by Caitlin Smith

Finding Your Voice: Atawhai – Compassion For Your Own Voice

by Caitlin Smith

Finding Your Voice: Atawhai – Compassion For Your Own Voice

What the world needs now, is love sweet love. That’s the only thing that there’s just too little of” – thanks Hal David. It’s a universal truth, especially applied to our relationships with voice and creative process. Due to my upbringing, I find the idea of ‘self-love’ a little too… full on. Instead, I try to adopt the practice of ‘self-compassion’ (atawhai in Māori)

There’s nothing compassion can’t fix. Suddenly, even negative experiences, seen through compassionate eyes, become ‘enriching’ grist to the mill, rather than disastrous and debilitating.

It is compassionate to: forgive (self and others), be patient, kind, considerate, to allow adequate time to heal, listen to your heart (over your head), not expect too much of yourself after injury, illness, trauma, damage. It is compassionate to work on and engage with healing pain rather than opting out and walking away. Not only is it important to be compassionate for your own thriving and survival, it is vital for the tribe in that anything that works for you, will no doubt be helpful for others.

Compassion = believing in yourself and your art, working towards releasing your creative projects, performances and ‘imperfect offerings’… encouraging self and others to make time within the schedule, letting yourself be bad, doing the work and coming back no matter how long you’ve been away or how little supposedly achieved… showing up, constantly creating a blank slate, resetting, recreating, reframing, recharging, rejuvenating, refreshing.

Compassion recognises all that we are: our shadow, despair, darkness, failings, frailty, faults, fear. It then offers an alternative – focusing on positive solutions.

Sadly, when it comes to voice, we regularly push, force, brutalise, ignore pain and the warning signs of damage. We’ll drink to excess, scream, stay up all night talking shit in bars. (Just referencing myself here!)

But, what would happen if the only question we asked was, “What is the most compassionate thing I can do right now?”

Imagine that your voice is someone you care about deeply. What could we do to assist that person? Let’s face it, if your voice was your lover, she would’ve dumped you years ago.

I belive the greatest pathway to increasing compassion is understanding. When I understand the laws of acoustic engineering and remember that my instrument is my hollow body, then I have a far-greater capacity to use and look after that instrument. There are way too many myths and confusing trade-marked methodologies pertaining to voice-use that just complicate and intellectualise in order to sell you a specific ‘modality’.

Universal truth is opensource. Good vocalisation has existed ever since we started grunting and banging rocks together. Finding out how the voice works means we can then lean back into that supportive knowledge and practice. (And quit worrying that we’re doing it wrong, or being somehow in deficit.)

Essentially, we are more like big bass drums than wind instruments. It’s our hollow-bodiedness that makes sound. If a kick-drum or floor tom is filled with blankets and cushions the sound is muffled/deadened. We are more acoustic guitars than bagpipes. Imagine if we filled the acoustic guitar body with concrete, the strings wouldn’t make sound. Within our bodies, that concrete is tension.

Thinking of ourselves as guitars, the strings are merely a component of the instrument, not the instrument itself. If I gave you some strings and you didn’t have a guitar, I’d be cruel. If I gave you a beautiful guitar that didn’t have strings, I’d be a very generous woman.

The guitar-strings are our vocal cords. We often become overly fixated with what the vocal cords or larynx are doing. Essentially, the body takes care of most vocalisation automatically. As soon as we become self-conscious about something, the whole system goes out of whack… especially breathing.

Voice has an ‘urgency of expression’ we should respect (try silently stubbing your toe!) It’s impulse/reflex – enjoy the immediacy. Breathing is controlled by the brain-stem (the reptilian brain that keeps us functioning when we’re unconscious). Let’s not mess with that.

Think of how a guitarist prepares and takes care of their instrument. New strings. Nice case. Tuning before it’s played. Through compassionate care, we can look after our voices; physically, mentally (learning songs, theory, technique), emotionally, psychologically, culturally, socially and spiritually. We are whole people and it is compassionate to see ourselves as such.

Try applying yogic principles and practice to vocalisation. We ease and release tension with yogic breathing and stretching. This opens and aligns our bodies to sound creating bigger resonating cavities = better instruments.

Tips for more compassionate singing:

Become aware of cause and effect and allow for miracles. Acoustic engineering and twang is MAGIC! Listen out for its positive effect.

Break your conceptualisation of voice, and the creative process, down into as simple a statement as possible (i.e. ‘Singing is open-ness and twang’ or, ‘Writing is ‘showing up’.’)

