‘I sing better when I feel safe.’
These words were said to me by a singer some time last year. She told me she had a theory it was ‘to do with the Vagus nerve.’
‘If you feel safe,’ she said, ‘The vagus nerve calms down. It affects vocal tone.’
I didn’t look much further into it at the time.
Throughout my singing career and teaching, this connection between mental state and vocal ability has hovered in my eye-line like an aura. My understanding was that she was probably talking about the physical states that manifest due to performance anxiety, like muscles over-firing and holding your breath.
What was just one little nerve in a thousand nerves? I didn’t have the time to explore it then.
Then one morning I found a podcast: a guy called Dave Asprey talking to a neurologist called Stephen Porges about a thing called Polyvagal Theory.
Occasionally, you read a passage or learn something that seems to articulate what you’ve always felt but didn’t know you felt. When this happens, I’m always struck but the relief it brings: a sense that you’re not alone, that you’re ok to think the things you do, behave the way you do. That affirmation can be like a door opening, giving rise to a rush of new thoughts that has now been given permission to multiply now they’ve had nod that you’re not the only one who thinks these things. Especially when the person talking has so many letters after their name and so many years of research behind them.
Headphones on, on the way to Paddington station, I almost missing my train.
I spent the next hour, from London to Wiltshire lost in another world: the world of a nerve that directly connected singing to our state of well being, our emotions, our heart, our breath and our gut; a neurological, scientifically proven connection between feeling and singing from a distinguished university professor.
There are over 100 billion nerves in your body. One of the largest and most important is one called the Vagus Nerve. It runs down the spine from the most ancient part of our brain stem controlling all involuntary commands: from heartbeat to blood pressure to taste, circulation, digestion, gut, fertility and orgasm.
As we evolved from reptiles to mammals, it grew new branches and began to wonder (Vagus means, ‘to wander’) to new areas including hearing nuances within voices, swallowing, recognising facial expressions and controlling the voice (it connects by two branches to the larynx and by one to the vocal cords)
Most fascinatingly, the Vagus nerve responds to our nervous system or ‘feeling of safety,’ adjusting it’s commands accordingly.
When you feel under threat, your sympathetic nervous system ignites (fight, flight or freeze), readying your ancient primal instincts to fight that tiger or run from that cave bear! Adrenaline starts to flood as your heart speeds up, your vision narrows and your digestion stops (no time for a sandwich when the bear is coming)
When you feel safe, your parasympathetic nervous system slows your heart rate, deepens your breathing, allows digestion to happen, nutrients to be absorbed, cells to repair and the immune system to flourish. Happy chemicals are released and you feel clarity, energy and joy.
At the end of the podcast, Porges was asked how best to improve Vagal tone (and all the parasympathetic, positive feelings of safety that come with that). Porges recommended - wait for it - singing (or playing wind instruments!) due to the profound effects long out breaths, vibrations could have on the body. Singing could make you feel physically and mentally better. Singing was good for your health. All this would be enhanced, he said, in a choir environment as group singing further enhances the bodies feeling of safety.
Now, although it's nice to hear that what we love best is also good for us (for once!), I was equally as interested as singing's effect on our health, as our state of mind's effect on our singing voice.
Ie. Is it really true that we can to feel safe to sing at our best?
I've already been exploring the physical effects of stress and fear on a voice (the detrimental consequences of retraction of breath or jaw and tongue tension's effect on the free movement of your larynx and vocal cords) but, if much of the vocal system is involuntary (connected to the nervous system) then maybe physical commands weren't enough?
Maybe we have to go deeper?.
I wanted to take this new knowledge and see if there was a way of using is as a tool in our vocal practise, treating the nervous system with just as much importance as the breath, larynx, vocal tract or cords - maybe more, as it effects them all!
Cont. after the pic....
I started to read everything I could find, leading me to a paper by Joanna Cazden on the connection between Porges’ research and the voice, primarily for her for an actor’s state, titling her work, 'Stalking the calm buzz.'
And, what was more exciting (if I could take anymore!) was that both nervous systems could exist at once: they could both be high or both be low, or one could be very high and the other very low.
This meant that we can acknowledge the benefits of both states and apply them to our singing practise.
We can use the heightened adrenaline that surges with our sympathetic ‘unsafe’ nervous system to engage the primal response to call out, or cry, for belt and the inner calm of the parasympathetic ‘safe feeling’ nervous system, to access deeper breathing, happy chemicals to aid freedom of muscles.
The body knows best.
We are born with the urge to communicate with our voice and the primal knowledge of how.
The urge to make an emotion engages optimum vocal production in a way that the conscious mind perhaps could never achieve?
The open vowel of a laugh bounced from the diaphragm, send sound rocking through us, our cords coming together so hard that our stomach strains against the closure in aching pleasure.
Or grief, the outpouring of feelings that we can’t contain, poured forth from our guts through cords that ache. We find vowels that utilise our bodies capacity to transfer feeling into sound, leaning into oooh, or aaah, naturally choosing effective vocal practice.
if we can access this primal knowledge then we can access the best of our vocal system across the range of vocal styles: the urge to sooth a child can bring on a soft light middle range voice, a whine can create optimum vocal cord adduction (closure), a sigh can lengthen the cords and allow the breath to flow freely, a moan of pleasure, or an aching ow of pain can engage deeper closure and lower harmonics, a yelp of surprise can give vocal energy and access to higher notes that we thought possible, the yell or cry can remove the register breaks from a voice and allow it to soar upwards with ease and power.
The deeper I explored, the more I started to believe that the way into any song, was finding an emotive sound to suit every phrase, to connect the vocal system and to bring out the music and story.
On a side note, it also connected to a darker time in my life, when I was struggling with nodules and acid reflux (an under or over production of stomach acid which can rise up the oesophagus effecting the vocal cords and the singing voice). Without going into it now, it now explains why no amount of medical treatment could stop the reflux when I was so worried about it effecting my singing voice and career. In that state of panic (how am I going to sing in front of 1000 people tonight) I imagine that your sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight or freeze) is sky high so consequently digestion just about shuts down.
This is just the beginning of he exploration but it affirms the belief that our voice is connected to everything and that practise must be approach from all angles: physically, holistically and neurologically or mentally.
For now, I urge you to watch this video below with Stephen Porges and Dave Asprey.
Rachel Lynes -vocal coach
These articles aim to simplify and clarify. My aim is to give you clear exercises that make a big difference.