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Episode 25: Geeking Out about the Voice with Michèle and Matthew

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Geeking Out about the Voice with Michèle and Matthew

When I first invited my dear friend, speech language pathologist Matthew Brown, onto the podcast, we talked about how singing has helped him maintain his equilibrium through emotional challenges. In the interest of fairness, I agreed to give Matthew a chance to ask questions of me! This time, we discussed the challenges I help my students face, and how their journeys compare to the often scary work Matthew’s patients have to do when they’re rehabilitating from brain injury. I find the parallels between those experiences fascinating, and I hope you do, too!

Episode 18, Singing Through Grief, is my conversation with Matthew about his spiritual practice of singing the Psalms.

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

Yes, you can sound better! Opt-in for a free video training on the home page.

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

Our music is thanks to Katya and Ada.

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


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. 

Today, I’m offering you an interview with my friend Matthew Brown. He and I recorded an interview a few episodes ago about his spiritual practice of singing the Psalms: how he happened upon it, how it works for him, what it’s meant for him. I’ll put a link to that episode in the show notes.

And as we were recording that episode, Matthew said he thought it would only be fair if he got to interview me in return. So that’s what you’re hearing today, a sort of a tables turned on Michèle.

Matthew and I both work with voices. He is a speech language pathologist, or as he would say, a speech therapist, who works with folks who’ve had a traumatic brain injury. Right now he’s working with people who are recovering from concussion, mostly, so he has a very different perspective on the voice or is working at it a very different angle than I am.

Whereas I’m working with folks who sound pretty good and want to sound better or at least their mechanism is working, right? They can make sounds at all and they can think of things to say and you know, that isn’t the case for all of Matthew’s clients. So I hope you’ll enjoy this conversation, this, geeking out about voices with Matthew and Michèle.

Matthew Brown: Blast off!

Michèle Voillequé: Hi, Matthew! Okay, what did you want to ask me Matthew? You had questions.

Matthew Brown: I do have questions. I think that my number one job description is helping people engage with change and usually that I expect that to be a painful experience. Because, you know, the people I see didn’t want this change at all.

Michèle Voillequé: Can you, for the benefit of people who don’t know you as well as I, what are you talking about?

Matthew Brown: Oh, I guess I could introduce myself. We could start there. So, I’m a speech therapist, which is not what it sounds like. But I work with people with concussion and mild TBI, to help them with cognitive rehabilitation after their injuries.

I’ve worked in brain injury for a long time, but mostly in the hospital setting with pretty severe brain injury and stroke. But in the last year have changed to an outpatient clinic where I see mild brain injury and concussion.

So usually when I see folks I’m helping them with their complaints about memory or trouble focusing, sometimes with communication, too, things like word-finding trouble, that kind of thing.

Michèle Voillequé: So people are in your clinic because they had a car accident or a stroke and they’re not the same as they were before?

Matthew Brown: Yeah, exactly. and they’re seeking help, so they’re bothered by, you know, some symptoms that they’re having, either with their cognition, communication, or both.

So I always think that I’m, my job with them is to help people engage with change. But this is change that they didn’t want, didn’t ask for. It hit them sideways, sometimes literally. And, that’s a, typically a painful experience, right?

To go through change that you hadn’t planned on. And here I am, and they come in thinking, “Oh, you know, speech therapy’s gonna fix me.” And I have to sell them on this idea that part of the healing process is going through more change.

Michèle Voillequé: Not just, it’s not just a change back to how they were before.

Matthew Brown: Correct. It’s a change to something different, and oftentimes many changes because they continue to heal, and so how they adapt or compensate for their injury also changes.

And so they come kind of thinking, “Oh, you know, you’re gonna fix me.” And I have to sell them on this idea of, well, part of the path to better is changing what you do, changing a habit, using a different strategy, doing things differently than you’ve done them before.

And that’s really painful for people because there’s that fear of failure, and sometimes their identity is wrapped up in how they did things before, and so, asking them to change the way they do things feels like a loss on top of a loss they’ve already had.

Michèle Voillequé: And depending on what they do for a living, they’re not, they’re not learning all the time anyway. Like, just the act of learning something new is new.

Matthew Brown: Yeah,

Michèle Voillequé: People have been on autopilot.

Matthew Brown: Oh yeah.

Michèle Voillequé: Happily, on autopilot.

Matthew Brown: Yeah, so my question is, um, since you also help people engage with change, right? But they’re, you know, seeking change with you, does it often also turn into a painful experience?

