Friday, May 5, 2017
Singing and Emotions
I made a new friend last year, and I gushed a little when I met her and learned that she was a singer I’d been listening to for years on my iTunes playlist. She plain and simple has a gorgeous voice. But when I met her she’d been having some vocal problems, and she learned at the Vanderbilt Voice Clinic that her chronic hoarseness was from muscular tension. Plus, she’d been compensating to get a vocal sound out for some time, exacerbating the problem. (Vocal compensating is when you tighten your throat and/or nearby muscles to produce a sound when your voice is weak, fatigued, stressed, or healing from a cold or allergies). The origin of her problem was not years and years of bad vocal technique, she was a good singer who knew how to take care of her voice. But she had recently spent a few years taking care of her terminally ill mother, and the stress of care-giving and then the grief after her mother passed took a toll on her voice.
Another friend of mine is a very well-trained professional singer with a supple voice and a huge range: he can easily sing higher that I can. But after his best friend died suddenly he lost his voice. I tried everything I could think of to get sound out of him, but nothing worked. The trauma of his friend’s sudden death had sapped his vocal strength. It took a year for him to get his voice completely back.
Many of us have experienced the feel-good surge of endorphins we get while singing. And many of us have experienced performance anxiety, when nerves seem to dismantle all of our singing technique. So we know how singing can improve our emotional state, and we know how our emotions can affect our singing. What I’m writing about is different: it’s how emotional trauma, whether short or long-term, can affect your voice. It’s an element that many singers don’t think about if they are experiencing vocal problems. We’re more likely to think “My support isn’t good lately, I just need to breathe deeper and stand up straight,” or “I’m getting hoarse easily these days, I need to warm up more and stop all dairy”. But sometimes going the voice technique route doesn’t help, and if so you might want to ask yourself if you’ve experienced an emotional trauma recently or in the past.
I’ve sent students to mental health professionals when I suspected that grief, trauma, or plain old everyday stress was inhibiting their ability to sing freely. I’ve also sent them to vocal therapists and vocal massage therapists. There are many effective ways to address the effects of emotional stress on the singing voice.
In many cases singing can help you heal emotionally if you’re in touch with your emotions. How many of us have sung our way out of a bad mood? I know I have. But singing can also help with stronger emotions like grief. A student of mine had only been studying with me for a few weeks when her husband of many years suddenly died. Though I thought she’d take some time off of her studies, she returned to lessons with me right after his memorial. She told me that lessons and subsequent home practice sessions were helping her cope and move through her grief. In her case singing was what she needed to process her emotions. Singing can be a powerful way to get in touch with emotions, and singing can help you release them. The deep breathing we do as singers can trigger the release of deep emotions. I always have a box of tissues nearby for students!
Singing and our emotions are deeply entwined. If emotions arise as you sing let them come up and out. And if you you suspect that buried emotions are blocking your voice in some way please consult a professional.