“We breathe and we voice – the first two activities of our life. Spoken voices feel like an extension of personality, flowing effortlessly out of our heads and hearts, our thoughts and feelings. For many, working on the voice would seem like cosmetic indulgence at best and false betrayal at worst. Yet every year thousands of people do work to extend, change or mend something about how they sound.”
Since moving to Canberra from Queensland nearly 20 years ago, I have fallen in love with Autumn. The colours, the quality of the light, the crunch underfoot…it all comes together in magical ways that suggest POSSIBILITY.
And yet, as you well know, a considerable change process is the source of this wonder and delight. So it leaves me asking myself…do I enjoy my own personal change as much as I enjoy this seasonal change? I only answer yes to that when it refers to the change I feel in control of. However, most of the change I am subject to is out of my control and therefore quite uncomfortable.
Then what about vocal change? If I am growing as a singer, aren’t I always in control of the change I am choosing? Not necessarily. And even if I am in control, or I am choosing to grow and change, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the change is comfortable or easy. I mean – when someone starts having singing lessons, it’s not like they are picking up a new instrument they’ve never handled before. We start singing from the moment we are born.
And that is precisely why vocal change is so challenging to work with. I am making adjustments to neuro-psycho-biological systems that have been working in these patterns for many many years. Sometimes decades!
HOW VOICES WORK
“We come into this world with vocal folds whose primary purpose is to allow air in and out of our lungs, keep foreign substances out of our lungs, and aid in lifting heavy objects. For those of us who sing, we are the power source, the vibrator and the resonator of our musical instrument, playable only by its owner without ever seeing it. It requires no limbs to play. It not only has tone but can form words and express emotions, ideas, stories and poetry. It is a living, growing, changing instrument.”
To appreciate how voices change, we need a quick reminder of how voices work. Appreciating the various systems involved in voicing will help us appreciate why there is so much variation in our rates of development.
- Cognitive intention and coordination – The MindA large proportion of the brain is recruited to steer the functions of voicing. Over time, these can become automatic through repetition. From breath management to pitching to artistic expression…every single layer of singing is led by brain function. This is both neurological and psychological.Therefore, choosing new thought patterns (and practicing them!) can bring about change.This applies significantly to the nature of the vocal tone and it’s pitch. We guide a lot of our laryngeal function through intention and thought.
- Life support systems – The BodyWhen we sing, we recruit parts of the body whose primary function is life support or management. Breath function is an obvious example, where the vast proportion of our respiratory process occurs subconsciously. But did you know that the actual phonation process itself, whereby the vocal folds vibrate to make sound, is their tertiary function? That’s right – your vocal folds have the life-preserving job of protecting your airway from foreign matter. Then they are required to assist us in weight bearing. Therefore, it is helpful for us to understand the areas of our body intersecting with vocalising in order to appreciate how change in these areas can occur.
- Fine motor coordination and energy – The VoiceTraining and strengthening muscles, no matter their size, can follow recognisable patterns. A recap of the parallels with exercise physiology will further help you to appreciate how change occurs in muscles that might be exhibiting some pretty cemented-in habits. We particularly focus on the vocal muscles themselves but not in the way you’d expect. We do not have sensory control over the larynx itself, so we effect change through a blend of subglottal (below the larynx), supraglottal (above the larynx) and cognitive/imaginative thought processes. And since the “laryngeal skeletal muscles have similar characteristics to skeletal limb muscles with regard to fibre type, capillary density and metabolic features” (LeBorgne & Rosenberg), we can apply wisdom about training for fitness and for injury prevention in the same way we would guide a sports person.
I sometimes find it useful to think of our work as singers as simultaneously:
- building our instrument (strengthening its capacity and response through intentional repetition and stretching) AND
- learning to play our instrument (organising the instrument’s coordinations for music application).
Other instrumentalists can play an instrument that someone else built for them. And upgrade to new models when their skill and style advances. We have one instrument for a lifetime. We build it individually. We play it individually.
While that was a very broad brushstroke to illustrate a phenomenal process of transformation, I hope it helps you to appreciate why vocal change can be so variable. There is more than one source to consider changing when seeking new outcomes!
THE NATURE OF CHANGE GENERALLY
Accepting and working with the change process can transform it into a great adventure. When we enjoy change and celebrate its stages, I believe it oils the wheels and keeps the process from getting stuck.
This educational model is often useful as a framework. (The term commonly used as “competency” might be better described in our context as “efficiency”.) I have heard it described so often, I am unsure of its author or origin. (Please get in touch with me if you are aware of an appropriate citation I can give it!)
|You are unaware that you are doing it inefficiently.
|You’re still doing it inefficiently, but you are now fully aware of it.
|You’ve discovered efficiency, but you have to focus and stay aware of it.
|You get it right without thinking about it…muscle memory!
There is a tremendous gift that arrives with Stage 2…FRUSTRATION!!! I know – you’re wondering how frustration can be a gift? It delivers awareness of the inefficient habit. And it is that awareness that can propel you forward into Stage 3.