Michèle Voillequé: I feel like my students you know, some of them are like a lot of people, like all of us, we want everything to be better, but we don’t want anything to be different, you know?

Matthew Brown: Yeah.

Michèle Voillequé: So, kind of the same as the people you see. I mean, like, it’s a, it’s a, it’s a variety, right, of what you’re talking about.

Matthew Brown: Yeah.

Michèle Voillequé: There is a certain amount of disbelief that they will have to do something differently to get a different result. I mean, intellectually, a human may know if I want to make a stronger sound, I’m going to need to engage my body differently.

For example, letting my mouth be more open. But then I ask them to try having their mouth more open, and it is not fun for them. It’s all kinds of scary. It’s all kinds of, “I look like a dork. I don’t want anybody to see me like this,” and that’s, I think a lot of identity-based pain, you might say, like who we imagine ourselves to be.

“I’m a totally different person if I let my jaw be looser and I let my mouth open more when I talk or sing.” This is mostly about singers, but just about everybody could benefit from having less jaw tension when they speak. “But if I let myself do that, then I start to feel like I sound like somebody else.”

And you do it first. But that, almost uniformly, that person has a lower IQ if it’s about talking with a looser jaw.

And if it’s about singing with a more open mouth, people, another thing, it’s less, well, it’s partly, “I look like a dork,” and there, but there’s also, “I look like I’m trying to be fancy. I look like I’m trying to be special by acting like a singer.” 

And unfortunately there is a correlation between acting like a singer and sounding good when you sing. But that “acting like a singer” is some other persona that people aren’t comfortable with.

At which point I, I try to find YouTube videos of people that they like and turn the sound off so that they can see that the singers that they admire open their mouths when they sing. And when we turn the sound off, we can see that most of the time their mouth is way more open than would be considered polite at a dinner table.

And like that’s, that happens, but it’s the kind of thing that you can’t see until you take the sound away and see the behavior separate from it.

But yeah, I would say that’s painful. I try to make it as fun as possible, but it is, it is asking a person to have a new idea about who they could be, to accept a potential version of themselves.

And if you’ve been told over and over again that you can’t sing or, you know, “stop showing off” or whatever those things are, that can be a tough sell because there’s a lot of negative programming that you’re coming up with.

But most of the time you didn’t call me if you weren’t at least kind of interested. So we’re, there are parts of the self that are fighting. They want to and they don’t.

Matthew Brown: So you make it playful, that makes it less painful.

Michèle Voillequé: Yeah. I think you do that too. Or do you just go practical?

Matthew Brown: I play sometimes, but I think, yeah, I think that it’s more practical with speech therapy, like trying to kind of problem-solve real world situations.

Michèle Voillequé: Showing them how it’s useful in a specific instance in their life. Like, this is not fun, but if we do this, this, this other thing will go so much better.

Matthew Brown: Yeah, I think some of the hardest things I have to ask people to do is to slow down.

Michèle Voillequé: Ah.

Matthew Brown: So when you have someone who’s had, you know, a head injury, and they feel slower, right? Like they feel like things are taking longer and they feel behind. Like sometimes this happens with, it’s happening right now cause I have students going to finals and they feel behind.

And here I come along telling them that they need to slow down more, that the answer to feeling behind is not to go faster. So that’s really scary. When you feel behind, you don’t want to slow down.

And so most of the folks I have are used to kind of rushing through things or being really busy. And pacing themselves is really scary because they might fall further behind, right?

Michèle Voillequé: And is it the case that their lives were already crazy-busy before the accident or before the incident that landed them with a concussion?

Matthew Brown: I would say that’s true of many of my people, um, that that’s just kind of their, their habit of being really busy. And that may have been serving them, or not serving them before their injury, but after their injury it’s just not livable anymore.

I think the other thing that’s kind of scary about slowing down is not just that you might fall further behind, but what people want to know is like, do I have to slow down forever? Am I ever going to be able to speed up again?

And they also get scared of their mind speeding up with a bunch of thoughts that they didn’t want to deal with.

Michèle Voillequé: Oh, say more about that.

Matthew Brown: It’s kind of like, if you slow down, you might have to confront some of those worries that you’ve had.

Michèle Voillequé: Oh no.

Matthew Brown: And that if you’re less busy, like, your mind might wander to things that are just not as comfortable.

Anyway, it makes me wonder about, like, with teaching singing, how much those like internal distractions get in the way? Because I find it happens a lot with what I do. How much does it happen with what you do?

