The Art of Transformational Voice

I teach singing and speaking. I support people to have their voice in this life. There are no auditions or requirements to be in my studio. If you have a voice you’re welcome. Sometimes students have told me they wondered why another student they thought sounded “bad” was even trying. A few weeks, months, or years later, they heard that person singing and were in awe of the transformation.

Perhaps the gift that matters most in voice teachers is they don’t need weeks, months, or years to hear the beauty in a voice. They perceive it in the first sound a student makes. And perhaps the gift that matters most in human beings is the ability to perceive the radiance in others, to hear some note of goodness even when behavior is insane or inhumane.

Witnessing that radiance is not an automatic grace for me. I have a fierce judge archetype in the structure of my personality, and when I hear racism, bigotry or hatred of any kind being expressed I’m far more likely to feel defensive or critical. It’s a gritty practice to listen for the deeper truths that people believe in. I credit any success I might have to the sensitivity and depth the art of singing asks of us.

As we learn to hear the multiple frequencies in a voice, we can discern all kinds of information about a person’s state of being and intentions. I frequently give the example of the way people say “Hello” when answering the phone. We immediately get a sense of whether they feel happy and engaging, hurried and intense, or any other states of being they might be in.

I think that “singer’s sense” is the reason I wasn’t afraid when a man tried to mug me. I say he tried because I had no money. I was out for a walk and had only my apartment key on me. As he searched my pockets I apologized for having nothing to give him and asked if he’d like to come wait outside my building so I could go upstairs and get some money for him. He told me to get the f**k out of there. “Okay,” I said, “God bless you.” Even though his language was gruff it didn’t occur to me he might actually hurt me. No such intention was in his voice.

Even so, a young man outside the underpass convinced me to tell the police what had happened, and they took me to the precinct to look at mug shots. There were several fat binders crowded with photos. After a while I began weeping. The detective who’d found it hard to believe I’d apologized and blessed my “mugger” said, “Ah – it’s finally gettin’ to ya.”

I told him it wasn’t the mugging. It was all those beautiful men. They were once someone’s baby, as perfect and precious as any ever born. What had happened? They didn’t look like criminals to me. They looked like sons, like brothers, like fathers.

The day I met that man in the underpass I was blessed with the miracle of not being afraid of him. Nor was I afraid of him when I saw him three days later picking through garbage for something to eat. I can still see him perfectly when I close my eyes, and my heart still aches for his circumstances.

It’s time to celebrate the returning light, longer days, and the birthing of things. Whether it’s one of the major religious holy days or just a good old solstice ritual, we might sing or dance or tell stories of miracles. A song that tugs at me this year as I consider the humanitarian crises in our world is “Good King Wenceslas.” Perhaps we’ll share our tables and try to give in ways that tell others we cherish them. Perhaps we’ll also set a place for someone who needs us to perceive his goodness so he can grow into it. Perhaps as we share our hearts and homes, our guests will help us grow into our own goodness.

I’d love, more than I can say, to hear your stories of our innate humanity triumphing over our fears and beliefs. These stories are medicine for our sore hearts and baffled minds. Please share them with someone in these holy days. They are expressions of the miracles that may live through each and every one of us.

WE NEED YOUR VOICE

An awful lot of people who think they don’t have a good voice love to sing. They would like to come to class and develop their voice, to share their heart and soul through a song that says something in a way everyday conversation never could. They would like to feel the physical energy and joy of creative spirit flowing from self to others through singing. However, they hold back because it seems pointless if they don’t have some special gift.

I look at it another way. Whenever I see Olympic athletes receiving gold medals I think it belongs to all the children they ever competed and played with, to all their peers along the way, to parents, teachers and coaches, to researchers and the evolution of the sport itself. Everyone and everything that inspired or supported those athletes went into winning those medals.

