The Vocalist’s Grand Bargain

“I guess I’ll have to take better care of my voice now,” said the college sophomore seated in the front row of my workshop, her drooping ponytail and husky sound showing a resigned determination after she admitted a recent diagnosis of vocal polyps. A senior at the back of the group, his baritone matching the intense depth of his soft dark eyes, asked simply, “Could you talk about the spiritual side of vocals?”

I always enjoy chatting with performing arts students about voice care, but this particular duet of interactions hit my secret sweet spot. For I believe, very simply, that the spirituality embedded and embodied in our voices also calls us toward active, preventive voice care. Tending to all aspects of voice care helps us to create the best instrument for the spiritual expression we yearn for, and to celebrate the sacred merging of body, mind, emotion, and soul represented by the voice.

This is what I call the vocalist’s Grand Bargain.

Some deep stirring of self, spirit, karma, feeling, or nameless Whatever, calls us to use our voices in a public way. So we take the risk of declaring to the world—professing—that our vocal channel is open to this call. We are ready to sign-up with the universe to be vocal messengers, to carry meaning from the cosmos to our communities and back, through the medium of sound vibrations created by our own flesh and powered by breath that moves deep within our bodies.

The universe responds: “Thank you, now get to work!” We are instantly challenged by the need to get our act together, because one way or another, every aspect of daily life and health will now require attention and care.

We will learn to sacrifice some favorite foods, some loud parties, some activities that cut into our sleep, our higher-stress/lower-reward social relationships, and some of our pride among instrumental musicians who tease us as being self-absorbed ‘Divas.’ We will squirrel away funds for not only lessons but throat exams. We will create a zone of voice care in our lives, and defend it however we can. We will accept that this is the only way to stay responsive to the unique body-mind-soul integration that is the true meaning of vocal sound.

Broadway star Kristen Chenoweth once described her (pre-COVID19) in-flight gear when traveling to concert bookings: face mask, neck brace, eye-cover for sleep, ear plugs, gloves to avoid catching a cold, and a facial steamer in her carry-on. Theater teacher and vocal therapist Kate Devore says “The way you know you’re doing enough is that non-vocalists around you roll their eyes, because they will never understand.” The vocalist’s Grand Bargain is to do all of it anyway.

I once ran through the “systems” checklist (ROS) that healthcare providers routinely use when taking a person’s medical history: eyes-ears-nose-throat, cardiovascular, digestive, endocrine, musculoskeletal, psychiatric, and so on. Nearly all of these systems interact with vocal status in some way, meaning that a disorder anywhere in the body may be relevant—even indirectly—to a vocal challenge.

Physical health systems aren’t the only factors. Personal and interpersonal stress impact the voice, as do broader problems of healthcare access, and the psychological burdens related to economic and racial inequity. The same is true of subtle disconnections between our public image and our inner truth or spiritual nature. Every aspect of life and of wellness can affect the cells and muscles of the vocal organ itself, the breath that makes it work, the purity of our intention as we make voice, and the sound waves that resonate as a result.

The personal discipline implied by the burden of caring for all these elements, and their multi-layered interactions can feel overwhelming. My point is not to threaten nor to increase anyone’s fears for their vocal wellbeing. Anxiety and perfectionism may not help!

Instead, I want to reinforce that improving any of the above systems and components of daily life, will also support good vocal health. You can start anywhere, and your voice will benefit.

So this is partly a call to confidence. If you’re already investing in better sleep; or communicating and defending clearer boundaries with a demanding loved one; or taking steps to resolve an old trauma whose residue in your bodymind tends to constrict your ability to breathe—all count as vocal health care. Through my years of guiding individual clients in my voice rehabilitation practice, I’ve seen that such changes are at least as important as the precise order of scales and trills that you use for warming up.

When I’m asked a question in a student group, or by an individual client, there’s sometimes a question-within-the-question that I try to tease out. I suspected that the young woman who sighed and grumbled about voice care, resented following sets of rules that seemed to be imposed on her by older people. So I encouraged her to keep her own vocal goals in mind, and to use my broad information about voice care to set her own priorities for change. If her voice was a jewel worth polishing, she just needed to commit to her own reasons for solving the problems of wellness and overuse. New choices would follow from there, that would feel genuine and, thus, easier to stick to.

The young man who asked about spirituality seemed to already have a strong sense of vocal mission. When I invited him to clarify his question, though, he explained that he was often pressured by hard-partying friends to smoke and drink and yell too much, and to generally live by values that he didn’t completely share. He felt torn between that peer group and his activities as a gospel singer. So I spoke gently about personal boundaries as part of wellness; if he wanted to sing out in church on Sunday, he might have to reject loud parties and extra substances on Saturday night.

Ideally, this would show his circle of “toughs” that his own valor included personal discipline. Some friends would understand, some would not. It might not be an easy road, but I believed that the spiritual calling of singing and voice care would help to guide him through those conversations.

The combination of physical wellness, mental/emotional communication, and whatever-it-is-we-call-spirituality, seems to me the essence of the vocal instrument, and of what vocal sound represents and transmits. Everyone who hears your voice receives this integration, feeling it resonate through their own bodies, feelings, and souls. (More about the voice-as-integrator, here.)

Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle stated that the voice comes from “soul and breath and intention.” You can choose what’s important and where to start. Your sound will always reflect all of you.

So: do you still want to sign up with the universe to be a vocal artist with a long career? You just signed up for a life course in multidimensional wellness. And the true glory of your voice will emanate from that commitment. As actor Karl Malden once said, reportedly quoting his grandmother: “Your talent is God’s gift to you. What you do with it is your gift to God.”

So that’s the bargain: multi-layered self-care, in exchange for multi-layered self-expression. Congratulations, and welcome aboard.

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