Want to Sing Better? (Hint: stop trying so hard!)

Everyone can sing!

That’s a big claim to make, and you may be rolling your eyes at me already. Come on, Pollyanna. I actually can’t carry a tune, so you don’t know what you’re talking about.

I hear you. And, I wholeheartedly stand by my statement. If you are a human being with a voice and not singing, you are missing out on a source of wellbeing in your life.

But I’m not good enough!

That’s the story most of us tell ourselves, especially when it comes to singing with or in front of other people.

Many of us have had the experience of someone in our lives telling us we couldn’t sing. Or that we couldn’t sing well enough.

There you were, minding your own business, sharing your heart in a carefree way. And then, bam. You’re flat! You’re tone deaf. You can’t sing.

Some of us will sing anyway. Others will internalize those words and may stop singing altogether. Sound familiar?

Singing is your birthright.

I believe everyone, regardless of skill level, deserves access to singing without shame. Why?

Because singing, my friends, is one of the most essentially human activities that exists. Every culture on Earth has singing or chanting at the centre of ceremony and rite of passage.

Singing likely predated language. Let that one sink in!

Singing is a way of bonding with one another and expressing ourselves in a vulnerable way. Not doing it is like… never using your legs to run! You could live and never experience running. But why miss out?

For those of you thinking ‘but running sucks’… I see you!

Wait… what’s our goal again?

So, it’s time to rethink some things. What is your actual “goal” when you sing? What makes singing “good” or “bad?”

Western culture has it that we should sound good and impress others. In keeping with capitalism, the end goal of singing is a pleasant product.

But what if our goal was to connect with others, develop a deeper, more present connection with our bodies, and express ourselves from that place?

Yup. I’m a democratic socialist when it comes to singing. It’s the people’s instrument!

I came to a realization a few years ago: my voice is for me. Singing can be joyful.  Nowadays, my only ‘goal’ when I sing is to breathe, relax, and connect to that joy.

(As a side effect, I notice that I sound better when I do this, but that’s not the point, dammit!).

And because my attention is so focused on my body (breathing, the openness I’m creating through the back of my throat, the sound resonating in the front of my face), singing can be a grounding and meditative experience.

Perfectionism vs. Calm, Kind Practice

I’ve learned this by experiencing the other end of the spectrum. I was the worst perfectionist among you (still am, when a certain self-deprecating mood strikes).

I had been singing all my life in the context of church choirs and formal voice lessons, some from classically-trained musicians.

If you know a classical musician, you know that they care A LOT about precision. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, if that is your goal.

If you can approach precision and practice from a mindful, calm, kind, and focused space, it can actually be a form of meditation.

I’m reminded of Martha Beck describing how painting complex subjects brings her more inner stillness because she needs to focus the entirety of her attention on one thing.

However, if you approach precision from a tense place, in constant worry that you’re not good enough, flogging yourself when you screw up, well then. You’ve poked a bucket-sized hole in the bottom of your joy bucket.

What once was your greatest joy–singing, painting, cane toad racing–can become a tense exercise that you “should do more often” because you “need to get better at it.” Except, now you avoid it, because it triggers all your fears of inadequacy.

Exhibit A: Cane toad feeling the pressure.

The Path of Mastery is Paved With Imperfection

But there is another way, my pretties! Yes! Let go of how you sound or don’t sound. Relax. Connect with your breath. Connect with your joy.

Practice becomes meditative when there is no yearning for a certain result. You “improve” your voice simply by trying different things.

The more you explore your voice, the more colors you have on your vocal palate. You unlock access to different types of sounds and qualities. By releasing control and perfectionism, you gain mastery.

And yes, mastery includes the skills that you need to “sound good,” but you don’t care about that anymore. You’re free.

Exhibit B: Experiencing the joy of an impromptu park session.

The Proof is in the Joy Pudding

The first step of mastery, whatever that means to you, is to begin. If you are shy about starting, watch this video for inspiration.

