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Episode 19: Vocal Vulnerability

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Vocal Vulnerability

Your whole body is the instrument when you’re singing or speaking, and no part of that instrument is more crucial than your mind. Your feelings of comfort and confidence, your sense of self, and the connection you want to make with your audience all have a deep influence on how your voice sounds and feels. This time I’ll share some examples of how the mind has affected my voice and the voices of my students, and some ways you can cultivate the state of mind that helps you project yourself in the ways that feel right for you.

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Michèle Voillequé is a singer and a voice teacher living in Berkeley, California. 

You can subscribe to Can’t Wait to Hear You wherever you get podcasts. If you have a question about your voice or how you’re using it, please email letters@mvmusik.com

Our music is thanks to Katya and Ada.

The show is edited by K.O. Myers at Particulate Media.

TRANSCRIPT

Your voice is unique to you. It grows as you grow. It changes as you change. If you’re curious about the relationship between your voice and your body, your heart and your mind, welcome. My name is Michèle Voillequé and I can’t wait to hear you. 

So here’s a true story from my own life that you might relate to, or it might just help you feel better about yourself.

I have two children who went to Berkeley Public Schools, and in the Berkeley Public Schools, you have to re-register your child with the school district when they move from elementary to middle school and from middle school to high school.

And I got that all perfectly with my first child, and I totally forgot with my second to re-register them with the district. I don’t remember if it was for middle school or high school, but it was like, Epic Parenting Failure.

Totally forgot. It was too late to mail anything. Couldn’t make a phone call. I had to go down to the district office with my head hanging low and say, I’m one of those parents who completely forgot about their second child needing to register for middle school or high school. I don’t remember. It was terrible either way.

And I walk in and it’s a pleasant place, it’s clean, it’s well lit, the people are nice, but I have to approach this window where I have to talk to this person and tell them why I’m there.

And I’m so ashamed and so frazzled and embarrassed and I couldn’t talk. I literally could not talk. my voice sounded something like this. Like, this was all I could do. I could not get a sound to come out of my body. And I’m a singer and a voice teacher.

But I could feel like as I was, you know, I parked the car, I go to walk into the building and I can feel on my approach that my whole body is just tensing up and my throat is just closing and I feel like all of a sudden I’ve acquired the flu or strep throat. Like there’s no way that I’m going to be able to talk. And sure enough, there was, it was very difficult for me to talk.

The woman behind the counter was lovely. This happens all the time. I’m still a good person. It’s okay. It’s all going to be fine. The child’s going to get an education. It’s, it’s all good. But I was so frazzled, upset that my voice just wouldn’t work.

So I tell you this story so that you know that that happens, that if you’ve suspected that there’s a connection between what’s going on in your brain and how your voice is working, you’re not wrong or crazy.

There is a relationship there. And part of managing how you sound, part of cultivating a voice that you’re happy with, whether you’re speaking or singing, it does have something to do with managing your mind, managing your general state of being, finding the happy place, and trying to stay there, at least for as long as you need to, to get whatever you’re trying to get done, vocally.

I have worked with a couple of dozen people on their speaking voices, and it’s always interesting to me that this connection between what’s going on in the brain, the mental dialogue, I’m not qualified to speak neurologically. We’re not hooking people up to machines and doing functional MRIs or anything like that.

When I say what’s going on with the brain, I mean, the thoughts you’re thinking, and in your body, the emotions you’re feeling. I’m always struck with the connection there and how that feeds back into the voice, because we use our voice when we’re speaking automatically, if you’re physically healthy, right, your voice just works.

You know, you have an idea, you decide you want to say something and you say something and you don’t really think about the equipment at all. And that’s the beautiful miracle of it, that the voice just works. But how the voice just works has a lot to do with what’s going on in your head.

So I was working with one student years ago whose voice was getting tired after doing presentations and we realized in working together that part of the issue was that he wanted to be perceived as an approachable, gentle, team player kind of a person, and was really worried about being overbearing.

He was tall. He was handsome. I could see how, okay, somebody could be threatened by you. I could see how you could be afraid that you would be taking up too much space in a meeting, and as a way to compensate for that, that you might speak more softly than was actually physically comfortable.

And then when speaking really softly is your habit, when you go to try to project from that kind of a place, your voice is going to get tired really quickly, just because of how you’re, how you’re holding yourself.

So we did a lot of playing around and throwing a, a soccer ball pillow back and forth at each other to try to get some easy energy in the body. Because when you’re throwing a ball, you have to engage your core abdominal muscles, and that ends up supporting your voice better as you do it. It helped this student, it helps many of my students feel more present to what’s going on below their neck.

And so we would throw the ball back and forth and help him find a volume and a timbre that felt easy and also met the qualification of not being overbearing – didn’t feel like he was shouting, didn’t feel like he was taking up more space than he needed to.

