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Episode 9: Your Whole Self is the Instrument

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Your Whole Self is the Instrument

Nearly every vocal problem has a solution, and those solutions often grow out of treating your entire, integrated self as your instrument.

Physical strength, neurological calm, and a grounded sense of being are all critical to the work of singing or speaking.

Nearly every vocal problem has a solution, and those solutions often grow out of treating your entire, integrated self as your instrument. 

Physical strength, neurological calm, and a grounded sense of being are all critical to the work of singing or speaking.

It might sound overwhelming, but I bet you’re already working on those things in different areas of your life. Let’s talk about how you can access those same practices in service of making your voice heard. 

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. 

About 18 years ago, when I first started my business, my tagline was, “We’d all have more fun in line at the DMV if we were singing.” And I still believe that to be true, and I can’t tell you how happy it made me when I went to renew my driver’s license this summer to find the person who was taking my picture singing while they were working. They were the only person singing in the DMV, but at least there’s one. The revolution has started.

I still believe it, that to be true, that we’d all have more fun in line if we were singing and the idea that I’m wanting to get further and further into the world, into people’s hearts and minds, is the idea that when it comes to using your voice, your whole self is the instrument.

And in a lot of places in Western culture, when we talk about our whole selves, we’re talking about our physical body, we’re talking about our mind, some kind of mental capacity, intellect, and something to do with our spirituality. 

And how I think of it – how you’re using your body when you’re singing, how you’re feeling in your body, and how you’re being in your body. Or to put it another way, successful singing and speaking comes down to physical strength, neurological calm, and a grounded sense of being.

What I like about looking at the project this way, is that it means that there are three different angles from which to address any problem you might be having in your voice. 

So, let’s take the problem of when you get nervous, your speech speeds up like a train rolling downhill and you can’t catch your breath or slow down to save your life so that after not very long you feel like you’re going to die or at the very least like you’ve become a chipmunk. 

That’s a complaint that I’ve heard from more than one person.

And if we look at this from the physical point of view, um, we can help you become more aware of your breathing and teach you how to reliably breathe in a way that expands the center of your body and helps you not run out of breath so quickly. 

We might find that you have a way of standing or sitting that’s contributing to the problem that isn’t allowing you to access all of the strength in your legs, all of the strength in your trunk. 

It might be the case that some actual muscles need to get stronger. Often, just becoming aware of how much strength you already have in your body and realigning your spine to make that easier to find, that’s enough to get you going in the right direction.

And if we look at this problem from the mental or the neurological calm point of view, we could get compassionately curious about what it means to you to be speaking in front of other people. What’s the metaphorical tiger that your nervous system is convinced it’s running from? And does this speeding up and sounding like a chipmunk thing happen every time you speak to a group or does it only happen in certain situations?

Do you worry about presenting, for weeks ahead of time, or does panic set in when you’re actually in the meeting and you know it’s getting closer to the time when it’s going to be your turn? 

Or, do you stand up and start speaking and you’re doing fine and then all of a sudden something happens and you can’t get a breath and, you know, you’re, you’re rolling downhill and you sound like a chipmunk. 

Another question we might ask is, can you remember the first time you felt this way?

And a third line of attack – looking at this problem from the spiritual point of view, or your grounded sense of being, how present you’re able to be to yourself in the room and to other people, we could start with helping you feel more connected to the very spot that you’re speaking from, either from the floor beneath your feet or the chair underneath your seat. Can you feel rooted there? 

Can you feel more at home with the people you’re with? Can you hold up your common humanity? Can you find some common tenderness or vulnerability between you all?

And the answer to that may be not, right? You, you may be having this out of control chipmunky kind of speech pattern happen when you’re in a really high stress situation. 

You’re giving a presentation. These are not friends. These may be competitors. This may be a really high stakes business negotiation and there isn’t, it doesn’t feel like there’s a friend to be found in the room. And even thinking about, “well, we’re all people, so we all have the same struggles…” Like you can’t even, you can’t go there. That’s fine. I mean, that’s real. That’s real.

