Practicing Singing

New Rules of Practicing Singing

How to best practice singing in a way that is nervous system informed

When I started to learn about the nervous system, it turned my vocal practice upside down. I must admit, changing my old ideas and ways wasn’t easy, and it sometimes still isn’t, as our Nervous Systems’ needs often collide with the speed and expectations of modern culture and society. But going against the grain has been well worth it. It has made practice fun, effective, more spontaneous, and surprisingly relaxing – something I really look forward to! 🤩

Here are my tips for better singing practice.

1. Instead of maximum go for the minimum.

This often means doing less and going slower. In our fast-moving society that values productivity, this can feel like a hard thing to do. But if we want to retain a skill or even learn at all, we need to respect our nervous systems (NS) capacity for learning and integration.

Signs you are past your NS capacity show up as physical mental and/or emotional symptoms, such as lightheadedness, dry mouth, frustration, 

over-analyzing, rampant inner-critic…just to name a few.

Stop, take a pause and try scaling down your practice. Make the exercises more simple, shorter, and maybe try doing them sitting or lying down. Also, your NS doesn’t read the clock: instead of fixing an hour for practice, try listening to your NS signs on when you’ve had your “minimum effective dose”.

2. Instead of “getting it right”, opt for exploratory experiences

Even if well-intended, focusing on fixed outcomes can make our nervous system (NS) feel less safe. This inhibits access to the higher brain structures where fine and complex skills such as singing are learned and retained. 

Engaging in exploration and play makes learning organic, fun, and best of all: it sticks! 

If practicing has been feeling “unsafe” to your NS, improving learning outcomes might start with finding resources for your NS to feel safer, so play and exploration can emerge organically. 

3.Train for Resiliency

Singing is a contextual skill. If you ever wondered why your voice seems to react differently in different places – such as in the shower, versus rehearsal room, versus in front of an audience – this is why. 

Performance resiliency from the perspective of the nervous system (NS) means tolerance to changes within ourselves and in our environment, so we remain calm, focused, and engaged. 

We can train our NS and brain by singing in different body positions, room settings, lighting, musical arrangements, accompaniment, noise, venues, and audiences. But don’t jump onto a big stage head-on: it’s important to sequence and pace our training in a way that respects the capacity our NS has NOW.

Vagus Nerve

Vagus Nerve: The singing Nerve

The Singing Nerve

The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the human body and it also enervates the larynx. As it is the nerve that is responsible for prosody in the voice, we could very well call it “the singing nerve”. Prosody is the ability to vary in pitch, tone, volume, and rhythm. It makes our voice expressive, communicating emotions and attitudes.  

Depending on our vagal activation, the nervous system either promotes prosody or impedes it. A recognizable example is the “lump in the throat” when we are highly aroused, or overwhelmed by emotion. But also more subtle stressors may cause changes in the vocal function. The degree to which we feel we are in control of our voices, and even whether or not we experience freedom and joy in performing, are initiated in the nervous system.  To put it short, the condition of our nervous system matters for optimal vocal performance and artist wellbeing. 

Secret of Powerful Performance

Besides enervating the larynx, the vagus nerve plays a key role in experiences of flow, creativity, joy, connection and presence. It offers us new insights into how authenticity in performance and stage presence can be trained in a concrete and tangible way.  

Much like with muscle tone, the stronger our “vagal tone”, the better our physical and mental capacity to stay present and connect to our audience while facing the challenges and intensity of performing.  The vagus does this by tempering our physiological responses. This has a profound effect on our feelings, thoughts and behaviours.

Example: Without influence from the vagus, sympathetic arousal (stress) activates a survival response in the nervous system. We may experience performance anxiety and decreased – even loss of – vocal ability.  Avoiding sympathetic activation however, is not the solution. Without it, a performance may lack energy, and we maybe unable to hold our audience’s attention. 

With influence from the vagus, the same sympathetic energy is directed towards connection. Specific to vocal performance, it also supports optimal vocal function and expressiveness. It may very well be this dual excitation that is the secret of a powerful performance. 

To conclude, a strong vagal tone helps to tolerate the intensity of performing, holding together the experience of excitement and inner calm. Training the nervous system gives us resiliency, not only to meet the demands, but also to foster our well-being, love, and joy of performing.

Vagus Nerve

Vagus Nerve: The Singing Nerve

The vagus nerve is the nerve that enervates the larynx. As it is the nerve that is responsible for prosody in the voice, we could very well call it the singing nerve.

Prosody is the ability to vary in pitch, tone, volume, and rhythm. It makes our voice expressive, communicating emotions and attitudes.

Depending on our vagal activation, the nervous system either promotes prosody or impedes it. A recognizable example for many is the “lump in the throat” that we experience when we are highly aroused, or when we are overwhelmed by emotion. But also more subtle stressors may cause changes in vocal function. The degree to which we feel like we are in control of our voices, and even whether or not we experience freedom, and joy in performing, are initiated in the nervous system.

