Byron Katie’s “The Work” in the Voice Studio



Know Thyself.

This aphorism comes to us from the Ancient Greeks, who inscribed this saying in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.

To know oneself in singing is to be familiar with the act of singing, and also with the psyche and its effect on the singing instrument.

We can never divorce the MIND from the VOICE, they are two related systems and are influenced by each other. Pre-conceptualization of the voice and the ego have a direct bearing on how we go about making vocal sound. We tend to phonate in a way that preserves our pre-concept of how we think we SHOULD sound, or what our specific musical style requires. This is one of the main reasons why changing the vocal technique can be so difficult; we are investigating the sense of self in SOUND.

The process of knowing oneself is what Socrates referred to as the “Examined Life” or self-inquiry. Being able to examine your thinking about singing, how you relate to the ACT of doing it, and your feelings about your own voice are powerful tools for self-realization and further development. If you never question the whys and wherefores of your technique and music making, you will be prevented from more profound insights and understanding of yourself in song.

Questioning your beliefs has a POWERFUL impact on every aspect of your life. However, since this is a blog about singing, my post will focus on those issues.

Many singers and teachers carry around ‘unquestioned’ beliefs about the singing voice, the market, and the end-result of the singing process. They have not questioned these beliefs and carry them around in loyalty to another teacher or musical influence.  Add to unquestioned beliefs the many stressful thoughts that singers think while taking lessons, coaching, or performing, and you have a recipe for anxiety, fear, depression, and frustration – in short, suffering.

The litany of singers’s stressful thoughts could fill books:

  • “I’m not old enough”
  • “I’m too old to sing X”
  • “I’m not pretty enough/skinny enough”
  • “They (panels/auditioners/directors/conductors) don’t LIKE me”
  • “They’re not listening to me”
  • “My voice isn’t ready for X”
  • “I’ll never be able to sing this well”
  • “Everyone is judging me”
  • “I’m not good enough to do this”
  • “I’m not talented enough to sing”
  • “I’m never going to get this”
  • “I don’t have time to think about my technique”
  • “There isn’t enough time to get everything done”
  • “I don’t have what it takes to be a singer”
  • “I’m not talented”

Over the past several years I’ve found a helpful tool in questioning stressful thoughts. The process is Byron Katie’s “The Work,” and it shares much in common with Socratic questioning.

Byron Katie, who founded a process of inquiry called “The Work,” teaches people how to end their OWN suffering by questioning their stressful thoughts. On the surface, this sounds very reductive and simple, and it is. But there is beauty in simplicity. The process is astonishingly simple, and accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds, and requires nothing more than a pen, paper, and an open mind.

The Work teaches you to identify and question the stressful thoughts that cause most of the suffering that occurs in the singer’s mind. One thing that Katie says, “There ARE NO NEW STRESSFUL THOUGHTS – they’re all recycled.” This means that we share a commonality of stressors as singers that have existed throughout all history. There’s comfort in that, as we all share similar fears and stressors.

The Work consists of four questions and a turnaround.

The first thing to do is WRITE DOWN the thought that is causing you pain or grief in your singing or performance. By writing it down, you are ‘stopping the mind.’ This means that you can’t escape the stressful thought because it has been ‘stopped’ on the paper, and it literally staring you in the face. You can no longer run from it.

Once you have stopped the mind, you then pose four questions to this stressful thought:

1. Is it true? (Yes or no. This is not a maybe answer! Notice also if your mind goes into justification – the minute it does the process of inquiry has stopped because you have become defensive. If the answer is NO, move to question 3.)

2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true? (Yes or no.)

3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?

4. Who would you be without that thought?

Once you have answered these questions, you turn AROUND the stressful thought to find out that the opposite of the statement can also be true for yourself.

As a voice teacher, I use this process with students who are struggling with issues of the mind, and stressful thoughts. While I am NOT a psychologist, I do feel that serious issues require the help of a professional. The Work, however, can be a helpful tool for students to question stressful thoughts that prevent them from moving forward in their singing.

As a teacher, I facilitate these questions in the following ways:

  • I hold the space for the four questions, and allow responses to appear from the student. I do not ‘lead the witness,’ nor do I suggest answers for them. This is a process of self-discovery and self-awareness. I merely hold the question in the student’s mind.
  • Listen authentically to the thoughts, vulnerability, and self-awareness of my student and myself.
  • Realize that each student that comes before me is wise, and will find their OWN answers, the ones that are true for THEM.
  • Bring students (and myself) back to the one liner question any time they (or I) wander away from the questions, and remind them that “The Work” STOPS WORKING anytime that they or I move into “because,””but,” justification, or defense.
  • Refrain from interfering with my student’s work by teaching, pushing, or moving away from the four questions and turnarounds through advice or therapy. I only ask the questions – that’s IT.
  • Work with my OWN thoughts whenever I can.

This elegant process has been such a help for singers dealing with stressful thinking about singing, and especially PERFORMANCE related issues. By getting fears and stressors written down, we can effectively work through them together as part of the process.

There’s a lot of freedom and joy that can happen when a student realizes that what prevents them from opening up is their own mind.

On a personal note, I recently did The Work with a student who was experiencing tremendous audition anxiety. In an effort to help her through this, I suggested we do The Work on her stressful thoughts. The main thought that this singing actress came up against was “I’m not good enough.” We worked through the four questions together, and finally came to the last “Who would you be without that thought?” At this last question, this wonderful student began to cry. She had never contemplated how her life, acting, and performing would look like if she didn’t have that thought. For her, it was a realization of greater joy and love in performing. It was a freer sense of childlike happiness in singing and acting, without fear of the stressful thoughts that come with auditioning. (Everything that stresses us in auditions is a PROJECTION of our own minds, I might add.)

From this inquiry, the student was able to go into her audition with a lighter sense of self, total surrender to the process, and renewed love for the art form. This student also BOOKED THE GIG. I have to think that the process of inquiry allowed her to get space between her fear, and the reality of her self-discovery.

For voice teachers that want to learn more about The Work, I recommend reading “Loving What Is,” and visiting the website of Byron Katie to learn more. Weekend intensives can be very helpful to learn the process of The Work, and I have noticed greater peace and patience in my own teaching as a result of attending one.

The Work has been a helpful tool in my studio, and I have found more peace, joy, and understanding as I help students question their stressful thoughts.

You either believe what you think or you question it. There is no other choice. -Byron Katie

For teachers and singers interested in applying The Work, I am excited to announce that I am working with certified Alexander Technique teacher and conductor Peter Jacobson on a helpful workshop this fall in Boston, MA. This workshop will intersect Functional Voice Training, the Alexander Technique, and Byron Katie’s The Work as three parts of a helpful studio process for teachers.

Stay tuned to the studio facebook page for more information on the intersectionas it becomes available:

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