It would be safe to say that my life’s passion has been in the area of vocal expression, whether that be through song, stage performance, or story-telling. Teaching voice over the last 30 years has led me to ask questions concerning the interplay between psyche and voice.
This query, in turn, has persuaded me to deepen and enrich my understanding of human behavior through psychological studies. I now find myself in a crucible where a new interest is being forged—one which transmutes vocal expression into avenues of healing.
In working with voice students I have long been witness to how anxiety, depression and some kind of core wounding evidences itself in the limitations of vocal production and in the changes to the very timbre of the voice itself. I have seen how song and toning can open up a person’s ability to express years of sorrow and hurt, and thereby allow for a more embodied and affect-enriched expression of the soul. This certainly has been the case for me.
I have seen how song and toning can open up a person’s ability to express years of sorrow and hurt
I do not remember a time when I did not sing. Music was so much a part of my early childhood, that I can very nearly trace the health of my psyche with that of my voice. My father was a trombonist–a jazz musician with his own dance band. My mother was a dancer with a great passion for grand opera.
When my father was not practicing or my mother not humming some popular song or classical aria, the phonograph was going morning, noon and night. Reared on a strange mixture of Maria Callas and Glenn Miller, Gladys Swarthout and Jack Teagarden, Lily Pons and Spike Jones, my love for music of all varieties forced me to beg my parents for piano lessons beginning at the age of three.
My dad had just returned from a short tour of duty in Korea, and I had missed dearly his playful attention, his quirky shenanigans, his wry wit and sense of humor. Merely to be silly or perhaps to spite my mother, he taught me how to play the piano by ear and to sing such songs as “The Man That Got Away”, “Somebody Loves Me, I Wonder Who”, and “Body and Soul”.
Yet, whatever his intention, I have felt a closeness to the torch songs and ballads of jazz music my entire life, with a close affinity to the tragic arias of Puccini, Verdi, and Donizetti. Little did I know as a child, however, how much loss and suffering were in store for me. In fact, twice in my life the music stopped: once when I was hospitalized for 17 months with infectious hepatitis, and once again when my parents divorced, and I was left alone with a depressed and confused mother.
Yet, in spite of all that, I am a vocalist. I have been using my voice in some capacity or another as a singer, theatre performer, story-teller, poetess and teacher since I can remember. It is a good voice: strong, colorful and resonant, but it is not a voice without its problems.
I suffer from sinusitis and have most of my life; so did both my mother and my father. Plus, one of my dear voice mentors, William Eddy, once said to me, “All singers have sinus problems or think they do.” For most of my adult life, I thought of my self as being one of those performers who had sinus problems; it was not until about 11 years ago that I began to wonder if my vocal problems stemmed from something deeper than a mere genetic proclivity toward dust, grass and tree allergies.
What kinds of vocal problems did I have? They began simply in my mid-20s as an excess of phlegm; from time to time I found myself in need of clearing my throat because of post nasal drip sticking to my larynx, not allowing me to phonate on a given pitch. Sound would not come forth until I either drank some water or coughed up whatever was situated on my vocal chords. My girlfriend and peer, Ellie Holt Murray, who is also a vocalist and teacher calls them “phlegm fairies,” and that is exactly how it feels–as if a little fairy is sitting cross legged on the top of the larynx and until she flies away, the voice is rendered silent.
It was as if an entire octave was rendered useless right in the middle of my vocal range, and I quickly began to loose the upper end, as well. I tried everything to relieve myself of this problem but it only seemed to become worse. I tried anti-histamines, decongestants, combinations of the two, mucus diluters, mucus promoters, food allergy testing followed by strict dietary changes, sleeping sitting up, a night guard, but nothing seemed to make any long lasting difference. Then in my thirties the headaches began to come, and I decided to seek medical help.
I went to a general practitioner, an ear-nose-and-throat doctor, an orthopedic physician, an allergy specialist, a hormone specialist, a hand and neck specialist, a migraine headache specialist and an acupuncturist–all to no avail. By the time I was forty, I had resigned myself to living with the repercussions of a “broken” voice.