The people singing here have Aphasia, which means that they had a stroke or brain injury that affected the language centre of the brain (without affecting intelligence).

Many of them have difficulty carrying on a conversation. But here they are. They’ve shown up, and they are connecting with one another through singing.

You can see them laughing, crying, and, most importantly, doing it. Most of us fail at that first, most basic step.

(You’ll see me in there as well!)

Take the Next Step

If you feel called to unlock your voice, contact me for a free 20 minute phone or video session. That may be enough to get you inspired!

I’ve blended nearly 10 years of experience as a speech therapist, 5 years experience as a yoga instructor, and… gosh… 25 odd years of singing experience into a holistic approach to voice and expression.

Knitty gritty anatomical knowledge? Check. Embodied practice? Check. Learning to sing and not take yourself too seriously? Well, that’s up to you, and I highly recommend it!

 

 

 

 

Voice and Emotion: the anatomical deep dive

In my latest post, I relayed a personal experience of temporarily losing and then healing my voice. I mentioned that our emotional state has a profound impact on how the voice sounds, and that chronic stress can cause chronic changes to the voice.

I also stated that processing emotions and releasing muscular tension can dramatically improve the quality of your voice. Now, you may be thinking that sounds a bit hippy-dippy. But today, folks, I’m going to prove it to you with… [insert drum roll]… an anatomical deep dive!

We’ll start with a basic orientation of where your vocal cords are and what they do. Then, we’ll talk about how we control the vocal cords, what the sound we perceive as ‘my voice’ actually consists of, and how stress and muscle tension can change that voice.

(very) Basic Orientation

To get started, let’s orient ourselves. As you probably know, your voice is created by the vibration of your vocal cords (a.k.a. vocal folds), which are small, cord-like muscles in your throat sitting at the top of your airway. 

Your vocal folds, and the structures around them, make up your larynx. The larynx, or “voice box,” is a tube with a smooth surface in the centre of your neck made of cartilages, ligaments, and membranes.

Your vocal cords evolved as the gateway to (and protectors of) your lungs. They are open at rest, and when you breathe in. They close when you swallow, pick up something heavy, or use your voice.

When you vocalize, your vocal folds move from an open to a closed position. As you exhale with your vocal folds closed, they vibrate like a guitar string, causing sound.

For a more in-depth explanation and a look at real vocal folds in action, check out this guy!

Let’s Find Your Voice!

Feel for your Adam’s Apple, that notch in the middle of your neck. It is harder to feel if you are a woman, but if you look up and run your finger down the front of your neck, it is the first bump you come to.

Swallow and feel that bump move up and down. That bump is the front of the thyroid cartilage. Your vocal folds are connected to that cartilage, but on the inside of the neck, of course. You’ve found your larynx! 

The vocal cords themselves are pretty tiny; only 17-20mm long in men, 11-15mm for women. In babies, they are only 3mm long! So tiny!

4 of these pencil erasers=the length of vocal cords for a man with a deep voice. This is as big as they get!

Getting Nervy

Like any set of muscles, our vocal folds are controlled by signals from the nervous system. Unlike the muscles in your legs, however, the voice is controlled by two different pathways in the brain.

The first pathway is from the emotional centre of your brain: the limbic system. The limbic system is located in an older, deeper portion of the brain. This pathway is beyond our conscious control, and is the first mode of communication for newborns.

In fact, voluntary control of the vocal cords is rare in the animal kingdom. Other species, including other primates, have limited ability to control the voice voluntarily. It would be like trying to control your heart rate!

He just wants to express himself!

Thankfully, we humans also have the laryngeal motor cortical pathway, which allows for conscious control of the voice. We use this pathway to “tell” our voice to go higher or lower, much like you would “tell” your leg to take a step.

So, while we obviously have some conscious control of our voices, our vocal cords are literally linked to the emotional centre of our brains. The sound of your voice is directly impacted by your emotions (just think of how you sound when you are nervous!).

