Maintaining a Vocal Connection to Self:
Why staying attached to the spark behind our first cries contributes to vocal success.
by Emily Anna Bridges, Ph.D.
One of the first actions a healthy baby makes in the first moments after birth is to take a deep breath and cry. In doing so, she releases her anger, fear, confusion, and frustration at the birth experience. She inhales deeply and screams out, releasing her emotions loudly, clearly, and in a completely unguarded way.
Over time, the simple cries evolve into babbling, cooing, laughter, and other more complex gestures, as the child grows to understand the rewards that communication brings. Eventually, speech emerges and the first words bubble out of the child’s mouth. We can all learn a lot about ourselves imagining this child; we awake to our daily lives speaking prolifically, rarely conscious that we are speaking at all, or aware of the connection that still exists between our voices and what master vocal coach W. Stephen Smith calls, “the source of utterance.”
It was Smith’s incredible book, “The Naked Voice,” that got me thinking more about this connection, and led me to some new discoveries in the voice studio. Smith compares the voice to the conch shell in Golding’s famous ‘Lord of the Flies,’ which is used by a group of boys stranded on a desert island to call meetings and to limit speaking to whoever possesses the shell. The conch is a symbol of power and democracy, and is a perfect metaphor for the voice.
We use our voices to express our ideas, dreams, fears, complex thoughts, as well as everyday conversations with our speech. We discuss our beliefs, say prayers, intone mantras, and sing songs. We express intense emotions or respond to physical sensations with laughter, sighs, whines, squeals, screams, and cries. Our emotional, physical, spiritual and logical lives are lived through our voices both spoken and audiated (heard in our minds) as we write it down or think to ourselves. We use our voices differently depending on what we are doing, what part of us is functioning at the moment, what role we are playing, and how we are feeling.
Our voices have the power to express any of the many parts of who we are. We often limit the use of this power to specific parts of our selves, banishing or silencing voices that are scared, negative, jealous, enraged, or destructive. We play the jail keeper or scolding parent, disowning our own feelings and inner personality by denying it a voice. Often this silencing of our selves leads to much personal pain and self-distrust, as these selves continue to be part of who we are, though increasingly despondant, enraged, and alienated.
In the voice studio, I could see these silenced parts of my students creating blocks to their progress with their voices. Singers would be excited about learning new exercises to strengthen their voices. When covering non-vocalized exercises everything was great. Students would practice and be full of motivation and excitement to move ahead. Then, upon learning the vocalized exercises it would be clear that singers were delighted with the changes they could feel almost immediately in their sound. However, by about the third week of intense practice with these vocalized exercises, there would be a slump in motivation as the student would sink back into familiar patterns and lose interest in sticking with practices. I felt this was strange, given that many of these same students would still be remarking in lesson how much the exercises were helping their voices grow.
I wondered after reading Smith’s work if this predictable block in motivation might be related somehow to voice and identity. Might these exercises, a vocal routine that’s coming from me, from outside of my student’s authentic self, be posing (or imposing) a threat of some kind to some part of the student? Maybe there were parts of the self already being deprived of time to use the student’s voice. For instance, maybe the Inner Child desires to play with the voice, but the student is monopolizing the voice in daily life trying to advance in his or her career. Maybe that Inner Child was getting just the smallest bit of singing fun every other weekend in the car or the shower. At the start of vocal exercises, any of that spare time vocalizing suddenly gets used up by the rest of the self that’s enrolled in voice lessons, repeating this ‘foreign’ material that is helpful to grow the physical aspects of the voice, but not to advance the expression of the inner Child.
I didn’t want these exercises to block expression. The whole point of helping students strengthen their voices is to empower all the parts of the self, and help people achieve full expression. I realized that nowhere in the practice session I’d created for my students had I allotted time for the connection to self. I was unwittingly trying to compete with the student for time with their voice. It dawned on me that in order to prevent these motivational blocks from happening, I would have to strongly encourage each student to give time and attention to their inner selves at every single practice.
Thus, the Connection Piece was born. At the end of every single practice session, I encourage my students to do a Connection Piece. This is a meditative moment to vocally connect with all aspects of the inner self. After the physical, mental, and emotional parts of the practice are completed, it’s time to turn off the critical mind and fall into a listening state. It’s important to create a space with a listening ear for any aspect of the inner self to be welcomed to take control of the voice. I tell my students to think about hearing a five-year-old singing a song. How would you react if you heard that young child singing a song for you? Would you be caught up on what notes were off-key or rhythmically incorrect? No, you would probably just feel the love the child was expressing and feel gratitude. This is the right mindset to be in for a Connection Piece.
The whole thing takes just two minutes. Once you have found a quietness in yourself, invite all the parts of you to say something. Some part of you should volunteer: It could be a song from childhood, something you remember from religious ceremonies, school, camp, some sort of song from any point in your life. It could also be more deeply emotional or animal, like a series of cries or sounds released from your body. It may find the form of speech, words that you would like to say but haven’t allowed yourself to. This can be negative feelings that you haven’t felt comfortable expressing because you didn’t want to give them power. But sometimes releasing them allows you to move on and let go of whatever negative emotion was associated with those thoughts. It’s amazing how letting your self connect with your voice will release so many burdens. Perhaps this is part of why talk therapy, prayer, and the power of a conversation with a good friend over coffee are all so therapeutic. Eventually, you may find that with each practice there is less and less enthusiasm in your Connection Piece. That’s okay, you can use these two minutes to improvise a new song and let your creative self make something up… or you can just let yourself be silent. The important thing is that you’ve honored your self with something powerful – time with your voice. Even just two minutes a day will create a profound shift.
In all of my years of experience teaching voice, I’ve never seen such a powerful change as the week I implemented the Connection Piece. Students came back glowing, making huge progess and reignited with motivation. After several weeks, students started making life changes or plans toward them. Suddenly unfulfilling or dead end jobs were up for changing. Old relationships that weren’t working were getting worked on. All sorts of personal and professional goals were being named and worked toward — and reached! The motivation to change the voice grew and followed through into a motivation to integrate and strengthen the self, for a more authentic and real existence.
When each part of the self gets to use an instrument that’s getting stronger, everyone gets on board. The inner child says, “Hey look! I can do my thing better, it’s more fun! I’m getting to express myself! I like this work! I want to make my voice better!” As each aspect of our neglected self gets the chance to speak it’s truth in whatever language that comes in, and it feels accepted and listened to, we are free to integrate behind the common goal – to improve our voice.
The fantastic thing about this integration is not just the improvement of the voice itself. The most amazing part of the transformation created by practicing the Connection Piece is the profound positive effect of integrating the intention of the core authentic self through vocal expression. When you can speak your truth to yourself, you can speak it to anyone. You can accept yourself for who you are. There’s something powerful about this kind of work that goes way beyond the voice studio. This profound realization is something that can help everyone, especially through voice teachers and those who are helping people express their true authentic selves in a vocal way.
Copyright Emily Anna Bridges 2014.