I had just had a baby, I was writing my doctoral dissertation in theatre, and my thoughts of performing as an actress or singer were temporarily set aside while the preoccupations of dealing with an infant and manifesting a tome of scholarship took over my life, my dreams and my psyche.
By the time my son was three, my voice had all but disappeared. I told myself that the days of performing were more than likely over for good, and I devoted my energies toward teaching, stage directing and theatre management. Our family moved to Ashland, Oregon, where I was able to appropriate work in these three areas and still stay at home with my son as much as possible. It was at that time (twelve years ago) that I heard of a voice practitioner who was doing excellent work with voice as a catalyst for psychological healing–Roy Hart.
The more I researched, however, the more I came to realize that Roy Hart was more than just a man (he had died in 1975); the name has come to embody a school, a philosophy, and a way of approaching the psyche through working with the voice.
My research led me to the internet, where I read of a Roy Hart teacher coming to the San Francisco Bay area for extended workshops. I signed up immediately. His name was Rossignol, and had been a founding member (the oldest founding member) of the Roy Hart Theatre as early as 1957. Somehow in my heart I knew that working with this man may be the very thing my voice needed in order to call itself back.
It is a six-hour drive from my home in Ashland to San Anselmo; in my excitement I must have made the journey in five. I spent merely three days with Rossignol, but on my return drive back to Ashland I realized that not only my voice, but my life had been changed forever.
The manner in which my voice responded both positively and negatively those three days was amazing. The dark, rich, and thick sonority of my vocal color resonated fully as I toned through the vocal exercises and sang. Yet, I was still unable to phonate (make vocal sound on a specific pitch or tone of a musical scale) above a high C. Most women’s voices phonate at least an additional seven to 12 pitches higher.
Rossignol worked and worked with me to try to open the upper register of my voice, but to no avail. I was in tears due to my frustration. Finally, he told me it was extremely probable that my voice was being limited by certain psychic obstacles, issues within my soul which needed to be resolved, or at the very least, looked at. Yet, we were out of time, and I left the workshop feeling disappointed, exhilarated and curious.
I wanted to know more about what was going on with my voice. By the time I reached the door of my home, I knew I would soon travel to France to study more in depth at the Roy Hart Theatre.
Several months later in the summer of 1994, I arrived at the Roy Hart Centre Artistique International in southwestern France, near the Cevennes Mountains.
My three year old son was staying with my husband and mother in Seattle for the six weeks that I had planned to be gone. That alone gave me a renewed sense of freedom, which I greatly appreciated and did not take lightly. I had signed up for five weeks of voice study with a variety of Roy Hart teachers: Ron Silber, Clara Harris, Linda Wise, Noah Pikes, and, of course, Rossignol.
Students had come from all over Europe to study; I was one of only two Americans. The courses were taught in French, with an occasional word or two in English thrown in to keep the non-French speakers engaged. About half of the students were from musical or theatrical professions; more importantly, the other half were from the professional fields of sociology, psychology or psychiatry.
In spite of my background and expertise in the arts, I felt terrified. One cannot hide behind one’s voice; as soon as one vocalizes or sings, the person is transparently revealed. I was not sure what lay hidden within me; I only knew that something psychically had its hold on me and the result was vocal limitation.
Part of me wanted to turn around and fly back to the States; another part of me, however, desperately wanted to be released from the unattended sorrow I suddenly was conscious of, yet held within.
For about two weeks I was able to disappear into the back of the room where the group classes were held at the Chateau Malèrargue. Yet, by week three the private lessons had begun and I was forced to reveal both the brawn and the brokenness of my voice. My teacher, Ron Silber, must have noted a sorrowful quality of my voice, for he had me improvise on such melodies as Un bel di from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, Gershwin’s Summertime and the Negro spiritual, Soon I Will Be Done with the Sorrows of The World.
Although filled with sadness, these songs brought me great joy to sing and seemed to open up my spirit to expose a more vulnerable self than normally projected. Oddly, for no real reason I found myself tearful much of the time. Each time I volunteered to sing within the workshop classes, nothing would come out of my mouth but weeping. I had no other recourse but to quickly sit back down again. This continued until one day in a week-four workshop session with Noah Pikes I was forced to face the daimon with its tight grip on my vocal expression.
