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Voice Movement Therapy - Healing Mind and Body with Sound and Song

by Paul Newham(more info)

listed in sound and music, originally published in issue 28 - May 1998

Feeling Hurt

There are few people who would not admit, at least to themselves, that they carry with them the burden of some kind of hurt – either physical or psychological. Indeed, the main reason why people seek therapeutic help of one kind or another is because they reach a realisation that they can no longer carry the burden of pain, discomfort or unease in their mind, body, heart and soul.

The hurt of the psyche can take many forms: the hurt of depression, the hurt of sorrow, the hurt of loneliness, the hurt of panic, the hurt of fear and the hurt of anxiety. All these manifestations of hurt take their toll on a person's psychological constitution and if they continue unabated they can create the sensation that the person lives in a traumatised state. Very often, psychological hurt results in the first place from a specific trauma such as the trauma of bereavement, the trauma of sexual abuse or the trauma of a terrifying accident. In other circumstances, psychological hurt may have accumulated in response to an ongoing traumatic situation, such as the trauma of an emotionally oppressive relationship.

In full voice

Regardless of the particular manifestation of someone's hurt and whatever the particular causes of that hurt, therapeutically we are dealing with a person in pain and the role of the professional practitioner is to enable the person to experience relief from that pain and discover the healed self.

A Song of Hurt and Sorrow

Each verbal and linguistic language has a different word for pain. Indeed, each language has a different word for sadness and happiness, for fear and panic, for love and hate, for joy and sorrow. Yet, the vocal sounds which express such universal emotions are recognisable in every culture and in every society regardless of the language spoken.

When someone needs to express pain or hurt with authenticity and intensity, verbal language is of little use; for emotional hurt emanates from a level of the psyche which is pre-verbal; that is to say it is above and beyond language. An authentic expression of trauma necessitates vocal but non-verbal expression which means a return to an infantile mode of expression.

For the newly born infant, life after the 'birth trauma' is a series of 'little traumas': the trauma of sudden changes of temperature; the trauma of hunger; the trauma of abandonment when the mother leaves the room; the trauma of radical changes in acoustic environment as the ear adjusts to the impedance of air.

The psychological anguish which these traumas cause is expressed directly through vocal cries, wails and screams. Pre-verbal infants do not translate or 'de-scribe' their experience into a verbal culturally conditioned code; they give direct expression to it through sound.

However, once the child learns to speak, from that point on even the most intense emotional experiences will have to be named, worded and articulated in order to be communicated and accepted. Yet for many people, the contents of the heart are simply beyond, beneath or above words. In addition to the burden of living with the trauma of unhealed hurt, many people therefore face the further torment that their pain remains invisible because it can not be spoken. For such people, providing an opportunity for vocal expression through vocal sound offers an effective vehicle for healing.

Healing through Voice

Voice movement therapy is a form of therapy which helps people overcome communication problems, psychological inhibitions, emotional difficulties and some physical complaints. The therapy is rather like a singing lesson, a massage, a counselling consultation, an acting class and a creative movement session all rolled into one. The client begins by breathing gently and making an effortless vocal sound, rather like saying 'ah' at the dentist. The practitioner then offers movement and breathing exercises combined with vocal coaching which lead the client into a journey through sound and movement. As the client's voice begins to develop in range and their body begins to loosen, the practitioner observes the particular physical and vocal patterns of expression unique to that client, paying particular attention to where the client seems physically and vocally restricted and inhibited. It is then the role of the practitioner to tailor a specific programme of therapy which will help that client experience liberation from such restraints.

During voice movement therapy sessions a practitioner may suggest images and emotions which help clients give voice to unexpressed aspects of themselves such as rage or sorrow. Sometimes, a client may discover a voice which seems like that of another character and which turns out to represent a hidden part of the client's personality. At other times, a client may release a great deal of emotion expressed through sounds ranging from unstoppable laughter to intense sobbing. When such an intense emotional release occurs, voice movement therapy can be very cathartic.

Catharsis

Many people experience psychological hurt because they have been traumatised either by a single event or by an ongoing situation; and the consequent pain is often the result of an accumulation of emotion which has not been discharged. For there are many factors such as fear, intimidation, shock and a host of social prohibitions which prevent people from expressing themselves emotionally. As a result, a build up of unexpressed feeling occurs, causing what can feel like an increase in pressure within the mind and body.