Your Personal, Portable Amp

Unless you study this stuff for a living (like me!), you are probably under the impression that the sound you and the world perceive as your beautiful, unique voice is made entirely by those tiny, vibrating cords.

You would be 100% wrong, my friend!

While it is necessary that your vocal folds vibrate to produce a voice, the sound you hear is heavily filtered and amplified by a phenomenon called resonance.

Resonance is (basically) the sound bouncing around in your throat (pharynx), oral cavity, and nasal cavity, as well as vibrating in all of the structures above your vocal cords.

If you could hear the sound produced by your vocal cords alone, without the benefit of resonance, it would sound very weak, like the bleat of a lamb.

This lamb is no opera star, but this full grown mama’s got resonance!

Remember, your vocal cords are pretty tiny. They don’t actually produce a lot of sound on their own. Your vocal cords are like the strings of an electric guitar (weak without amplification!). Resonance is your own portable amp! (Actually more akin to the body of an acoustic guitar, but I digress.)

Resonance is Rad

So, what is perceived as the quality, richness, and volume of your voice is made possible by all the structures and chambers above your actual, physical ‘voice.’ These chambers are called your vocal tract.

Let’s throw another analogy in the mix. Think of a cathedral. The sound of a pipe organ is changed and amplified by the space around it. The vocal tract is the ‘cathedral’ to your vocal cord ‘pipe organ.’

The yellow part above the vocal cords is the resonating chamber, called the vocal tract. This can also include the nasal cavity (in pink) if the velum (a.k.a. soft palate a.k.a valve to your nasal cavity) is in the open position.

Depending on your positioning (and level of muscular tension), some areas of the vocal tract will amplify or deaden the acoustic signal produced by your vocal folds.

For example, any movement of your jaw or tongue will change the shape of the oral cavity and therefore change how the vibration of the vocal cords is amplified. While some movements will have no effect, some will amplify the sound, and others will actually inhibit the sound produced by your vocal cords.

This is one important way stress has a direct impact on your voice. Stress causes tension (think jaw clench), which changes the shape of your vocal tract (and therefore, the sound of your voice!).

Muscle Tension Matters

The vocal tract is always changing. Muscle tension in any one portion of the tract influences the air flow and sound waves through the whole tract and the sound that we eventually perceive.

The larynx is roughly located in the middle of your neck, but (thankfully) it is not rigidly fixed. When you swallow, the whole larynx moves up and forward. It can also move side to side (you can do this gently with your fingers).

Because the larynx is highly mobile (connected to the structures around it with only ligaments and membranes), it is highly influenced by muscular tension.

In the worst case scenario, muscle tension causes a condition called Muscle Tension Dysphonia (MTD). People with MTD have a strained, effortful-sounding voice. Their voice may also fatigue quickly.

Vocal nodules may occur along with or apart from MTD, but these are also caused by too much medial compression and friction on the vocal folds (along with overuse of the voice).

Excessive muscle tension both in and around the larynx causes the vocal cords to press together more than they should. This means increased wear and friction.

Not surprisingly, people with MTD also complain of muscle tension and pain in the neck, jaw, and shoulders. Because of this tension, the larynx is also often elevated in the neck, causing a slightly higher-pitched voice.

You Had Me at Ventricular Phonation

The ventricular folds, or false vocal folds, sit right above your vocal cords, and move in a similar way. They protect your airway when you swallow, but should be open and relaxed when you speak or sing.

Occasionally, people with extreme muscular tension squeeze these folds toward midline when they speak, which makes them vibrate as well. This causes a very rough vocal quality, and is not desirable for everyday speech. This is pretty rare, so unless you have a very unique sound, this is probably not you!

However, some people activate their ventricular folds intentionally when they sing with amazing results. Have you heard of Tuvan throat singing? I’ll just leave this here.

The Tongue is Mightier Than You Think!

