The Mantra Technique

This post is about the idea of using silent or imagined vocalizations as an aid in performing instrumental music – it’s about the idea of “singing in one’s mind” as one plays.

In vocal music, or even in instrumental transcriptions of vocal music, the performer can rely on both the meaning and the structure of the text as basis for interpreting the notes themselves.  But when there are no words at play – when the written music is a step removed from the voice and spoken language – the instrumentalist has more decisions to make, and perhaps a greater challenge in making the music “sing.”

There are some common ways a performer might rely on inner vocalization as an aid to interpretation, even when playing instrumental music with no associated text.  When working on the rhythmic structure of a piece, a musician might imagine rhythmic syllables like “1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a” or the “ta ke di mi” syllables used in Indian classical music.  When working on the pitch content of a piece, a musician might imagine solfège syllables like “do re mi fa so la ti do” or “sa re ga ma pa da ni sa.”  When focusing on the dramatic aspects of a piece, a musician might imagine that there is some story or plot behind it, although the “text” of that story might not be matched to the music note-for-note.  And when performing a piece on an instrument, a musician might imagine herself singing at the same time, possibly using nonce or scat syllables (“da ba da ba dee ba”) or a simple hum (“mm mmm mmm”).

What’s less common – in fact I haven’t found any explicit discussions of this approach – is to take a piece of instrumental music and actually create very specific imaginary lyrics for the music so that each note is matched to a specific word.  It’s this idea of singing a specific text in one’s mind that I’d like to focus on here: not just using scat syllables, and not just maintaining a general sense of some story that’s transpiring as the piece goes on, but actually setting the music to words in one’s mind and singing those words internally as one plays.

There are two ways to do this.  First, one can treat it as a serious literary exercise, where an effort is made to find lyrics that fit the mood and style of the music – lyrics that would sound good if the performer really did sing them aloud.  This is a fascinating and challenging project to undertake, and it deserves to be discussed separately – it leads into all the complexities and possibilities of lyric writing as an art form.

Here I’d like to focus on a second approach which is much simpler and easier to experiment with, but still valuable.  The idea is to pick a phrase which one treats as a “mantra” that gets repeated throughout the duration of the piece.  For example, if you’re playing or improvising a blues piece, your mantra could be the phrase “I’ve got the blues.”  If you’re going to play a line with a simple rhythmic structure – “da da da da” – you would say “I’ve got the blues” in your mind as you play the four notes of the line, with each note being matched to one word of the mantra.  If you want to play a line that’s twice the length – “da da da da da da da da” – you could simply say “I’ve got the blues” twice.  But what if you want to play a line with a different rhythmic structure, like “da dada da da”?  Here, you can vary the mantra using any of the linguistic operations that we typically use to embellish sentences.  For example, you could say “I’ve really got the blues” with the word “really” matched to the “dada” rhythm.  What if you want to play a line with five beats like “da da da da da”?   You could say “I’ve got the blue blues,” or “I’ve got the blues bad.”  The important points are that 1) you’re always repeating the mantra in your mind and matching its words to the notes you’re playing, and 2) you’re embellishing the mantra-sentence as necessary to accommodate rhythmic variations and complexities in the lines that you’re playing.

Since you’re not actually singing the mantra aloud, you can be quite free with how you embellish it and you don’t need stick to things that are tasteful or pleasant.  In performing a longer musical phrase you might come up with a mantra embellishment like “I really really really really really really really-really got the blue blues bad, I do.”  You’re the only one who’s going to hear it.

It’s nice if there’s some connection between the mantra and the music you’re playing (i.e. “I’ve got the blues” is a good mantra for actually performing the blues) but it’s not entirely necessary.  You could use the “I’ve got the blues” mantra while performing Bach, for example, or you could change the words to “I like your smile” or “I want some cheese” and many of the effects of using the mantra would remain the same.

So what are those effects?  Why bother using a mantra if it’s going to lead to repetitive and convoluted variations like “I really really really really really really really-really got the blue blues bad, I do”?  Wouldn’t one be better off just humming silently or using scat syllables like “Ba daba daba daba daba daba daba dabadaba ba da boo bop boo bop”?

In my own experiments I’ve found there’s something very powerful about mentally pronouncing an actual sentence as one plays, as opposed to simply imagining scat syllables that are not constrained by any kind of linguistic grammar.  No matter how ugly the mantra becomes as a sentence through expansion and embellishment, it’s still a sentence, while a sequence of scat syllables is not.  For me the value of using a mantra is that it connects the part of my mind that “knows” how to form and interpret sentences with the part of my mind that knows how to play my instrument and manipulate pitches.  Having an actual sentence in mind as I play heightens my sense of music as a kind of speech, even if I’m not focusing on the meaning of the sentence but only exploiting its grammatical structure, the fact that it has a beginning, middle, and end, that it has clauses, that it has nouns, verbs, modifiers, and so on.

These are some specific advantages I’ve found to using a mantra:

  • *When I’m playing a pre-composed piece, the mantra forces me to pay attention and prevents me from “zoning out” even if I’ve rehearsed the piece hundreds of times, because I need to constantly take care to align the mantra text with the notes I’m playing.  I tend not to write out the mantra text beforehand.  I keep the text-to-music association as something that I create on the fly.  That text-to-music association (the way I embellish the mantra to make it fit the music) comes out a bit differently each time, keeping the performance fresh.
  • When I’m improvising, the mantra sometimes gives me rhythmic ideas, in that I find myself playing the rhythm created by a certain linguistic embellishment of the mantra-sentence.
  • When I’m improvising, the mantra encourages me to build phrases with discernible arcs, and to take “breaths” between phrases, in the same way the mantra-sentence has its own “shape” and I would take breaths between sentences if actually speaking.  The mantra reminds me that phrases need to end, like sentences do.
  • The mantra gives me ideas ideas about articulation, in that I might imagine saying a word from the mantra in a particular way and then apply that same gesture to the note I’m playing.  For example if I imagine pronouncing the word “blues” with a sigh, I might then look for a way to create a sighing effect in the note or phrase that I’m playing at the same time.
  • When I’m improvising, the mantra creates a kind of linkage between successive phrases: I will imagine myself pronouncing the same mantra-sentence in different ways, and the musical phrases that I’m playing then come out sounding like contrasting variations on a theme.
  • If I’m using a mantra that connects with the music on a semantic level, the mantra helps me stay focused on the feeling I’m trying to express.

Of course, there’s no reason why one should need to stick with the same mantra for an entire piece; you might experiment with a different mantra for each section, and you can experiment by different mantras in the same section and seeing how the choice of mantra influences your interpretation.

This is material that I’ve been dabbling with for a couple of years, and I’m writing this post partially as a note-to-self to remind me to keep exploring it, and as an invitation to others to try it out and share their experiences with it.  I hope it gives you some new ideas to work with; if you already practice something like this, please tell me about it!

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