Performer’s Presence: Congruence, Dissociation and Double-Dissociation

Evan Bortnick    Wiesbaden

Evan Bortnick

Gesangsunterricht Wiesbaden

A former Zen monk once told me the following story;

“Three students stood on a mountain top.

The first said: ‘I wish I were a bird. I could fly over the mountains.’

The second said: ‘I wish I were two birds. I could watch myself fly over the mountains.’

The third said: ‘I wish I were three birds, I could watch myself watching myself fly over the mountains’.”

This story hit me square between the eyes without my really knowing why. I sat with it for a while before I realized; the story is a reference to just what had me preoccupied in those days: Association, Dissociation and Double-Dissociation! This was one of my primary focuses as a singer at the time, which is probably why the X-Zen-Monk Friend told it to me in the first place. First off, my less-than-mature conception of singing/performing, (in part inspired by popular books from then like: “Be Here Now!”), was that anything less than 100% Presence and “Association” was simply bad! Yet I had known really great singers who, when asked what they’re focused on during difficult passages in an aria, responded; “what I’m going to eat after the performance!” Definitely not 100% associated, yet definitely great singing. That began the germ of an idea. Perhaps there is a multi-contextual set of ideals regarding “Presence”. Even more radical, for me anyway; perhaps ideals change not only within differing contexts, but also from person to person! This radical idea (stop laughing, I could be pretty opinionated and one-dimensional in my youth) was the beginning of a personal research project into the question of ‘presence’ and ‘association/dissociation’.

So I began to ask myself; if our reality is at least in some measure a construct and ‘presence’ is part of this reality, what is the optimum construction of associated presence from one situation to another? “Flow” states, as described by M. Csikszentmihalyi in his book by that title, are surely one of the best examples of associated presence, the “Be Here Now” variation. Definitely desirable when Flow states are optimal. When is then Dissociation optimal? (The question wouldn’t even have occurred to me in my youth!) The results of my personal research project began to congeal two classes of circumstances in which dissociation was not only desirable, it was optimal. The first is any kind of stressful, painful or potentially traumatic situation. This became eminently clear in my first visit to that doctor who puts a camera, mounted on a long tube, in some very private areas of the lower anatomy. What I discovered is that 100% Be-Here-Now is definitely not the best policy. Thanks to my ability to dissociate, to become the second bird, watching myself from a comfortable distance, I was able to painlessly joke with the doctor without any form of anesthetic. A most useful discovery! This has recently been backed up by some fascinating scientific research. One of our most functional survival mechanisms, aside from the well-known ‘fight or flight’ reactions, is our ability to ‘Freeze’. Without going into too much detail, the Vagal nerve acts as a brake on the entire autonomic nervous system (especially the heart), throwing us into a rapid and potentially life-saving parasympathetic state. This has multiple advantages. When wounded, because of reduced heart rate and blood pressure, we bleed less. In addition many of our carnivorous natural enemies only ate fresh meat. In playing dead, these predators potentially lost interest, allowing our escape. We often experience this vagal brake as a light form of dissociation. It works the other way around as well. That means it is also possible to trigger this reaction by dissociating.

The other area where dissociation is optimal is in any kind of behavioral tweaking. If we’re unsatisfied with a particular reaction or behavior, yet find it difficult to curb this reaction or behavior, it’s advantageous to be the second bird and watch yourself flying over the mountains for a while. In this way it is easier to modify our flight movements and increase efficiency. Of course we pay a price over the short term for a loss of spontaneity and presence. We gain, however, over the long term, a newer form of spontaneity and presence. So what we lose over the short term, when done well, we gain back with increase over the long term!

Double Dissociation is a quite interesting phenomenon. I’ve found it often solidifies learning. Consider the following statement; “When you allow that quality of resonance as a strong feeling in your mask area, you notice how right it feels. Can you also notice how right it is that it feels right?” This may sound like double-talk to some, but the meta-states that considering this kind of question puts us in is often the key to ‘one-time learning’. Double dissociation assists learning strategies in many contexts. A second area where doubly dissociating helps is in the optimization of our memory constructs. How many of us know the phenomenon, when we have a conversation that didn’t run according to our standards and we repeat this conversation over and over in our heads (sometimes close to the point of madness!). This is, in itself, a dissociation. Doubly dissociating on the memory and listening to yourself listen to yourself often brings these kinds of internal loops to a standstill.

How many of you have said or heard sentences like: “I listen to my inner voice.”… “I’m asking myself what I want here.”… or “I told myself to stop doing that.”? These are all double dissociations! “I listen to MY inner Voice.” I=Bird1, My=Bird2, InnerVoice=Bird3. We do it all the time, often without knowing. We do it because it does something valuable for us. Like anything, we can use the one or the other in a non-productive way. Never underestimate the human capacity to exaggerate something unhealthily. This does not mean, however, that each of these states does not have its valuable place!

This is crucial point not only for singers, but for teachers of singers as well. We can and should support optimal dissociated learning strategies in our students. This is even truer if we have the ability to accompany and guide the students into and out of these states when integrating new learning. I invite you to begin your own research program and to let me know what you discover!

Evan Bortnick    Wiesbaden

Evan Bortnick

Gesangsunterricht Wiesbaden


About evanb54

I'm a passionate, curious learning junkie--- an X-Opera Singer turned Voice Teacher, Voice Teachers Teacher, NLP Lehrtrainer, Off-Path Coach, Cranio-Sacral worker and a few other even less mainstream things. Everything I've learned or taught revolves around THE VOICE. The Voice as a tool of artistic expression. The Voice as a tool of emotional transparency. The voice as a tool of flexible communication. More information can be found at my Institute Site: The Wiesbaden Academy of the Vocal Muse Gesangsunterricht Wiesbaden, Coaching, Voice Pedagogy
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2 Responses to Performer’s Presence: Congruence, Dissociation and Double-Dissociation

  1. Kristin Elizabeth Morris says:

    Absolutely! My best singing occurs when I am imagining what I would want to hear if I was sitting in the audience listening to the singer. What do I as a listener want to get out of a performance I am attending? And it completely works with my students. Once again you’ve put into far better words than I can what I have discovered through 30+ years of teaching trials and errors. Thank you. One thing: I thought the word was “dissassociation” Are you leaving the “ass” out on purpose or accidentally? I’m no expert in this so am only grabbing at that term from psychological talks I’ve heard.

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