In the wide world of music, the voice is a unique instrument. Every other instrument involves an external tool - a trumpet, a piano, a violin - that makes sound as the musician uses it. However, with the voice your body is the instrument. Your body is the creator and facilitator of the vibrating waves that create sound.
You have to be “in'' your body in order to sing. The quality of your instrument depends on being aware of and in control of some of the smallest muscles in your body, while making sure your larger muscles are doing their part to support the entire system.
Noticing how we feel, physically, isn’t something we spend a lot of time doing. We notice when something feels bad in our body. We notice how we think, and even how we are emotionally responding to something. But simply sitting and being with your body, being in your body, without any accompanying thought or judgment beyond noticing the state of any particular part of it at this moment, is rare.
Meditation tries to address this, and it may work for some people. But I believe meditation falls short for the general Western population in ways that are prohibitive for ongoing practice. For example, a common practice I’ve encountered in different types of meditation is the focus on “quieting your thoughts.” In theory this may be great, but an untrained mind (like mine!) needs focus. Focus on nothing can be too confusing for many people to create a regular habit.
Another way standard meditation can miss the mark is that it often involves stillness. For beginners, this can be excruciating. Bodies love to move! Sitting in ways that can sometimes be uncomfortable, breathing and trying not to think… it may work for some (go you!) but it flops pathetically for many, many others (awkwardly raises hand).
Yes, one can argue (and one would be right!) that I’m oversimplifying and that’s not how traditional meditation works. But the point I’m trying to make is that for many people we are not given a way to be present in our bodies that will actually work for us as an ongoing practice.
I believe music, singing in particular, is beautifully suited for this. When you are getting ready to sing, even a very basic body preparation gives you a chance to check in with what your body is doing in any given day. This is ideally done at the beginning of your warmup, even before you start singing! There is no right or wrong, just "what am I working with today?"
When I teach lessons, the first thing I do with students at the beginning of each lesson is some light physical exercises to bring them into their bodies. This can be as simple as rolling your shoulders, reaching upwards, gently moving and massaging the jaw and neck, and some deep breathing. The intention is to bring the focus into the Self, into the incredible coalescence of body and breath that creates music.
I particularly love the jaw massage: you can learn a lot about how your day went by which parts of your jaw/head are tight today! We actually carry a lot of tension in our jaw, and a light massage to loosen things up and get rid of that tension, especially combined with some good belly breaths, help release the troubles of the day and bring the focus in.
As you get into actually vocalizing, the focus gets even smaller. Sometimes what needs to be practiced is minute fluctuations in some of the smallest muscles in the body, the vocal cords. These muscles are between 8-16 millimeters, yet their positioning can be the difference between a huge operatic sound and a squeaky wheeze.
Conversely, sometimes the focus needs to be on releasing tension in some very large muscles or muscle groups. These oftentimes are also the muscles that hold stress tension: your neck, tongue (it’s amazing how much tension your tongue holds! Take a moment and relax it - I bet you anything you were holding tension.), back, and jaw are key culprits.
And let’s not forget the importance of breath. Breath is tied to all aspects of singing, but is also controlled by things like posture. Slumping over or sitting with a rounded back while singing mutes the sound and erases control over the breath, resulting in a weak and shaky sound. A favorite comment from choir directors is “Sit Tall!,” reminding singers to scoot towards the front of their chair and sit upright with good posture. The difference in sound after this instruction can be dramatic!
So what do we have, when we combine all these together? After singing, we should find ourselves:
Sitting or standing upright, with good posture
Relatively free of tension in the head, neck, shoulders, and back
Focus turned inward to the reality of your body in that moment
I don’t know about you, but that sounds like “being in your body” to me.
Conclusion: In order to find your voice, you have to first be in your body. I propose that if you are struggling to be in your body, if you feel disconnected or disjointed from your body, learning to sing may be an excellent starting point towards building that connection!
Quick PSA: I am hosting a workshop on being in your body on 11/20/22 with yoga instructor and energy worker Nancy Turnquist. Learn more and register here!
If you want to learn to sing, including the exercises listed in this post, check out the Discover Your Voice course for women HERE.