The floor of the great auditorium smelled of cleaning paste. The cleaners must have scrubbed them well. The school ceremony was about to begin. Children from all eight grades were seated on small, evenly arranged chairs, the parents crouched here and there on the floor. All of the faculty sat in the front row. A slender twelve-year-old girl stood at the microphone. From all sides of the room, eyes filled with curiosity stared at her. She opened her mouth. Nothing. In a stage whisper, one of the teachers started to hint the words of the song for the special occasion. But that wasn’t it. It wasn’t about the forgotten lyrics. The girl’s throat ran out of voice, just as when a person runs fast they run out of breath. No sound came out of her wide-open mouth. It lasted just over ten seconds, but to her it felt like she was standing in silence for an eternity.
That girl was me. Almost three decades after this excruciating performance, I signed up for singing lessons. At the very first meeting, Jodie—my Australian teacher—said that the tone of my voice was the result of my state of mind and certain past choices.
“Can you recall, at some point in your childhood, in school, during your first important friendships, whether your voice gave you strength to shine, or to hide?” she asked from over the black and white keys of the piano. “When you speak in your characteristic way, do you feel control over the impression you make on people? If you can answer at least some of these questions for yourself, we can continue working.”
I remembered the stories about the elocution lessons of Margaret Thatcher, who wanted to sound more commanding, as well as critics of Hillary Clinton, arguing that somebody who talks like a nagging wife couldn’t be president. People judge each other by the sounds they make. If we assume the body is an instrument, then the voice—that is, the vocal cords stimulated by the flow of air—is its most important melody. Thus, speech, shouting, and singing aren’t only physiological acts, even though they can feel as natural as breathing. The timbre and tone of the voice reflects our state of mind, as well as physical and emotional health. This is when my singing lessons became something more than a relaxing hobby. It was the beginning of a journey.
The Evolutionary Cry of Survival
Upon a deeper thought, humans use their relaxed, completely free voices only during the stages of infancy. When a newborn comes into the world and the umbilical cord is severed, their lungs come into contact with oxygen for the first time. There’s so much of it that for a moment the heart’s ductus arteriosus valve closes, and the baby starts to suffocate. To break through this blockade, they have to reverse the direction of the incoming air. The first loud cry of a newborn is an evolutionary cry of survival.
After all, the voice is a young child’s only source of self-determination, and by using it they get to eat, sleep, obtain warmth when it’s cold and a diaper change when it gets wet. An infant doesn’t distinguish between its own voice and the sounds of the external world. As psychiatrist M. Scott Peck argues in his outstanding book The Road Less Traveled, for a child “there are no boundaries, no separations. There is no identity.” The infant is its own whimper; it is the lullaby its mother sings, just as much as it is the pain of an empty stomach that demands milk.
Maybe, then, it isn’t entirely true that adults have a certain kind of voice—low or high, quiet or loud, rich or hoarse. Perhaps we are our own voice. Then it’s fair to imagine that if you discover the source of your voice, you will understand who you are.
Exercise Your Muscles
Alfred Wolfsohn, a German singing teacher, claimed that the voice is the muscle of the soul and that one can work on developing it only when they hit a block, as that’s a sign that you have reached a deeply hidden but important emotion. And he knew what he was talking about. During World War I, Wolfsohn worked in a field hospital as a stretcher bearer. After one battle, seriously wounded and trapped for several hours under the bodies of the fallen, he experienced the deepest trauma of his life.
He managed to survive, but in witnessing such an immense suffering he had no idea how to tolerate this memory. That’s when he started having strong auditory hallucinations, constantly hearing the screaming and moaning of the dying. He endlessly recalled a wounded soldier, who was begging for help, while Wolfsohn pretended to be dead.
Soon after that, he lost his voice. The doctor’s diagnosis was brief: post-traumatic stress disorder. Conventional treatment had no effect, so Wolfsohn decided to heal himself. For a long time, he would let out wild cries, until finally his voice returned. He described his healing as a combination of catharsis and exorcism. Wolfsohn asserted that his loss of speech resulted from the feeling of guilt, because instead of aiding his comrade, he hid among the dead bodies. He realized that in order to function continuously, he had to accept this shame. And that’s when he felt healed. He also decided to start working with artists who were looking for the best way to express their emotions.
“The scale of the human voice, if you really push it, is unimaginable,” he wrote in his essay The Problem of Limitations. “Everyone can easily sing a few octaves higher or lower.” Wolfsohn’s traumatic experiences made him a charismatic teacher. His students jokingly referred to him as “Houdini.” He made them write down their dreams, as he was fascinated by Jung, and during class they had to shout so loudly that their throats hurt. In the end, he taught them that the masculine and feminine voice timbres and expressions are only names, because any gender can use the characteristics of both.
“He loved his pupils,” explained Marita Günther, a German friend of Wolfsohn whom he met in London at his studio, where he would arrive in the morning and very often not leave until late at night. “You were just asked to sing a note. […] He would always listen to you the whole time, whether you were holding back, and why you were doing so, whether he heard something that needed to be worked on, not only because of sound development but from a psychological point of view.” She summed up the experience as follows: “It was hard, intense work, almost a therapy session.”
It wasn’t just talented singers who came to Wolfsohn’s studio in Golders Green, but also actors, painters, and writers, such as the Huxley brothers—writer Aldous and biologist Julian. Each of them was searching for “their own voice”; the truth about themselves. Because, as their master claimed, the voice is something more than just sound. It’s the entire palette of emotions that it conveys: from silence, through whispering, groaning, singing, to shouting. “If you don’t confront the trauma within yourself,” Wolfsohn said, “you become it.”
Claude Stein, an American vocal coach whose clients include artists on the Warner Bros. label among others, confirms that a person’s history is contained within their voice. “Who are the most inspiring vocalists of all time?” he writes. “They’re the ugly ducklings, who freed themselves from suffering and inspired the world… “The real magic is authenticity.”
The Blue Chakra of Sincerity
For centuries, Eastern practices have reflected the belief that the human voice is a reflection of the soul. In the end, the throat, larynx, and trachea are so close to the heart that they must affect each other. According to Buddhism and Hinduism, there’s an energy line that runs along the spine, along which are points of energy, called chakras. The fifth chakra, Vishuddha, is responsible precisely for the voice, and in fact for the whole area of communication and verbal expression. It’s located in a hollow at the base of the throat, and radiates a blue color.
Anodea Judith, a psychologist and yogi who is also the author of several widely read books on Eastern spirituality— Wheels of Life and Eastern Body, Western Mind among them—explains that in the voice chakra lies the secret of human creativity, sincerity, naturalness, and spontaneity. If the energy flow in this area is good, we feel free, and we can also communicate clearly and transparently. On the other hand, stress, tension, negative thoughts or convictions block the throat chakra and can lead to many ailments—from chronic pharynx and larynx inflammation, through hoarseness and diseases of the ear or thyroid, to a stuttering and aphonia.
The American singer, composer and psychologist of music, Silvia Nakkach, who’s been teaching classes called The Yoga for the Voice wrote in her book Free Your Voice: Awaken to Life Through Singing, “the shamanic traditions of Tibet, Europe, and the Americas—all of which have sacred sound in common as a vehicle to access higher and subtler states of consciousness, inner transformation, and healing. She believes that singing has healing powers because it brings together elements of breathing and muscle exercises, and also the practice of fully liberating musical expression. “If we go back to the origin of the word ‘singing,’ it means to make an incantation, to enchant, to make magic.” she says, pointing out that the Latin verb cantare, meaning “to sing” probably comes from the term incantare, meaning to bewitch, beguile.
A form of vocal expression popular today, particularly among adepts of Eastern spirituality, are mantras. These repeated verses, derived from the Buddhist tradition, are intended to help the practitioner transcend the here and now to another, timeless dimension of the mind. In Hindu mythology, the most important mantra is the yogic Om; another is Om Namah Shivaya, or “adoration to Lord Shiva.” However, the meaning of the words themselves isn’t important; what’s significant is the repetition and the intention of meditation. Zoran Josipovic, a faculty member of NYU College of Arts & Science, spent several years “peering” the brains of Tibetan monks. The results of his research are ambiguous, but they demonstrate one thing—the regular practice of meditation and reciting mantras improves blood circulation in the brain, increases the number of nerve connections, improves memory, the ability of making associations, and the quality of sleep. Melodic, uniform recitation brings the body into a state of watchfulness, as it calms and regenerates. It is common knowledge that almost any device that’s used for too long works better when it’s switched off, at least for a little while.
The Vocal Mind
Charles Darwin held a theory on the genesis of verbal communication. He believed that speech arose when, as a result of fear or excitement, early humans’ chest and throat muscles began to contract. This would mean that emotions and the voice have always been connected. Contemporary science is slowly coming to acknowledge that Eastern beliefs are correct. The analysis of the brains of animals, such as dogs and dolphins, shows that the need to vocalize emotions is created in the limbic system—the hypothalamus, amygdala, and cingulate gyrus. Although language, in the modern, grammatical sense, corresponds to the brain structure that’s the youngest in evolutionary terms (the neocortex), it’s precisely the older, limbic part that’s the most “vocal.” In recent resonance research on the brain, scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) discovered that musicians have higher nerve density in their temporal lobes than people who don’t engage with music in a large capacity.
It’s not just Buddhists and Hindus who argue for the benefits of singing and recitation; neurobiologists do, too. It is known that during singing, the pleasure hormones—endorphins and oxytocin—are released in the brain, and the level of the stress hormone—cortisone—is lowered. A more therapeutic effect on the mood comes from singing in a group. During group vocalizations—regardless of whether it’s Buddhist mantras or Gregorian chants—the heart rates of all participants synchronize, starting to beat at the same rate.
The aforementioned voice coach Nakkach compares singing to architecture. When building a church or a concert hall, the architect takes into account the way sound moves, and uses the natural synergy of the structure’s shape and form. The same is true of singing—it’s a synergy of the three pillars: sound, breath, and muscle work.
At the end of another singing lesson, Jodie has one more thing to add. “Don’t forget that the most important ingredient is the soul, whether Eastern or Western, as long as it’s authentic.” Because the most beautiful voice is always the truest.
Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino
This translation was re-edited for context and accuracy on January 20, 2023.