Michèle Voillequé: Oh, let me count the ways. Well, my own voice teacher has said, “Michèle, this would be so much easier for you if you just didn’t think so much. If you were just a little dumber. Just a little, just a little dimmer.”

I think that comes from making sound and being really attentive to how this is feeling in my body as I’m doing it. And so I’m trying to keep

track of the sensations and also the music and figuring out, how is this different from last time? You know, like doing all of this other work.

And my teacher sees me doing all that other work and, you know, he’s finally given up, he’s finally accepted that this is just who I am and this is just how it goes, but in the beginning of our, relationship, our teaching-learning relationship, he would try very hard to, “Just sing. Just make the sound.”

And that didn’t work. I mean, I could try, but like, I, like, I couldn’t turn that analytical part of my brain off. And I find with teaching singing to other people, there are so many things that you can try to change to make a better sound. You can’t change all the things at once.

But in the course of a lesson, giving people several options, attacking a problem from several different angles, very often, the student will get stuck because they decide they should try to apply all of those at once.

That they would be a “really good” student if they could do all four things. Like, letting their jaw be loose, looking for the sound to vibrate something in the front of their face, maintaining an open throat, and when they take a breath, take a breath that’s deep and low into the belly.

So, we’ll, we’ll spend a little bit of time on each of those things, and, but often, a newer student will immediately start to try to stack them.

Think, “Oh, this is, this is scaffolding me to a better place.”

Of course, all of those things will build on each other and you’ll get to a better tone. But in the moment, in the lesson, they’re just different angles of attack on a particular problem. They’re different things to think about.

And the ex-, my expectation isn’t that you think about all of them at the same time. And my expectation isn’t that you leave the lesson making a “perfect” (in air quotes) sound, or that we (in air quotes) “succeed.”

I mean, we succeed at lots of little things, but like that there’s some kind of, “Ta-DA!” like great success thing, uh, you know, probably not. Which is not to say that every lesson is a failure, that sounds terrible.

But that I think it’s the being out of the habit of learning and feeling like results need to happen immediately. All the results have to happen immediately.

I guess that’s the biggest thought that gets in people’s way that I see is that all, all the results have to happen immediately. And then just whatever inner critic garbage they inherited from their family.

Like they should, like nobody in their, their family’s not musical. Nobody in their family is musical so therefore they’re not musical. Their love interest 20 years ago told them, “Please, if you love me, don’t sing near me.” And that person isn’t even in their life anymore, but they’re carrying that whatever.

Or they were in middle school chorus and their voice started to change and they’re really – this was super duper typical as recently as 20 years ago to tell boys when their voice started to change, “Come back when you’re finished,” and wouldn’t tolerate having a changing voice in a chorus, because it was undependable. You never knew what was gonna come out.

And they didn’t like that. They wanted to have a nice presentation for the parents and the school administration and so you just, you know, kick the boys out whose voices are changing. And what do you know? They don’t come back when you do that.

The best thing you can do for your voice when it’s changing is to sing with it. Like to just keep working it. Just keep, keep giving those muscles a chance to do something productive and they’ll figure, they’ll figure themselves out. But it can sound really terrible.

Terrible. I, what’s that mean? It sounds like a voice that’s changing. And we have for thousands of years decided we don’t like that sound.

A lot of people have come for lessons knowing that if they work on their singing voice, that it would help them be more confident in other parts of their life, not necessarily with speaking, but just confident generally.

Like, if I thought about myself, “I can sing a song well,” that that would return to them some core identity, some core ego strength that they feel that they lost at some point when they became, you know, late element-, whatever, puberty, extremely self conscious.

And they, they’re, they rightly think that if they can get that skill back, if they can get back to that, that they would feel more comfortable in their own skin now, even if it’s like they’re 35, 45, 55 years old.

Matthew Brown: So I’ve not worked in voice therapy much, but a lot of speech therapists do, and so curious if you’ve either students who’ve come to you after getting voice therapy with a speech therapist, or who you felt like you wanted to send for voice therapy because you felt like there was something more medical going on.

Michèle Voillequé: The people that I wanted to send to voice therapy were already, already had an appointment or had already seen somebody for voice therapy. That, so far, has conveniently lined up. For most of them, I’m trying to think if there’s an exception, none of them had anything that they could get their insurance to sign off on more than 10 visits for.

And the two or three people that I’m working with now, who had seen, had gone for voice therapy at one point and they ran out of visits, their voice therapist said, “The best thing that you can do is to keep taking singing lessons. From what you’ve told me about your singing teacher, she knows what she’s doing, the exercises that I’m giving you are the same exercises that she’s giving you. You know, like we’re, we’re on the same page. Just keep doing that.”

