Hello from North Haven!
This summer I had the pleasure of teaching more private music lessons than usual. On North Haven and Vinalhaven, students of all ages came to my house or to the school and studied piano, clarinet, or voice.
I loved all the lessons, but found the experience of teaching voice to adult women profoundly moving. Many came to me with a common desire: to overcome the feeling, instilled in them by a parent, friend, or partner, that they “weren’t good enough” to sing.
Voices are intensely personal and powerful. As linked to our identity as appearance, they literally come from within and represent our inner lives to the world. Some religions prohibit men from hearing women singing, which isn’t something I agree with, but is a good indicator of the significance of women’s voices. And far too many are repressed because of a thoughtless word, a choir teacher saying “just mouth the words,” or a partner saying “save it for the shower.”
The very act of breathing had become a psychological hurdle for some of the women I encountered this summer. Hampered by societal and self-imposed pressure to take up less space and essentially become concave, I know women who suck their bellies in when they take a breath. Inhaling, counterintuitively, is a passive act. We just have to give our diaphragm muscle room to move out of the way, and air rushes in to fill the vacuum. Controlling and shaping the exhalation, engaging the diaphragm, is what gives us speech or song.
Here’s what I share with voice students who are reclaiming their belief in their right to be heard:
• Fully exhale, pulling your belly in. Then simply drop your jaw, allowing air to rush in. The diaphragm moves out into the room, making room for your lungs to fill with air.
• Give your temporal mandibular joint, the connection between your upper and lower jaws, some love from time to time. A gentle massage with the fingertips will do. Lightly pull your jaw down and yawn, then sigh, then make a sound moving from high pitch to low.
• Give yourself the biggest resonating cavity you can – make your body like a nice echoey room. Bring the tip of your tongue to your bottom teeth, and let the back of your tongue drop like a skateboarding half pipe. Say “ah” or “hah” and notice how your soft palate, the squishy bit at the top of your mouth, lifts. (This is why doctors ask patients to “say ah” when they want to look at tonsils!) Now you can make a lot of sound without a lot of effort.
• Find resonance in the front of your face. Hum, and move your lips until it makes a tingling tickle in your nose. Or sustain a lip trill, like a horse, experimenting with adding some pitch.
• Just sing! Find a song you like, and sing it. Move towards the notes that feel a little high or a little low, rather than pulling away from them. Sing alone, and then sing in front of other people. Sing with other people and breathe in unison. Your voice is worthy of being heard.
And to anyone who thinks it’s funny or helpful to tell someone they shouldn’t sing, I only have one piece of advice:
• Keep it to yourself!