The Healing Voice
The human voice is a healing tool. It is one of our most powerful tools for expression and one of the most intimate expressions of self. The voice has been described as an acoustic mirror (Silverman, 1988); the sound of our voice, indeed, is a reflection of the many layers of ourselves. Our ancestors have been using singing and voicework intuitively for thousands of years as a guide and a medicine. Bruce Chatwin (1987) described how the indigenous people of Australia used song and voice as a map. He wrote, “Each totemic ancestor, while traveling through the country, was thought to have scattered a trail of words and musical notes along the line of his footprints” (p. 2). Long before pioneers such as Tomatis, Wolfsohn, Moses, and Newham illuminated the voice and its healing properties, shamans all over the world used song and rhythm for healing purposes. In the Hindu tradition over a thousand hymns were written in Sanskrit, the oldest language of India during the third millennium BCE, and the Native Americans used song in practices of prayer and celebration (Gaynor, 2002, pp. 49-68).
Singing is a full-bodied activity that engages the mind, body, and spirit. It has the potential not only to assist a person in expressing a wide range of emotions, but also to affect the physiological and psychological state of an individual. Perhaps this is one reason that the rhythm and harmony of a song can open our hearts and move us to tears. In a recent online article, singer and author Victoria Stratton (2008) quoted Graham Welch, Chair of Music Education at the Institute of Education, University of London, who for the last 30 years has been studying the developmental and healing elements of singing. Graham stated, “Singing has psychological benefits because of its normally positive effect in reducing stress levels through the action of the endocrine system, which is linked to our sense of emotional well-being” (para. 5).
In working with people over the years as a singing teacher, I have witnessed both the fear around the voice that people develop when they are silenced in their lives and the deep joy that is born when a person is given permission to have a voice. When people open up and share that which has been cut down and they are validated and supported, the healing effect is tangible and potent. In “Moving Voice...Authentic Voice Work,” Adrienne Thomas (2006) has seen a similar effect. She wrote,
The individual human voice is full of information. It is a primary means of expression and communication, a barometer of emotions, feelings and states; an individual expression of who we are. When resonated and released, it can also be a vital tool of transformation and healing. The very act of allowing unacceptable noises, loud or raucous sounds to be released, can be extremely liberating for many people. When these emotions have been acknowledged and expressed we can then move on to access and release strong and beautiful sounds which are connected, authentic and truly expressive of the core self which is inevitably a powerful and creative force. (p. 9)
As Thomas articulated, revealing the voice can be intimate and risky, but for this reason it is also liberating and rewarding. Indeed, often people feel shame and fear around vocalizing in front of another person. For in our voices we hold memory, emotion, and story. Perhaps to some extent the voice and self are intertwined. Regarding voicework, Paul Newham (1998) wrote, “For many people . . . it is the first time since infancy that they have opened their mouths and expressed pure non-verbal sounds to another human being” (p. 131). Voicework is indeed intimate. It is therefore essential that a safe, welcoming, and receptive space be held when the voice is invited out to play. In his book Healing Songs, Ted Gioia (2006) also wrote about the need he saw in society for an outlet to sing. He used the example of millions of commuters every day singing in the privacy of their cars. “There are millions on the road who do this every morning: yet there are even more who want to sing but resist the urge because of self-consciousness and embarrassment” (p. 143).
Singing has been found to positively affect the very young and the very old. An article in 2008 discussed that singing can often be very effective for children with speech disorders that have a psychological root due to its relaxing effect on the body and mind (Rinta & Welch, 2008). Even more recently, an online article in October, 2010 entitled “Singing for the Brain” (Alzheimer’s Society, 2010), reported that singing in groups can help people with dementia. Sarah Mayall, services manager at Alzheimer’s Society, said, “Singing is not only an enjoyable activity, it can also provide a way for people with dementia, along with their carers, to express themselves and socialize with others in a fun and supportive group” (para. 2).
My vocal studio in Santa Cruz, California attracts people of every age and vocal level. Some voices are very soft and some very loud. Some are deep and husky, while others soar high and clear. Exploring the voice takes courage and creativity. I continue to feel humbled and inspired by the voices that come through my door.
Alzheimer’s Society. (2010, October). Singing for the brain. Retrieved from http://alzheimers.org.uk/site/scripts/documents_info.php?documentID=760
Gaynor, M. L. (2002). The healing power of sound. Boston, MA and London, England: Shambhala.
Gioia, T. (2006). Healing songs. London, England: Duke University Press.
Newham, P. (1998). Therapeutic voicework, principles and practice for the use of singing as therapy. London, England: Jessica Kingsley.
Rinta, T. & Welch, G. F. (2008). Should singing activities be included in speech and voice therapy for prepubertal children? Journal of Voice, 22(1), 100-112. Retrieved from http://www.sld.cu/galerias/pdf/sitios/rehabilitacion-logo/terapia_de_la_...
Silverman, K. (1988). The acoustic mirror. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Stratton, V. (2008, September). Hitting a high note. Retrieved from http://www.alive.com/6906a17a2.php?subject_bread_cramb=5
Thomas, A. (2006). Moving voice…Authentic voice work. Positive Health, 120, 9-11. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct