For months, I’ve been receiving promotional emails about voice lessons. I’d “phished” for them in a moment of weakness, but then decided I couldn’t afford them. Finally, on my birthday, they were offered very reasonably. So I splurged. I could cancel anytime with no penalty, so I figured what was the problem? Still, I was skeptical. How good could a video lesson be, anyway?
I have sung in the church choir for years, but always hiding behind stronger, more confident singers. Ever since I was a kid, I loved to sing. I remember belting out some musical tune, maybe something from the Music Man, and being told I was flat. I didn’t know what that meant, but I decided against singing in front of anyone after that. As a teenager, driving alone in the car, I would indulge sometimes, until I remembered I couldn’t sing and my song would peter out. When I first married, my husband, afflicted with perfect pitch, would, in his cool scientific way, observe that I was singing the wrong note as I did the dishes, that the song in question had perfectly reasonable notes and there was no need to improvise.
Never mind. In the privacy of my study, with all naysayers gone, I opened my first lesson. The singing coach, a male confection of blue eyes and a calm friendly voice, told me to forget everything I had ever learned about singing, about breathing. Great by me. He started off with just breathing, exhaling and speaking, showing how singing is an extension of talking. He had me wiggle my head, loosen my tongue, and just make sounds, as if sighing or exasperated. “Never mind about the note!” he said, and he didn’t have to ask twice. I was having fun. And the sounds I made were quite nice, I thought. Then he explained how constriction and tightness create the opposite of what we want, “We want power, not force,” he said, and sang a scale demonstrating force, with his face and neck tight and anxious, and then again, in a relaxed way, so that the sound just poured out of him, like water flowing out of a wide-mouthed pitcher. “See, that’s better, isn’t it?” he said soothingly. “We want trust, not fear. You try.” And he smiled encouragingly. I did, and it was better.
The next day in church I sang with new-found confidence. And that was only lesson one.
In many ways, writing is like singing. Writing to heal is first a form of self-discovery and expression, secondly a performance. When we write, and when we facilitate others, I think we all bear some legacy of constriction. Many people, even professional writers, have fears about addressing the blank page, which is why people like Eric Maisel write books like Mastering Creative Anxiety: 24 Lessons for Writers, Painters, Musicians, and Actors from America’s Foremost Creativity Coach.
If this is true for professional writers, how much more true is it for the untrained folks who brave a writing class. The people who come to us in a healthcare setting have varying backgrounds and varying degrees of confidence and skill. Some haven’t finish high school, and others remember with a sting the heartfelt paper returned to them marked in heart-sinking red ink. Some have set ideas of what writing is, and some have no idea. Most have a conviction that whatever they do will be “wrong,” that there is a “right” way to do it, albeit one that is written in invisible ink. These differences and beliefs offer a huge challenge to the facilitator. How do we get them to “never mind the note,” but to relax and open up?
As in singing, as in drawing, the first way is to allow enough relaxation so that participants can begin to see the process of one of play, of enjoyment. One way to do this is to connect with breath, perhaps by using a meditation that focuses on the breath. This allows people to inhabit their bodies. Then, instead of moving to the mind, we move to movement. This can be done through the kinds of doodling and clustering that Gabriele Rico uses in her seminal Pain and Possibility, so that writing as first experienced is a form of drawing. Another way to do this is to have writers read outloud, from the very beginning, so that the words they write are not merely sounded in the mind, but sounded through voice and body, embodied as in Robert Pinsky’s wonderful poem, “Rhyme” :
Air an instrument of the tongue,
The tongue an instrument
Of the body, the body
An instrument of spirit,
The spirit a being of the air……
Slowly, I’m learning to reclaim my voice, to delight in it. I’m finding I can do things I never thought possible. This is what I want for my students: less force, more power; less fear, more trust.