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The Art and Practice of Vocal Presence
By Barbara McAfee
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2011 Barbara McAfee
All right reserved.
Chapter One Voice, Instinct, and the Oral Tradition
a context for voice
Our voices carry a rich legacy. How we speak and listen today has emerged from the long unfolding story of human history. In her book The Four-Fold Way, cultural anthropologist and author Angeles Arrien suggests that indigenous wisdom and practices have an essential role to play in restoring our balance with each other and the earth. She discovered that voice—as expressed in song, sound, breath, story, and even silence—is a vital element in indigenous societies around the world. In many of these cultures, the voice is directly linked to the soul or spirit of a person.
The oral tradition is an enormous area of study, as is language development in individuals and societies. I must, however, make brief mention of these subjects as a way to root this exploration of voice in a deeper appreciation for our individual and collective vocal heritage. Let's begin with your own vocal genesis.
You were paying attention to voices long before you were born. Your ability to hear was fully formed by the time you were a three-month-old fetus. You floated in a rich world of sound as well as in amniotic fluid. Your mother's voice and heartbeat were most familiar, but you also discerned the voices of family members and other muffled sounds from the outside world.
At the moment of your birth, your first act as a distinct individual was a vocal one: you cried. That sound marked the doorway between your prenatal and postnatal worlds and announced your arrival on earth in no uncertain terms. The sound of your brand-new voice making itself audible in the world for the first time was the initial step on a vocal adventure that continues today.
Next you used your voice to communicate your hunger, discomfort, and frustration with distinct cries. If the adults around you were paying attention, they learned to interpret them accurately and respond to what you needed. Within the first days of your life, you also got busy decoding and echoing the complex world of sound around you. You began interpreting vocal sounds, facial expressions, and gestures long before you understood the exact words being spoken. Within a matter of a few months, your ears, eyes, brain, mouth, lungs, tongue, teeth, and lips performed a monumental task—transforming observations, random noises, coos, babbles, and squeals into your first words. Your voice was literally formed by "reading" the voices around you. Your ability to pay keen attention to vocal nuances and inflections is innately and fundamentally human.
Your ancestors passed these skills along to you. You are a direct descendant of good communicators. Being able to read voices accurately was a fundamental part of our human evolution. Those who got it wrong didn't survive long enough to pass along their DNA. Spoken language is a relatively new invention—approximately 100,000 years old. No one can be sure how language actually emerged, but it most certainly was preceded by some system of expressive vocalization. Through eons of time our voices, ears, and brains coevolved increasingly complex linguistic systems for conveying information, establishing dominance, forging affection, organizing projects, and solving problems. Our deep heritage as oral communicators is still active in how we relate to each other today, whether or not we are consciously aware of it.
Most of us in the modern world live in cultures so immersed in the written word that it's hard for us to imagine how vitally important the voice is in an oral tradition culture. Long before the written word emerged, the collective memory of a people was kept alive through time primarily through the power of voice. Each subsequent generation was responsible for carrying on the legends, mythology, history, genealogy, and social mores that defined a particular culture. This vast and detailed body of information had to be assimilated through a lengthy process of deep listening, vocal repetition, and correction that took many painstaking years to perfect. In the oral tradition, words and sounds carry powerful magic that can bring the rains, appease the gods, invoke healing, access mysterious realms, call the animals in for a hunt, and communicate with the ancestors.
When I heard West African wisdom teacher Malidoma Somé speak several years ago, he offered his firsthand experience in the contrast between oral and written cultures. Somé has earned multiple advanced degrees from prestigious universities in both Europe and the United States. As a young adult, he also went through a traditional initiation rite under the guidance of the elders in his village. Whenever Somé returned to his home village in Burkina Faso, he was struck by his "uneducated" brother's ability to recite hour upon hour of story, song, and ritual from memory. Somé suggested that the increased reliance on the written word has radically diminished our ability to retain and recall large amounts of information—a skill your ancestors probably took for granted wherever they came from.
