The road to mindfulness

Recently, a charming and creative Italian man came through Paris and took three lessons with me in close succession. He was intrigued by the vocal technique clips I’ve been posting all year long, and we spent our time together going through one of my simple vocal exercises. You can watch the exercise in question below.

If you don’t want to watch it, let me describe the exercise briefly. Holding a steady pitch, sing or chant these five syllables in sequence: “hi hey hew hoe who.” That’s all there is to it.

I’ll call my student “Giuseppe,” although his real name is “Martino.” Giuseppe was a good sport and played all the games I proposed during the lessons. We enjoyed each other’s company and we made a lot of progress together. At some point fairly late during the lessons, Giuseppe asked me a keen question: “What’s the purpose of this exercise?”

I confess that at first I was a little stumped, for two reasons: (1) to me, the purpose of the exercises was obvious; (2) and Giuseppe was learning so many things that I thought the purpose of the exercise was obvious to him, too. But nothing is as obvious as you assume it is, and every question has a right to be asked. Not to mention that Giuseppe was probably teasing me. All the same, I got thinking about his question, and here I am sharing what I gathered.

Any situation can be described from multiple perspectives, and my exercise is no exception. We can describe it technically: five syllables, each starting with the aitch consonant and then going on to a diphthong, except for the last syllable (which is a straight-up vowel). The first vowel sound of each syllable follows an alphabetical order: A E I O U.

Or we can describe it as if writing a poem about it.

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I met James briefly during a recent trip. You can guess where we were by sussing out the landmark reflected on his eyeglasses.

I met James briefly during a recent trip. You can guess where we were by sussing out the landmark reflected on his eyeglasses.

Most of the above applies to all exercises. Perhaps we can simplify it and state that our task in life is to achieve embodied mindfulness. The means we use to achieve it are relatively unimportant. Playing attention to your breath? It has worked beautifully for thousands of years. Tai chi in the park every morning? Yes! Walking around the neighborhood taking photos? Perfect. Starting conversations with strangers during your travels? Nothing better. Lengthening a little syllable and spinning out its diphthong? It makes me so happy I could cry.

To begin with, Giuseppe approached the exercise hesitantly, as if he wasn’t even sure he wanted to do it. Why? Ah, there may be many reasons. Perhaps he was shy about vocalizing in front of someone else. He told me that his mother tongue doesn’t have the aitch sound, and that he was uncomfortable making it. Giuseppe kept messing up the syllables’ order. Have you ever looked up a telephone number, and two seconds later when you start dialing it you have already forgotten it? You look at the number again, and . . . again, you forget it before you dial it. To absorb information is a tricky business. If you don't think so, try to reproduce the Chinese characters below. How many times would you have to look at the photo to get the characters right?


Giuseppe would start the exercise, and within a microsecond he’d start twisting his neck and shoulder. Why? Ah, there are always many reasons for any one thing! Giuseppe didn’t control his vocal apparatus, and he compensated by trying to do, with his neck and shoulders, what his vocal folds and pharynx and tongue wouldn’t do. By the same token, once he started getting the hang of the exercise, his neck and shoulders became totally relaxed and organized . . . showing that vocal organization is total-body organization.

Giuseppe would run out of air in the middle of sustaining a word, and he would gasp for air and “editorialize” it; I mean, he made a grimace, a joke, or a comment about running out of air. It’s as if he was underlining the very fact of gasping: “Hey, everyone! Did you hear my horrible gasp? Hey!” Then he’d start the sequence again, and for some reason he’d keep his cool and not run out of air. And this without giving any thought to his breathing. His breath was a function of his overall approach: incoherent or coherent.

It’s wonderful to watch someone calm down, enter the moment, and think clearly about something. The transformation is total; the whole person becomes different, in posture, breath, voice, and vibration. Giuseppe would just stand there, looking poised and elegant; he’d do the exercise to perfection, spinning every sound with ease and care; he wouldn’t gasp or tighten his shoulders or editorialize; he’d “be.”

If you’re interested in it all, you can practice the exercise by yourself, following the clip on YouTube. Or come work with me in Paris . . . it’s a beautiful city, did you know that?

©2018, Pedro de Alcantara