As usual, when Noah asked me to come to the front of the room and sing, I began to cry miserably. This time, however, he did not allow me to sit down. Instead, he coached me into wailing and moaning on pitch beginning first in the low end of my range and then moving upwards.
The higher the notes on the piano commanded, the louder my voice became. Other than child birth, I could not remember a time when I felt this kind of power surge throughout my entire body.
The higher the pitches, the louder and more violent my cries grew. I was grabbing my hair and screaming by now. Noah instructed me to continue to grab my hair and do whatever I needed to do with my body to make the sound. He asked me if a word or name of a person was coming to mind, and if so, to yell it out with each cry. Without thinking, I moaned, “Mommy!”
My voice soared with each calling out to my mother. Now the cries grew softer and lighter as higher and higher I went up the scale.
Finally, when I had gone just about as far as I could—to a kind of whistle sound—Noah led me into faintly singing a very slow rendition of Brahms’ Lullaby. Tears were still flowing down my cheeks, but I was no longer struggling with making vocal sound. Gently Noah coached my voice back down its range until I reached a place of repose. I stood in front of him in silence. He smiled at me and merely said, “Welcome!” I later checked my musical memory with the keys on the piano; I had phonated 17 steps higher than I ever had.
As soon as I went back to my place in the back of the room, I was flooded with memories of my childhood, particularly the days and nights I spent alone in the hospital. When I first arrived at the hospital, I remember incessantly crying for my mommy, and the nurses trying to quiet me down.
One night’s episode was especially difficult; I had awoken many of the sick children with my sobbing. The next afternoon when my mother came to visit, she told me if I were to continue, she would not come to see me any more. I never wept for her again. Images of this time in my life consumed my memories and dreams for some months to come, and ultimately led me to pursue my own personal psychotherapy and voice work.
All the pain and grief of that childhood hospital stay was revealed at the Roy Hart Theatre in what my voice had expressed. Yet, at the same time as my voice became liberated, so became my soul. On a certain level, I did feel a sense of cathartic release, resulting in my becoming far more present and alive within my own body.
More importantly, however, I felt as though I was finally ready to look at those traumatic years of my childhood in order to make meaning of them.
I finally understood why I have been drawn to songs, stories and images of disappointment and sadness. Psychically, I believe, I must have been in some kind of whirlpool of unrecognized grief. Perhaps this constant pulse of unattended sorrow has led me to develop the vital and pervasive sense of humor I carry.
In any case, it was important for me to find a full expression of my grieving soul in order for me to find wholeness within my voice, as well as within my psyche. I had no idea that for 35 years this issue laid dormant, ready to explode. My question is: How many people like me carry this unattended sense of loss and sorrow within them? What I know through my practice is: more than many, since, like me, it takes years for some psychic issues to float up into consciousness.
Many questions abound at this time and include: In what ways can grief be more deeply experienced through song and non-verbal vocal expression? What kinds of song are most effective in meeting grief? Spirituals, hymns, well-known secular tunes, improvised songs, original compositions? In ritual, how could song be used to most greatly deepen and expand the grieving process? What kinds of non-verbal vocal expression are most effective in meeting grief? In ritual, how could non-verbal vocal expression be used to most greatly deepen and expand the grieving process? Why? What benefits and dangers emerge when delving more deeply into the grieving process (otherwise known as mourning)? What can be gleaned from other spiritual practices and cultures where grief is met fully through song and non-verbal vocal expression? Are these types of vocal expression credible avenues for expressing grief? What light or healing can be gleaned from the darkness of grieving? What joy is there in sorrow?
However, the most important of these emerge as: In what ways does the voice hold psychic wounding? In what ways can the voice serve as a catalyst for meeting this wounded place?
Therefore, out of all those questions the primary research problem is: In what ways can sorrow be attended to by song and non verbal vocal expression in a ritualized space in order to allow grief its full expression, thus allowing the participant to have a much deeper experience of sorrow, which in turn may facilitate the possibility of a much richer and complete experience of healing?