Voice movement therapy provides someone with an opportunity to discharge this accumulated energy in a safe place and when someone takes this opportunity, it is as though the emotional flood gates come bursting open and a historic backlog of unexpressed feeling comes flowing out, leaving the person with a sense of having been relieved, perhaps even purged.

Body Memory

Very often, accumulated emotion becomes localised in a particular part of the body where it is likely to manifest as a physical illness, dysfunction or impedance. Intermittent headaches, asthma, skin rashes, disturbances of sight and hearing, digestive problems, frequent diarrhoea, aches in the skeletal muscles and major dysfunctions of the primary organs such as liver and kidneys have all been related to a psychogenic origin.

In cases where a part of the body somatises emotional hurt, it is as though the body acts as a physical memory of a psychological trauma – what we may call a 'body memory'. Furthermore, the body is capable of remembering psychological trauma in the form of somatic pain, discomfort, disease or dysfunction even when the conscious mental memory appears to have forgotten the event or events which caused the trauma.

The word 'member' literally refers to a part of the body and to 're-member' means to put the body parts together in a particular way.

When the body stores trauma, body-parts are 're-membered' in a way that causes dysfunction and to rectify this requires that the therapist 'dismembers' the traumatised body. That is to say that the therapeutic process of 'dis-memberment' involves a loosening and a shaking free of the body's parts so that they can re-constellate or be 're-membered' afresh.

Therefore, combined with the role of singing teacher, the voice movement therapy practitioner also plays the role of masseur and physical therapist, manipulating the client's body to serve both the release of somatised emotion and the liberation of the body from constriction and pain.

From Hurt to Recovery

Voice movement therapy does not end in a cathartic release of emotion and a physical liberation of the body but goes on to enable the client to release creative potential, creating song and movement from the sounds and gestures released during the therapeutic process. In this way, sounds of anguish can become sounds of triumph, sounds of intimidation can become sounds of victory, sounds of horror can become sounds of joy and sounds of grief can become sounds of hope.

The client of voice movement therapy may be compared to the singer. At first, a flood of sound is poured out, giving acoustic shape to deep emotion. But in time, this 'outpouring' becomes the rudiments of a song and is given melodic structure, rhythm and words.

Meanwhile, the physical movements of the body are also choreographed, until they take on the form of a dance. At this point, the client can move the body through space and guide the voice through the contours of the acoustic palette, creating an authentic song and dance from the fresh vitality which is uncovered by the release of emotion in sound.

Self Discovery through Voice

Many people take part in voice movement therapy courses and individual sessions not because there is anything specifically troubling their mind or body, but because they want simply to discover and uncover more of themselves. Indeed, working through sound and song is an ideal way to facilitate the growth of the personality because the voice is such a primary means of communication in human beings. Our voice is an expression of who we are and how we feel. In the tones of a person's voice you can hear the subtle music of feeling and thought: you can hear the effervescent innocence of youth and the wisdom of experience and age; you can hear the hollow yearning of need and want and the sharp edge of anger and retaliation. The tonal contours of the human voice weave an acoustic tapestry which reveal the peaks of excitement, agitation and worry and the vales of contemplation, sorrow and heartache.

The ever shifting collage of emotions which we all host infiltrate the voice with tones of happiness, elation, sorrow and grief. In the voice you can hear resignation, indignation, hope and despair. In the voice you can hear the sound of the psyche.

When we listen to a voice, we are affected by it through many senses. For example, we frequently hear the voice as though we are perceiving it through the sense of touch. We feel pinched, slapped, compressed, pierced, hammered, stroked, tickled, or shaken by someone's voice. We also often feel that we can taste a voice, hearing the despondent bitterness, the citrus tang of jealousy or the sugary sweet sycophanticism. We also often feel that we see or hear the colour of a voice, the deep blue of melancholia, the green of envy and the red of retaliation. Temperature too is used to describe the quality of a voice which can be experienced as warm, cool, burning hot or ice cold. A person's voice may also give the listener the impression of a particular character and we often judge a person's personality from the sound of their voice.

