“Listeners could hear the pain of living in her voice as it gave texture and confirmation to the fervor of the moment; the particulars were unimportant. Who feels it, knows it.”
- Timothy White, Catch a Fire
People who arrive to our music therapy studio have varied thoughts, feelings, and experiences related to their voices. Some are eager to express themselves vocally (in song or words), have spent time in a choir or studying singing in some form, and sense the capacity for transformation inherent in being-in-music-together. Some come with curiosity and limited experience with their voice, and with a desire to explore it as an expressive agent in therapy. Some come with no real desire to sing or with anxiety about the sound or feeling of their voice, and might even find it challenging to communicate authentically in words. The things that want to be said just never find their way out. Any of these starting locations – eagerness, uncertainty, reticence – and all the variations in-between are normal places to find ourselves at the time we seek therapy. In other words, whichever of those examples describes you, you are not alone. I have probably been in a similar place at some point, and so have many others I’ve worked with as a therapist. While voice is not the only instrument we use in our therapy time – we also use words, our bodies, writing and sketching materials, other musical instruments – I am giving it some special attention in a two-part series blog post because of its often overlooked but extremely valuable role in the journey toward your deep creative Self.
So what makes voice valuable in this work? In this first post of the two-part series, we’ll discuss voice as an avenue for intimacy and voice as a built-in self-regulation system for our hyper- or hypo-aroused minds and bodies.
As a primary way we interact with the world around us, our voices provide important openings between what we internally experience and the expression and naming of those experience to others. As infants we do this without words through cries, babbling, cooing, and screams. We also learn within our first six months to distinguish emotional meaning in the voices of others based on qualities like pitch, timbre, and intensity of speech. The early emotional attachments we form with parental figures are developed through touch, eye contact, and vocal exchanges. But many people experience disruptions in these attachments or in later significant relationships, disruptions perhaps caused by the mental illness or limited physical or emotional availability of those whose attunement we depend on for healthy development. Notwithstanding the manifold and complex reasons for disrupted attachments, this inadequate attunement of another to our needs when we are most vulnerable impacts our sense of self for years to come. In order to experience meaningful intimacy in present relationships, we must attend to those attachment inheritances with a therapist in the here-and-now, and the voice is a very effective avenue for such attending. Working with the voice in therapy through breathing and natural sounds, attention to the speaking voice (as well as words spoken), and singing with or without words, helps us explore our inner world of emotions and needs, and externalize what exists within us that is beyond mere words.
Singing is intimate and an act of courage.
Our breath and our body, both information centers intricately connected to emotions and the nervous system, support and guide us in the process of exploration. Because our breath and body act as catalyst, sustainer, and vessel of the voice, the relationship between singing and processes of our respiratory and nervous systems is significant. In order to vocalize, we breathe deeply, expire the breath completely, and repeat; this cyclical, measured breathing helps regulate the sympathetic nervous system, home of our stress responses. This is the first way in which our voices can become self-regulation allies in daily life.
The second way voice acts as a self-regulator is through our internalized voice. Not only is our voice comprised of the externalized sounds we make aloud, it is also comprised of the internalized expressions that resonates within us. Our internalized voice is the one we dialogue with throughout the day as we make decisions, wonder and speculate about our world, and narrate our perception of reality. The internalized voice for many of us has a critical edge, or self-defeating messages, or hyperbolic estimations about everything that is wrong with us or the world. But here’s the important part- your internalized voice also has the capacity to speak clearly and lovingly to you about what you need and what you can trust with great accuracy and power.
To unleash these capacities of the body, breath, and internalized voice takes time and effort, and a skilled witness in a therapist who listens between the lines of what is said and sung in the therapy studio. Our work as music therapists is to witness and support people as they unleash the transformative capacity of their authentic voices. Stay tuned for part two of this series, in which we will talk about voice and identity, and how our voices change based on many factors over the course of our lives.
Until then, sing and sigh on…!