If not fully expressed, grief cannot be fully met, and thus one cannot move into a fully expression of living with meaning. Song and non-verbal vocal expression can allow one to more deeply express the full potential of one’s sadness over their loss, whether that loss be a death, a relationship, a marriage, a job, a life-style, a life passage, or a personal transformation. Song and non-verbal vocal expression allow the mourning process to lengthen, deepen and thus potentialize into an experience filled with soul-filled meaning. The goal is not so much catharsis but rather one of meeting the emotion enriched dark night of the soul by giving it expression through song and non-verbal vocal expression.
The more technology usurps today’s culture, the faster one feels they must metabolize experience in order to function. If experience cannot be digested quickly enough or fully enough, then one is left with a sense of a lack of “whole-ness.” Then the only logical choice appears to be some kind of drug therapy. Yet, speeding through life and taking mood stabilizing drugs only buries deeper the initial dysfunction until one is left in a crucial state of ill health. This is especially true when it comes to experiences of deep sorrow and loss.
Society today has much to grieve over: war and political unrest, natural disasters, the plunging economy and ecological fragility, to name but a few. Yet, to assimilate the pain of this despondency people tend to either move toward anger or dissociate. They really do not want to feel the full weight of the pain, for if they do, it may cull them to become accountable in a much more responsible manner than heretofore. Fussing and fuming, placing blame on others, or burying one’s head in the sand seem to be the more favorable responses.
Ritualizing this grief through song and non-verbal vocal expression does not enter one’s consciousness, for our culture today does not facilitate this kind of mourning process. Often if one is in a state of sorrow, she is told to “get over it,” “think only positive thoughts,” “just trust God,” or some other cliché, only to find that she cannot get over it, think happy thoughts, or merely trust God. Thus, she turns to her doctor, who puts her on an anti-depressant and suggests psychotherapy, which she usually does not either have the money or the time to pursue. As a result, many people like herself walk around with a deep sense of unattended sorrow, not knowing where to turn. (I use “she” from here on because most of my voice therapy clients have been women, but exactly the same patterns can function within anyone.)
In many traditional or indigenous cultures a period of keening or the vocalization of mourning was taken up primarily by the women of the society. This custom dwindled tremendously during the twentieth century, to where it is extremely rare today to witness mourning practices within cultures known for this tradition, primarily the Greeks, the Irish, and the Jews (the grieving practice of sitting shiva). As a vocalist I have been a part of many a memorial service, which, in my opinion, never seems to accomplish what it sets out to do—to remember the good things about a person and to celebrate her life.
The mourning aspect remains lurking in the shadows—no one dares cry or wail or sob out loud, and if she does, she is quickly silenced by either an elbow in the ribs, a darting glance, or a comforting hug with accompanying “shhhhhhh.” In that moment the sorrow is pushed inward to remain for who knows how long.
Yet, there is a reason why men and women alike used to wear black for a year after the loss of a dear one. It takes time to recover from loss, and it takes the full expression of the soul to regain wholeness once again. Meeting grief through song and non-verbal vocal expression in a ritualized space may not only assist individuals in attending to sorrow, but assist communities in dealing with pain and loss.
Obviously, I am most biased by my own experience with the Roy Hart Theatre, as well as with the experience of working over the years with my voice students. I do see a connection between the voice and core wounding primarily because I want to. As a voice practitioner I want to believe I can help someone find her full emotional range of expression through what she may be able to do with her voice, not only for performance sake, but for inner health as well. My experience tells me that this work is credible and true, even if the research is scant.
My assumption is that voice work can be a powerful tool for dealing with core wounding, feelings of grief and loss, and the mourning process. I do not assume that it is the tool for everyone, however. In fact, most people are so uncomfortable with their voices that the very process of toning or singing may bring on a renewed sense of trauma. Yet, the soul yearns for the experience of its full expression, and voice work may offer opportunity for this soul-filled expression.
As a woman in this culture I also feel that somewhere in my ancestral memory something is not matching up. My assumption is that women have not found the full expression of their voices, and thus the full expression of themselves. Women have renounced their birthright to be the facilitators of ritual, giving full expression to the sorrows of loss and deep disappointment which they feel in their bones. It is my belief that until women retrieve this practice, and men also embrace it, our culture may remain in its malaise.