Despite being afflicted with many envies and jealousies of my own, it used to really bug me when a passing person would wistfully say, “You’re so lucky. I wish I had a voice like yours!” As a ‘struggling to establish myself in the world of performance’ singer, such comments appeared to overlook the role of my hard work over many years (it did not come easily to me), and the disappointments and internal and external struggles I encountered in my commitment to singing and working with my voice.
I have mellowed since then. Now I have a deep sense of empathy for the longing that is contained in most such comments. It is a longing to sing which, I believe, has its roots in deep-seated human needs of the soul: the need to be heard; the need to feel our ‘voice’ is acceptable and valued; the need to feel connected to our soul life and feel we have permission to express ourselves freely – needs that are sometimes (often?) sabotaged by our insecurities and feelings of vocal, and perhaps even generalised, inadequacy.
As I develop compassion for my own vocal insecurities (and believe me there are many) I am also developing a capacity to sing ‘just’ for the love of music and the joy of letting my voice free. Slowly I am learning to worry less about what others think, or where my vocal journey will take me.
I sing because I need to sing.
The need to sing may not be as overwhelmingly absolute in everyone as it is in me. In fact some people may feel no desire whatsoever to sing. That’s fine. We are all moved to express who we are in different ways. Yet it seems to me there is something powerful in the metaphor of voice as the vehicle for being heard, acknowledged and taken seriously in the world. It is not for nothing that we speak of ‘having a voice’.
Take ‘Carol’ who speaks softly and is nervous about singing in front of other people. Carol, when I meet her, speaks and sings in a strangled squeak. Her voice becomes more full, resonant, and passionate as she feels safe to open up to me and speak of her real feelings, and some of the changes she has made in her life. It disappears again whenever her insecurities or memories of being overlooked are triggered. She feels her difficulty in using her voice is related to a marriage, and a childhood, in which her opinion, or ‘voice’, was not valued, and she hid in the shadows while others set the agendas. Learning to sing and experiment with her voice (improvise) was part of a larger process of standing up for herself and speaking her truth in other areas of her life.
‘Carol’ is typical of many clients with whom I have worked, in two major ways. First, the issues they have had with their voices often seem to have mirrored other areas of their lives. Secondly, they often observe that singing and working with their voices has stimulated, or at least been simultaneous with, positive changes in other areas of their lives.
But there are differences as well. The reasons that people have difficulty letting themselves sing, even though they wish they could, are many. Some of these include :
A belief that only a lucky chosen few have a good voice – not them – and that only these gifted ones have the right to sing
And yet the truth is that we are all – excepting for actual physical damage – equipped with a larynx which has the capacity to perform the tasks involved in singing. All normally – developing babies babble in a songlike manner. In 1980 Wendrich did a study in which she discovered that babies of three to six months old have the ability to match pitch when adults engage in vocal play with them. Three years later those children who didn’t live in a musically supportive environment had lost that capacity, but it can be relearned, even as adults.
It is true that some people, usually due to the luck of the environment in which they grew up, more naturally stumble on the understanding of how to work their voices. Others need a little more help. In my experience, those who believe they don’t have a good enough voice to be heard, often also harbour an underlying belief that their metaphorical voice, or what they think and believe and feel, also doesn’t deserve to be heard. In my opinion we all deserve to give voice to what is inside us, and have an intrinsically beautiful and unique physical voice.
Even allowing for individual differences in ability, why do we think that only special people with extraordinary voices have the right to sing? We don’t consider that we need a special talent to engage in other enjoyable activities such as sports. It may be that not everyone has, or wants, the potential to sing at a professional level. In fact some very famous singers lack great vocal skill, but we listen to them because we like their expressiveness (or in the pop music industry often because they have great bodies). Not being professional material is no reason to not let one’s voice free. Singing, after all, stimulates the flow of oxygen, gets the energy moving and can connect us to joy, and a depth of soul.
A belief that they are ‘tone deaf’
This is a misleading expression which I doubt has any real meaning: various difficulties underly out-of-tune singing, and not all of them are related to the way one hears or listens.
Sometimes learning a simple technical vocal skill can correct what seemed like a large problem. Not every voice ‘knows’ what to do to to make the sound they hear. Other times learning to feel the sound in the body as well as hearing it will help in learning to sing. Some people have what I call ‘overtone confusion’ (not recognising what is the core note, and which are the subtler notes that add resonance), while others have trouble distinguishing timbre (the tone quality of a sound) from its pitch (how high or low it is). Some other people simply don’t realise they are trying to sing something that is too high or low for their voice and needs to be changed for them. They change the tune to be more comfortable in a way that the hearer experiences as out-of-tune.
