Developing Healthy Figurative and Physical Voices

This article was originally published in Classical Singer magazine. To subscribe to the print magazine, go to www.csmusic.info/subscribe.

Ever walk into a voice lesson or rehearsal after a bad day or an argument with your significant other and feel you have vice grips around your throat? Our emotional state plays a huge role in our ability to sing freely, and our ongoing emotional hygiene can influence our overall physical and vocal health. Here’s your primer.

How It All Begins

When you were a baby, you held nothing back. When you were hungry, tired, afraid, or otherwise uncomfortable, you cried lustily. If you were surrounded by loving caretakers, your cries were heard and your needs were met. Eventually you learned how to use language and could express your needs in a more specific and effective way.

If you grew up in a family where you were taught to freely express your wants and needs, and those expressions were met with supportive and creative strategies for fulfilling them, you are well equipped for a life of fulfillment and purpose. For many of us, that was not the reality. As a result, our needs went largely unmet. Because we were children, we felt powerless to impact our reality and our emotions felt uncontrollable and mysterious. Because we had no healthy role models for dealing with our powerful emotions, we learned to hold back these feelings or to express them inappropriately—through tantrums and other highly dramatic but minimally effective means.

If this sounds like you and the dynamic in your family of origin, you are not alone! Talking openly about needs and feelings is a relatively new phenomenon in modern Western culture. Very few parents had any training or exposure to such radical ideas in past generations. Today, although parents have exposure to healthier concepts, very few actually know how to implement those concepts effectively.

What’s Really Going On?

Many of us aren’t even sure what our emotions are. A handy pneumonic for remembering the basic human emotions is FLAGS: Fear, Love, Anger, Grief, and Shame. Think of these five basic emotions as each representing a continuum of experience. For example, on the continuum of Shame we have mild embarrassment on one end, progressing all the way to extreme humiliation at the other, and everything in the middle.

Our emotional experiences are like actual flags; they are sending us signals about what is important to us. We can use our experiences to gain more insight into what we value or what we desire if we tune in and start paying attention to the signals our emotions are sending us.

Let’s take a look at fear for a moment—the emotion that causes most people most of their problems. We don’t usually like to look at our fear because what we are really afraid of, deep inside, is our own powerlessness. We are afraid of all the things we cannot control: violence in society, rejection, loss, death. We spend a lot of time and energy attempting to control situations or people so we can trick ourselves into feeling powerful. But those attempts to control usually backfire and result in resentment, bitterness, and disconnection. We attempt to hide from these feelings by putting on layer after layer of self-control.

There is a psychological impact for all this hiding. Each of us builds up a wall, pretending that we are not afraid, until we no longer feel we can completely be ourselves around other people, particularly those we don’t know well. But the problem is, the more we cultivate and nurture these walls, the more we feed the fear that we cannot be our true selves, because the difference between who we really are and who we are pretending to be becomes more and more dramatic.

The Physical Connection

What we often don’t realize is that our emotions are not just “feelings” that happen in our heads. Our autonomic nervous system (which works primarily below the level of our conscious control) stimulates our smooth (involuntary) muscles—our heart, many of our glands, and other systems in our bodies—when we experience different emotions. Studies show that shifting the position of our physical bodies can change how we feel emotionally—the relationship is that strong between our physiology and our psychology.

In his groundbreaking book Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, Peter A. Levine explains how emotional responses to traumatic events work almost instantaneously. “The behaviors of fleeing, fighting, and freezing are so primitive that they are thought to predate the reptilian brain,” he writes. “These survival tools are found in all species from spiders and cockroaches to primates and human beings. When neither flight nor fight will ensure the animal’s safety, there is another line of defense: immobility (freezing), which is just as universal and basic to survival. No animal, not even the human, has conscious control over whether or not it freezes in response to threat.”

The physical impact of withholding our emotional truth is similar to the freeze response to threat described by Dr. Levine. We may feel constriction in the muscles of our throat and neck. Our pharynx may become constricted, impeding free tone production; we may experience tension headaches. We may discover that our tongue is jammed up against the roof of our mouth. Our abdominal muscles may become chronically tense, impeding free breathing. Stress and anxiety can exacerbate reflux symptoms in some people. Chronic stress and fatigue may cause changes in resonance and timbre. And, at its most dramatic, chronic anxiety and stress can impact the actual physical mechanism of the voice itself, contributing to vocal cord dysfunction.

