Singing and the Inner Game of Tennis

Singing and the Inner Game of Tennis
The game inside your head may be the most important one to master…

Tennis pro Timothy Gallwey made a discovery that changed his game and led to a book that has impacted the lives of millions. In a nutshell, Gallwey became aware that in a tennis match, 2 games were happening simultaneously: 1. the outer game played against an external opponent, obstacles and goals and  2. the inner game of perceptions, feelings and attitudes occurring in one’s mind. His next discovery was that things were not well in his mind!

Self-confidence and spontaneous performance were getting blocked by negative thought patterns. These patterns were seizing up the flow of his abilities. When Gallwey focused on improving his inner game, his outer game was transformed.

Is it any different for the singer? VoiceCouncil has asked vocal coach Melissa Cross to explore the inner transformation that can set a vocalist free to realize their potential. To do this, we’ve asked Melissa to first reflect on Gallwey’s insight, looking at the factors that can cause a downward spiral in the mind.

The Vocalist’s Downward Spiral

The path to the seizure of vocal abilities is no mystery:

  • We Get Down On Ourselves For Not Doing As Well As We Ought

  • During performance, a desire to correct past mistakes in order to make a “better, improved” moment creates an inner voice that causes absolute havoc: ‘you’re probably going to get it wrong’.  This new voice is actually a very old familiar voice that originated with a parent, a past teacher or another authority figure who thought that getting things right should begin with a good dose of criticism.  The entire process of learning as a child can involve older people telling the child that they are “wrong”. This leads to a sense of inadequacy.  Focusing on what we lack never leads to the kind of flow essential for vocal performance. Any mental process that involves “thoughts” instead of a “sensory” experience of the present interrupts the breath flow essential for vocal performance.

  • We Demand That We Change

  • ‘Open up your throat!’  ‘Breathe from your abdomen!’  ‘What a loser, your pitch is embarrassing; thank God you have a day job!’ These commands, almost always delivered to ourselves in the second person replace the intuition required for the synchronicity of breath pressure and vocal fold closure, resulting in vocal “jerkiness” of a lack of “flow”. When we “think thoughts in words”, we hold the breath. Commands involve words and words relay conceptual ideas. Singing is not a conceptual idea.  It is an experience!

  • We Force Ourselves to do it Right

  • Now that we have criticized ourselves and told ourselves what to do (usually without civility!), we dedicate ourselves to yet ANOTHER concept: “correct” performance.  Again, we hold the breath to allow for thinking thoughts and words instead of painting vowels with brush strokes across the air, or launching them like lasers to the back wall of a venue. Thoughts and concepts limit the intuitive creative process.  You can’t be in experiential mode if you are in “judgment” or “observational” mode. The mind cannot be in “thinking” mode and “creative” mode simultaneously. Creativity is blocked completely in a sincere attempt to give a performance that can be described with words such as “good” and “correct”.

  • We Are Critical About Whatever Has Been Achieved

  • One more stiff performance leaves the singer dissatisfied with the entire endeavor. This results in the forcing of more change though a repetition of negative thinking.  Frustration and tension abounds.

    The Vocalist’s Upward Spiral

    Melissa Cross reveals an insight that came early in her career as a vocal coach: “Clients would demonstrate magical results within a very short time. It often felt that I was destined to deliver some divine oracle to vocalists on the planet!  However, I know that NO technique can be THAT good.  Eventually I realized that it was not so much WHAT I was teaching but HOW I was teaching. I was simply assisting an essential state of mind FEELING rather than THINKING, which resulted in spontaneity, focus and confidence”.

    These are the steps that free vocal ability:

  • Be Aware Without Judgments

  • When we think about what we love about our favorite vocalists, it is most often a result of a lack of self-centeredness and sincere love of the moment which shines throughout their performance. Such freedom is only possible when we begin to be aware without judgment.
    If one were to observe single objects in their immediate surroundings, labeling them one by one in the mind without associating any meaning to them, this would simulate the necessary state of mind for singing.  Eliminating thoughts pertaining to the past and the future is only possible by a replacement of an awareness of the present.  That awareness is EXPERIENTIAL and not INTELLECTUAL.  This is the ideal mental approach for vocal performance that eliminates the judgmental and competitive approach that hinders the creative process. This is the quiet within which we are truly free to create, remaining calm and aware.