To conclude, the condition of our nervous system matters for optimal vocal performance and artists’ wellbeing.

Grounding for performance nerves

Improve your performance • Grounding: What it is and why singers should care

Grounding: What it is and why singers should care?

Managing performance nerves and building up your peak performance.

Imagine you're a tree

“Imagine you're a tree. Feel your feet sink like roots into the ground”.

I thought my instructor was Ludacris. I was at a vocal masterclass feeling dead nervous about singing before the class. I had a lump in the throat and my heart was racing and she wanted me to imagine I was a tree. Like that would help.

If I’d known then what I know now, I would have understood what she was aiming for. She was trying to get me grounded. And looking back I definitely could have used some to help me contain my performance nerves and actually perform well in the masterclass (fact-flash: it's not necessary to eliminate nerves to do even extraordinarily well). But I was too ignorant and the instructions just too abstract.

Like me, if you have not been a) explained how and why grounding works, and b) guided in tracking our awareness of our bodily and mental states, it's might be that you might have not gotten the benefits from practicing it.  And maybe you've dismissed it altogether as a bit of a "woe woe".

Forget about trees. I am here to tell you how grounding can be a very concrete practice, how it is backed up by our physiology, and why it's such an essential practice for us singers and performers.

Watch the below video to get the practical 'take-aways' from this blog.

What is grounding and why should singers care?

Grounding is a somatic (body-based) practice to orient the body in space and time. We do this by feeling into the physical sensations the body has of itself in the environment through touch, movement, and breath. We do this with the intention to establish a sense of safety at the nervous system level. What this means and why this is so essential, I will explain further into my blog, but first, whether you are a performer who wants to have a strong-stage presence or an aspiring singer who finds singing in front of others nerve-wracking, grounding is a cornerstone in:

  • Enabling learning
  • Regulating your arousal states
  • Building your peak performance
  • Containing intensity while embodying emotion
  • Prerequisite for enjoying singing and performing

If any of the above catches your interest, and you would like to know more and how to work with these elements, the read further...

The singing nerve

To understand why and how grounding works, we need to understand something about the autonomous nervous system, ANS for short.  If you ever got a lump in the throat just from being emotional or stressed, then you have experienced how the state of our ANS has a profound effect on our voice (and by the way: your hearing too!).

As you might know, the ANS has two branches: the sympathetic branch and the parasympathetic branch. No matter how seasoned you are as a singer, getting on the wrong branch of your ANS can make you perform less well or even lose control over the voice. Also, even if you are the cool type that feels pretty zen on any stage, you might not want to dismiss educating yourself about the ANS as you might miss the secrets of getting from good to great performances.

The sympathetic branch is best known for regulating our stress responses like the "fight" and "flight". The parasympathetic branch divides yet into two branches*, one being the immobility response, which is often referred to as the "rest and digest" mode. The second branch is our 'social engagement mode'. A place where we find calmness, connection, playfulness, and at it's best peak experiences such as the sought-after state of "flow". This is also where peak performance happens.

Needless to say, we singers want to hang-out at the social engagement-branch of our ANS. This is even more so because of the vagus nerve - the primary nerve in charge of the parasympathetic branch - is the nerve controlling the larynx. We may as well call it the "singing nerve". With not enough vagal or parasympathetic activation going on, our control of the voice becomes inconsistent. For singers and performers then, it becomes relevant that we gain awareness of, and learn to regulate our internal states. That's where grounding comes in as an elementary exercise.

Read further for telltale signs your vagal-tone could use a boost, and an exercise sequence to start improving!

Not thinking but sensing

Envision a classic image of an opera singer, graciously placing her hand on top of the grand piano and gently leaning in as she starts her aria. Whether or not this is a conscious mise-en-scene, she is helping herself get grounded. If you are one of those singers who feel like you sing better with something in your hand, a microphone, a hairbrush, any prop available..., chances are this just might be for the same reason. Why does this help?

Fundamental for the parasympathetic activation is our internal, bodily experience of safety. Research shows us that the more stressed or 'unsafe' we feel, the more our higher "thinking" brain is disconnected from the lower parts of our brain. Conscious thoughts live in this "higher" brain. So if you are trying to calm yourself down or get yourself to concentrate, this is why mantra's and positive thinking might not do the trick for you: your body has been hijacked by the lower brain parts. We can however reel our bodies back in and communicate safety to the lower brain by sensing and feeling. Literally connecting to the environment by touching objects, like a tabletop,  is a simple way to do that. 