There is an energetic-physical correlation as well. The fifth (throat) chakra governs our will center. We know this chakra is healthy when we are able to honestly express ourselves, taking full responsibility for our needs, choices, and feelings. When we hold back, are evasive, are silent when we should speak up, use sweet talk to play things down, lie to ourselves or to others, or refuse to accept responsibility, we pollute this chakra. Problems with this chakra manifest as laryngitis, strep throat, and other voice problems. Even if you don’t buy in to the chakra system, isn’t it interesting how much of this relates to our conversation? It’s one more data point that argues for cleaning up our emotional baggage.


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Your Healthy Figurative and Physical Voices

You can purposefully develop a healthy and powerful figurative voice. Once you begin tuning in and paying attention to your emotions, you can take action to cultivate a positive and nurturing inner voice that supports your emotional health and growth—one that speaks on your behalf and for your benefit.

Some of the questions to consider as you begin to work with that inner voice might be the following:

• Who am I today? What kind of person do I want to become?
• What is important to me? What do I really want from this situation? (Go below your superficial desires and see what comes up for you.)
• What am I afraid of—really?
• How can I express what is really going on in a way that is safe? (Not everyone in your life is a safe receiver of your deep emotional truth, but everyone needs a place in which to feel completely safe. Where can you feel completely seen and heard and also completely accepted and loved, just as you are, without any pretending?)
• Where do I need to tell the complete truth and make amends?

Consider these useful tools for developing a healthy and powerful figurative voice:

• Journaling: Daily dumping of your emotional garbage will assist you in tuning in to what is going on below the surface and developing your figurative voice.
• Support groups: Finding an online or in-person support group where you can freely discuss your concerns is a liberating experience. You realize you are not alone and that you can be completely accepted—your flaws, your past, everything!
• Therapy, counseling, or coaching: A skilled therapist or counselor can assist you with resolving issues from the past that are still troubling you and creating dysfunction in your current situations. A skilled coach can assist you in identifying what you really want and developing a plan for actually getting it.

You can also develop a healthy and powerful physical voice. There are many muscles and muscle groups that can impede a great vocal technique which you may want to become more aware of. Here are some of the biggest offenders: masseter, sternocleidomastoid, scalenes, and trapezius—and there are others. These are muscles that may be causing you so much tension that you cannot sing freely until you figure out where they are and learn how to release the tension you are holding there. Wouldn’t it be worth it to get to know your muscles a little better?

In pursuit of a freer and healthier physical voice, you may want to consider adding the following to your tool bag:

Body Mapping lessons: You can locate a Licensed Andover Educator (LAE) by going to www.bodymap.org. Body Mapping includes correct and accessible anatomical information that will help you learn about and correct the misunderstandings you have about your own anatomy. Your LAE will help you learn to move (and, therefore, sing) more freely.
Myofascial release: Similar to massage, but working primarily with connective tissue (fascia) rather than muscles. Try mfr.somapt.com to find a therapist near you.
Yoga: The benefits of yoga are now well documented and understood to extend beyond the physical body to calm and center the central nervous system as well.
Meditation: The benefits of meditation on overall health are also well documented. Studies show that even five minutes of meditation can have a positive impact. Do not wait to find 20 minutes daily to experience benefits. Try this tool for a simple guided meditation that is just a few minutes long: mayoclinic.com/health/meditation/MM00623
Reiki: A Japanese technique administered through touch, Reiki treats the whole person—body, emotions, mind, and spirit—creating many beneficial effects that include relaxation and feelings of peace, security, and well-being. Find a Reiki practitioner at reikimembership.com/MembershipListing.aspx

By tuning inward with compassion and curiosity, listening to the messages of our emotions, and expressing our truth with our powerful figurative and physical voices, we can release a lifetime of pent-up tension, experiencing joy, passion, and freedom in all aspects of our lives.

Michelle Kunz

Michelle Kunz is a professional certified life coach, helping individuals reduce conflict, gain clarity, and get more from their lives and careers. She has sung with the Washington National Opera Chorus on the Kennedy Center Opera House stage for over 15 seasons, where she also serves as Children’s Chorus Master. She serves on AGMA’s Board of Governors, representing the Washington/Baltimore Area, and on the Board of Andover Educators. Contact her at www.PELcoaching.com.