I have to say though, even before we started throwing the ball back and forth, we had to define the end points of this scale. This volume scale, this timbre scale between over here and really soft and really not assertive-sounding at all, to the other end of the scale that I don’t even want to sound like that person right now for you, you know, what, what overbearing would sound like, and then figure out where the happy medium was, or what each of those voices would be good for.

Because certainly the overbearing one comes in handy when you see somebody start across the street and they don’t see that a car is coming, right? You want to yell in an overbearing way at that person to get their attention because they’re going to get squished, and that’s not the voice that you want to give a long presentation in.

For one, it, it also is tiring. Speaking at that volume and that intensity for a long period of time, but it also is hard to listen to. People tune out if it’s just, if you recall the, Peanuts afterschool specials, the sound of the grownups in the background. When everything is at the same level, you’re harder to listen to, you’re harder to understand, whether it’s all too loud or all too soft.

Together with the voice work came some thinking homework for my student as well. Like, where did he get the idea that if he spoke with a firm, warm tone that he would be understood as overbearing? Where did that thought come from? Who’s the example of that in his life?

Often, I see in my own life, how hard I’m trying not to be like so and so.

So who, who was that person? Where was that idea? And is, does it have to be true just because you knew that one person who was like that, does that mean that everybody who occupies that position in a group, in a team who behaves like that or who speaks with a firm voice is necessarily overbearing?

There’s a lot more than just your voice that goes into being overbearing. And honestly, I could see how somebody could be intimidated by him, but the more I came to know him as a person. I didn’t really see how he would be very easily overbearing or controlling or manipulative. As a human, like that just didn’t seem to be him.

So, thought work like that, like where did this idea come from? Who am I trying not to be? And then, also, who am I trying to be? Who do I most want to be? How do I want my words to be received? How do I want my ideas to be received? What do I want the end result of this presentation to be? And, you know, in five years, what do I want to have accomplished?

Those kinds of thoughts to get in touch with who he was really as a person, all of him, and what was important and what did he want to bring to the situation, to make it better, more joyful, more collaborative, more beautiful.

Another student, actually several other students I’ve worked with on marketing presentations. or networking presentations. Whether they were having to speak in front of others on behalf of a company or on behalf of themselves, there’s a lot of nervousness there. And there’s a lot of worry about saying the wrong thing and preparing a presentation and then completely forget what you intended to say or forgetting a really important part.

Obviously, if you have slides, sometimes that’s a little easier, they can prompt you, they can remind you what it is you meant to say. But then, you know, making the slide deck itself is its own drama. How much do you put on the slide? What do you leave off? It still takes a lot of practice to give a presentation well and to not forget the words. That you just kind of can’t get around, it’s going to take practice.

But one of the things that I found in common is the way that jargon can just get in the way. We spend a lot of time trying to sound really smart and in the end we get lost in our thoughts because those things that sound like they might make us sound smarter are just not attached to anything in reality. And they just become like, I don’t know, like lint or like dust that you can see in the sunlight floating in the air.

They, they’re words, but they don’t, they don’t have any legs to them. Let me give you an example of what I mean. “We need to schedule time to circle back so we can close the loop on executing on the deliverables.” That’s a sentence that could be uttered these days.

Okay, scheduling time is pretty, that’s pretty concrete, like, that makes sense. To circle back, this whole circling back thing, I think what you’re trying to say is, “let’s set a time to check in and see how you’re doing.” Close the loop. executing on the deliverables – “Did you get the stuff done? Can we verify that you got the stuff done?”

Right? What is the simplest way? When you find yourself feeling not really clear about what it is you’re trying to say, a really good technique is to try to explain it to a preschooler, especially if it’s a marketing presentation. Especially if it’s a sales presentation, you should be able to explain it to a preschooler. If you can do that. You could probably sell anybody anything.

Some more jargon – “touching base about future proofing the website content so we don’t find ourselves reinventing the wheel next quarter.” Future proofing. Touching base. I don’t know that there’s anything necessarily wrong with these words, but do you hear how they’re not as concrete as they could be?

Another one, “Onboarding new team members.” Onboarding – orienting, welcoming, training? There are other ways that are maybe more concrete that are maybe easier for your brain to hang on to so that you can say really what you mean efficiently and authentically without jumping through hoops in your mind, trying to figure out what it is you’re trying to say. You can just say it and know that it’s right because it’s clear. You’re not trying to be anything special. You’re just trying to be clear.

Now, you might say, “but Michèle, this is the vocabulary that we use. These are the words they want me to say. This is how they want me to sound. And this is my job.” To which I say, absolutely, use the vocabulary they want you to use, but you be really clear what it is you’re trying to say.

And I would still say rewrite the presentation, even if you don’t give it this way, rewrite the presentation so that a preschooler could understand it, so that you have that in your brain as well. So that if you need to say all the jargon because that’s what’s gonna work for the situation, use the jargon, but really know what you mean. Everybody will benefit from it.

Now, if you’re using jargon because you think that’s what they want to hear, if you think that’s what will make you sound like you know what you’re doing – authoritative, capable of helping them – I really want you to question that, because the one thing that jargon is really good at is masking vulnerability.