Understand and recognise the difference between ‘dirty’ and ‘clean’ discomfort. Know the difference in feeling between fear/anxiety and excitement/anticipation. Know when something is good or bad for you in the studio, practice or performance. Sometimes we need another perspective on our behaviour because what works for us might be pure superstition or faulty logic. (i.e. “…a few wines help me relax.” Really? There might be a more compassionate approach, one where you don’t forget the words and break your teeth falling offstage!)

Frame (or reframe) negative experiences in an empowering, self-respectful way. Hold yourself in a loving, responsible light

You are in charge! You are a leader/The Leader. You have command over your voice and artistry = destiny. This isn’t frightening, it’s exciting and part of the plan. Give yourself agency. Hold yourself lovingly accountable.

Become aware of the language you use and negative self-talk – Use NLP: statements that are affirmative and positive.

Find out what you need and what is counter-productive for you. Later, ask what works for others to extend and grow understanding/compassion. Remember: ‘Put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.’

Discern sensorily (sound and feel) what’s safe/compassionate vocalisation and unsafe/harmful. Hearing breathiness and push, experiencing breaks or gaps in range/register, hearing and feeling flatness and being under-energised/fatigued as opposed to free, open and energized

Get hip to what is psychologically ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’. (Are there people around you who are ‘blocked creatives’, ‘crazy-makers’, ‘shadow artists’, professionally jealous, perceive you as intimidating or threatening?) Do you nurture and encourage yourself and others? Or, do you criticise and consider yourself ‘better than’, but never make it into the arena because of unreasonably high standards? Do you dumb yourself down in order to fit in?

Exercise self-care. Sleep enough, eat nutritionally, meditate, do yoga, warm-up the voice, walk, get massages

Feed the well. Harmonise, sing and jam with people. Listen and go out to live music, learn best practice, read, talk with other singers/artists/creatives.

Do you change onstage? Do you work with people whose personality changes and becomes more critical/hostile onstage? Become ‘aware’ of self and others

Love/compassion is a doing word. How nice are you to yourself? Are you a masochist? Do you hang out with sadists or masochists?

There is a crack in everything… Celebrate cracks and enjoy the lesson and serendipity in mistakes. Nodules and cysts have taught me more than anything else.

We resist and avoid what we most want/need to do. Only when we have a bigger picture perspective do we value how precious our time is. For example, aging. I used to think I had all the time in the world. Now, I think I’m ‘past it’ and there’s no point because I’m ‘too old’. Neither perspective is healthy. We have the moment – that’s all we need.

Don’t compare yourself with anyone else – you look after your own garden and allow others to do the same – let your voice be different. Your relationship with your voice is YOUR business. No one else can sing for you (just as no-one else can have sex for you). It’s about enjoyment!

Music is sacred. Your relationship with music is like your relationship with God (if you have one) – feel and experience it YOUR way.

Be present to what technique is being used, so you can dial-it-up appropriately.

Use micro-reminders of what technique to use. When practising, only think of one thing at a time to find out what does what and how much is needed. (Read my NZ Musician column on how to practice.)

Rewire your biochemistry by writing two magical lists: 101 wishes, 100 achievements.

Expand the parameters of practice to include all singing – sing MORE. See yourself as a self-defined singer or writer. Tell that to people to legitimise it for yourself ‘first’.

Heal your relationship with your voice – list monsters and champions.

The Big Questions – Make four extensive lists: What voice qualities do you want? (Best review.); What voice qualities do you not want? (Worst review.); What are you thinking before/during/after singing?; Why do people sing/write?

Know your narrative – What have you told yourself you’re good or bad at? What stereotypes exist for you around singing, performance and writing? What negative/limiting beliefs have you got that you can now shed? What maladaptive behaviours are no longer useful? Become aware of where/how you hold yourself as victim, then de-trigger, own, move through, recover, heal.

We need you! We need YOUR perspective. YOUR viewpoint. YOUR experience. YOUR heart/mind filter. Only YOU can do YOU! The more damaged you feel, the more of an inspiration you’ll be when you come out of the cocoon. Struggle is helpful. I’m a kick-ass singer and educator because I live through my many mistakes – wiser and stronger for them.

Try not to view abuse as a barrier to access, rather a means by which to access ‘the treasure’ of your creativity and self-expression. Dig deep into your feelings. Emotion is the life-blood of vocalisation.

Use your backstory as motivational rather than an excuse for not doing something. Develop an ‘I’ll show them’ attitude rather than a ‘Crawl under a bush and keep yourself invisible’ one.

Yoga, meditation, prayer… all spiritual practices, have compassion at their core. All work involving breath, relaxation or healing is HUGELY beneficial for singing.

We’re all experiencing the same difficulties. It’s like there’s only one of us here, we just have different bodies. When in doubt – be compassionate. Arohanui and blessings… and I really mean that!

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