Last summer, I was sitting in class at Somatic Voicework™ The LoVetri Method, listening to a lecture on psychological vocal pathologies, when the speech language pathologist said “Consider this, the voice is halfway between our heart and our mind…our voice is our very identity.” For over twenty years, I’ve known this to be true—both personally and professionally—but having it put in such eloquent terms really resonated with me.
In my studio, it is not uncommon for a teen or adult student to begin crying mid-lesson, seemingly without reason, when we find some new vocal freedom or ease, or even when they feel stuck or frustrated. Other times, singing and connecting with the characterization of a song can help to release pent up emotions from the body that a singer may not have felt safe enough to allow themselves to feel outside of performance.
Through the research that I continue to discover, as well as in my own experience with healing my trauma via singing, I have found that there is actually a scientific reason that singing is so emotional: there is a physiological integration of cortical and subcortical structures involved in laryngeal motor control (Christy Ludlow, 2015). In other words, there exists a direct link between the voice and the part of the brain (the amygdala) that controls our nervous system, which includes memory recall and our primitive fight-flight-freeze responses.
What we love, what we hate, and what we fear are all part of our entire systems, and we voice these things often. Don’t we? Our voice trembles when we are afraid. Our pitch goes up when we are excited. We get louder and our tone hardens when we are angry. Our emotions are highly evident within the expression of our voice as part of our identity, and singing is a powerful extension of this phenomenon that is exclusive to us humans.
In addition to the physical and emotional aspects of vocalizing, there is also an abundance of science behind our understanding of social connection in relation to singing. Tribal ceremonies, church services, sporting events, holiday music, singing lullabies to our children, etc., are all examples of the ways in which singing connects us as a group and as a species. You don’t have to be a religious or spiritual person to know that to sing together is to belong to each other while creating an unspoken understanding that existence goes far beyond that which we can see and hear: it’s science. Our respiratory rates and heartbeats actually sync up when we sing together. Singing with others also makes us feel good, releasing dopamine and oxytocin, which increases our sense of bonding with other humans as well as our sense of safety and trust (Stacy Horn, 2013).
I have come to accept the unexpected emotions that sometimes overwhelm my students during lessons as a normal part of my job as a voice teacher. Because of this emotional and bonding connection, the relationship between a student and their voice teacher can be a close and important one. Often, my students feel safe enough to tell me their trauma stories in between working on freeing their instruments. It is incredible to watch a person step into their power and sense of worthiness while working through deep, emotional trauma with something as simple as a vocal exercise or connecting with a character’s experience within a song.
While I am always careful to give space for such students to explore, share, and feel validated, and am honored to be so trusted, I have also learned to recognize when a particular trauma coming to light within a voice lesson is worth referral to a licensed therapist if they do not already see someone on a regular basis. Many people find the strength to finally seek therapy from the unburdening they felt singing in a lesson and I think that’s amazing!
The majority of the emotional work that I do with students involves untangling their own negative beliefs about their singing, most commonly as inflicted by the words and actions of others. I cannot even begin to explain how damaging it is to someone to be told that their singing voice is bad. These negative beliefs can even show up as actual vocal pathology through psychogenic voice disorders, in which people develop muscle tension, raspiness, or a complete inability to phonate without any physical cause. Many such students constantly apologize for the way they sound, and it’s heartbreaking.
Despite the general understanding that telling someone they “suck” is mean, it can be emotionally damaging. Yet there are still those who feel it their “duty” to point out when they think someone else’s voice is not up to snuff. Even the words “Don’t quit your day job” may be enough to silence someone, whether expressed candidly or in jest.
Most of the people doling out such unhelpful advice (incorrectly) believe themselves to be superior vocalists when compared to others. See the definition of Dunning-Kruger effect for an explanation on that. Their verbal judgement is misguided at best and emotionally traumatic at worst. These negative comments are especially damning when coming from teachers, directors, and caregivers that students really look up to for safety and guidance. Students come into lessons so afraid to even open their mouths saying things like:
- “I can’t sing. I don’t know why I’m here.”
- “I’m tone deaf.”
- “I’m always too loud/soft.”
- “My teacher says that Stacy is a better singer than me.”
- “I don’t have any natural talent.”
- “I’ll never be good enough.”
- “I like singing, but I’m horrible.”
- “My high school choir teacher told me to just mouth the words in concerts for 4 years.”
- “My mother told me not to let anyone hear me singing.”
The list of things that people have been told and taken to heart about their singing voice goes on and on, and it makes me angry thinking about the damage I have seen inflicted and the number of times I have sat and cried with a student over the loss they felt when they were silenced. To silence a singing voice is to silence a whole individual, stripping them of their social identity and their God-given rights of belonging and worthiness. This false narrative can spill over into other aspects of someone’s life outside of singing, even to the point where people become fearful of standing up for themselves or voicing ideas in the workplace. In short, they are hearing:
- “You don’t have value.”
- “Just keep everything to yourself.”
- “You don’t belong.”
- “You’re not good enough.”
That last one is the worst of all. One of the most difficult but most beloved parts of my job as a teacher is to deconstruct the lies ingrained from the words and actions of others giving someone back their voice. Nothing brings me greater joy than to see someone learn to love to sing again, with freedom, as the very best version of themselves that they have to offer. It is never mine to give back, but theirs to take back!
No one holds claim over art, creation, and expression. “Play” is vital for mental well-being, and music and singing is the most accessible form of play. We sing in the car, in the shower, in church, at sporting events, at concerts, and so on. We have to stop telling kids and adults to not “quit their day job” when it comes to singing. EVERYONE CAN AND DOES AND SHOULD SING. And everyone deserves the chance to learn, grow, and heal, both from the harmful words of their past as well as from traumatic events, through music’s healing resources.
Singing can be transformative if a safe space is created in which singers may explore the ways in which their voices work. Singing is healing, and even though sometimes healing hurts, trust me when I say that the rewards of getting back out there far outweigh the perceived benefits of stifling creativity to try to armor up against the hurtful words and actions of those who would seek to silence you.
In my studio, I have seen people who were unable to match pitch, and who felt so ashamed and humiliated about how they sounded, gain the confidence and tools needed to go on to major in music in college and have successful careers. And where a career in music was not their aspiration, sometimes it is enough to just feel safe to sing from the hymnal in the congregation again. Natural talent has never been a prerequisite to the success, enjoyment, and healing attributes of vocalization.
So I challenge you, today, to speak to your shame and start singing again. Right now, in your car, in your shower, while you clean your house, while you’re laughing, while you’re crying, SING OUT! Unapologetically. Uninhibitedly. Freely. Music belongs to everyone, allow yourself to remember why you once enjoyed singing in the first place. It’s still in you, and it’s still yours. I promise. You can reclaim your voice and your identity with a little trust and bravery, and if you’re feeling called out for having been one of the people who unintentionally hurt someone by saying something mean, apologize and change your behavior. Let’s all seek betterment and connection through music instead of seeking to isolate, humiliate, or silence.