Your tongue base (the bottom of your tongue) is huge, comparatively speaking. If you press up with your thumbs under your chin, you will feel your tongue base.

The the base of your tongue is connected to the hyoid bone. The hyoid bone is the only bone in the front of the neck. It is the only bone the larynx ‘hangs’ from; it’s not connected to any other bone.

The ‘doo-dad’ in green is the hyoid bone. The ‘jibby-jab’ in gray is the outside of the layrnx. The ringed tube underneath is the trachea (leading to the lungs).

Find your Adam’s Apple again. If you stick out your tongue, you will feel your Adam’s Apple (and therefore your larynx) elevate slightly.

This is partially because the base of your tongue is attached to the hyoid bone, and the hyoid bone is attached to the larynx. As the tongue protrudes, it lifts the hyoid bone (and your larynx).

If you have excessive muscle tension in the base of your tongue when you speak, your larynx will be more elevated than normal. This causes a change in how your voice sounds. Specifically, your voice sounds higher when your larynx is elevated. And I’ll prove it to you with the following experiment…

The “I Look Crazy in this Coffee Shop” Experiment

Ok, for the last time in this post, find your Adam’s Apple. Count to 10 in your normal speaking voice. Your Adam’s Apple should stay fairly stable. Now, count to 10 going higher and higher in pitch. You will feel your larynx lifting up as you go higher. (Sorry if anyone is staring at you.)

You do not need to activate the base of your tongue when you speak or sing; however, many of us overdo do this unconsciously, due to stress. Even if we’re not currently stressed, we do so out of habit.

Learning to relax the base of your tongue when you sing or speak can allow for a deeper, more resonant voice. This takes practice and patience, but can become a new, healthier habit!

 The Rest of Us

A good speaking voice does not require active muscle involvement of any muscles outside of the larynx. In spite of this, prior to vocal coaching, most people unconsciously activate muscles in the base of the tongue, jaw, and neck when they vocalize.

Most of us, thankfully, do not suffer from vocal nodules or muscle tension dysphonia; however, we do habitually hold on to tension unless we learn how to consciously release it. The excess muscle tension we carry, both inside and surrounding the larynx, directly impacts vocal resonance and how quickly the voice fatigues.

If your voice feels tired by the end of the day, or if you would simply like more vocal power with less effort, contact me directly. I offer free, 20 minute phone consults. Send me your voice-related questions!

Special Shout Out To…

  • The Voice and Voice Therapy, Ninth Edition, by Daniel R. Boone, Stephen C. McFarlane, Shelley L. Von Berg, and Richard I. Zraick, published in 2014 by Pearson Education, Inc. This wonderful textbook is responsible for the anatomical information in this post, as well as some of the ‘experiments.’
  • My voice teacher Mark Madsen, who first taught me about blending yoga and voice therapy and how to sing without base-of-tongue tension.
  • My partner Craig Jacobson, for lending me the terms ‘hippy-dippy,’ ‘doo-dad’ and ‘jibby-jab.’

How I Healed My Voice This Month

My healing journey always brings me what I need. After launching this voice coaching business and making exciting progress with my first few private clients (yay!), I was struck down with a case of laryngitis (boo!).

In my case, it manifested as an inability to speak or sing without serious pain accompanied by intense feelings of anger and crippling anxiety. You know, the fun stuff!

Because, originally, the person most in need of my very specific service was me. That’s how I got here.

This program evolved through my own trial-and-error-filled journey. I needed to remove my own blockages so that I could sing freely, speak without fear, and express my creativity.

I began to study yoga to cope with anxiety. Teaching it was not my plan… until I eventually felt compelled to share it.

Similarly, I developed my own ways of freeing my voice and creativity because historically (as is the case for so many of us) it was unsafe for me to fully express my deepest, truest self.

I recall feeling a choking sensation almost constantly, as if there were a million words stuck in the back of my throat. And there were! It took about a decade and a half of work and play to feel what my ‘normal’ felt like.

