Too many of us believe we can’t sing, or can’t sing well enough, or at least need to improve our voices in some way. Whether singing or speaking, we manipulate our voices to sound softer, stronger, clearer, calmer, or otherwise more “socially acceptable” than our unimpeded voices.
In addition to controlling how we sound, we carefully control what we say. Old threats, shame, and uncomfortable reactions keep us silent about traumas we have experienced. Many abused children grow up with an iron-clad rule to keep home and school separate and “act normal” to hide the abuse from outsiders.
Isolation after trauma
Survivors often extend the rule of silence into adulthood, maintaining a thick wall of shame between inner and outer experience. At the same time, desires for rescue and connection create an inner demand to speak, to tell, to be heard and understood. Behind the protective wall, survivors feel isolated and bereft, sentenced to separation from the rest of the human race.
Intellectually we may understand that humans both inflict and endure trauma every day in every environment, from bullying to assault to “unspeakable” rape and torture of children. Emotionally the sense of separation persists. In part, that feeling is a longing for connection with ourselves. The overwhelming shock of trauma divides us from our bodies through dissociation and denial. Shocked out of wholeness, we lose the way back to ourselves and feel permanently exiled.
Social isolation can trigger stored feelings of catastrophic isolation and helplessness during trauma. It can help to remember that while isolation is uncomfortable in the present, it is no longer an immediate emergency. The present offers more tools to reach out, including the voice.
Connect through your voice
Frank Kane is an American teacher of Georgian singing (from the country near Russia) and voice expansion. In their article “A new role for Georgian singing, or the continuation of its ancient function?” he and Madge Bray point out that Georgians sing together to “build, maintain, and repair human connection.” The article links vibration of sound moving through the body with trembling and vibration as trauma is released and healed.
Release the effort
You do not have to learn three-part harmonies in another language (music sample) to connect with the healing power of your voice. Like breathing into your back, you can free your voice by releasing effort rather than trying harder. In each of these simple steps, notice where the effort is. What muscles are tense? Is there a sense of pushing through or holding back?
- Say a word out loud. “Hum.”
- Start to say it again, but don’t. What stops the sound?
- Say “Hummmmmmmmm,” extending the “m”. Now you’re humming.
- Start to hum again, but don’t. What stops the sound? Is it different from what stops you from saying a word?
- Start humming again. What shifted to allow the sound to emerge? Can you allow more of that?
Sometimes the whole body tackles the voice on its way out. If you cannot bring yourself to hum out loud, notice whether it is safe in the present to make noise. You could do the exercise mentally, or imagine humming to a small child. We instinctively connect to children with sound.
In a recent workshop, Frank Kane suggested the following exercises to encourage our voices to vibrate in our bones and allow vibrations to extend outward from our bodies. In class, vibrations spread and pooled and palpably connected us to each other.
- As you hum, feel for vibration from the inside in your belly, chest, throat, face. Do your lips tingle?
- Imagine your voice resonating in your spine, the column of bones rising through your center.
- Cup your jaw with a gentle curious hand. Can you feel vibration from the outside? Where you find vibration, keep humming into that place and let the vibration grow.
- Is it easier to find vibration at a higher pitch? How about a lower one?
- What do you notice when you relax your jaw down and forward with your mouth still closed? You might hear more overtones and harmonics.
- Notice how the sound changes as you move around. Tilt your head, move your shoulders, twist, lean forward. When the hum sounds louder and buzzier, allow more of that motion.
Make space for your voice to be complex, resonant, messy, vibrant, unbalanced, unconstrained. Make space for the constraints as well, those rules and tensions that have helped you navigate an uncertain world. Vibration touches the constraints and invites them to soften. Consider allowing your past to color your voice, neither hidden nor shouted, but part of what shaped you.
Notice how you respond to complex, resonant voices around you. Despite our internal rules about how we should sound, we are often drawn to open, authentic sound from others.
Hum to make contact
Next time you feel isolated or disconnected, try humming to connect with your body. Hum to your lonely child self still longing for rescue. Hum to the part that hurts, emotionally or physically. As you make contact, you may feel the abandonment or pain or stuckness more intensely at first. Let vibrations move through you, jostling stuck energy into healing motion.
Available for connection
The voice can be a tool for manipulation, tightly controlled to elicit the responses we want. It can also be a tool for expression to reflect the truth within. We can choose how much to let the truth show. As we release our voices to move through us and reach beyond us, we become more available for connection with ourselves and others.
“A new role for Georgian singing, or the continuation of its ancient function?” (PDF) by Frank Kane and Madge Bray. “What trauma has destroyed, conscious vibration can rebuild.”
The exercise to release the effort was inspired in part by Nicholas Brockbank’s article “Alexander Technique Self Discovery.”