Trauma-Informed Voice Care

 

Learn from experts on trauma-informed voice care how to provide compassionate instruction and how to create a safe space in the voice studio.

 

It seems natural that as we emerge from a years-long global pandemic, we are hearing more about what it means to be trauma informed in our spaces and practices. We are understanding more and more that we interact on a daily basis with a large number of people who are dealing with trauma. We can assume, then, that a large number of the individuals who are entering voice studios each week have experienced trauma. 

What can we do as voice professionals, who are not trained in therapy or psychology, to be better equipped to teach our students who have experienced trauma? Megan Durham, singing voice specialist and education director for the Voice and Trauma Research and Connection Group, says that trauma-informed voice care at its heart is student-centered pedagogy. As Durham says, “How could it be bad to treat people with dignity and respect and boundaries?” 

To help us understand trauma, psychologist, researcher, and therapist Dr. Elisa Monti—who specializes in the relationship between psychological trauma and the voice—says that while we used to think of trauma as a certain type of event, a more contemporary understanding of trauma tells us that it is “not so much the event, but it is how we react to the event…particularly from the viewpoint of our nervous system.” According to Dr. Monti, if something happens to cause our nervous system to react “like it’s a traumatic event, then we have to consider it such.” 

This broader definition helps us realize that trauma survivors are not just those who are able to point to one big traumatic event in their lives. Trauma survivors may also be those who have experienced a long-term event or a series of situations where they were constantly made to feel unsafe and in need of protective mechanisms. 

Dr. Monti recommends that even if your students exhibit behaviors you think you recognize as trauma responses, it is not wise to make psychological assumptions about them based on their sounds. You do not need a medical or psychological diagnosis of a student to work with them on their sound. 

When considering trauma-informed care of any kind, both Durham and Dr. Monti point toward the “6 Guiding Principles to a Trauma-Informed Approach” as identified by the CDC and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The six principles are safety; trustworthiness and transparency; peer support; collaboration and mutuality; empowerment and choice; and cultural, historical, and gender issues. Durham and Dr. Monti both have suggestions for how we can incorporate these guiding principles into the voice studio. 

Safety

Durham emphasizes that “it’s really difficult to learn a new skill…if we’re constantly in a state of hyper vigilance.” So how can we create safety in our studios so that our students can learn? Dr. Monti reminds us that “people have different ways of how they feel safe and how they feel unsafe, and what their triggers are—there’s so much we can’t assume.” 

Her first bit of advice for creating safer spaces is to embrace curiosity. If we can at first get comfortable acknowledging what we do not know, then we can get curious about learning what we can do to create a safer space. Dr. Monti suggests checking in with students by using questions like “I was thinking this. What do you think?” 

This exercise in curiosity might lead to some surprising results. We may find our students feel uncomfortable with practices commonly thought of as “safe.” Both Durham and Dr. Monti emphasize the use of choice in our work. Offering students choice gave give them a sense of safety, collaboration, and empowerment—so offer choice in the lesson whenever possible, not just regarding repertoire. And then accept the student’s choice. Durham refers to it as learning to accept “yes” and “no,” both in our own bodies and from our students. 

For example, if you ask a student if you can touch their neck to draw attention to some tension there, they may say “yes” because of the power dynamic in the room. But if you are attuned to the student, you might see that student tense up even more and realize that even though their words say “yes,” their body is saying “no.” 

If we can learn to take these “yes” and “no” cues from our students, we can accomplish, perhaps, not perfect safety but coregulation with our students—meaning, we can offer them an environment where emotions are regulated, stress can be managed more effectively, and attention and executive function can work more efficiently. 

Trustworthiness and Transparency

Setting expectations and letting students know what will happen in their lessons is a part of good educational practices for all learning. Dr. Monti reminds us that transparency requires “that no one feels surprised and no one feels like they had no decision making.” We should make room for our students to have a voice in decision making and goal setting. They are much more likely to reach goals that they had a voice in setting. Dr. Monti says that being honest with our students and sharing what the process is and what our next steps are greatly helps to build the trust bond. 

Peer Support

This guiding principle is one that we often already do in voice work. Dr. Monti suggests that in the studio this could look like “students empowering one another, thinking about the expertise that comes from their lived experience.” If you hold weekly masterclasses with your students where faculty give them feedback, perhaps you can encourage students to also share motivating and encouraging comments with one another. This could be a way to encourage peer support in a system that you already have in place in your studio or institution.  

Collaboration and Mutuality

Approaching our work with students with a collaborative mindset, rather than the traditional master/student mindset, empowers them and encourages them to take responsibility for their own learning. 

