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From Gregorian chant to Buddhist mantras, a writer explores the therapeutic properties of singing.
2018-05-27 09:00:00

Yoga for the Voice
Why Singing Is Good for the Mind

The Singer in Green, Edgar Degas, 1884, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Yoga for the Voice
Yoga for the Voice

The floorboards of the great hall smelt like cleaning fluid. The cleaners must have scrubbed them well. After a moment, the school ceremony was to begin. Children from all eight classes were placed on small, evenly lined-up chairs, with parents crouching here and there on the floor. The whole faculty sat in the first row. A slender 12-year-old stood at the microphone. From all sides of the hall, eyes were fixed on her, filled with expectation. She opened her mouth. Nothing. In a stage whisper, one of the teachers started to feed her the words of the song for the special occasion. But that wasn’t it. It wasn’t about forgotten words. There was no voice in the girl’s throat, like when a person’s breath runs out while running fast. No sound came out of her wide open mouth. It lasted no more than 20 seconds, but to her it seemed like she was standing in silence for an eternity.

Read in 10 minutes
Read by Nathaniel Espino

I was that girl.

Almost three decades after that horrible performance, I signed up for voice lessons. Already in the first lesson, Jodie (my Australian teacher) said the sound of your voice is the effect of the condition of your spirit, and certain choices in the past.

“Can you recall whether at some point in your childhood, in school, during your first important friendships, your voice gave you strength that allowed you to shine, or to hide?” she asked from over the black and white keys of the piano. “When you speak normally, do you feel control over the impression you make on people? If you can answer at least some of these questions, we can continue working.”

I remembered the story of the voice lessons of Margaret Thatcher, who wanted to sound more authoritative. As well as the critics of Hillary Clinton, who said somebody who talks like a moaning wife can’t be president. We judge people by the sounds they emit. If we assume that our entire body is an instrument, then our voice – meaning the vocal cords – stimulated by a stream of air, is its most important melody. So speech, screams and song aren’t only physiological acts, even though they can seem as natural as breathing. The colour of our voice, our intonation and the way we speak reflect our emotions and the state of our health and mind.

And then my singing lessons became something more than a relaxing hobby. They were the start of a journey.

The evolutionary cry of survival

If you really think about it, people use their relaxed, completely free voices only as babies. When a baby comes into the world and is cut off from the umbilical cord, their lungs have contact with oxygen for the first time. There’s so much of it that for a moment the heart’s valves close, and the baby starts to suffocate. To break through this blockade, the child has to reverse the direction of the air. A baby’s first loud cry is an evolutionary cry of survival.

After all, the voice is a small child’s only source of self-determination. Thanks to the voice it has food, a place to sleep; it is embraced when it’s cold, and changed when it has a wet nappy. An infant doesn’t distinguish between its own voice and the sounds of the external world. As psychiatrist M. Scott Peck says in his outstanding book The Road Less Traveled, for a child “there are no boundaries, no separations. There is no identity.” The infant is its own whimpering; it is the lullaby its mother sings, just as much as it is the pain of an empty stomach that demands milk.

So perhaps it isn’t entirely true that we, as adults, have a certain kind of voice – low or high, quiet or loud, rich or hoarse. Maybe we are our own voice. Can we assume that if you find the source of your voice, you will understand who you are?

Exercise your muscles

Alfred Wolfsohn, a German voice teacher of Jewish origin, stated that the voice is the muscle of the soul. You can work on developing it only when you come to a blockage, because that’s the sign that you have reached deeply hidden but important emotions. Wolfsohn knew what he was talking about. During World War I, he worked in a field hospital as a stretcher-bearer. After one battle, badly wounded and trapped for more than 10 hours under the corpses of his comrades, he lived through the worst trauma of his life.

He managed to survive, but he had witnessed such great suffering that he didn’t know how to deal with the memory. That’s when he started having strong auditory hallucinations. He constantly thought that he was hearing the screams and moans of the dying. And he continually recalled a certain wounded soldier, who was begging for help while Wolfsohn was playing dead.

Soon after that, he lost his voice. The diagnosis was simple: post-traumatic stress disorder. Conventional treatment had no effect, so Wolfsohn decided to treat himself. For a long time he would let out wild cries, until finally his voice returned. He described his healing as a combination of catharsis and exorcism. Wolfsohn said his loss of speech resulted from a feeling of guilt, because instead of aiding his comrade, he hid among the bodies. He understood that in order to continue functioning, he had to accept this shame. And that’s when he felt healed. Wolfsohn also decided to start working with artists who were looking for the best way to express their emotions.

“The scale of the human voice, if you really push it, is unimaginable,” he wrote in his essay The Problem of Limitations. “Everyone can easily sing a few octaves higher or lower.” Wolfsohn’s traumatic experiences made him a charismatic teacher. His students jokingly referred to him as ‘Houdini’. He made them write down their dreams (he was fascinated by Jung), and during lessons they had to shout so loudly that their throats hurt. In the end, he taught them that the male and female voice timbres and expression are only names, because each of the genders can use the characteristics of the other.

Marita Günther, a German friend of Wolfsohn whom he met in London, described his methods: “He loved his pupils. [...] He would arrive at his studio at 9.00am and very often not leave until 11.00pm. [...] You were just asked to sing a note. [...] All the time he was always listening to you, whether you were holding back, and why were you doing so, whether he heard something that needed to be worked on, not only because of sound development but from a psychological point of view.” She summed up the experience thus: “It was hard, intense work, almost a therapy session.”