The Healing Cycle

So far, I’ve found that healing works in layers; at some point, there is an invitation to heal on another level. And, oh look, another.

Each time you cycle through, it feels like crap for a while.

And then suddenly, you’re on the other side! And you’re better than you’ve ever been before. Like most things, this is best visualized in slinky form:

The hell… I mean healing cycle! Each time you dip down, you feel like a bag of hammers, even though you’re moving up, baby! Yes you are!

So when I began to develop this program to assist others on a similar journey, my body led me to heal my self expression in an even deeper way.

That old, choking sensation returned. I said hello to old, forgotten parts of myself resurfacing for attention and care. I literally lost my voice.

It kind of sucked.

But I’m also grateful. Because of my personal mini-hell, I came back to self care. And vocal care. I returned to the processes that I teach others to help heal myself.

Emotion and The Voice

Now, I’m happy to report that my voice is back to normal. Actually, it’s slightly better than normal. Why is this?

While I was in the thick of it (completing vocal relaxation exercises and throat chakra-supporting yoga poses, drinking copious amounts of herbal tea, and journaling my guts out) my literal, physical voice got even more free.

Specifically, it got slightly deeper, more resonant, and even more relaxed in a subtle way. This is because emotions change how our voices sound. 

You know immediately whether someone is upset or relaxed and happy, just by hearing their voice… even if you can’t see their face.

Chronic emotional upheaval can cause chronic changes to our voices, because the musculature around our voice box literally shifts, tenses, and changes shape.

We can release this with a combination of vocal exercises and through processing the beliefs and emotions that got our voices ‘stuck’ in the first place.

I know this because I have experienced it personally, and I have witnessed and assisted others through this process. It’s powerful and freeing.

My program is designed to help you free your voice physically and emotionally, giving you clearer access to your own creative nature. Find out more here or contact me directly for a free 20 minute troubleshooting/goal setting session.

If you’re struggling with your self expression this month, check out this post by Aletheia Luna all about your throat chakra and twenty(!) ways you can support yourself (Side note: I do not recommend screaming for release if you are sick or your physical voice feels compromised in any way).

And finally, take care of yourself. You are valuable and loved. We need your unique set of skills and authentic self expression in the world. See you next time!

Why I May Not Be Your Ideal Voice Coach

Hi there!  I realize my title may be a bit odd. Wait a minute, aren’t you supposed to be talking me into working with you? Well… no. Of course, I would love to 100%, but if, and only if, you feel that deep heart tug… that what I have to offer is what you’re looking for. So here’s a peek into what makes me tick (as a voice coach… and, let’s face it, a human being). Off we go…

I value authenticity, not perfection.

For one, that’s been my journey. I have a less-than-perfect singing and speaking voice, and yet I get so much joy from singing, speaking, and recording. Secondly, I am more interested in you as a multi-dimensional, sovereign being expressing yourself without holding back. I have no desire to get you to sound like anyone else. Nor will I encourage you to reach toward someone’s arbitrary ideal of vocal perfection (I don’t even enjoy opera for that matter!). No way.

You have a joyful voice. It is your own unique signature. No one else has a voice like you. And beyond judgements of good or bad, ‘in tune’ or ‘out of tune,’ there is your voice. You can learn to use it in its fullest range of expression: head voice, chest voice, and everything in between. You can free yourself of unnecessary tension so that your authentic voice emerges. I can help you become skilled at communicating who you are with confidence. That is the point (at least, to me!).

I’m a damn hippie who loves science.

As a speech pathologist, I am always reading about evidence-based therapy techniques; especially in the area of voice therapy. I love learning about vocal anatomy and physiology (did you know there are 60 parts of the larynx?!). I dork out on this stuff for breakfast. But. I’m also a yoga teacher and have a creative/artistic bent. I’m into meditation, mindfulness, chakra balancing, and creating beautiful music with beautiful people. I don’t think these worlds are mutually exclusive; in fact, I find them complimentary! Of course, you don’t need to believe everything I do to find my offerings useful, but it’s only fair to let you in on this mash up of worlds that inform who I am.