One of the oldest cultures on earth—the Australian aboriginal people—offers another vivid example of how powerful the voice is in an oral tradition culture. Aboriginal people believe that their ancestors literally sang the world into being. Their song leaders memorized long and complex songs—the "songlines"—that passed in an unbroken line from generation to generation for 40,000 years. They relied on these songlines for many things in their society. Travelers who knew these songs were able to literally sing their way safely through the vast outback by following the songlines. Embedded in the songlines was the physical geography of the land, including sources of food and water. The songlines also related the spiritual stories and sacred sites reflected in each place. From a Western perspective it is difficult to comprehend just how es sential these songs—and the voices in which they were sung—were to the spiritual, social, and physical survival of the people over such a long period of time.
I recently saw an example of how the oral tradition might have been expressed in England during the Middle Ages. Actor Benjamin Bagby is featured in a film where he performs the epic saga Beowulf in Middle English while accompanying himself on an Anglo-Saxon harp.
Without the benefit of stage sets, other actors, dramatic lighting, or other theatrical conventions, the actor painted the terror and triumph of the tale through the power of his voice, facial expressions, and gestures alone. Witnessing this astounding performance reconnected me to the oral tradition that thrived in indigenous Europe for centuries. Many of these sagas, legends, and mythologies have been captured and preserved in written form. Nowadays you can find them in abundance at any bookstore or library and silently read them at your leisure. Imagine, though, what it would have been like to hear them from a powerful traveling storyteller who arrived in your small, isolated village once a year. Can you feel the wonder, terror, and excitement of being awash in fantastic tales dramatically spoken and sung into the breathless silence around the community hearth? Can you sense how profoundly those tales would impact you in the absence of books, television, radio, film, and the Internet?
Though the oral tradition cultures have been seriously diminished by modern life, remnants still survive in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
In many of the world's religious and spiritual traditions, the spoken word is still a source of great power. All of the sacred texts from the world's major religions were passed along through the oral tradition long before they were written down. These texts are still memorized and recited from generation to generation, usually with precise vocal inflections and nuances. Creation stories frequently begin with the divine speaking or singing the world into existence. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God says, "Let there be light," and light appears. In the Christian New Testament, the gospel of John begins, "In the beginning was the Word." Prayers are repeated in the exact same way for centuries. Mantras are chanted to invoke powerful deities and access deep meditation. Jews recite the many names of the divine, and Muslims answer the call to prayer five times a day. Sacred words and songs are employed to declare intentions, offer blessings, and mark transitions. At any given moment throughout human history, this world has been wrapped in the sacred sounds of many peoples.
By contrast, we live our modern lives in a barrage of trivial language. Open your ears in any public place and you're likely to hear yammering televisions, public service announcements, droning background music, and the incessant blabbering of people on their cell phones. Our voices grow louder in order to penetrate the din and drone of machines all around us. In a given week, we say more words to more people in more ways than our ancestors could ever imagine. Talk has become very cheap indeed, and our words, though plentiful, are often flimsy in meaning and inflection.
Cultivating vocal presence helps you reclaim the powerful legacy of the oral tradition in your life. As you rediscover the color and subtlety in your voice, it becomes a vehicle for your eloquence to enter the world. You take your place at the end of a long line of ancestors who sang their songs, spoke their stories, struggled to stay alive, and prevailed so you could add your voice to the chorus of humanity.
Let's shift our attention from the lessons of our collective vocal heritage to the ways your voice is connected to your identity.
Chapter Two Voice and Identity
who you gonna be while you do what you do?
The word "personality" is derived from the Latin per sonare, which means "to sound through." This phrase refers to a type of theatrical mask that was designed to amplify the sound of an actor's voice. This etymological link between sound and identity is an apt one: our voices are a direct reflection of who we think we are—and sometimes who we wish we weren't.
Your ego's job is to maintain a prescribed identity for you. It tells you, "You are this kind of person, not that kind." It defines the boundaries between what's "you" and "not you"—a very useful distinction. I like to think of the ego as a kind of psychological immune system: it identifies anything that runs counter to the story you tell about yourself and kills it off. If we constructed this ego in a reasonable and purposeful way, it would serve us quite well. The problem is, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are get cobbled together out of a random mishmash of personal history, unconscious fear, other people's expectations, and cultural conditioning. Many of the stories aren't the least bit true—and can even sabotage our deepest beliefs, values, and intentions.