So what if that’s not possible? What if feeling more comfortable with the people isn’t possible? Can you feel more comfortable with the room itself? Can you notice five things about the room? Say, the fire alarm, the exit sign, the color of the door handle? How many glasses are on the table? How many chairs are around the table? What color’s the carpet? Is there a window, or a piece of art?

Can you find five things when you enter the room? And as you’re giving your presentation, can you keep track of those five things? Can you speak to each of those five things, those five neutral things, that don’t have anything invested in what you’re saying? And because they don’t have anything invested, because they’re inanimate, you can leverage them as friends. You can make them your friend and feel connected to them as part of the room and in that way increase your grounded sense of being.

So that’s a quick and dirty example of what I mean when I say your whole self is the instrument and how I apply that to a particular student. 

And you might be thinking, Michèle, that’s a whole lot of stuff, and you’re right. It’s way more than could possibly be taught in one 50 minute lesson. And for most students, not all of that is going to be necessary. 

I don’t try to go in three windows at once.

The path to a solution that a student and I find has as much to do with the student’s own understanding and intuition about the problem as it does about what my theory might be about it. We find a way forward through a process of conversation, and there may be other ways to solve this problem that I haven’t listed here that would come up as a result of that conversation.

I think the most important part about this is that if you’re having a problem with your voice it’s not about whether or not you have any talent. 

As a teacher, I’m not listening to you with kind of a binary understanding of, like, “solvable? or not.” 

Vocal problems, in general, are solvable – we just have to find the path to do it. And thinking about the voice being the product of one’s whole self just opens up so many options and gives us so many ways to proceed. It’s a path that’s full of hope and fun exploration, creative exploration.

So that’s a little peek inside my mind as a teacher. But there is probably a more useful way for me to talk about your whole self as an instrument, for you as just a regular person, a regular singer or speaker who may be having a problem of some kind and you want a solution, you want a way to think about it. And that’s to think of, this framework as a series of instructions. 

So, let me say again, in order to sing and speak effectively, we need physical strength, we need neurological calm, and we need a grounded sense of being.

If you can indulge me for a moment while I order you around, what that means in the physical strength category, the instructions are to engage your core, your core abdominal muscles. Broaden your back – feel the space between your shoulder blades. And open courageously – feel the width across your chest, let your jaw hang loosely open, raise your soft palate in the back of your mouth as for a yawn, and let your throat feel wide. 

So again, those physical instructions are to engage your core, broaden your back, and open courageously in an abundance of ways.

And when it comes to neurological calm: notice what is, practice curiosity and embrace play.

And as for your grounded sense of being: connect to the earth, listen to the room, and speak to their hearts.

Those nine ideas would be things that I would put on a post-it, one per post-it, and have on your bathroom mirror, or on your music stand, or on your folder, or on the piece of paper that you’re going to be, that your notes are on. 

Whichever instruction feels most useful to you at the time, to help you find a better way of being with your body, your heart, and your voice when you’re using it.

Now, of course, if we work together, you’re going to have a more specific application of these ideas in your own life, in your own situation, in your own circumstances. 

And even if we don’t work together, I want to suggest that because you’re a person and you’ve lived a little bit, you already have a frame of reference for each of these nine things. You’re already incorporating them in some aspect of your life, and it just probably hasn’t occurred to you yet to apply them to your voice.

So, really briefly, engage your core. A yoga class, anyone? Pilates? Weight training? Physical therapy? Posture correction? We are so obsessed with six pack abs in this country, I know you’ve come across the idea of your core abdominal muscles. And do you use them in any other part of your life where they’re working for you? That’s a place to start when you’re considering applying this to your voice. That’s going to be true for all of these.

So, broaden your back. Maybe that phrase isn’t something you’ve considered, but have you learned to swim? Have you tried the butterfly stroke? Have you cross-country skied? Have you done anything significant with your arms? Maybe even, walking training to use your arms, or running, or… I don’t know, again, yoga. When you think about broadening your back, your body has done that before in another part of your life.

Opening courageously. I think that probably speaks for itself.

Noticing what is. Where has that worked for you? Just, instead of immediately reacting to something, but just noticing what is. Have you had moments when time slowed down because you’re gazing at a newborn or you’re in the park on a beautiful spring day and there is a bumblebee? 

