“Your heart’s voice is your true voice. It is easy to ignore it, for sometimes it says what we’d rather it did not – and it is so hard to risk the things we have. But what life are we living, if we don’t live by our hearts? Not a true one. And the person living it is not the true you”.
Those of us who sing commonly believe that singing is a naturally healing activity, and many cultures and communities that sing together do so as a way to access joyful feelings, both individually and as a group, thus intensifying social bonds and the sense of community. This belief could easily be dismissed as unscientific ‘new age’ nonsense – particularly in these times of rampant reductionism – so it is highly satisfying for me to be able to share the science behind the joy singers experience. If you would like to understand how singing heals, read on!
The heart and the voice both function as powerful metaphors in our everyday language. We can “speak from the heart”, “sing our heart out”, feel our heart is “full of joy” and “bursting” with emotion. An “open-hearted” person is one without guile, and a “big-hearted” one is full of kindness. An unkind word can be a “knife to the heart”, and the loss of love can leave us “heartbroken”. A writer strives to develop her “authentic voice”; she may “give voice” to her true feelings; a trusted political figure may become the “voice of a nation”. All these – perhaps over-familiar – phrases reveal how closely we associate the voice and the heart with authenticity, integrity, truth, spontaneity, and depth of feeling. As social creatures, revealing what is “closest to our heart” is another way in which we use our voice make connections and bond with one another.
So are these concepts purely metaphorical? Metaphor is one of our most useful linguistic tools, enhancing our language by evoking our sensory self-awareness, giving us a powerful way to capture and convey the multi–dimensional richness of interacting with this complex world. Our human bodily sensations give us a way to share ideas and concepts directly from one nervous system to another.
Here is another angle to consider; of course we rely on metaphor, how else can we know anything except through the mediator of our own sensory-motor nervous system? So we speak of broken hearts and closed ears and open eyes and shouldered burdens and grasped concepts; of paying “lip” service to something, of “ribbing” someone to make them giggle, of “facing” up to difficult circumstances, of “chewing” over ideas so that we can “digest” them fully – I could go on and on…
So, when did you last “listen” to your own heart? What is it telling you now – is it “filled with anticipation” or perhaps “sinking” at the thought of another fascinating, insightful (and long) blog post from me? Maybe you are completely aware of your own emotional state at all times. Maybe you never “swallow” your own feelings, or “choke” back tears, maybe your heart is always in full view “on your sleeve”.
What is really exciting is that the current neuro-scientific focus on trauma and stress disorders is revealing just how deeply interconnected the heart and the voice truly are, so when I speak of the heart’s voice I want to be absolutely clear that I am not speaking merely metaphorically, thanks to the extraordinary significance of the 10th cranial Vagus nerve. Experts, such as Stephen W. Porges, author of The Polyvagal Theory, and Peter Levine, author of The Unspoken Voice, are revealing how this huge, wandering, “vagabond” nerve-complex connects and controls the heart, the breathing, the voice, the hearing, and the organs of digestion into one enormous intercommunicating feedback system that encompasses our emotion intelligence, our level of empathy, our ability to pick out human voices from background noise, our instinctive or habitual responses to stress and fear (fight, flight or freeze), and our ability to communicate with each other, form secure social bonds and function within complex communities. As this naturally includes the sphincters and diaphragms (because they are fundamental to our respiratory and digestive functions), and the hands, face, eyes and mouth (as they are fundamental to our gesture language), plus our hearing (as it is directly affected by the level of arousal in our nervous system), those of you paying attention to my witterings will realise that Polyvagal theory brings all of my obsessions under one huge, scientifically-observable banner.
In this 40 minute interview Porges covers a lot of his theory, and mentions how perfect his teenage clarinet practice was for bringing his vagal circuit into equilibrium, due to the combination of extending his exhalation, adjusting the quality of the notes via his throat and facial muscles, and actively listening to the sound he was producing – all the things we do when we practice our vocal exercises. He likens it to pranayama, but singing predates pranayama by many, many millennia!
The amazing instrument that is the human voice was constructed out of muscle, cartilage and ligament as a vital component of our evolution into the most sophisticated of the social primates. The success of reptiles as a species proves the value of fight, flight or freeze tactics for survival, but in addition to those ancient safety mechanisms we mammals can form gangs, and rely on each other, as a direct source of security and safety*. However, in order to do that we needed to communicate clearly and effectively, both close up and at a distance. For this reason our voices, facial muscles, and the movements of our heads and hands became adept at communicating our emotional state, and our ears developed to be able to distinguish the sounds the human larynx produces, even when background noise is high. Our vocal equipment is contained within a mobile skeletal structure – ribs, jaw, hyoid bone – that contributes to our vocal production. The whole structure is partially under our conscious control and partially distorted by our distinctive individual muscular habits and emotional “armour”, behaviours so ingrained that even when we are aware of their influence we may still be unable to liberate ourselves from that influence.