When you step beyond that cherished identity, in this case by using your voice in a new way, you'll likely feel a reflexive "uh-oh" from your ego. I see it in the eyes of my clients whenever they get close to their edges. They get uneasy. Sometimes they burst out laughing or start chatting about something completely unrelated to what we're doing. I have come to respect this part of the human psyche in myself and in my clients. It ensures that we stretch ourselves into new identities at a gradual and respectful pace. Cultivating your full voice demands that you walk a tightrope between the ego's defense of the status quo and your desire to more fully inhabit all of who you are.
My assumption is that if you have the capacity to make a sound, you should make that sound. Your voice was not de signed in error. You have all those sounds for good reason, even if you rarely use some of them. Your body is healthiest when it moves through its full range of motion. The same holds true for your voice.
When you begin opening up your full voice with the exercises in part II of this book, you'll most likely find it physically invigorating and emotionally liberating to make sounds through your entire vocal range. It's also quite likely that some of the sounds will rub you the wrong way. You may wonder why they set your teeth on edge and make your skin crawl. Here's my theory: those sounds you most dislike run directly counter to who you think you are.
Your voice is wrapped up in your deepest instincts and most cherished identities. When you stir up the voice, you stir up all that other stuff as well. Changing your voice is no small task, especially if you approach it from the inside out. You can overlay a few techniques to improve the sound without risking much. However, it's an entirely different story when you shift where your voice comes from, connect your voice more fully to your body, invest it with your life-breath, and risk being truly seen.
That is profoundly brave work that offers rich rewards.
~ Voicing the Shadow
Even if you're a good person with good intent, opening to your full voice can open up what the Jungians call "the shadow." These raw, wild, dark, and powerful aspects of your personality have many gifts to offer. They can also be a little scary.
One of my clients—a health-care executive—told me, "When I work with you, you invite me to be everything I'm not supposed to be: primitive, fat, shrill, dramatic, silly, lusty, and loud. Then you give me a big smile and say, 'Good!'" My client let loose with a big belly laugh, delighted at the opportunity to so freely express her "bad" side.
The shadow has a way of finding expression, whether you explicitly invite it or not. Some days it takes one thoughtless jerk swerving through traffic for my dark side to come bursting through. Often a person closest to you—a child or partner—has the propensity to say or do just the thing to wake up your inner beast. And sleep deprivation, illness, and stress can bring out the shadow in the wisest of us.
Practicing vocal presence gives you a way to express these shadowy aspects of yourself on purpose. You get to release the pressure that builds up from having to look good, be smart, and behave like an adult all the time. Having a safe and contained space to express my shadow has made me less afraid of it. When I bring curiosity and attention to my untamed, "unacceptable" side, I find all kinds of gifts there, gifts I can put to use in my life. Giving voice to these "undesirable" qualities also decreases the likelihood that they'll pop out at some inopportune moment.
Just this week a new client told me how shifting her vocal presence is changing how she expresses her shadow. A gifted amateur singer, Dina came to this work with the intention of preparing her singing voice for an upcoming recording project. After just three sessions and some diligent practice, Dina told me about a surprising benefit from our work together: "In the past there's been a long time lag between when I know something to be true and when I say something about it. My habit has been to keep suppressing what I had to say until I couldn't hold it back any more. Then my words would come out in a burst of anger that made it hard for people to receive what I was saying. Now I find I can hear my own inner voice more easily. I trust it more and just speak my truth without all the drama. I'm 'singing' my truth the same way I'm singing my songs. So far I've experienced this with family members, business associates, and musical collaborators. I never expected that working with my voice would so fundamentally change the way I communicate."
You may or may not experience this kind of dramatic breakthrough in your own vocal presence work. I can assure you, though, that positive changes in your voice will yield unforeseen gifts in other aspects of your life. You can assume that your voice has its own intelligence. What it might bring to your life is a mystery. A good one.
~ Speaking a Second Language
I recently met a colleague I'll call Nelson. He's a dynamic fortyish man with bright eyes and a quick mind. During our first meeting in a Thai restaurant, he told me the following story: "I grew up in Boston and, like everyone else in my family, spoke with a thick Boston accent. When I left the area to go to college, I got a lot of teasing from my friends about the way I talked. Out of a strong desire to fit in, I eliminated all traces of Boston from my speech. Now I can't get my accent back, even when I go home for a visit. I feel a little sad about losing my accent. I think there's a part of me that went away with it."
Excerpted from Full Voice by Barbara McAfee Copyright © 2011 by Barbara McAfee. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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