Singing teacher Deborah Hudson writes:
There I was, lying on a couch with a whole lot of acupuncture pins in my head when the idea dawned on me. I should write a book which would encourage even the shyest person to sing. A simple book with lots of cartoons to be sold in shops along with the sweets by the till. The kind of book someone might buy on an impulse and then put into a pocket, just to peep at from time to time. Maybe it was the pins, more likely it was the opportunity just to lie down and take 40 minutes out from the day, but that day I really thought about what had motivated me to start teaching people how to sing.
When I was about 6 I had to undergo a tonsillectomy. I had been suffering from ear ache for years and the doctor thought it would fix the problem. Up till then my speaking voice had been low set and, apparently, nice to listen to. I’d had a difficult time as a youngster and I used to sing to myself at night for comfort. I wholeheartedly identified with the sound – it was truly me. The tonsillectomy did help the ear ache, but my speaking voice had changed and became much higher. My family didn’t react very kindly – my father in particular began to imitate me and to say that my voice was awful, pathetic sounding and that he wished he hadn’t sanctioned the operation. I was suddenly treated as if I was somehow no longer me, but someone to be made fun of every time I opened my mouth. It was very harsh. Time went by and my family forgot about it. Indeed, later on my father loved to hear me sing, but he always said my speaking voice had been ruined by the operation. Unfortunately the experience had affected me much more than I realised. I grew up certain that my voice was silly even when I started to win little competitions locally. It was something of which I was ashamed, but I couldn’t do anything about it. I’d once had a nice sound and now I didn’t – no matter how many people told me to the contrary. This assurance stayed with me throughout my training. I mourned the voice I had had when I was small, the voice which had been a comfort, and part of me still wanted to prove that I as a person hadn’t changed. I wasn’t pathetic at all. My young experience had proved to me that we do tend to be judged on how we sound. A woman with a high voice can’t have a brain!
As time went on and my training improved my natural need to sing, I began to understand that what had happened to my voice was not irreparable damage, but simply the result of a carelessly carried out operation. The freeing up of the larynx and neck muscles helped considerably, along with plenty of tongue exercises. My speaking voice became more resonant because my larynx was more at ease. At the same time I began to explore the psychological effect of physically freeing and strengthening the vocal process and found it to be very powerful indeed. I wondered how many other people there were “out there” who, for one reason or another, were ashamed of their voices. In my teaching I had come across lots of people, one individual in fact in her ’60s, all slightly ashamed to try singing because they had been told at school not to do so. It’s incredible how the words of a harassed teacher can have such a lasting effect. So I decided to write a book for them. For those people and for anyone who wanted just to see if there was a possibility of their being able to express themselves vocally – whether in the shower or at karaoke – with confidence and with pride.
These days I still teach a wide variety of people who come for lessons for all sorts of reasons, many of them because they are recovering from ill health and many because they just can’t seem to be taken seriously at work. Many have been inspired by the little book to try singing. Letting go of the voice in itself is incredibly therapeutic, but the general physicality of singing is profoundly helpful too. Learning how to breathe from deep down in the body automatically helps calm the system. I often encourage students to take a little time out regularly to do a body scan. Similar to the body scan used in mindfulness training, the singing scan simply starts with the toes and ends with the top of the head. The question we ask ourselves as we scan through the body is “how does that feel?”. We learn how to explore the sensations in the body by observing and experiencing. Becoming aware of the body helps to establish a feeling of groundedness, of comfortable control. Then, if we want, we can make a noise based on how we feel! Why not?
My personal weakness is the neck – and I know I’m not alone! We are most of us guilty of hanging our heads over mobiles to text or of poking our heads forward to read laptops or, in my case, music on the piano. A tight neck can mean all sorts of aches and pains. The larynx is suspended inside the neck and needs to be able to move freely. Tight neck muscles mean it can’t and so the voice will feel strained. A tight neck can also mean a tight jaw and a tight tongue. A few exercises to release the tongue root and relax the jaw can make students feel 100% happier about making a noise. It can really be life-transforming.
A few months ago I held a pop-up workshop at the Wellcome Collection in London. It was all about tongues. I wanted people to come and explore how the tongue moves and how we shape our words. It was great fun and participants found it enlightening too. Exploring how we made words gave them courage and confidence. We ended up singing lots of nursery rhymes. I was so impressed. The participants had just dropped in not knowing what on earth would happen and there they were, in the Wellcome Reading Room singing along brilliantly. I’d love at some point to be involved in a Tongues exhibition. Anyone want to join me?
Deborah Hudson is a singer and teacher. She teaches all comers and has a particular interest in helping people into better health through singing. She is a member of the British Voice Association.