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Just Listen to Yourself

Updated: Mar 26, 2019

A brief examination of the relationship between Voice, Self, and emotional honesty

Ever since I began exploring the full potential of my vocal expression as a performer (a now-never-ending journey of ups and downs, backwards and forwards), I have perceived a distinct connection between vocal grounding and increased sense of self: the more fully resonant my voice becomes and the more I experience my breath in my lower abdomen and rib cage, the greater my sense of personal empowerment and self-ownership. Along with that empowerment comes a stronger sense of my convictions—when I speak in this free and open state, I feel more connected with the truth of what I was saying. I sense that I am saying what I truly feel. More importantly, I notice a difference in my voice when I am intentionally not saying what I truly feel. It's a heady voice, an emotionally repressed voice; one that sits in an uncomfortable falsetto and lacks the full-body presence of gut-connected breath and intention. The best example I can give of this phenomenon is when I know there is a particular reaction expected of me in a social setting, for example when I'm waiting tables. If I get a request from a table, the expected response is "yeah, that's no problem, I'll get on that right away." It's not a sincere response, it's a rote response, because I know that if I don't make absolutely certain that my reply will be interpreted as pleasant, there's a chance I will be misunderstood, especially because the person on the other side of the interaction is expecting pleasantness. I am, in essence, curating my voice, monitoring its every tonal shift to ensure I don't sound like anything other than pleasant. But in doing so, am I causing more problems than I realize?

As performers, we perceive that our intentions and impulses—when truly synchronized with the breath—will travel upwards from our pelvic bowl, pass over the vocal cords, and take the form of vocal expression. In other words, there is something about allowing the breath to inhabit the lower abdomen and rib cage that allows us access to, not only deeper resonance from muscular support, but also deeper feeling. If we know that letting our guts run the show will get us in trouble, socially, I believe we will tend to steer our breath as far away from our gut brain as possible so that our skull-case brain can monitor the tone and composition of our speech. By bringing our vocal consciousness closer to our ears, however, we also sacrifice that connection to the gut (perhaps sometimes intentionally). But that's not all that's happening.

I have recently become interested in the practice of ALBA Emoting, also known as Emotional Body or the BOS Method, which has been prevalent in the States and Central/South America for some time now. For those of you unaware of the basic principles of ALBA Emoting, I'll give you a brief rundown. Back in the '70s there was a neurological study done of adults and babies in pure emotional states. This study concluded that there are six primary emotions that humans feel (like the primary colours for pigments) which all present, exactly the same each time, in their own unique pattern of breathing, facial expression, and postural attitude. Two Chilean neuroscientists, along with a theatre professor, having read about the findings of this study, wanted to know if it was possible to incite the corresponding emotional responses by inhabiting the physical patterns first. The long and short of it is that they succeeded. Why does this work? Well, the main reason is that the Vagus Nerve, the nerve that is responsible for digestion, and parasympathetic control of the heart and lungs, picks up on our change in breathing pattern and muscular tensions, and reports back to the brain that we are experiencing an emotional response and that the brain needs to catch up.

What does this all have to do with what I started talking about? Well, remember when I said that, in an attempt to monitor and self-police our voices, our breath ends up being pulled into the chest? That shallow chest breathing is a constant signal to the Vagus Nerve that we are in an anxious state. The Vagus Nerve, in turn, tells the brain to switch on the Sympathetic Nervous System which causes increased heart rate, a tightening of the jaw, neck, shoulders, and rib cage. In other words: panic mode. As performers, we know what all that tension and adrenaline does to the voice. The false folds will start to impinge on the vocal cords, we have no access to our intercostal or abdominal muscles for breath support, and because our abdominal muscles have tightened, we no longer have the same level of access to our gut brain. Inhibited access to the rib cage and lower abdomen don't just mean less vocal support, though. There's a lot more going on in there than we realize.

There is something about the act of experiencing breath movement (abdominal expansion and contraction with the breath pattern) in the rib cage and lower abdomen that allows access to an extraordinary level of emotional vulnerability and awareness. Why? Well, there have been many studies, and more and more are coming out, discussing the role of our bodies' connective tissue in memory, and emotional processing and trauma. What's more, it's been shown that our connective tissues play a significant role in our bodies' abilities to process information as a whole. When we invite our breath to expand into our ribs and viscera, we are stimulating the massive network of connective tissue that is responsible for sensory processing (including proprioception), emotional processing, and more, allowing our body full access to itself in the form of complete environmental information. Some research condensed and discussed here.

To come full circle, then, taking into account what happens when our vocal consciousness is pulled closer to our ears, are we, through the process of monitoring our voices, denying ourselves... our Selves? The relationship between breath, self, and expression is something I have been grappling with for a while now, and I believe I am starting to piece it all together. Of course, many of my instructors would be shaking their heads, thinking "obviously, what else is new?" but for a person to understand for themselves what has been taught to them, there is significantly more room to move forward in sincere curiosity rather than confusion. So here I am, coming out of confusion.

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