Which feels really good to hear and it’s kind of like pretty terrible of the insurance companies that you can still be in a place where you’re dissatisfied with your vocal production, you could still benefit from therapy, but the insurance company won’t pay for it because you’ve achieved some baseline functionality.

I don’t know, maybe you can explain more how that works, or maybe you don’t want to. Maybe that’s, but I, I mean, I’m sure that your

people, I think you’ve told me that your people run out of visits before they feel like they’re healed. You know, or before they, before they’re ready to stop seeing you.

And not just because you’re lovely and they want to see you every week because you’re, you’re a nice guy. Like, you’re a pleasant person to have in one’s life. Can you talk about the, about that? Like, who decides when we’re “healed?” Air quotes again.

Matthew Brown: Yeah. I mean, I won’t venture to say why some things are covered by insurance and others aren’t, you know, that’s honestly mysterious to me as a clinical provider, like what, what can get approved and what doesn’t get approved. But I think, by and large, right, that the time that I have with clients is too short.

It’s too short for them to feel like all of their goals are met. It’s too short for them to feel like their recovery is as far along as they want it to be. So I have to kind of, you know, prepare them for that early, I think, when they see me that healing won’t be done when you discharge, right?

That we can set the groundwork for healing, the strategies that will help carry you forward, ways to monitor yourself, right, those things we can definitely do in the time we have, but healing won’t be done in the time that we have. Especially with what we know with, like, neuroplasticity of the brain, right?

It takes a long time and it doesn’t stop even after the time it takes, because your brain never stops changing your whole life. It’s always in a constant state of change, and so, even long after an injury, healing can still be happening, because change can still be happening.

Since you sometimes get people from voice therapists who are limited in the number of visits they have, right, maybe can only see them for, you know, 6, 8, 10 visits or something like that, is there something that you wish they knew? Like the voice therapist knew? From your perspective as kind of like the one who works with people, maybe longer term.

Michèle Voillequé: Well, I’d love to have a conversation with a voice therapist actually about this. I feel like how the patient understands their vocal quality, and maybe like more broadly their quality of life, like what, what level of functioning are they used to?

You know, and I think they can kind of infer that because I feel like the otolaryngologist and the voice therapist just, “Is there anything pathological going on? Is there anything growing down there that we need to do something about?”

And if the answer is no, then they’re kind of like, “Eh, you’re fine.”

But people aren’t fine. I think it’s not a binary: the fine/not fine. I think it’s more complicated than that. And it, they may be well aware of that, but they’re confined by what insurance companies allow for.

The other thing that I would say that I wish everybody understood – and this is kind of like going to the gym. You can’t buy a gym membership and then expect your body to change. You actually have to go and use the machines or go to a class or whatever, you know, you have to do it.

So that, you know, the instrument changes as it’s used. And I think, I think, maybe the voice therapist could do a better job of explaining how the thing really works in a way that people really get it.

And maybe that’s too much to ask in the amount of time that they have because the thing is really complicated and you can’t see it and it’s really kind of gross. I mean, you know, like there’s, it’s very weird to look at, you know, a model or a cadaver in my case, as I got to see a cadaver and the vocal folds and all of that.

Actually, that was more helpful than the model in a way, because it’s a whole person, but it’s, you know, not everybody gets to go to a morgue and “I want to see how my vocal folds work.” Like, that’s not a thing. There’s a business idea.

Because I think people too rigidly connect their voice to their brain. And they think that if they’re having a problem with their voice, it’s because there’s something wrong with their brain, and that somehow all of this musculature is totally out of their control.

I think we could all be doing a better job at clarifying that, of helping people physically experience that this is something that they have control over, or that this is, they know their body, they can know their body better than they think they can.

And your brain is, your brain is helping you make choices. If I decide to talk down here, like, like this is a choice that my brain is making right now to just speak to you in vocal fry and sounding like I’m like, that’s an option.

Like, and everything is really collapsed and you know, I, this is where I could be, but like, if this is part of the problem that this is how somebody is talking, because it just hasn’t occurred to them to sit up a little straighter and to have a little bit more space in their mouth and like to do it a little different, you know, I feel like that’s something that you can really only learn about by being corrected in the moment, because this is so normal for so many people and they think they have a voice disorder when they don’t, they’re just like, this is a usage problem.

And this is when the otolaryngologist says, there’s nothing pathological going on. And the person says, “Well, why do I sound like this then?” I was like, “Well, okay, let me, let me help you with that.”

