Voice and Freedom, by Danielle Woerner

Expressing our essential self

Our voices, singing or speaking, are potentially a direct route from essence to expression, inspiration to music. There’s no keyboard, fiddle or drum to help us, or to hide behind. As with dancers, the physical vehicle is my own body, no more, no less. 

We are three-centered beings: body, mind, feeling. So the voice can be a bridge from our inner music—our deepest thoughts, feelings, understandings, our essence—to the world around us. It can also be a bridge to something greater, when the vibrational quality goes beyond these mundane if satisfying levels and rises to a higher level of consciousness. So when we look at the subject of the voice and freedom, we’re not just speaking of liberating the physical instrument, or even the mental and emotional elements relating to it. 

When we sing, our vocal folds (a.k.a. “cords”) are constantly making a symmetrical wavelike motion, known as the mucosal wave, at frequencies that can only be seen with the use of a strobe device: 440 cycles a second for the concert pitch A to which most orchestras tune, 220 cycles for the A below it, 1000 cycles per second for a soprano’s high C. There’s a great deal that can interfere with that free flow: tension or poorly aligned posture, fatigue or illness, fear or judgment, lack of consistent and right practicing, food or drink, habit.  

From my earliest days, I was blessed to be surrounded by beautiful song. Both my parents were part-time professional singers, and the joy of singing—with each other, in choirs and choruses, as soloists, and casually to the tune of everyday tasks around the house—was part of life. It also helped mitigate other, more painful, parts of family life.

So it’s not surprising that I grew up to become a singer myself, and a voice teacher, and that these became my calling and primary work over the past forty-five years. Along the way, while I’ve taught singing, singing has taught me. 

A new voice student, when asked “What’s your instrument?” will typically point straight to their throat, their larynx. But it’s so much greater. Physically, the entire body is our instrument: the feet and the lower chakras grounded, the upper body both erect and relaxed, the breath flowing deeply and freely to support the sound as it travels through toned-but-released throat, tongue, and facial tissue. Beyond the physical, our instrument includes what we’re bringing to the moment mentally, emotionally, and with our efforts at attention. 

What are the experiences that have shaped our relationship to making sound? If we can agree that our dearest wish is for our essence to speak or sing through us, we can appreciate how often something else happens. Some combination of history, personality, and the crueler aspects of our “education” intervene to put a catch in our throats, and presume to represent us. 

In the mid-1990s, I began offering a workshop called “Healing the Wounded Voice,” intended for people who suffer from the inability to give free expression through their voices (not for those with organic/medical impediments). The half-day includes a combination of sharing, journaling, group and individual singing exercises, and singing songs together, in a space we co-create as safe for all. 

The first time I taught it, with a dozen people in the room, about half of them had blocked or timid voices stemming from early trauma and what I refer to as Keeping Other People’s Secrets. The other half had been shushed or shamed in ways one might assume were trifling in comparison: for instance, being told by an elementary classroom teacher, “Just stand at the back and mouth the words, Michael/Michele, while the rest of the class is singing.” Or having their childish voice mocked by an older sibling. As the guide in this exercise, I was startled to learn that the level of emotional pain expressed by those who’d been shushed resonated as deeply as it did for those who’d endured physical or sexual abuse, and perhaps repressed those memories for years.

It was an awakening to the relatively equal power of primal fear or communal shame to restrict a person’s essential sound, and led to a deepening of the question: how do we free our voices?

This was a personal quest as well as a professional/aspirational mission to help others. While my childhood was blessed with song, it was also shadowed by violence, and my own protective repression of its darker elements for decades. Other People’s Secrets were stuck in my throat. One of my teachers, well-established in the New York City opera world, said after we’d worked together for several months: “You’ve got more voice in there, Danielle; I just don’t know how to help you get to it.” 

At age 35, with all the elements of my life falling apart at the same time, including my singing career, I had an opportunity to go deeper. During a rebirthing session, the memories came roaring up out of my body—not as a thought, or someone else’s idea. My faithful body and my subconscious mind had been guarding the key to Pandora’s Box till I was ready to turn it in the lock. And then my voice began its journey back to wholeness.

Few adults are vocally as free as they were when very young, so there is a journey to freedom, as different for each of us as our essences and our obstacles. What can help a person’s wish to attain vocal freedom?