This is where The Feldenkrais Method and Awareness Through Movement come into the picture. The main goal of my work is to help people free themselves of those muscular and behavioural habits, both conscious and – at first – unconscious, which are preventing them from hearing, responding to, and acting on, the voice of their own heart – the unspoken voice that Peter Levine writes about. There is no actual meaningful difference between our physical, emotional and intellectual selves – despite the limitations of our language we are a single, whole, interconnected bundle of sensory input, visceral feedback, muscular experience and mental activity – and that complex system is inseparable from the environment it is immersed in!
It is easy to see the “open-hearted” way in which infants and toddlers share their feelings. For most of us the pressure to conform – the downside of all that social stability and protection – requires that we censor some of what we feel, and each family tends to lean towards acceptance of some behaviours and censorship of others. I grew up in a house where rage was ever present but unacknowledged. I found it safest to keep my head down, and trained myself to ignore my own anger and be agreeable no matter how frustrated I felt. Anger is a vital emotion, one that we experience whenever someone or something is encroaching on our territory. As I strove to be good-natured and easy-going, even when faced with manipulation or outright aggression from others, my own swallowed and unexpressed feelings began to choke me, and a barely audible speaking voice and chronic asthma were the result. Getting to the bottom of these compulsions is a life-long task, but singing is a great ally and this journey of self-liberation brings new joys every day. I recommend the natural healing process of singing whole–heart–edly. When we learn to speak, act and sing from the heart, we remove many of the barriers that keep us from fully engaging with life. As a singing teacher it is wonderful to realise that my chosen art form is powerful tool for healing the heart, the nervous system, the digestive system and the breathing, but – and it is a big ‘but’ – ONLY WHEN YOU PRACTICE!
In my workshop on this theme I will be sharing lots of ideas for bringing these practices into your daily life so you can experience all these benefits for yourself:
Liberating The Heart’s Voice
I also offer workshops and one-to-one sessions with the theme of The Embodied Voice – these are Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement workshops with a focus of a fully integrated voice – for more information go to the Embodied Voice page.
I believe that by softening ourselves and freeing ourselves of our habitual muscular armour we can enhance our natural empathy and begin to vibrate in a natural sympathy with those around us. When we can use our voices in a more open and spontaneous way, we can begin to free other blockages in our lives as well.
Embodied or Disembodied Voice – here are some examples, do you agree?
Esperanza Spalding – here is a really disembodied voice – imagine how lovely she would sound if she were breathing properly. Plus, her sky-high heels are directly enforcing the bad posture required in order for her to reach the mic and the bass. What a shame such a fine musician feels the need to sacrifice her health and the quality of her performance simply to look more glamorous, particularly as she is so beautiful to begin with! Update – I got into trouble for saying this, and I did recently see a wonderful performance of hers at a different event, so not touting this as anything other than a useful observation tool…
Van Morrison – here is a man who has made himself a life-long career of singing from the heart:
This isn’t the actual concert that caused me to fall in love with Van Morrison, that was a televised show from the same time period which also featured the wonderful Caledonia Soul Orchestra. This is such a lovely song, and his live versions are always so exuberant – Van actually does a high kick in time with a blast from the horn section at one point. It is definitely worth checking out the softer, sweeter album version as well…
…Which leads me directly to Hugh Laurie!
Hugh Laurie is a fine actor, however we do not lionise our blues singers for their acting skills, so when he chose to perform a Blues album in his well-practised (but clearly fake) American accent I was truly surprised. Here he introduces the performance in his natural speaking voice, so you get a direct comparison of the two modes!
Nina Simone: her authenticity speaks for itself, only a singer who moved her audience so reliably could get away with so much ill-temper (this is also true of Van, by the way). Here is a beautiful live version of “To Love Somebody” – this audio-only version was the loveliest, you can find another fine performance of the same song on video if you would prefer.
Here is a poem by Kahlil Gibran from his collection The Prophet, on the importance of experiencing all our emotions at full intensity:
**Research shows choirs synchronise heartbeats – “Unison singing of regular song structures makes the hearts of the singers accelerate and decelerate simultaneously”. The title of the study is Music Structure Determines Heart Rate Variability In Singers – click here for full text.
*Small birds will also gang up to chase away birds of prey – of course they are also very vocal creatures, but I have not found any reference to this in polyvagal theory so far…