But it is not only that a particular quality of voice in another person influences the way we perceive them. It is also true that the particular quality of our own voice influences the way we perceive our self. The qualities that give our voice its unique colour serve an important function in maintaining our sense of identity, for the sound of our voice reminds us of who we are, it affirms and reinforces our self image. In fact, the voice may be described as an acoustic mirror, because the quality of our voice reflects back to us an image of who we are in sound. If we sound childlike, then it is like staring in the mirror and seeing the face of a child. We will then naturally experience our self as being childlike. If we sound bitter and envious, then this sound is reflected and resounded in our ears, reinforcing the sense of our self as bitter and envious. Our voice and our psychological state therefore influence each other.

Because of the intimate links between our voice and our psyche, by transforming and enhancing the way we sound, we can transform and enhance the way we feel and we perceive our self. And this, of course, influences the way others perceive us.

As time passes we often become over-identified with a single image of ourselves and this singular and unchanging self-image is revealed in the quality of our voice. For some people, their voice and psyche may come to be saturated with a particular emotional tone such as bitterness, defeat, anxiety, fear or rage and all of these emotional tones find their expression in the acoustic tones of the voice. For other people, their voice may get stuck in reflecting a single character or attitude.

The problem is that if a person's voice becomes saturated with a single tone that reflects a single mood, sense, character or emotion, then it will be difficult for that person to communicate anything beyond that. In such circumstances, the voice can, without warning, simply let you down. You may wish to express a particular emotion or image, such as anger or authority; you may need to instil confidence or calm, you may want to express sympathy, affection, disagreement or support. You may want to be able to express a whole gamut of different emotions; but perhaps your voice has become so identified with a particular aspect of yourself, that it cannot move. This can happen to all of us, it is as though the voice can become a rigid mask which we are unable to remove. A person with such a vocal mask may feel enraged but sound intimidated, they may feel saddened but sound unmoved; they seek help but their voice signals self-certainty, they seek warmth and affection, but their voice signals guarded detachment, they seek respect but their voice attracts belittlement.

The intention behind all the courses and sessions at The London Voice Centre is to offer a therapeutic approach to voice training and vocal exploration which enables people to find the full range of their voice. Then, rather than this being a limited and constricted instrument, communicating only a tiny percentage of the personality, it can instead become a medium through which the multicoloured fabric of the inner self can be expressed.

Deep within the psyche we all play host to a reservoir of images, moods, characters, notions, impulses and ideas which appear most vividly in dreams, emerging as eccentric figures, animals, monsters, magical journeys and ominous situations. In waking life, however, we forget that all these formations represent and symbolise important parts of our self. Whilst the painter may put them into colour, the poet into words, the actor into drama and the dancer into movement, voice movement therapy enables the self to be expressed through sound. By giving voice to the multitudinous aspects of our character we can, without restraint, grow into ourselves and come to accept our entire being in all its propensities.

Voice Movement Therapy in Practice

Voice movement therapy can be beneficial for many different kinds of clients. Firstly, there are those who feel that their voice is confined to a particular quality which does not reflect their true self. Some people feel their voice is too childish, too frail, too domineering or too hard. Voice movement therapy can help such people find an elasticity to their voice so that it can move through different sonorities, expressing a broader range of their personality. For example, I worked with one client who had been extremely cushioned by a mother who treated her like a child even in her adult years. Whenever this client attempted to assume her adult self, she would lose the mother's affection and so had maintained a childlike identity in order to sustain a positive relationship with the mother.

This was manifested in a voice which was very high in pitch with a very breathy quality that prevented her from asserting an adult authority. Through the therapeutic voice work it was possible to enable the client to lower the pitch and decrease the breathiness, providing access to a deeper fuller voice. However, this new voice brought feelings of rage and anger to the surface, many of them directed against the mother. The further work therefore consisted of giving form to these feelings through a variety of sounds, providing a release and expression of hitherto dormant and unconscious feelings.

Other clients are more troubled by physical restrictions which negatively influence the voice. For example, I worked with one client who was severely disabled and confined to a wheel chair. The demands of continually turning the wheels of the chair had led to a concave implosion of the torso which in turn was compressing his larynx and restricting the expansion of the lungs. Consequently, his voice was very weak and soft and he could only vocalise short phrases of speech. By physically massaging his neck and torso whilst retraining him to operate the wheel chair, he was able to strengthen his voice which became loud and clear as his breathing capacity increased, enabling him to speak for longer without getting out of breath. However, with the new respiratory capacity and vocal malleability came a flood of emotion in the form of tears and sobs. The further work therefore consisted of giving vocal shape to these emotions through sounds and songs which expressed deep loss and longing.

