Looking back, moving forward

The first time I sat down to really think about my interest in voice was in 2014 when I was nominated for an AVA SEA: an Australian Voice Association1 Student Encouragement Award. Admittedly, an AVA SEA ain’t no Nobel Prize, but to an insecure undergraduate student it did offer a healthy dose of encouragement. No trophies were involved (disappointingly), though I did get some AVA-specific perks and a textbook of my choice. But actually, the best thing about it was the accompanying task – one that has been bestowed upon all AVA SEA winners prior and since – to write a short piece for the AVA newsletter on “what voice means to me”. I’m sure what I ended up writing was largely uninteresting to everyone else (and a little self-indulgent, appropriate considering the brief), but the act of sitting down to really nut out why and in what way voice interests me turned out to be a turning point in my life.

Here it is. Some excerpts:

“As a child, I can remember being filled with shock and wonder upon discovering I couldn’t hum whilst blocking my nose – a world-first discovery!… or so I thought at the time. Now, as I grapple with the more complex sciences of voice, I regularly find myself basking in that same sense of awe-inspiring discovery.”

Yep, I can still remember that first spark of fascination as I stood there, pinching my nostrils in the empty garage of my childhood home. It really is a ridiculous thing to remember, but I love that the narrative of my journey with voice has such deep temporal roots. It’s my version of “I’ve been singing since I was a toddler”.

“Knowledge of vocal physiology is the initial focus of a speech pathologist’s vocal training, but this alone is not enough to provide holistic, meaningful services to those experiencing vocal pathology. After all, it is not often that we see a larynx without a person attached.”

In fact, I have seen (and interacted with) a detached larynx in the anatomy lab during my university training. It was confronting, as you can imagine; a learning opportunity I didn’t fully appreciate at the time.

It was actually the process of writing this next paragraph that made me realise my interest in voice extends far beyond voice mechanics and the relatively obvious ways that vocal pathology can impact people’s lives.

“When I consider my interest in the broader impact of voice, I am reminded of a young boy I met last year who, though otherwise confident (and only 10 years old!), couldn’t bear to hear a recording of his own voice. What a shame it is that we live in a culture in which most people, except for the few labeled as gifted (or brave – think karaoke), are ashamed, embarrassed, or at best unfamiliar with the sound of their own voice. What if the same boy couldn’t bear to look in the mirror for fear of seeing (what he deemed to be) an ugly, unworthy reflection?  If Australia is concerned about negative body image, perhaps a poor voice-image is worthy of equal attention.”

Voice self-image and a person’s relationship with the sound of their own voice is just fascinating to me; academically, for sure, and also deeply personally. As a child, the complaint that my voice was soooo annoying hurt me like no other schoolyard taunt could. Maybe because it was a criticism of a part of me that I felt I couldn’t change and, much more dauntingly, couldn’t even really perceive. There are some rock solid (bone-hard) anatomical and physiological reasons why a voice sounds different inside a speaker’s own head. But the way that a voice sounds inside a speaker’s own mind is something altogether much more complex, owing to all kinds of psychological factors and processes. Research has shown the beliefs people hold about their own voices form early in life, and are heavily shaped by positive and negative experiences and the feedback from others (either direct – your voice is soooo annoying/beautiful; or less direct, like being asked to only mouth words in the school choir). Though I’ve been actively mulling this over for a number of years now, I’m still walking around with a substantial amount of fear and shame about the sound of my own voice, despite very deliberate efforts to (as T Swift would say) shake it off.

As I look back at my journey with voice and move forward into my PhD, I’m feeling reenergised. What lies ahead of me? Growth, I hope, in knowledge, in skill, in confidence, ambition, imagination. None of which will happen without a few bruises and cuts along the way, I’m sure.

1 The Australian Voice Association (AVA) describes itself as “an umbrella organisation for all involved in the care of the human voice”. I have been a member for many years, initially as an undergraduate speech pathology student, and more recently as a postgraduate research student. They’ve put on some good workshops over the years, though in some ways still seem to be finding their feet. I think their choice in wording – “all involved in the care of human voice” – does reflect the membership generally, which appears to consist mostly of speech pathologists, (oto)laryngologists, and singing and acting voice specialists.

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