Telltale signs you could benefit from grounding:

  • You get excited and so much into your performance that it affects your voice.
  • You get carried away with your acting or become emotional
  • Uncontrollable breaking of the voice, dry mouth, a lump in the throat, etc.,..
  • Your feet or hands cannot stay put, or you feel unstable standing still
  • Difficulty concentrating, frantic thinking
  • You are not performing as well as you know you could in class, auditions or on stage
  • Instead of the performance-arousal having its's peak in intensity and then ebbing to more tolerable levels, you remain nervous all the way through the performance.
  • Tips and tricks, and mantras are just not doing it for you
  • Afterward, you are left feeling down or disappointed
  • You stopped enjoying singing and performing. It just feels like work.

Does the above sound familiar to you? Wouldn't you wish you could have changed that experience?  And maybe you tried, actually, I'm sure you did your best. The thing is, that when we get aroused our brain automatically orients us outwards scanning the surroundings. We are desperately trying to manage and fix ourselves and the situation. Paradoxically we cannot change our inner experience of what is happening by fixing and reacting to what's around us. We need to direct our attention inwards instead.

Baseline exercise for practicing grounding

Here is a 4-step exercise sequence to help you direct your attention to your senses and get started with grounding. You can do the exercises sitting or standing. Note that with grounding exercises, we first place the attention to the peripherals of the body, meaning your hands, feet, arms, and legs. Focusing on the viscera and sensations in the upper body without grounding, may feel intense and even overwhelming. Also, notice how easy or difficult the exercise is for you. Feeling into the body’s sensation requires a skill called interception. It’s the brain's ability to notice what’s going on in the body. This exercise sequence also helps to develop and train that skill

  • 1) Notice your breath. Do not try to change it, but just notice the pace and depth of your breathing.
  • 2) Cross your arms around your body. Feel the touch of your hand and how the arms contain the beginnings and endings of your upper body. If you feel like it, you can rock slowly from side to side as if moving to a slow peace of music.
  • 3) Bring your attention to your feet. If you are sitting down while doing the exercise, make sure you can place both feet flat on the ground. Notice how your feet feel against the surface beneath. You can shuffle your feet in a slow and smooth movement against the ground, one foot at a time.
  • 4) Now, place your hands against your thighs and bring your attention to the touch. You can also place them on a table. Move them slowly against the surface and notice the touch and the structure of the surface.
  • Bonus step: Turn your head from left to right, up and down. Take a look around the room you are in, noticing furniture, colors, and people that are around.

Take a moment to notice if anything has changed: maybe the breath is different, maybe your vision got clearer, or your thinking is different. Overall you may feel calmer or - on the contrary - more activated or focused. This depends on where you are coming from in terms of the state your ANS before you did the exercise.

We often exhibit orienting movements such as described in the exercise naturally and unconsciously when we are well connected and attuned to our bodies, but it may also take us some practice. As we develop an ever-stronger sense of "groundedness", it's time to place the exercise in the context of singing.

Next level: practice for peak performance

If you want the full benefits of grounding, it is best to start practice off-stage when you are calm and comfortable. A simple exercise you can practice in day-to-day-context is to start off with a grounding exercise, and then when you go about your doings,  whether that is writing a blog, singing, or having a conversation with someone, keep aware of the sensation your body has of the environment. This can be feeling the feet touching the ground, or feeling your sit bones against the chair.

Being grounded means being connected to the body’s experience of its self in its environment and maintaining that connection while we are engaged in action.

Being grounded means being connected to the body’s experience of its self in its environment and maintaining that connection while we are engaged in action. In the context of vocal performance, this means listening and communicating with fellow musicians, interacting with the audience, maintaining technique, your storytelling, etc.,.. all the while remaining connected to your bodily sensation. This connection is also a prerequisite for the authentic embodiment and presence.

The mind is the body

In addition to body-based practice, a mindful and compassionate mindset is key in achieving our fullest performance potential.  In my experience, these two go hand in hand: singers might not gain optimal (lasting) benefits from performance psychology and mental training if the regulation at the nervous system level is not in place, and vice versa.

We need the ability to stay with our bodily experiences in order to contain the intensity of performing, to be present performers, and express authentically. And we need the mental skills to navigate our thoughts and feelings and to prompt us towards meaningful action. We may be conditioned to separate body and mind (especially in the west), but singing and embodied performance is all about the system operating as one whole. There is no real division between body and mind, except the conceptual ways we have been thought to think of them

So back to the beginning and this instructor who prompted me about the tree. Turns out, she gave me exactly the exercise I needed but wasn’t ready for. Maybe it would have made a difference if she had given me a bit more context to have me buy into the exercise, but as everything happens for a reason, I'm am much happier having my own adventure figuring it out.


  • *The parasympathetic branch divides into two branches: the dorsal vagal and ventral vagal.
  • For people wanting to know more of the theory, technical terms, and science behind my writings, I can warmly recommend learning about Steven Porges's Polyvagal Theory (Here is a YouTube explaining the theory). You are also heartily welcome to send me a message! Inspiration from this blog comes from many sources, from yoga to Feldenkrais, and especially the teachings of Peter Levine on somatic work.
  • Want to build-up your peak performance? Take a look at the ways we can work together.