One of the aspects of voice movement therapy which align it with the precepts of other expressive arts therapies, such as drama therapy and dance therapy, is the use of a creative presentation – in this case songs – to give artistic form to a personal trauma. For example, I once worked with a man who was one of the few survivors of an aeroplane crash and whose voice had subsequently been reduced to a faint weak tone. Though he had few optical memories of the traumatic event, he did recall many acoustic impressions. From his description of the accident he created a set of lyrics, each line beginning with the words 'I heard': I heard the engines rumble; I heard the women behind me praying; I heard the pilot speaking; I heard the sirens whistling. Using the voices of each member of the therapeutic group, the client's lyrics were musicalised, allowing an opportunity to step away from a verbal analysis of the trauma into a creative expression through song which combined catharsis with creativity.

This client, like many of those attracted to the therapeutic use of the creative arts, experienced disappointment in the ability of verbal therapy to offer a genuine transformation of a trauma. In my experience of voice movement therapy one particular area where clients seek a creative expression of their experience rather than a verbal analysis is in the field of sexual abuse.

For example, I worked with a client who suffered pain and discomfort around her jaw and felt a 'sticky' sensation in her throat which made her voice feel 'stuck' whenever she came to sing or express herself through prolonged vocalisation such as shouting. This client had been orally sexually abused as a child and had pursued a considerable amount of verbal counselling and psychotherapy. During the first stage of our work, we combined movement exercises with physical manipulation and massage of her facial musculature to stimulate sensations of fluidity. The client then explored making sounds which expressed an expulsion of the sticky sensation in the throat, ranging from long gentle 'melting' and 'trickling' sounds to rhythmic 'spitting' sounds. During the work, the clients hands opened and closed making fists and her torso went into spasm. It was as though her body was remembering the experience of being held down or confined, unable to find the strength to fight off an overbearing oppressor. During our work we turned these movements into a dance and evolved the sounds into a protest song. The singing of the song and the dancing of the movements was healing both somatically and psychologically as it gave direct expression to a trauma rather than a translated description of it.

Voice movement therapy has also proved effective in contributing healing to women with eating disorders. Using vocal sound and creative movement to ritualise primal activities such as eating, again removes the condition from the realm of pathology and replaces it in the arena of art, offering a fresh artistic perspective on a hitherto clinical dysfunction.

The Future of Voice

There is an increasing interest in and enthusiasm for alternative ways of healing and maintaining health amongst both clients who seek professional guidance and amongst professionals who are seeking to diversify the services which they can offer. In particular, use of the human voice to aid self-discovery and facilitate psychological and physical well-being is becoming more and more popular. This is exemplified in the escalating number of workshops and community events which offer a group of people an opportunity to explore their voice in an atmosphere of non-judgmental support.

This inevitably means that health care professionals, alternative and complimentary medicine practitioners as well as trainers and educators are beginning to seek accredited training in the therapeutic use of voice and the creative arts. The partnership between The London Voice Centre and the RSA Examinations Board offers a firm base for providing practitioners with coherent and comprehensive training in this area. In addition, incoming students are relieved of the sum of the financial cost of training by schemes such as Vocational Training Relief, through which the Inland revenue pay 24% of the trainees fees. The more accessible we can make training in this area, the more hope there is that voice will come to be recognised as being just as important as the body when considering the preservation of our life force.

Hopefully, the next ten years will see the human voice play an increasingly central role in health preservation and health education, and if I can make a modest contribution to this development, I will consider my own life force to have been well spent.

References

Newham, P. (1997a) Therapeutic Voicework: Principles and Practice for the use of Singing as a Therapy. London: Jessica Kingsley.
Newham, P. (1997b) The Prophet of Song: The Life and Work of Alfred Wolfsohn. London: Tigers Eye.

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About Paul Newham

Paul Newham has worked over the past 30 years as a trainer and facilitator, manager and mentor, using artistic and creative activities to nurture independence and enhance the health and wellbeing of highly vulnerable people. His clients and students have included young adults with special educational needs and disabilities, elderly people with significant neurocognitive disorders, and communities disenfranchised by social exclusion. He is particularly noted for his contribution to the Expressive Arts Therapies and has trained practitioners from multiple disciplines. His text books are required reading on professional courses. He may be contacted on Tel: + 44 (0) 7392 463330; paul@paulnewham.com    www.paulnewham.com

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