All Bodies Are Welcome Here

The singing world, and world at large, but we’re talking voices here so we’ll stick to this niche, has a long history of discriminating against bodies that fall outside of the acceptable norm – thin (and also white and cis-gender, but I want to focus on weight here).

This comes in many forms – being passed over for parts, being told by audition committees, teachers and directors to lose weight, being othered, and excluded in just about any situation due to the size of their body.

The reality is, in any circumstance where there can be a power-over dynamic, such as a teacher-student or director-singer, we have the potential to create trauma.

When we consistently and repeatedly expose singers to these false beliefs about weight and the voice, we perpetuate a harmful, traumatizing environment that removes the basic dignities we each deserve.

I find the work of Staci K. Haines to be illuminating in thinking about how we can revolutionize the voice world’s approach to bodies. Haines’ work and her book The Politics of Trauma incorporate a concept where we acknowledge that healing and change at an individual level is the default.

However, when we hold that perspective we not only overlook collective trauma but we also miss the impacts of the larger forces of families, communities, institutions and social norms in creating the beliefs, but also their role in creating change.

You see we can’t resolve issues like this at the individual level. Except that’s the typical approach. Not only do we burden the singer with changing to meet the norm we expect them to heal alone as well. That’s like Sisyphus trying to roll the bolder up the hill for all of eternity. It sets singers up for failure.

This graphic is based on a public health framework, developed by Alan Grier and generationFIVE. Haines elaborates on it in her work where I learned of it.

When we look at this image and see how the concentric circles are structured it is a wonderful illustration of how the larger circles impact the smaller ones.

This means for the voice world to change our ingrained discriminations about weight we need to be working on them at the societal level. We need companies that hire diverse bodies to play roles. Schools and Universities need to have polices to address this issues as well as procedures and protections for singers who encounter the discrimination and report it. We need larger institutions like NATS to think twice before publishing opinion pieces presented as fact, focused on singers losing weight to be more marketable. We need individual teachers to commit to not commenting on a singer’s body as it relates to their size.

It means WE need to change. The singer does not.

I am in the business of working with singers to help their bodies function better. But I know the size of your body does not dictate how well it functions. I know you do not need to lose weight to live with less pain. I know strength and fat are not exclusive. I also know every singer walking through my door with a larger body has a lifetime of messaging telling them they are not enough, not worthy and are less-than due to the size of their body.

What I want every singer I work with to know is this: All bodies are welcome here.

It is a message I want the rest of the voice world to embrace as well.

How are you feeling?

Maybe, just maybe,

we don’t need to be told what to do with our voices

so much as we need permission to feel.

 

For me that sentence is loaded with so much goodness that can be explored, from emotional to physical, to developing the ability to feel the voice produced by our bodies and relying on it more than hearing when we perform.

First, the emotion side of feeling. As in, your feelings.

As artists it is imperative that we have access to the full spectrum of emotions and the ability to bring those emotions to our work so our audience connects and is moved.

But, what happens when you grow up in a culture and/or family that is anything but encouraging of having feelings? Well, we find ways to NOT feel. We eat, we watch tv, we engage in destructive behaviors, we avoid etc. You may have your own unique behavior of avoidance. Sometimes that avoidance happens on a subconscious level – you may not even connect that rather than feel your frustration you shove a handful of chocolate chips in your mouth (not that I’ve ever done that. Like, ever. Really.)

Feelings can be hard. It isn’t easy being human.

That avoidance though, doesn’t translate well on stage.

To illustrate I’ll tell you a story about me.

In between my first and second years of graduate school for vocal pedagogy, my father committed suicide. My reaction wasn’t just to his decision, which is a rug yanked out from underneath you moment, but also to the sum total of our relationship, which I would characterize as primarily difficult. He was a hard person to know because his depression kept him from being truly emotionally available and present both physically and emotionally.

The way my being dealt with that experience was to feel numb. It was a survival mechanism that allowed me to keep going and get through my second year of course work.

However, when it came time for the dress rehearsal before my final recital, I’d done all the work of learning the music, but one of my committee members offered feedback that I wasn’t really conveying emotion.

When I tried to access emotion in my lessons and coachings, no matter the timbre of the piece, all that came out was tears. I’d done such a good job at putting the grief I was experiencing away, that when I tried to access any emotion it was the only one that was available. Crying for an hour on stage wasn’t an option, so I went back to my largely expressionless singing.

When I listen back to the recording of that concert I can hear the ‘flatness’ in my voice. It took me time and space to be able to open the door on grief and allow it to begin to move through me so I could express emotion on stage. If I’m being honest, expressing emotion has never been a strong suit for me – I think I did it very well as a child, but that wasn’t always met with a positive response and I learned to tamp it down, as so many do. One of the great places of work for me as an adult has been a return to both allowing feelings and expressing them (hopefully more skillfully than I did as a child!).

No one, in that time or any other, ever really talked to me about the concept of embodiment when it came to singing. In the work I do now I work to find ways to encourage singers to feel emotion through the vehicles of the body and the voice and then communicate it. Sometimes the simplest of practices, like feeling the breath coming into your nose is a powerful place to start.

I’ll share another post about physical feelings like the what we often call the ‘stretch sensation’, but I’m curious to know, how do you address making space for emotions in your lessons so your singers can be embodied on stage?

Will you love your body in 2017?

How much love do you ever offer your own body? I am all too familiar with the cycle of feeling frustrated and bummed and downright angry when it feels like your body is rebelling against you, not functioning as it should and, well, letting you down.

With only a few days left in 2016 it is inevitable to watch thoughts turns to resolutions that focus on changes can we make in 2017 to better our body. So often those changes are focused on ways our body seems currently deficient and hearkening back to the bod of yester-year when we were 20 and had no kids, and even if we didn’t eat well it didn’t show up around our mid-section.

What if we begin the year by honoring our body, rather than hating it for the small ways it isn’t perfect?

What if we focus on the things our bodies have done and all the ways it supports us every day and the things we can do to support it back?

This is what I love about the yoga I practice and teach. It is about coming to the mat and meeting your body where she is right now. Greeting her, celebrating her and working with, rather than fighting against, her.

Yes, the changes will happen when you show up on the mat, but to get there on a path of love is so much more powerful and effective than fighting down a path of deprecation.

Sounds way better than resolving to lose 30 pounds to fit into the bikini you bought 10 years and 2 kids ago, right?

I hope you will join me on your mat in 2017 and walk a path toward loving your body by waking up and embracing the parts that have been dormant for however many years, defining a new relationship, building strength, stability and mobility.