Jargon keeps people at arm’s length from one another. And if what you’re speaking about is an organization that you really care about and you want somebody to donate to, or you’re trying to sell your services and your services are helping people live a better life in some way, you don’t want to create more distance between you and the person you’re trying to reach.

You want to close that distance. as much as possible, and you do that by helping them open their heart, open their mind to what it is that you have to offer. The goodness, the beauty, the joy, the care, the love. Jargon won’t help with that.

And this is really where talking to a preschooler will help with that. Because jargon really doesn’t work on preschoolers.

It’s perfectly satisfactory to say, “I help people feel better. I help people do what they say they’re going to do.” Instead of, “I help people execute on their deliverables.”

“I help people write amazing grant proposals.”

“I help people _______,” you fill in the blank, but in the simplest way you can.

In the same way that jargon keeps us at arm’s length from one another, jargon keeps you at arm’s length from your own feelings, from your own body, from your own truth and wisdom. So you might find when you try to take the jargon away that you really can’t think of anything.

And that’s when it’s very useful to sit with yourself and notice what you do feel, physically, in your body.

Thinking about the result, the end result, which is say you want to, convince somebody to donate money to your child’s school trip to Washington, D.C. And maybe you need to write an email to your friends and family to do that. So you’re sitting with these, what are these words? And maybe the words to friends and family are really, maybe your friends and family are really easy.

You know, you just kind of say, “Hey, Susie Q is going to D.C. It would really help out if everybody could give 30 bucks, you know, you’d get us there.” And maybe that’s all you need to say, but maybe it’s more complicated than that, maybe it’s more nuanced than that, or maybe even just for you asking the people in your life for 30 bucks so Susie Q can go to D.C., that alone feels really hard. So the words may be simple, but the act of pushing send on the email is hard.

Either way, if the words are hard or if pushing send is hard, sitting with yourself, where do you feel that in your body?

The school trip to Washington, D.C. What are they going to learn? What do you want them to learn? What’s exciting about that for you? And where do you feel that? Does it make your chest feel, alive or heavy or do you get butterflies in your stomach?

Do you remember the school trip that you went on? Or maybe you didn’t ever get to go on a school trip and you’re like really jealous and you’d really like, can we raise enough money so that I could be a chaperone?Even though my child would hate that, I would love to go on the trip.

Where do you feel that in your body? And just breathe with that. Allow yourself to be with that feeling and then see what words arise.

If you notice there’s one part of your body in particular that’s really activated, like maybe you’re really, you feel a lot in your chest, in your heart about this trip to D.C. So when you pick up the pencil or the pen, and I recommend doing this longhand rather than typing, because we’re, we’re asking your body what your body’s thinking.

When you pick up the pencil or the pen, ask, literally, ask your heart, What’s in my heart about this trip to DC?

And if in the middle of that you get nervous about planes falling apart midair, or whatever, anxieties of travel, and you feel that in your stomach, ask your stomach, what do you have to tell me? What are you feeling? What are your words? And so taking the words from, from your physical sensations, what do those physical sensations want to tell you?

You may use those exact words when you’re writing the email or you may not, but at the end of this exercise you have a whole lot more data than just jargon, than just ethereal, doesn’t really mean anything kind of yadiyadiyadiyada.

So what I want you to know is that if you find yourself and you can’t talk because you’re ashamed, disappointed, upset, can’t believe it, you’re not alone and you’re normal. And most people will understand that and will look past it. And will see the person who’s trying to say something and will offer you the grace of their listening and their help.

And also, if you have strong opinions about how you sound or shouldn’t sound, there’s a lot that we can do to improve the way you sound, to help you feel more comfortable in how you sound, and don’t neglect the next obvious question, which is, where did I get that idea in the first place? Don’t be afraid to investigate your strong opinions. They may be grounded in fact. They may be unassailable, but investigate them.

And thirdly, jargon keeps us separate from one another. Try to avoid it if you can. And when you get stuck trying to communicate something, it’s really helpful to take a breath, or two, or three, and feel into your body. Feel what your body has to say about the thing you’re trying to say.

Ask your body what it thinks, and you’ll probably find some helpful words and phrases will appear that will connect you to your audience rather than distance you from them. And when you’re more connected, you’ll feel safer. You’ll speak more truth. You’ll get more done.

Thanks so much for listening.

If you enjoyed today’s episode, please rate and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Every positive review helps new people find the show. Subscribing ensures you’ll learn about new episodes as soon as they come out. If you have a question about singing or speaking or being, please send me an email at letters@mvmusik.com.

That’s letters at M as in Mary, V as in Victor, M U S I K.com.

Transcripts and show notes are available on my website. You can subscribe to my newsletter there, too. Can’t Wait to Hear You is produced in conjunction with Particulate Media. I’m your host, Michèle Voillequé. I can’t wait to hear you.

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