When someone with extreme hearing loss comes to class and learns to sing by feeling the sound, we all begin to feel the sound of our own and others’ voices in our bodies. We listen and sing in ways we had never imagined possible. It works this way when people are recovering from throat surgery or a stroke. And it works when someone sings with complete ease and abandon, when their voice soars with the beauty of an angel. We all learn something extraordinary we could not have found in isolation or ordinary dialogue.

If we don’t use our voices to capacity, we diminish not only our own greatness. The ones who rise to fame to be the focal voice of our generation, or culture or religion will also be impoverished. Cultures, religions or regimes that repress their citizens’ voices are impoverished. We need people’s voices and creativity. We need their artistic expressions of curiosity and wonder, of courage and love.

When heart and truth are in the voice it is always beautiful. So if you love to sing, go ahead and take that class. Risk growing into your wholeness and supporting others to live into theirs. Or if you love to write, or paint, or cook or bowl, then go do that. Whatever it is you long to do, assume it is yours to do, not because you are meant to earn money or recognition, but because you need it in order to be whole. And as you are becoming whole you help the rest of us to do the same.

ONE BEAUTIFUL VOICE

What a gift it is to be so present in our listening that we don’t hear all the voices of the judging mind, the wounded heart, the tired body. What a gift to hear only the precision of the phonation, the ring of overtones, the fluid stretch of the breath over the soft beating of time in the phrase of expression. What a gift to be so wholly concentrated in creating that we feel we are being played as an instrument by some inspired and compassionate part of our selves that has no desire but to uplift.

This is the true purpose of technical study: to be so immersed in this gift that it is all we share every time we speak or sing. No matter what archetype we are animating, no matter what story we are telling, no matter what jagged or liquid melody we are offering, its potential is to be medicine. An accomplished performer can share treasures of the heart and throw open the doors to unlimited imagination.

This, and nothing less, is what happens when vowels are complete and resonant on every pitch, when the breath is quiet and perfectly paced, when the body is aligned and engaged. The hours of practice are not to gain recognition for excellence, but to disappear behind excellence so that a deeper creative spirit can emerge to enrich first you, and then others.

Give no mind to the voices of misgiving and concerns that tempt you to diminish your message. Listen today for the alignment and congruence of your one beautiful voice so that it may be free to give, with joy and humility, what you have been privileged to experience in your hours and life of practice.

HUMMING

Humming on nasal consonants can be very useful to access more resonance in the openings in the face and head. Because of the way it stimulates the brain as well as other organs and glands, humming also has a great effect on the entire physical and personality system.

[m] helps us feel vibrations in the forward resonators, especially the mouth. It is especially beneficial when the sound lacks brilliance and clarity. In combination with vowel sounds such as [i], the IPA* symbol for a long “ee” sound like in the word “feet” or [a] like in the word “hat” we can learn how resonance adds acoustical efficiency and volume without having to put pressure on the vocal cords. This is a great combination for transforming shyness, sadness or other qualities that cause the voice to be held within and quiet. 

[ng] increases sensation and resonance in the throat at the back of the mouth. Accessing the inside spaces behind the larynx, mouth and nose can add more warmth to the sound. We can feel and hear this even more when it is used in combination with vowels such as [o] like in the word “note” or [u] like in the word “shoe.” This is a useful combination to bring calm and gentleness to the entire system, to transform anger or impatience.

[n] is in the center and can be used to bring balance and integration of both front and back resonators. Using it in combination with the vowel [α] like in the word “paw” heightens our sense of activating both front and back resonators together. It is a useful combination for bringing stability and strength to the entire physical and personality system. It is great for accessing qualities like acceptance and endurance.

Working different combinations reveals different ways of transforming and balancing the voice and its effects. Try [m] with [o] or [ng] with [a]. You will find some combinations increase flexibility while others add power. Some make high notes easier to access while others bring more clarity to low notes. The particular combination that is most effective changes from one situation to the next. After a while you will start to have a sense of how the nasal consonants work with you. Until then, it’s valuable to just play around with the different sounds and enjoy what they bring to your expressive artistry.