But, but, which is not to say that that’s the only kind of thing that sends people to voice therapy. Like there’s all kinds of, um, just like extra tension, you know, in the body can cause problems, Lots of things can get you sent to voice therapy.

I just saw that Bon Jovi was talking to Terry Gross about having been to voice therapy and, um, just like in the last couple of years or something. And I’m like, “Only now? Man, you kind of sounded like you needed voice therapy, you know, in 1989.” But anyway, he went and he was reporting back that it’s taking more effort than he thought it would and progress is slow, but he is making progress and he really wants to tour with the band at their 40 year anniversary, and they’re gonna do that and we’re just going to make it work. We’re just going to keep doing our work. And so it’s, it’s a really hopeful message ultimately from him.

What is your number one technique for helping people? What do people most need from you, do you think?

Matthew Brown: They most need to learn how to pace themselves, how to slow down, not to the point of stopping, right, not to the point of like, “I’m gonna hide in a dark room and sleep all day and not go outside where it’s noisy.” Right, not that kind of slowing down. That kind of slowing down is not helpful for a concussion, despite myths to the contrary.

But slowing down their pace enough that their brain can catch up with what they’re doing. Taking short, frequent breaks, and finding ways to calm their nervous system so that they can be intentional instead of reactive to what’s going on.

You talked about tension in the body with voice, but I see it all the time with my folks working on cognition. I can think of more than one client, I’ve given a little, you know, working memory exercise to them. And, you know, they think that the exercise is there because they’re going to drill their working memory, and that’s part of it.

But the more important lesson of the exercise is how to keep your body calm when you’re doing something hard. Because what often happens is I’ll give this exercise to people, and I’ll see their shoulders creep up, I’ll see their jaw clenching, I’ll see them holding their breath, or clenching their fists, or any number of things that show me that their body’s reacting to this exercise like they’re seeing a grizzly bear, you know?

And it’s not a grizzly bear, right? It’s just, like, I’m flipping some cards over and I’m asking you to remember what you saw two cards ago, you know? This is low stakes, right?

But something in their body’s reacting to it, like it’s a really serious threat. And so the point of the exercise is, yeah, it’s good to try to, you know, stay focused and remember what you saw, but more important is, can you stay calm in front of a perceived challenge?

So yeah, pacing and finding ways to calm your nervous system – that’s like the number one thing I think people with concussion need.

Michèle Voillequé: The analog to singing, I think would be, I spend a lot of time teaching people how to only use the part of their body that they need to be using.

I see lots of people do extra things to support the sound that they’re making. Like their shoulders will get really tense – that’s a great one. Or they’re trying to figure out what the notes are and their jaw will get tighter. When they’re not sure of the pitch, their mouth gets smaller and their jaw gets tighter, and that’s the best way to sing out of tune, even if you know what the notes are. So it’s not, it doesn’t help.

And yeah, to keep the nervous system calm. Even if it’s just me, just me, right? But I’m a Judging Other, you know, for some people’s brains, right?

But for the students who want to perform, keeping your nervous system calm, cause you might embarrass yourself and then, but if you go down that road of freak out, you know, you’re not going to sing well, as well as you could.

You can be a certain distance down the road to freak out and still perform well, but there is a tipping point. And if you can not take that path at all, that that’s ideal.

Matthew Brown: What’s the number one thing people need from you?

Michèle Voillequé: I think permission to learn, permission to try, and try, and try, and try, and to like get progressively better.

That’s where I see people need the most soothing is that it’s okay to suck. It’s okay to not know how to do something. And that if, if, uh, disappointing singing were going to injure my home, the home would have fallen down years ago.

The house would still not, would not be standing, just by my own efforts of disappointing singing. Like I would have brought this house down all by myself.

And that practice makes better. That’s what I’d say this week. I’d probably say it next week, too.

Is there anything like parting words or anything you want to… what do you wish we knew about speech therapy? About concussion. About change. Ha! You get the final word. What do you wish we all knew about change?

Matthew Brown: Oh, what do I wish we all knew about change? Changing what you do doesn’t mean losing who you are, and that you can be kind to yourself during that process and give yourself a lot of grace.

Michèle Voillequé: There’s more to you than you thought possible?

Matthew Brown: More to you than just the way you’ve been doing things. So I think that’s the number one for me.

Michèle Voillequé: Yeah. I think that’s really helpful. Well, thank you.

Matthew Brown: You’re, oh, thank you. It’s been a treat. Bye.

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

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

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