It wasn’t just talented singers who came to Wolfsohn’s studio in Golders Green, but also actors, painters and writers, such as the Huxley brothers – the writer Aldous and the biologist Julian. Each of them was looking for ‘their own voice’; the truth about themselves. Because as their master said, the voice is something more than just sound. It’s the entire palette of emotions that it transmits: from quiet, through whispering, groans, song, to shouts. “If you don’t confront the trauma within yourself, you become it,” Wolfsohn said.

Claude Stein, an American vocal coach who works with artists from the Warner Bros. studio, confirms that a person’s history is contained within their voice. “Who are the most inspiring vocalists of all time?” he writes. “They’re the ugly ducklings, who freed themselves from suffering and inspired the world: the victim of violence, Tina Turner; the eternal little boy, Michael Jackson; or the squinting, ginger Ed Sheeran. The real magic is authenticity.”

The blue chakra of sincerity

For centuries, people from the East have believed that the human voice is a reflection of the soul. In the end, the throat, larynx and trachea are so close to the heart that they must affect each other. According to Buddhism and Hinduism, an energy line runs along the spine, along which are found energy points known as chakras. The fifth chakra, the Vishuddha, corresponds to the voice, and in fact to the entire sphere of communication and verbal expression. It’s located in a depression at the base of the neck, and radiates a blue colour.

Anodea Judith, an American psychologist and yogi who is also the author of several useful books on Eastern spirituality (including Wheels of Life and Eastern Body, Western Mind), explains that in the voice chakra lies the secret of human creativity, sincerity, naturalness and spontaneity. If the flow of energy in this area is good, we feel free, and we can also communicate clearly and transparently. On the other hand, stress, pressure, bad thoughts and convictions block the voice chakra and can lead to many ailments – from chronic throat and larynx inflammations through hoarseness and diseases of the ear or thyroid, up to stuttering and muteness.

In turn, “in the shamanic tradition, the voice is the gateway to deeper spheres of the subconscious,” Silvia Nakkach writes in her book Free Your Voice: Awaken to Life Through Singing. The American singer, composer and psychologist of music has conducted so-called voice yoga lessons. She believes that singing improves your health because it brings together elements of breathing and muscle exercises, and also the practice of fully-liberating musical expression. “To sing is to enchant!” she says, pointing out that the Latin verb cantare, meaning ‘to sing’, most likely comes from the term incantare, meaning ‘to do magic, cast spells’.

One form of vocal expression that’s popular today, particularly among practitioners of Eastern spirituality, is mantras. These repeated lines, derived from the Buddhist tradition, are intended to help the practitioner transcend the here and now to another, timeless dimension of the mind. In Hindu mythology, the most important mantra is the yogic Om; the next, Om Namah Shivaya, or “I bow to Lord Shiva”. But the meaning of the words themselves isn’t important; what’s significant is the repetition and the intention of meditation. Zoran Josipovic, director of the Contemplative Science Lab at New York University, spent several years ‘looking into’ the brains of Tibetan monks. The results of his research are ambiguous, but they demonstrate one thing: the regular practice of meditation and reciting mantras improves blood circulation in the brain, increases the number of nerve connections, and improves memory, associations and the quality of sleep. Melodic, uniform recitation brings the body into a state of watchfulness, as it calms and regenerates. And, of course, we know that almost any device that’s used for too long works better when it’s switched off at least for a little bit.

The voiced mind

Charles Darwin had a theory on the genesis of verbal communication. He believed that speech arose when, as a result of fear or excitement, early humans’ chest and throat muscles began to contract. This would mean that emotions and the voice have always been connected. Contemporary science is slowly coming to acknowledge Eastern beliefs are correct. Analysis of the minds of animals, such as dogs and dolphins, shows that the need to vocalize emotions is created in the limbic system – the hypothalamus, amygdala and cingulate gyrus. Although language in the modern, grammatical understanding corresponds to the brain structure that’s the youngest in evolutionary terms (the neocortex), it’s precisely the older, limbic part that’s the most ‘voiced’. In recent resonance research on the brain, scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology discovered that musicians have higher nerve density in their temporal lobes than people who don’t perform music.

It’s not just Buddhists and Hindus who argue for the benefits of singing and melorecitation; neurobiologists do, too. We know that during singing, pleasure hormones – endorphins and oxytocin – are released in the brain, and the level of the stress hormone cortisone is lowered. An even more therapeutic effect on your mood comes from singing in a group. During group vocalizations (regardless of whether it’s Buddhist mantras or Gregorian chants), the heart rates of all participants synchronize, starting to beat at the same rate.

Voice coach Silvia Nakkach compares singing to architecture. When building a church or a concert hall, the architect takes into account the way sound moves, and uses the natural synergy of the structure’s shapes and forms. It’s the same with singing: it’s a synergy of the three pillars of sound, breathing and muscle work.

At the end of another singing lesson, Jodie has one more thing to add. “Don’t forget that the most important ingredient is the soul, either the Eastern or the Western, as long as it’s authentic.”

Because the most beautiful voice is always the truest.


Translated by Nathaniel Espino

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Aleksandra Reszelska

is a journalist and writer; she graduated from Japanese Studies at Oxford University. A seeker of Zen among the chaos of everyday life. She lives with her family in Sydney.