  • Use Images To Move Forward

  • The singing voice becomes free when imagery replaces mechanics.  A singing career moves forward freely when enjoyment and gratitude replace rigidity and conspiracy.  Instead of commands, concepts and words, imagine that you actually ARE doing what you want to be doing.  Where are you? What are you doing? Who is near? What does this look like? What pictures emerge in the mind?  Live and nurture these images.  Be careful not to let an ego-driven self centered trance intrude upon the mind.  Many vocalists are caught in a “lead-singer” trance, imagining themselves front and centre, gaining applause and fame.  However, a trance is a daydream, not a sustaining image.

  • Stay In These Images

  • Think of these two opposite states of mind: “paint a vowel across the air” vs.  “sing a note”. The first is sensual, alive and unafraid; the latter is conceptual, stifling and contrived.   Images help us to maintain a momentum of enjoyment in the most mundane tasks of everyday living, as well as in the glorious moments of great vocal performance. This present tense, imagery driven experience invites prosperity by its prosperous living.  When we really want something, we can acknowledge its presence in our mind in such a way that we can make choices to nurture it, so that it can continue to be enjoyed.  Like a tip jar on the counter, an endeavor is bound to be noticed and rewarded by its mere presence. Acting as if we already have something magnetizes the energy or prosperity it takes to achieve it.

  • Practice Gratitude and Love

  • It is often easier to operate within the restrictive conditions of self-criticism and judgment because such a conditional mindset is familiar.  If one promises that they will “try to do their best” and “their best” has always involved a great deal of effort, such effort is customarily associated with “control”.

    It is extremely difficult to accept that something as easy as experiencing gratitude and love would do much of anything! But if you’ve already had enough self-criticism, bad feelings and judgments (not to mention unsatisfactory vocal performances) you may be ready to operate in the RIGHT NOW.  In other words, we are talking about moving from a mindset of poverty to a sense of wellbeing and self-love. This is achieved by exercising one’s personal choice to use the same headspace that was previously the seat of criticism for imaging what we can do in vocal technique.

    When you are in love, you can feel like a baby. The fear factor in the chaos of letting go feels like a free-fall into something beyond one’s control.  Free-fall is scary because we don’t know what is going to happen next. That’s when we get scared and try to protect ourselves.   But the free-fall is a “state of grace” which is the basis of the flexibility, spontaneity and awareness that comes with love.

    The Next Step

    There’s an outer game of vocal performance: an audience, a stage, equipment, reviews, bookings etc.  This outer game is an important world that requires attention and care.  The singer, however, often needs to discover what is happening in the inner world.  Becoming aware of what is going on the in the mind—without judgment—is the first step towards the transformation of vocal ability.


    Timothy Gallwey, The Inner Game of Tennis (London: Pan Books, 1986).

    Melissa Cross

    Melissa Cross is considered worldwide to be an expert on rock vocal technique. Her well-known clientele attest to the fact that the traditional basics of vocal technique can be applied to even the most unorthodox of musical genres. Her unique method of vocal training has culminated in the critically acclaimed release of two vocal instructional DVDs: The Zen of Screaming and The Zen of Screaming 2, available at www.MelissaCross.com.

    Greg Barker is a writer and editor living in the heart of Wales.

    © 2008 Greg Barker and Melissa Cross


    • belchev

      One of the things which makes my performance better and takes the stress off me, is that I sing to make audience happy, and I transform all my feelings into music and energy which I must give to the audience. To sing with love and to feel that the voice is only an instrument for giving and making somebody happy is a chance to relax and forget your vanity. When you forget this, you are able to open the door, that closes your real potential.

    • garymckinney

      I like Belchev's comment about using the voice as an instrument to make the audience happy, but let's face it, it depends on the audience. A successful performance is directly dependent on the audience, their reactions, their support, even the lack of enthusiasm they show. Consciously or subconsciously, it affects performance. And then there's the extreme audiences many of us have had the misfortune to play before where the only thing between you and a beer bottle is a thin layer of chicken wire. In such venues, I doubt anyone is capable of a stellar performance.