When Singing Is Not Just About Singing

Sometimes people need to take singing lessons for reasons that have little to do with singing.

We have, in our society, quite a bit of abuse. Some of it is discovered and addressed, but much of it is hidden in various ways.

People who are victims of abuse are frequently not heard when they speak up to protest, particularly if they are children. People who have been beaten, or seen other family members beaten, or people who have been sexually abused, may even have been punished if they spoke up about this abuse. It is generally not to be spoken about or even acknowledged. Women who have been raped may not even have reported it, from the shame and distress rape causes. Children who grow up with alcoholism who are told not to talk about “daddy’s or mommy’s problem” get the same messages.

There are other kinds of abuse, too, that are more subtle but perhaps not so much less damaging. If you are raised in a household of strict rules and absolutely never are given a chance to have a say over your own life, you can end up unable to function in the world without problems. If you are routinely ridiculed, if your opinion is mocked or demeaned, if you are never asked for your opinion, if you are told constantly to be quiet or shut up, if you are ignored or told to keep to yourself, after a while you get the message that you have nothing to say. You learn that your opinion is worthless and you aren’t going to be heeded if you speak out, so why bother?

In order for someone to trust and value their own opinion, to voice their ideas, thoughts and points of view, you have to be heard as a child and what you say has to at least once in a while be taken as being valid. It has to be counted as being of worth, and listened to with interest. Your parents have to, occasionally, allow you to have a say in what happens to you and decide for yourself what you want and how you want it. If you do not get direct loving attention from your parent or caregiver a good part of the time, you learn that you are not worthy of love or of being attended to.

All of these issues can end up as vocal problems. You can end up with a weak voice, an unappealing voice, you can end up feeling like your voice is unpleasant or has other issues. You can have trouble speaking up, giving you opinion, and expressing what you want to say in a clear and forthright manner. You can also end up talking all the time, talking too loud, making your voice squawky or piercing. You can end up trying to make your own opinion more important than that of others, or forcing your ideas on others regardless of what it is you are trying to say. You can end up trying to push your ideas out through forcefulness, and not ever listen to the feedback that others give you about what you are saying or writing. You can end up with actual physical health concerns that show up after years of ignoring these issues. You may have been taught that there is no direct connection between the mind and the body, but that is just not true. The Chinese, Japanese and other Eastern systems of health do not separate things the way we do. They see emotion, mind and body as being all of a piece.

Sometimes people want to sing because innately they know that something isn’t quite right with their voice. They sense that if they could just find a sound they like, that is full and rich and pleasant sounding, that if they can connect to control over their own voice that feels easy and free, that this would give them great satisfaction. They deeply hope that in finding the ability to sing they will also find hidden and lost parts of themselves that are long missing. Parts that were silenced. Parts that were ignored. Places inside where there they cannot find room to come home in their own body.

If you teach singing for a year or so, you will encounter the emotional need that many people have in singing. It may have absolutely nothing to do with making vocal music, but people tell themselves that’s what they are seeking because they do not know how to make any other association. You, as a teacher, however, might well be confronted with behavior that you realize is not typical and has little to do with what you are asking the person to do. If you are not a psychologist, or a psychiatrist, if you are not trained in mental health as a professional, what do you do with this? Do you ignore the person (yet again) or do you focus upon their “issues” with singing? Do you address these behaviors (with what technique?) or is that going in over your head and asking for problems? (yes). Do you send them away? Do you send them to some other teacher? What is appropriate?

Truth is, our profession, that of teaching singing, totally ignores this entire topic. Everyone acts like there is no connection between actions that happen in life, and the body and how we experience the body. It is as if things can be ignored and then they will just go away, except they don’t. People who refuse to deal with psychology, be it their own or someone else’s, are not going to have an easy time learning to sing effectively. You do not need to be a perfect human being with no problems of any kind in order to sing (that would leave out 99% of us) but you do need to know what kinds of patterns you have and address them so that they do not get in the way of your vocal training and experience, or of your ability to teach. As a teacher, if you do not want to wander into a situation where you could make things worse, get yourself in trouble and maybe do more damage to the student, you need to learn what is appropriate behavior and guess what, you can’t learn it from any of our professional teaching associations. None of them have courses in psychology, or in any related topic. Our profession insists that singing is singing and music is music and that’s that.