As Dr. Monti says, “All the work that we do, when it comes from love or joy or excitement, is going to be better than the work we do from fear. If you motivate someone from fear, how long will that motivation last? But if you inspire someone, you know they will motivate themselves, which is the best outcome.” 

She suggests that we “utilize our body language and our voice in a way that makes the other person feel that they are in process with us—so there’s nothing that we’re doing to them, but we are always doing things with them.”

Empowerment and Choice

Once we have established a collaborative environment in our studio, we can then start to find ways to empower our students. One way we can do that is by providing choice, which we have already seen increases a sense of safety in the studio. Then we must be transparent and acknowledge the power dynamic that exists in our voice studios. 

And, finally, we can actively search for ways to celebrate our students and to help them feel seen, heard, and empowered. When we offer choice, transparency, and respect for the “yes” and “no” we sense in our students, they can feel empowered within our working relationship to speak up for their needs.  

Cultural, Historical, and Gender Issues

These important issues must be acknowledged and confronted, and this requires the transparency from principle two and the discussion around safety in principle one. We cannot always understand how systemic oppression has harmed our students, but Dr. Monti encourages awareness, acknowledgement, and compassion in the face of systemic forces. 

Durham notes that even the word “master” brings to mind images of white supremacy. So, if we perpetuate the master/student culture in our studios so that “the sole authority for voice health, for beauty, for freedom, for artistry is the master, [it] is incredibly disempowering.” We cannot foster an environment of collaboration, empowerment, transparency, and safety if we continue to demand our students look to us for all the answers. If we do this, we are demanding that they give up their own agency, ignore the cues in their own bodies, and put themselves in a place where their success depends on making their teachers happy. 

What if, instead, we say these things to our students: “I do not have all the answers. I am not here to fix you. I am here to walk alongside you in your journey and offer suggestions”? This relieves the teacher of an authoritarian role and empowers students to trust the “yes” and “no” inside their own bodies. 

Despite our best efforts to employ these principles, our students will sometimes experience emotional and physical reactivity in our studios. Durham suggests that we have a “menu of options” for responding in these situations. Some of the options she recommends are bringing awareness to the present moment through embodiment, mindfulness, play, and movement. If a student shows signs of discomfort, she suggests offering activities that spark joy and creativity. Do you need to pause for a Taylor Swift dance party? Break out the crayons and color for a bit? Simply sway side to side while phonating? 

Mindfulness is often a helpful tool when students don’t seem comfortable with maintaining the kinesthetic awareness we want from them while singing. Pivoting between internal and external sensations can keep either sensation from becoming too overwhelming for a student. You might already employ tactics in your lessons that foster this dual awareness, like straw phonation or playing with a ball while singing. 

Dr. Monti says her core advice for trauma informed work is focused on curiosity and compassion. She states that “whenever we are in a curious space, we are a little bit freer of judgement. We are a little bit freer of assumptions, from jumping to conclusions. If we’re curious, we’re much more in the moment [and] compassion toward others and ourselves keeps us from punishment, labelling, all those things that eventually get in our way.” 

Durham often uses two words to describe the essence of her work as well. She suggests that trauma-informed pedagogy is really all about offering our students choice and dignity. While there is always more we can do to learn more about how to serve our students, offering curiosity, compassion, choice, and dignity will always be a great place to start. 

 

Trauma-Informed Voice Care: Resources

Books:

My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem

The Politics of Trauma by Staci K. Haines

Building a Trauma-Responsive Educational Practice by Em Daniels

Websites for Organizations, Training, and Services:

Megan Durham site: respirevocalwellness.com

The Voice and Trauma Research Connection Group: voiceandtrauma.com

Meisner in Music: meisnerinmusic.com

The International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation: isst-d.org

The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine: nicabm.com

The Trauma Research Foundation: traumaresearchfoundation.org

Trauma-Informed Voice Professional Level 4 Certificate with Dr. Elisa Monti: 

voicestudycentre.com

Monti Bianchi Performance Wellness: montibianchi.com

White Supremacy Culture site: whitesupremacyculture.info

Lisa Sain Odom

Lisa Sain Odom is an Assistant Professor of Vocal Studies and Musical Theatre at Clemson University and is an opera and musical theatre singer and stage/film actor. She holds a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Vocal Performance from the University of South Carolina and has taught both classical and musical theatre/contemporary voice at Western Carolina University and North Greenville University. She has sung opera and musical theatre in Europe and the U.S., and her students perform on Broadway, on cruise ships, in regional theatre, at Disney World, and on American Idol. To find out more and get in touch, visit www.lisasainodom.com.