by Tasleem Laila
You know that old saying, “She must LOVE the sound of her own voice”? There may actually be something to that.
I seem to be talking a lot more lately. Over the phone, in face to face conversations, in small social groups, or even feeling more comfortable asking questions in larger public settings.
One of my favorite things to do is to interview people for various projects. I’ve always enjoyed the listening aspect of this, and the finished product thus far, has been in writing. But more recently, I’ve been contemplating putting together podcasts or even videos rather than solely written interviews.
Even in more casual situations, when friends and acquaintances send me written messages over social media, nowadays, I usually choose to respond with a voice message instead of in writing. I even recorded my voice on my smart phone to brainstorm the ideas for this blog entry rather than doing it all on paper.
And you know what? I often listen back to many of these messages of my own voice a few times over and over and… uhh over again. A little self-absorbed, you might be thinking?
Well, let’s take a step back, to give me a chance to explain. See, as a child, I was always the shy girl who didn’t say much in a classroom, or at home, or even when I was out with friends. In fact, I didn’t seem to have much of an opinion about anything- “I don’t know” was often my go-to answer for most questions asked of me.
Maybe it was because I hadn’t figured out yet what I liked, or wanted. Maybe it was because I was intimidated by some of the stronger personalities around me. Maybe I didn’t think my opinion mattered.
I got so used to being the quiet one and not using my voice, that often, when I did use it, it sounded so unfamiliar to me. I knew it was mine, and it belonged to me, that it was coming from me. But frankly, I really didn’t LIKE it. How could I when I had hardly heard it myself or didn’t have enough practise using it?
So, I journaled a lot as a kid. Most of the time, it was just ramblings about a crush I had or who I did or didn’t play with that day. But in those pages was where I ‘talked’ the most. Not many people could probably recall a lot of the things I said as a child. But I have boxes of journals from years ago that are witnesses to my thoughts, ideas and words at that time.
It wasn’t until my favorite English Professor in university made me see how unique my insights could be, that I became more excited about sharing my ideas with others. So I had more ‘to say’ at that point, but it was still just coming out in essays and assignments on the page. I hardly said much in those classes. In fact, this professor didn’t know what an impact he had on my life until just a few years ago when I reached out to him to let him know. So, to say that the first place I really found ‘my voice’ was in writing, would definitely be an understatement.
Consequently, my written voice continued to develop, but my speaking voice stayed hiding behind it. The real dilemma came about when friends and family would ask me to write speeches for weddings and other occasions because I was good with words. And, of course, I didn’t want someone else to deliver my speeches, so I would get up and do it myself. But writing a speech and presenting one are two very different things. The latter requires good control of your voice, which I know I didn’t have. In fact, the thought of hearing back any of those speeches now just makes me cringe. My voice was shaky, uneven, it cracked a lot of the time, and just really lacked confidence.
You’d think that after all my insecurities over my voice, I would have gone into a career that involved a quiet desk job. Just me in my little cubicle. Far from it. I decided to choose a job in which I had to speak in front of around thirty little eager learners every weekday, for eight hours each day. Me, a teacher. Go figure! I also often had to speak at assemblies in front of parents and other teachers. I loved teaching, so I wasn’t going to let my voice stop me. But again, I can’t help but to think of the strain I must have been putting my voice through for at least those six years in the classroom, because I didn’t realize that I was misusing my voice.
And guess where I learned to improve my speaking voice? Vocal lessons. Here I thought I was coming to voice lessons to learn to sing, but boy, I had no idea of all the other life changing benefits I would obtain from these classes:
Finding Your Voice
Singing lessons helped me find my voice all over again, in a healthier, more connected and balanced way. This didn’t just develop my ability to sing, but it also [greatly helped me redevelop and strengthen my speaking as well.]
Connection With Yourself
You know what happens when you connect more with your voice? You connect more with yourself and who you are. I had overlooked how important our voices are to our sense of identity until I started singing lessons. I mean, there is no one out there who sounds like me, who has my voice. It is a unique feature of me. Here I was going around for most of my life hiding that voice, being afraid of using it, or embarrassed by it. I came to realize that in doing that, I was also denying a huge part of myself. Singing lessons brought alive that part of me that I had shut down for too long.
There is something magical that happens when you become more comfortable with your voice: you learn to embrace it. This builds confidence. Singing lessons have taught me to accept and appreciate the natural tessitura of my voice, rather than struggling to try to sound like someone else. My voice instructors introduced me to other singers who had a similar tone to mine, and this, in turn, allowed me to recognize the beauty in it. As a result, I became more motivated to practise and experiment with it. I now concentrate on what my own voice can do, rather than being disappointed by what, or who, it doesn’t sound like.
Embracing my voice has also reminded me to celebrate other aspects of myself like my height or body shape or even my little idiosyncrasies. And rather than spending my energy always comparing myself to others, I feel encouraged to develop my own unique talents. The best part is that as I gain more confidence in myself, I find myself encouraging others more readily to embrace their own uniqueness as well.