This is a shame. Learning to sing freely can be a very valid doorway for other kinds of expression that are very important. It is NOT a substitute for working with a qualified mental health professional, and everyone should be very clear about that, but it can be a trigger for things that need to be dealt with and addressed. Although there is still a great deal of shame in our society for people who “need help”, the idea that working to overcome past trauma or abuse is something that should be embraced, not ridiculed. It is the normal people who get help and the ones whose issues are so big that they cannot ask for help that are the ones who are really in trouble. Maybe going for singing lessons doesn’t look like going to a 12-Step Program, but it could very well begin to open up doors that are blocked, starting with the ones in the throat.

Somatic Voicework™ is body based training for the voice. It incorporates respect for the throat and body, and respect as well for the ability for the body to breath deeply and freely. It is based on respect for a human beings’ feelings and it honors each person as being worthy of excellent vocal training, regardless of who that person might be, what their level of ability or experience is, and what they bring with them from their past. It is based on the idea that the throat and body function according to the principles of vocal production as we now understand them in voice science but it is not just about the throat or the larynx. We teach human beings not larynges.

When I was being trained by one of NYC’s most respected laryngologists, a woman came in to see him who had a “vocal web”. This is an actual web that grows between the vocal folds, covering the opening through which we breathe. When the doctor approached her to examine her, he had to place the mirror gently in the back of her mouth to see her vocal folds. She began to cry and shake and he had to stop. After he waited and she calmed down, he tried again, gently and compassionately (I thought) to examine her, but she reacted the same way. Again, he waited and tried again and was finally able to see with his scope the extent of the webbing (which was great) but she could not tolerate having the mirror in her mouth and the examination came to an end. We were all shaken. After she left, he spoke to the Resident and to me saying “this is a psychogenic case”, meaning this is someone who has psychological problems related to her voice. He also said that if she had a bad cold and got severe laryngitis, she could die, as the swollen vocal folds would block off what little space was left in her glottis for her to breathe!

As far as I know, and I could be wrong because I got no further information other than what I have just written, I do not believe she was referred to a psychologist. Nor, if she were referred, would we know if she would have gone. I wondered if the woman had been a victim of rape or sodomy, but I will never know. I do know that my heart broke for her. The issue was with the voice, but an experienced MD thought that there was something else there, too.

As far as I know, I am one of the few recognized vocal pedagogy experts that has discussed this topic in public. It is an area that needs a great deal more research of many different kinds and someone needs to step forward to make it a valid and recognized diagnosis such as exists in other conditions in which the psycho-neurologic interface is a key factor (hypertension is a good example). I am willing to call it “Psychogenic Singing” until something better comes along and invite my colleagues in the profession of teaching to address these issues in papers, symposia, and professional congresses. Your feedback is welcome.

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2 thoughts on “When Singing Is Not Just About Singing”

  1. Hello!
    My name is Rita, I’m from Brasil and took lessons with you in Beth Amin’s studio, few years ago. I really appreciated that one lesson, who moved a lot inside my experience in singing (and because of Beth’s lessons too!)
    This study envolving teach singing and psicology is really very important. In my experience I notice how much voice is something personal, and how we identificate ourselves through voice. In extreme cases I believe that is important some specifical orientation. Some literature, I guess. But in an other way I believe that through art there are some ways to act with responsability. Anyway, every teacher must have ears wide opened, the perception alert and be linked to the compromise with the human, the person with the voice.
    Thank you again, I’m following this blog and there is a lot of information and orientation here!
    Greetings from Brasil

  2. I agree with your post. I keep the business cards of qualified and compassionate psychologists and counsellors on my desk, and just as I would refer people to an ENT or speech path,sometimes I refer to a counsellor. This topic is huge, and there is very little literature on it. On of my friends who isa counsellor once said people who come to her are trying to find their voice. Strikes home, doesn’t it!

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