* IPA stands for International Phonetic Alphabet

WHAT WE GIVE

We don’t give how good we are at singing or speaking.

We give our messages through singing and speaking.

The message is our purpose.

We don’t have to wait to be technically advanced at singing before we can pour our selves into it. We all know of successful artists who don’t have a huge range, a great arsenal of vocal pyrotechnics, or a very sensual beauty in their tone, but the people in the packed arenas didn’t come to hear how good they are. They came to be moved.

The reason to work at vocal and expressive development is to be a clearer, more eloquent channel for one’s message. Developing vocal excellence enlivens physicality, inspires mental clarity and supports emotional balance. It wakens, fuels and spends creativity. People are enlivened as they listen.

The most compelling performers and presenters have something to say. They love what they have to say, and they love saying it. They love you for listening.

I encourage you, with all my heart and soul, not to wait. To the best of your ability, share what has deep purpose and meaning for you. It will grow. We will all grow together.

TRUTH

In a world of genetically modified everything and countless formulas for success, what does it mean to have our authentic voice?

It means no one else can tell us what to use our voice for, but they can recognize when we are expressing authentically.

It means although others may support us, we have to do our own hard work.

It means we have to understand for ourselves the physical laws that govern vocal and expressive function. Others can help us learn them, but we have to choose to use them.

It means we have to enter into the precious adventure of our own life and determine what it is that we uniquely have to say. No one else can enter into this for us. They can only wait at the gates.

It means entering into our mind, the wild creative impulse and the capacity for personal wisdom.

It means entering into our heart and the shattering brilliance of love.

It means entering into our spirituality, the whole mystery and revelation of it.

It means entering into our humanity, the whole sensual glory and mess of it.

And when we return to community to express ourselves, it means we reserve our voice for truth.

Our creations may never enter the market place, but we must never take this personally or think our gift is diminished. This simply means we get to be grateful for the gift so generously given to us for our own evolution and ecstasy. It means we can give it away without fear of loss or lack.

THE VOICE OF PRAYER

Some people like traditional prayers that are found in formal religions. Others don’t identify with praying at all. I think praying is deeply personal and whatever prayers likes it that way. In fact, there are likely as many ways of praying as there are people who do it.

I learned from Esther Cohen that one way to pray is just to say “Amen” a lot. It reminds me that life is its own prayer and I don’t have to get all fancy and ritualistic. I can just wake up to a sense of sacredness in any moment.

Rosy is dancing. Amen.

Randy shoveled the snow off my walks. Amen.

I sang at my friend’s funeral. Amen.

I feel tenderly toward the neighbor’s cat that is lonely and crying. Amen.

9 months post treatment I’m cancer free. Amen.

I’m both grateful and grieving. Amen.

The impulse my body has to inhale is the source of creation breathing me to life. The impulse to exhale is that source wanting to bring something to life through me. Following my breath is praying.

A subtle but relentless thought about someone is a prayer entering my willing heart. I dial the phone and learn that Sandy’s cat just died in her arms. Another day I call and Aidan says he broke his ankle. Practicing singing increases my tendency to tune into these subtle promptings.

My own broken heart is a petition spilling all over the day to call someone else to experience being the answer to prayer.

There’s an old Christian saying, “Singing is praying twice.” The reason religions often chant rather than speak prayers is because of all that happens for us as we chant:

  • The regular rhythm entrains and slows breathing and heart rates, encouraging deeper states of relaxation and concentration.
  • The vibrato is the same rate as in certain states of meditation and lucid dreaming, encouraging a deeper sense of connection with spirit.
  • The increased overtones stimulate the brain and immune system enhancing energy and focus.

It is possible to use the speaking voice in a way that generates all of these qualities, but most of us don’t do that. If we don’t want to chant, starting our day with a little humming can help. Breathing practices aimed at balancing and regulating the breath can also help.

The miracle of creation and the potential for love is in every breath, in each sensation, thought and feeling. Using our voice as prayer is a way to open to love.

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