MY APPROACH TO VOCAL COACHING IS THROUGH PLAY AND JOY.

Why? I believe our genius moments come when we’re relaxed and in a spirit of exploration and play. Literally all of my personal creative breakthroughs (whether in singing, playing music, speaking, or writing) have come when I least expected it: when I stopped the drills and started to explore. Besides, if singing doesn’t bring you joy, why are you chasing it? Likewise, if you are overly critical of your speaking voice and shy away from sharing your genius,  let’s work to dislodge that! To me, that means returning to a spirit of curiosity and play. So, if you’re not into laughing frequently along the way, or if you prefer a strict regimen of vocal boot camp, we may not gel.

vocalizing is a whole-body experience.

That’s why I incorporate a generous helping of relaxation exercises, yoga, and breath work into my sessions (and your homework!). The more relaxed and grounded you can be throughout your entire body, the freer your voice becomes. I mean this quite literally; it’s SCIENCE! Tension in your upper body contributes to tension in the tiny muscles that are your vocal cords. And tension is the enemy of optimal vocal function. Additionally, your posture affects your breath and your ability to project your voice across a room. That’s why a disembodied, shoulders-up approach doesn’t do it for me. And, as a yoga teacher, full embodiment is my jam!

I view the voice as an avenue to mindfulness.

Relatedly, when you are using your voice to its fullest potential, you are getting a mindfulness practice for free! That’s because you are paying attention to so many seemingly small actions. To name a few, you are simultaneously paying attention to: your posture, how you are breathing, the shape of your throat, the shape of your mouth, articulating your words, following the melody/matching your intonation with your message, and staying in your optimal range… all while maintaining relaxation in your face, jaw, throat, neck, and shoulders. The sensation is similar to a deep yoga practice, in that you are fully present and alert while maintaining a baseline level of relaxation and playfulness. This is where I’d like to take you.

this work is a wholistic approach to authentic communication.

When you use your voice, you communicate a piece of who you are, regardless of the words you choose. They say that 80% of communication is nonverbal. You communicate through your body language, facial expressions, and the resonance and tone quality of your voice. Bringing awareness to these things can help you communicate what is authentic for you. I like to explore vocal dynamics: how can you get the widest range of expression in the most natural, effortless way? Let’s also explore unconscious vocal or postural behaviors that may be undermining your verbal message. As I’ve said, my goal is to help you shed anything in the way of your authentic expression.

Singing is an avenue to deep listening.

I believe singing teaches you to listen deeply, especially when singing with others. Singing is a form of communication. Ideally, when you sing with another person, you listen to them as much as you listen to yourself. It is a form of entrainment, and can be an exercise in empathy. You get quiet when they get quiet and go for your life at exactly the same time. You even sync up your breath. I can help you develop the deep listening skills needed to sing as part of a group and to harmonize with others (in fact, harmonizing with anyone and anything is one of my super powers, and I’m happy to share it with you!).

Freeing your voice frees creativity.

When you allow yourself to explore your voice in a nonjudgemental spirit of curiosity, a new world opens up for you. You come into a head space where you can improvise without fear. You can play with the boundary of what you thought possible for your voice. The seat of creativity lies on that edge of improvisation. To be able to play at that level, you need to know what tools you have at your disposal. My approach is to build a strong foundation of the basics, explore what your voice is capable of, and accompany you on the creative deep dive of your choice. I suspect you’ll find that freeing your voice will blast open other avenues of creativity as well… at least, that has been true for me!

The next step!

Does all of that sound up your alley?  If so, please contact me for a free 20 minute phone consultation about what your goals are and how I can help. My sessions are typically 60 minutes each, highly personalized, and available in person or via videoconferencing. Find out more here. Sing at ya soon!