruction is an opportunity to help singers see how misaligned bodies make it difficult to breathe and less pleasurable to sing. Posture is also a way to feel more grounded (secure) in one’s body, which leads to a better sound and better sense of self-worth, and to feel encouraged and hopeful as they lift their arms to the sky with a deep inhale.

Just as important are the focus and mindfulness aspects of yoga. If we don’t help singers learn to “still the fluctuations” of their mind, they will never really be “in” the rehearsal, and we will spend all of our time trying to get them on task (yes, even with adult and professional singers). We can teach them to leave what came before and what awaits them after rehearsal outside the door (a regular yoga teacher instruction in a mat class) and to focus on what they hear, see, and feel in the “now.” Try leading a short sense meditation activity: focus for a few breaths on each sense individually, noticing what they hear (the band in the room next door), see (in their mind’s eye if their eyes are closed), smell (hair product of a singer nearby), feel (the touch of their clothing on the skin), and taste (lingerings of coffee or toothpaste). Then, apply this “in the moment focus” to the music—what do you hear (intonation, musical patterns), what do you see (vowel shape or my gesture), what do you feel (sit bones on the chair)—right now?

There are so many opportunities to apply yoga-inspired practices by simple changes in language or approach.

What have you learned from bringing the process of yoga to rehearsals?

Singers routinely tell me that those moments of centering before the musical work begins have helped them manage their anxiety, which as we know has reached an all-time high in our world. They love doing their sun salutations which begin to open the body, get the breath going, and create some energetic “lift.” I am intentional about giving singers tools to help them outside of the choral environment as well as within the rehearsal or performance, so singers know they have agency, some control over the challenges we all face each day.

Singers are whole beings, just like we are, and much of what they carry with them we can’t really know; we just know if they are singing well or not. Start with the assumption that we can all benefit from regular grounding, energizing, and focusing practices and tailor them to fit the day, the place in the learning cycle, or the recent activity in the wider world.

When I teach holistically and practice with the singers, I learn more and get centered along with them. Many somatic practices are beneficial to singers, but yoga’s principles are what set it apart. Abhyasa (consistent practice), vairagya (letting go of the outcomes of our work), or ahimsa (nonharming, such as oversinging) have natural applications to our artistic work but also to our lives as a whole.

What recommendations do you have for tailoring a yoga practice to different ages—elementary school kids/children’s choir, middle school and high school, college level, and community choirs with a whole spectrum of ages?

We always design rehearsals for the singers at hand. The gift of yoga is its universal application; it is a natural fit for any age or ability level because we all breathe, we all have active minds, we all feel judged and anxious about the next alert on our phone or social media, and we all need to feel grounded and inspired. Young children love to move and follow the leader, and they are fascinated by yoga poses, many of which are named after animals or nature. Middle schoolers change from moment to moment and are especially fearful about being embarrassed, so less is more—focus on simple, eyes-open adaptations to what you already do, and teach them nonjudgmental awareness. Older students and adults struggle with meeting expectations or with loneliness, so reassure them they are more than what they “produce,” and that the community of the choir is a place of grounded compassion. And the most mature population of seniors will greatly benefit from keeping their bodies fluid and their minds strong. It’s all yoga—just know your audience and welcome each opportunity.

How can teachers and directors use yoga practices to enhance their own self-care?

This one’s easy. Get on the mat. Don’t overthink it. Just go, and you will see why yoga has been around for 5000 years and why so many well-balanced, highly effective people practice. You don’t need to be anyone other than who you are, right now, to go to a class. Find one that suits your experience level and has a trained, well-rated teacher who incorporates more than just postures into the class.

Where do you go from here in your research and practice of yoga for choral musicians?

I continue to explore ways to bring yoga, choral music, and leadership together to serve singers and conductors in a complicated 21st-century world. We know singing in a choir is beneficial to our health, but how can we capitalize on the research regarding the effects of breathing on the nervous system, of regular meditative practice on brain health, or on the trend towards social prescribing of choral singing to enhance mental wellness? How can being a leader in the choral field be expanded beyond traditional pedagogy, score study, and management strategies toward a broader awareness of teaching whole humans to unleash their artistic potential? I hope to find a way to bring these ideas together in a book or in another format, so stay tuned and feel free to share your input.

Any last thoughts?

You don’t need to be formally certified as a yoga teacher, but your ability to describe and implement yoga-inspired activities will be enhanced by having some kind of regular personal practice. What you experience, and benefit from, will be just as helpful to the singers you lead. And when you learn yoga from an instructor who teaches from an eight-limbed perspective, you learn to honor the tradition without fear of cultural appropriation.

Singing is a demanding profession, and we want to help you prioritize your physical and mental health! Go to our Musicians’ Wellness page to learn more and see the full collection of products, articles, and videos.

Check out these resources:

“Breath, Body, and Being: A Yoga-Inspired Choral ‘Practice.” The Choral Journal, Vol. 62, No. 3 (October 2021).

ChoralNet blog, “The Conductor as Yogi” (Dr. Wis posts about once per month).

Yoga Journal article on yoga principles: “A Beginner’s Guide to the Yamas and Niyamas.”

Find a Teacher through Yoga Alliance.

 

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