My own path’s been a long process of building physical and emotional connection and trust, through therapy, 12-step ACA groups, core shamanism, channeling, yoga, efforts to eat and exercise healthily, and four years ago a return to the spiritual community and teaching I’d left at 35, the Gurdjieff Work.

As three-centered beings, can we remember and sense that our physical instrument is our entire body? When judgment (a.k.a. a negative emotion) jumps in, can we return to sensation, perhaps of a limb, or of the breath that supports the sound? Can we take a thoughtful timeout to recall what just happened with our posture, breathing, some tension in the tongue—or perhaps what we ate or drank half an hour ago? Can we unite our attention moment by moment while speaking or singing, to embrace all three centers of our being?

There are many tools at our disposal. During Covid’s early days, as so many in-person activities disappeared, I moved my teaching fully online and pondered what I saw all around: people desperately missing human connection, and especially missing the arts, including singing, dancing and making shows together. Meanwhile, so many schoolteachers and business professionals had been thrust into new Zoom-roles at work or school, like deer in headlights whose glare they were ill-prepared to face. What could help amid the terror, loneliness and grief of this situation? 

Since the elements of healthy singing are good for all of us physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, I began an online initiative called “Sing into Joy,” which proposes singing as one path to overall wellness—wholeness. 

Singers acquire new skills and also learn how to get out of our own way, both keys to vocal freedom. Better postural alignment and methods to release tension often help relieve pain as well. Singers learn deeper, freer breathing to support the voice without strain, which enhances immune function. They learn how to care for the voice, by replacing old habits of strain and understanding vocal anatomy and vocal health—and the latter in its larger sense is, of course, the overall care of the body. Learning new skills and new repertoire enhances attention and memory. Moods are brighter as endorphins increase; studies indicate that singing for just ten minutes a day can make a measurable difference in affect. The blood chemistry changes include reduction of cortisol, the stress hormone. Clearer enunciation and greater confidence enhance our opportunities to communicate with each other. 

One specific technique I’ve found valuable dates back to the 1920s–30s, with movement expert Mabel Elsworth Todd and her book The Thinking Body. Her contemporary Lulu Sweigard named the approach Ideokinesis (ideo=idea, kinesis=movement). To over-simplify, it’s a way of communicating with the moving center of the brain through imagery and sensation, bypassing the cerebral cortex with its constant disremembering amid distractions. When my thinking brain forgets the intention, “I really must relax my shoulders,” the body remembers this posture, this release, this new movement; and it likes what it experiences, so it tends to both retain and return to it.

And then there are the “good vibrations.” The sound that through these various efforts has been retuned to a different frequency, one with less static and interference, is the one now traveling through our bodies and our being, as well as out into the world around us, sharing the healing. The effects within us can then travel to the pineal gland and the higher chakras, permitting access to other levels of consciousness. As for the effects beyond, quantum physics suggests that a particle vibrating from a human voice box can instantly affect a molecule inside a star at the edge of the Universe. 

Choral singing and theater, among the great losses of the pandemic time, have been making their return over the past year. Coming together with others to sing and to act is a special form of community. The blend that voices make in harmony, the sensation and sound of breathing together, the inspiration of beautiful music and apt words, and of co-creating something larger than the sum of our individual parts, are often transcendent and strike a chord deep within.

Then there is the listening element of collaborating with any other partners, beginning by asking the solo self: what’s the quality of my speaking or singing voice now? Can I hear its tone? Where do I feel it resonate in my body, in my bones? Am I breathing freely or holding my breath? How do those impressions align with the content of my message or music? 

Moving my attention outward then, am I giving others the gift of my open ears? When I do, whether in an office conference or an 80-voice chorus, something can shift, even metamorphose. The vibration refines. The late composer and improviser Pauline Oliveros, who founded the practice she named Deep Listening, used to say, “Listening is Love.”

 Sometimes all the elements one has absorbed come together in moments of attention and flow that can feel like we’re channeling the intentions of the composer, writer or playwright of the beloved material we’re sharing. “Little me” steps aside, and I’m simply the vehicle, the bard or griot, through which that material and its own intent and history speak to the audience, right there in their seats. ◆

This piece is excerpted from the Spring 2024 issue of Parabola, FREEDOM. You can find the full issue on our online store.