I have seen many so-called ‘tone deaf’ people overcome their individual barriers to singing in tune. Some easily and quickly, some with more time and effort depending on the core reason for the problem. They may not have reached professional heights, but they became more comfortable and confident with their voices. And this new found ease meant that they were able to sing and experience joy.
Far too many adults I meet were told as children not to sing because they sounded bad or were out of tune. You may be one of them. They were often told to mime the words in the school choir so as not to spoil the sound the others were making. Not surprisingly most of these people end up with an extreme lack of confidence in their voice. One client of mine was given the lead role in a school play. The music teacher was unhappy about the choice, which was made by the drama teacher, and forced my client to mime the songs while another girl sang the songs from backstage. My client never opened her mouth to sing again, till coming to see me.
Stories like this, though not all quite as dramatic, are common among those I meet.
Luckily some people have overcome this through joining community choirs or having some type of lessons. One woman who came to a workshop I ran told of spending the whole morning crying in a nearby park and nearly running away. Luckily she came anyway, and then continued the journey with private lessons for a while. Still another said she went to join a choir, and, awed by the sounds she heard, was about to turn away at the door when someone came along and gave her a little push through the doorway. Another woman I know luckily ignored childhood injunctions to never sing, and to not even learn the guitar because it would encourage her to sing. She was told to learn the flute instead because it is impossible to play and sing at the same time. She went on to become a very popular singer songwriter in the international folk scene and has enriched the musical lives of many through her performances and her inspirational teaching style. She has a large beautiful voice, that would have taken some work learning how to manage because of its size, and she is a killer guitar player.
In addition to these traumatic singing-related experiences, many of those who have experienced much trauma and sadness generally in their lives end up with a resulting tightness, or constriction in their throats which makes it hard for the larynx to produce free and open sounds. This in turn can effect the quality of the sound that is made and the ability to sing in tune. Additionally such trauma can lead to an emotional sense of not being able to speak (or sing). What has happened was ‘unspeakable’ and so the voice seems to oblige by shutting down. Working with the voice can bring these things back, and understandably people often, consciously or unconsciously, wish to avoid this, at least until the time feels right to address the issues, or something in life forces us to face them.
A fear of being revealed
Our voices are one of our most personal and intimate identifying features. Think of how much joy a loved one’s voice can bring even from miles away across a telephone line. And how instantly recognisable a known person is from their voice. Our voices also have the capacity to reveal much about what we think and feel beyond the words we say through inflection, timbre and a multitude of minute details. In a culture where emotional control has been, and still is largely, valued, and where what is emotionally acceptable is often consciously or unconsciously subscribed, the depth of passion, vulnerability and authenticity that is possible through a free and expressive voice is deeply uncomfortable for many people. It causes them to not sing, and often to discourage others from singing with supposedly well-meant comments such as “don’t give up your day job.”
A fear of being judged
Precisely because of the personal and intimate nature of the voice, criticism can feel unbearable. Our voice is part of us. It is part of our body, and expresses something of our soul and spirit. Allowing that to be heard is extremely vulnerable, and criticism is often felt as a criticism of our Self.
Our voice is also deeply responsive to our nervousness and thus, it feels, can fail us when we need it most! When I was in school and both playing flute and singing in different items at a concert, someone asked me which made me more nervous, playing or singing. While both were nerve-racking at the time, singing won hands down: my voice was me, my flute, although it could in those inspired moments feel like a part of me, was still a tool, something outside of me which I had learned to manipulate to make sound.
Given all of this, it is no surprise that so many people are hungry to sing, but feel unable to do so. Even as I write I am aware that I am playing out one of my own avoidances of singing. I have created yet another job that is ‘more important’ than my need to sing. In my case I often find it difficult to give myself permission to do the things that bring me fulfillment and pleasure. (Having said that, writing can be another powerful way of giving voice to one’s way of seeing the world; hence my love of songwriting.) The encouraging thing is that so many people have overcome, or are in the process of overcoming, their barriers to singing by having lessons, joining choirs, singing in the shower, or going to classes or workshops where they can explore and improvise with their voices.
I have spent many years thinking about the metaphor of the voice, and I have come to the conclusion that when people say “I wish I had a voice like yours,” to whomever they are addressing, they are really longing for the connection to their own voice, and their own expressive and assertive power. What they really mean is “I wish I could give myself permission to sing with unselfconscious abandon.” Or “I wish I could feel free with my voice.” “I wish I could let myself express such passion in such a transformative way.” “I wish I could find my voice.”
It’s not too late! I’m off to my music studio to sing.
Raelene Bruinsma is the director of Finding Your Voice in Melbourne offering workshops, drop in singing sessions, retreats and private sessions. She is a registered music therapist with a bachelor of music (therapy) with honours from the University of Melbourne, and has trained in many additional therapeutic and musical methods . She is also a singer songwriter who has toured widely in Australia and a voice specialist.
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