Voice professor channels her recovery from illness into a new book
For some authors, the process of writing can be agonizing.
In the case of Denise Bernardini, D.M.A., however, agony was what motivated her to start her latest book.
She co-wrote “The Mindfulness of Singing: Creating a Harmonious Mind, Body, and Spirit" with her friend Toni Crowder, and it was published in late January.
Bernardini is a Radford University assistant professor of voice and opera, and a classical vocalist who, in 2017, began experiencing aches and pains in her legs and lower back.
It was probably sciatica, she told herself, hoping it would improve on its own. It did not. On the contrary, it steadily intensified until, finally, it became impossible to ignore.
“I woke up one day, and I could not get out of bed,” Bernardini recalled. “I was in such terrible pain, just debilitating.”
Doctors diagnosed her with stenosis of the spine – a narrowing of spaces within the spinal column, often caused by injury or aging, which creates painful pressure – and they recommended surgery as soon as possible.
After surveying a range of options, however, Bernardini opted to take a different approach to the problem.
“I said I would like them to send me to physical therapy for six weeks. And if I’m not better within six weeks, I’ll be back, and we’ll see what we can do," she said.
She also began taking joint health supplements, underwent cold water therapy, started walking about 15,000 steps each day and gave her fridge a cleansing purge.
“I threw out every bit of disgusting food in my house,” she said. “All the processed food? Out of the house!”
Although Bernardini had maintained a fairly active lifestyle prior to that, the enhanced level of work she was doing quickly began to make a clear difference.
“Physical therapy helped me get upright. I don’t have any problems with stenosis anymore. I’m pain-free from that,” she said in January.
Another valuable benefit emerged as well. As she recovered, she found that her voice had regained a greater range, and she could hit higher notes that previously had drifted away from her.
“I started singing and went, ‘Oh, my God!’ And it was like a lightbulb went off in my head,” Bernardini recalled. “I’d been doing all these things. Eating better. Doing all this movement, all this stretching. And it literally gave my voice a reset.
“If your body isn’t healthy, the mechanism suffers. You really have to treat the body as if it’s your entire instrument. You can’t ignore a part of the instrument. That’d be like trying to play a wind instrument and going, ‘Oh, so what if my reed is cracked.’”
Armed with those revelations, she decided to build a book around them.
She pitched the idea to her close friend, Toni Crowder, a yoga teacher and performer, and together they devised methods to link the practice of mindfulness to the use of one’s voice. Their book walks readers through what the authors call the “SING method,” a four-step process to help bring awareness to the mind, body and spirit.
“I say this all the time. The mechanism for singing is here,” Bernardini said, pointing to her throat. “And here is where the voice lies,” she added, touching her forehead.
“And if those things are disconnected in any way, singing suffers, artistry suffers, and getting something across to the audience suffers.”
As she and Crowder were writing the book, they also launched a podcast on the same subject and with the same title, “The Mindfulness of Singing.” Between late 2020 and early 2022, they hosted 36 episodes, ranging from about 30 minutes to an hour, which are free on iTunes, YouTube and Spotify. Now that their book has been published, they hope to resume producing episodes later this year.
Ultimately, while her book is about singing, Bernardini said it’s not just for seasoned performers.
“I’d like the book to be for everybody, anybody, whether they sing or not," she said. "People who struggle with being mindful can find a path to it using the power of the voice. If you sing in the shower or in your car, this could be a fun book for you.”
“The voice is so integral to who we are, and the vibratory response of the body is very powerful."