Most often, we hover between stages 2 and 3 quite a lot when we are developing a new habit. This is fabulous! And it is welcome because it means we have not drifted back to the mindlessness of stage 1.
The magnificent nature of our nervous system must be mentioned here. It works quietly in the background effecting change even when we’re not actively practicing. AMAZING!!!
However, it is important to notice that it does this with everything we repeat – it doesn’t discern between efficient or inefficient. It reinforces whatever we have spent time on. That is why frequency and consistency of showing up for intentional (mindful) practice is so significant in the change process.
“Change can be found anywhere on a spectrum between breathtakingly beautiful to staggeringly painful.”
Not all change is equal. Comparing the way deciduous trees lose their leaves shows you that straight away. Some trees change their foliage in splendour that takes your breath away. Other trees change in ordinary, even bland, or unpleasant ways. Some trees change early in the season, others late. Some change in a weekend, some in a month. Some change according to the microclimate they are planted in. That’s life. That’s the nature of change. We can wear ourselves fighting with it, or we can embrace it and work with it. I could switch to a metaphor around the Titanic here…but I’ll let you muse on that alone 😉
PERSPECTIVES ON VOCAL CHANGE
Armed with information about the way my voice works, and the way change often works, I can now approach my vocal change with self-compassion and curiosity. Change is largely unpredictable in timing and variable in nature – so having a broad appreciation for how you respond to it, work with it, and make it positive, will help you cope with its arrival.
This collection of thoughts addresses some change scenarios you might encounter.
- Sometimes vocal change is as simple as changing my mind about something. For example, learning that I rarely need 100% of my lung capacity for singing could instantly change how I organise my breath for a phrase.
- But sometimes vocal change can take so much time that we are tempted to quit waiting.
- I can choose to accept the rate of change that comes each time – and find it fascinating that one piece of technique takes effect quickly and another slowly.
- I can choose not to compare my changing voice to someone else’s. I am the embodiment of my psychology, genetics, health, environment, ancestry, experience and more. Therefore my change will be unique to me.
- I can cooperate with change, enjoy its phases, learn about it more and work with it. Or I can fight against it.
- I can let go of the hope/expectation that others will understand my change. Sometimes the preciousness of it as a gift loses something in the retelling.
- Choosing the people who will be the “midwives” of my change is important. Eg if I am changing the way I belt, watching every YouTube teacher in existence talk about belting will likely confuse me and distort my change process.
- It is better to focus on the habit we are “turning on” than the habit we are “turning off”.
- Change is inevitable, so learning to accept it as a positive event for the voice can be liberating.
- Change is messy no matter how in control of the mess we think we are. Embrace messy. Messy is good!
GENERAL TIPS & MINDSETS
- Learn to wait. Practice waiting. Trust waiting. Onions take 6 months to be ready to eat. Zucchinis take more like 6 weeks. Neither is better. That’s just how they grow.
- Don’t force something your voice isn’t ready for. Trust your gut – if it doesn’t feel right to follow the crowd – then don’t. Find your own path.
- Pay attention to your body, mind and voice for signals of what to do more of and what to do less of as you explore change. Roughness, breathiness, weakness, croakiness, fatigue – these are all signs that your voice needs rest and has probably been misused. Throat discomfort, painful swallowing or neck tension are signs that you have been using inappropriate parts of your body to produce energy for the voice. Brain fog is a sign that you need to practice differently or have a rest day.
- Sometimes I have to withdraw from habitual vocal activity because the change is so deep and internal that my outer/public voice doesn’t resemble its usual self at all (eg rebuilding your voice post-surgery; or taking a break for vocal refreshing in between endless character roles; or stepping back from performing to rebuild an area of technique).
- Much change can continue without withdrawing or taking a break from performing.
- Allow change to take the time it takes, but show up for it completely (mindfully) and often, with consistency, curiosity and intentionality.
- Each changing component exists within a broader landscape of change and purpose. Like many moving parts in a car even as the whole car moves. Therefore, one change might spark another change, or it might solve a problem in another part of the voice so you never need to “work on it”.
- We have different paces of change at different stages of life. (Children usually take on change faster than adults.) Allow yourself the dignity of changing according to this moment in time instead of wishing you were another age.
- Practice finding ways to appreciate your change, eg:
- Recordings of the start of a process compared with some months later.
- Revisiting old repertoire with fresh tools.
- Observing the ripple effect into other areas of singing without intentional application.
- Journalling your practice.
I hope you found some useful ideas in this blog and feel more positive about your singing now. What vocal change are you in the middle of? I’d love to hear about it!
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Brunssen, K. (2018). The Evolving Singing Voice: Changes Across the Lifespan. Plural Publishing, San Diego
LeBorgne, W.D. & Rosenberg, M. (2014). The Vocal Athlete. Plural Publishing, San Diego
Shewell, C. (2009). Voice Work: Art and Science in Changing Voices. Wiley-Blackwell, United Kingdom