Singing lessons have not just made me a better singer, they have also made me a better listener. I can pick up so many more subtleties now–a greater range of textures and details–in voices as well as other instruments. And this also helps my musicality in other disciplines such as dance. Songs that I loved, even before I started singing, have taken on more meaning to me now. And others that I couldn’t connect to as much previously, now resonate more deeply with me because my ear picks up their many layers.
Singing lessons have included me in this “club” that I always thought was exclusive to only those who were born and brought up with a “natural talent” to sing. There weren’t any role models around me who sang in ‘real’ life. All I had to look up to were the super star singers I admired on Much Music videos.
And none of those famous vocalists were of Indian descent like I am. We were conditioned to believe, at that time, that Indians only sang Bollywood hits or classical Indian songs. [What a relief to find over the years that singing actually does not discriminate. In fact, singing connects people of all different cultures, religions, ages, languages and social statuses.] I get so excited when I walk into a music venue or Karaoke bar and see a multicultural crowd all just celebrating their common love of sharing their voices. Singing lessons have helped me to connect with people that I wouldn’t have otherwise connected with.
Singing lessons have given me a structure to practise from. They have trained a habit in me that is now a part of my everyday life. They have taught me that singing can actually be learned with the right training. Knowing I went from believing I was tone deaf and unable to sing, to making singing a regular practice, has actually given me incentive to pursue other activities or passions that I thought would be too late for me to try. This has completely changed my approach to the way I face new challenges, and has opened up many new areas of interest for me including playing the guitar, song writing, and even learning other languages and new dance styles.
A vocalist friend of mine has a t-shirt that says, “I will make better mistakes next time”. This reminds me of another valuable lesson I learned from singing classes: Although we can train our voices and practise diligently, we cannot control every aspect of a performance or our practices. A new microphone, or a variation in the accompaniment, or even our nerves that day, can impact the way a song comes forth. Singing teaches me how to be adaptable and flexible. Rather than getting stuck on the idea that there is just one way to do something, I am constantly learning to roll with the ‘mistakes’, to improvise with more grace and ease. And when things go really ‘wrong’, singing has taught me to laugh at myself, pick myself back up, and just keep moving forward.
In order to be able to adapt quickly, we need to be present. Singing reinforces being in the moment- forgetting about the past and the future and just focusing on the now. Singing breeds mindfulness. To me, it’s a form of meditation. I might go into a singing lesson with a bunch of worries on my mind- preoccupied by what is to come, or exhausted by the memories of something painful that has already happened. But once that first exercise hits, I don’t have time to think of those stresses. Instead, I get lost in the lip bubbles or arpeggios that my instructor is taking me through. Even in ironing out details in songs, I am so focused on connecting to the story and lyrics, or the practical application of the technique at hand, that everything else just falls away for that time.
The kind of “highly targeted” practice that my vocal instructor takes me through –“where errors are not ignored but looked at piece by piece and fixed,” is referred to by author Daniele Coyle as “deep practice”. In his book the Talent Code, Coyle explains how delving into a discipline such as singing or sports training or learning an instrument, with the right kind of practice, can actually improve our brain functioning and strengthen our immune system. Singing lessons also help improve my memory, my mood, my posture, my concentration and my overall happiness and energy. Singing is great therapy!
Being shy growing up, I definitely didn’t play enough as a kid. Singing lessons give me an excuse to try on different characters or personalities, to play ‘dress up’ but as an adult! One day, I might be trying out a soulful Alicia Keys tune, while the next week, I might want to test out a more gritty Amy Winehouse or Lauryn Hill track. Some days, I feel like singing an old Les Miserable musical theater piece, while on other days, I might choose something more eighties pop rock like Michael Jackson or Cyndi Lauper. Singing encourages me to explore the multidimensionality of characters within me that I may not have gotten to explore before. This helps me get in touch with myself more fully.
Beauty in Vulnerability
There can be so much fear attached to singing because of the exposure involved in sharing your voice and emotions so openly. But each time I sing, or hear someone else sing, I experience, first hand, the beauty of this kind of vulnerability. It is a strength, not a weakness.
I would like to believe that it wasn’t a coincidence that though my mom wasn’t responding to anything in the hospital a few days before she passed away, she did open her mouth for a moment to try to say something when I sang a few lines to her there. Throughout history, people have used the power of song to reach out to loved ones in all kinds of situations. Singing gives me hope that maybe my mom can hear me on a deeper level through song. And could it be that the songs that suddenly seem to speak to me in coffee shops or on the radio on my drives home are messages from my mom as well? Maybe singing is a form of communication that can transcend time and space because it speaks in vibrations and rhythms rather than mere words.
Express and Be Heard
People often recommend yoga or silent retreats to me as a way to bring me more peace or healing. Maybe I will try these out some day. But for now, I can’t help but to argue that I have been quiet and calm for most of my life. Why would I pick a discipline that would silence me even more? I need something that allows me to make ‘noise’! Beautiful, harmonious noise, but noise nonetheless. Singing gives this shy girl a place to finally express herself and be heard.
And the result? What I thought would be lessons in finding my voice, became lessons in finding my SELF.
Want to learn how to develop your voice? Check out Spencer’s videos at Singing 911.