When have you noticed, just noticed, what is? And how has that gone? 

It might not be a big practice of yours. You might not do it a lot. But I bet you’ve done it. And you can leverage that.

Practice curiosity. Instead of getting all judgmental, and “it shouldn’t be this way,” and [grumpy noises], “Why Why? Why is it that way? Why do I feel this way? Why? Why is the sky blue?”  My mother says about me that I started asking the question “why?” when I was two years old and I haven’t stopped. I can imagine that was really irritating for a long time and it might still be irritating.

Where in your life are you curious? Where is it easy to be curious? Why is it easy to be curious there? And how can you be curious, rather than judge-y about your voice and what it’s like to use it.

Embrace play. One of the things that’s true is that our voice is a survival mechanism, and we spend a lot of time trying to be taken seriously in the world. And there’s a heaviness to that that can make it really hard to explore new ways of using the voice and new ways of being in the world. And so being able to be playful, silly, just a little bit Sesame Street can go a long way when it comes to working on your voice.

And I’m sure there are ways in your life where it’s easy to be playful. I hope there’s a way in your life that’s easy to be playful. Where is that? Where did you learn about play? Where do you know about play? How do you know how to play? What’s that look like for you?

And then moving on to the grounded sense of being. Connect to the earth. Have you heard that before? Maybe in a meditation class. “The earth is holding you up.” Right? Yeah, maybe a spiritual retreat. Maybe a walk, a long walk in a forest or a public park. A walk on the beach, barefoot, feeling the sand between your toes. 

How do you connect to the earth in your daily life or your weekly or your monthly life? You know something about this. What do you know?

Listening to the room. There’s a lot, well as you can probably infer, there’s a lot in each of these instructions. Like, each of these instructions can turn into at least a dozen other more specific instructions or more nuanced instructions. 

But the broad idea of listening to the room – have you been in a cave and heard that kind of echo? Or a tunnel and heard an echo? Or a church? 

Where have you been in rooms that had a resonance to them? And where have you been in rooms that just had no resonance? Like, conference rooms are, can be terrible. Like, they don’t, they don’t give anything back. You speak and your voice just, just falls flat unless you’re speaking into a microphone.

So, think about you and spaces, rooms that you’ve heard. 

And then finally, speak to their hearts. What do you know about really communicating with other people? When have you felt touched by something somebody said? Or wrote to you? Something you read? Maybe not even personally to you, but a novel or a poem or an op ed that just really, you know, it just hit you. Films that make you cry. 

When have you been really moved? And what does that feel like?

And consider that you might have that same effect on other people when you speak and sing yourself.

There’s one other dimension that, about this framework that I want to bring your attention to. 

So you may have been imagining we’ve got three columns. We’ve got the physical strength column, we’ve got the neurological calm column, and we’ve got the grounded sense of being column.

And within each of those, there’s an instruction that is primarily about your relationship with you. For example, engage your core, notice what is, and connect to the earth.

Those are three things that are about you and your relationship with you.

The next level has to do with you in three dimensional space. You and the world, as it were, in general, you and the environment. And that’s broadening your back, practicing curiosity, and listening to the room.

And there’s a third level, which is about you and your relationship to other people: open courageously, embrace play, and speak to their hearts.

So these three levels give you three other kinds of windows through which to examine your challenge, your problem, your current project. 

Is the difficulty you’re having, does it feel like it’s about you and you? Does it feel like it’s about you and your relationship to the world, your relationship to space, you on the earth? Or does it feel like it’s about you and your relationships with other people? 

That might help you. frame the project in a way that feels less overwhelming, less binary, less about I have talent or I don’t. So I offer that to you.

And I realize this, just maybe really teacher-geeky, and if anything that I just said isn’t helpful, please ignore it. Or, actually first, please tell me about it so that I can learn how to communicate this material more effectively because I really can’t wait to hear you. 

I really do want people to be out in the world singing and speaking what’s true and real and good for them because I think that’s what’s going to save us. I think that’s what makes life worth living. I think that’s incredibly valuable.

So I hope this peek into my teacher mind was interesting, helpful, and I’d love to hear from you. 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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