Talking about the voice

This was an interview I gave for the Journal of the Oxford Psychotherapy Society, a few months after I was keynote speaker and trainer at their AGM (2009), and a few months before another training I was to deliver for them in Feb 2010.

Voicing organically

Int: Could we start by thinking back to your event at the AGM? I’ve heard it was a very interesting evening. For the benefit of those of us who weren’t able to be there, could you say something about what you did on that evening, and how you work more generally?

AM: Over the last few years I’ve found myself planning less and less what is going to happen in an event. There are lots of ideas to draw upon, and exercises and principles and theories, but in the end what I tend to do is just provide an interesting starting point or theme and then work with how people respond.  So it’s very ‘in the moment’, and in that sense I suppose it’s how therapists need to be in a session. As helping professionals we don’t arrive with an agenda and say, ‘this is it how it is going to be, this is what you’re going to talk about, or this is how you should respond’.  I try to feel my way into what’s happening in the space at the moment.

Int: How did you do this at the AGM event?

AM: Hmm. There was a coffee session just after the AGM, and we were all chatting, and what I then did to call people to awareness and sit in the circle was a kind of ‘call’, a singing kind of call that caught people’s attention.

Int: It was more or less spontaneous?

AM: Absolutely, I just decided at the time, which very much fits with how the work tends to unfold anyway. The first thing is to find out what is organically arising within us. It’s about listening for that inner voice, the authentic response in that moment.  Then there comes that point where we decide, “Well I’m going to let that happen”, and we unfold it from within ourselves into the outside world, in voice or action. Part of the work is to become sensitised to what is there within us, then to notice what we do with that. What do we allow through and what do we divert or suppress, and what are the reasons for those choices? As we become sensitised, we can consider new choices, and even experiment with them. It’s not as simple or crass as saying, “Okay, let it out, come what may.” We need to be discerning, but that’s different from habitually self-suppressing and trying to make it okay for everyone else. I had one of those moments at the start of the session at the AGM. I thought, “Okay, I feel just like going phhh, and just launching into sound”, and that’s what I did. There’s something very primal, primitive, when people hear a voice calling, it tugs on us in some way.

Int: And do you think it called up an equally spontaneous response in others?

AM: I don’t know. We didn’t go into a discussion around that, and I wouldn’t presume to know what each person thought or felt. I thought, “I’m just going to do it”.  I think part of the experience of this kind of workshop is not just about what we end up talking about at the time.  There’s something that happens afterwards, an unfolding. I believe in giving people the space and time to draw their own conclusions about the work, without pressing my own viewpoint.

The vocal rules we live by

AM: So the idea in the workshop was to give people experience of, first of all, their own voice, and then each other’s voices. It’s interesting – in workshops I used to encourage people to share a lot about what they were thinking and feeling. Now I think there is something very beautiful about also allowing people to be in their own private process around this.  So there’s a mixture. I think that’s important in any kind of seminar or workshop or group experience, but I think it’s particularly important for something like voice, because people can feel that voice is a very exposing thing. It’s good to remind people that they can voice if they want to, but there’s no sense of pressure to do so.

Int: People can choose to be silent if they want to?

AM: Yes –  I think that’s very important because that’s part of how we exercise our authority-from-within, making choices around our own voice.  We may need to get out of our silent self, all those silences and taboos that may have happened in childhood or whatever. But people sometimes feel pressured, they feel they have to say a certain thing or they have to communicate in a certain way. Or there’s a sort of cultural rule that everybody has to talk and bare their feelings or whatever, and I think it’s quite important that people can give themselves permission to say, “Well actually right now the higher quality choice is not to speak, is not to use my voice.”

Int: As long as it is a genuine choice and not because they feeI silenced, by inner prohibitions or what they perceive to be outer ones.

AM: Exactly. It’s interesting, during the AGM I was sitting there listening to what people were talking about during the meeting and I was waiting:  I was waiting for the question that I would actually ask in order to start the workshop.  I did not know what it would be. The question that came up was, “Whose voice do you have?” I wonder whether we sometimes just assume our voice is an expression of our ‘self’. But our self is colonized by other people, by our parents, by significant adults, by powerful figures, and that becomes part of our way of navigating how we experience ourselves in relationship to the world.  We do not realize how much our voice might really be the voice of somebody else.

Int: Sounds like you are talking about more than just the physical voice.

AM: Yes. It’s really interesting … when I first started in this whole world of voice I was a singer. My training was all about making a beautiful sound, singing in tune, creating the perfect ‘line’. So it seemed to be about the instrument, this physical thing we make noise with.  As life has gone on and my work has gone on, the distinction between the physical voice and the metaphorical voice, in other words who we are as a person, has blurred more and more. When people talk about their vocal goals, I think these turn out to be quite important goals for themselves in terms of their emotional and psychological journey as well.  So when people say, ‘I wish I could actually have greater expressive range, I wish I could have more power’, these are interesting words to use aren’t they?

Int: Yes – they could be understood at more than one level.

AM: ‘I wish I could be freer’.  ‘I wish I could have more control’.  All these kinds of words that people use about their voices are just as much about their personal lives.
And the rules we make – consciously and unconsciously – for ourselves about our own or other people’s voices turn out to be rules that we make about relationships.  Going back to the question, “Whose voice do you have?”, if I think I ‘can’t’ speak, in a sense I am saying the power over my voice lies somewhere else, or with someone else. Whether I hand that power unconsciously to a parent, or the culture, or the group, I’m actually saying, “I can’t do this because there is a force out there that holds my voice to ransom.”

Int: Now, which voice are we talking about? Are we talking about a physical thing – about whether I can make a sound physically – or are we talking about me as a person and me expressing me?  It’s not clear, and I think its fine that it’s not clear because I think that’s when we discover the potency of what the voice really is. So what would you say to someone who can’t speak out?

AM: Well in some sense it feels as though the authority over their vocal life sometimes lies somewhere other than within themselves. What counts as an ‘okay’ thing to communicate in this moment? Who gets to decide that?  Do they feel that they can make that decision for themselves or is someone else (often an imagined, internalised voice of someone else inside their head) the arbiter? When we delve more deeply into voice, we can touch our fragility and vulnerability – it’s robust work that needs to be handled respectfully and thoughtfully. Our concern may be not to do harm nor be harmed. But harm can arise from us bottling up what needs to be expressed. And that may not be just our need – it is important for collective health that we do not to collude with a collective, oppressive silencing.

Int: What about the effects of specific groups and situations? For example I personally find large groups difficult and am sure I’m not alone in feeling daunted by the prospect of speaking up at OPS meetings.

AM: And I think that’s where it’s interesting … you’ve probably come cross the idea that how we behave in a group starts to replicate how we might have been within our own family structure. The patterning we adopted within our family can re-emerge in our behaviour within an organisation, or with peer colleagues, or in a voice workshop, even if we just spend half an hour mucking around with our voices and making noises.  The same stuff’s going to bubble up everywhere because we’re the same person in each place, and an environment like this kind of seminar gives an opportunity to home in on that and just ask some questions privately of ourselves. It also gives us the opportunity to experiment and do something different.

Int: Yes, if we can find the courage to do that…

AM: Well okay, you asked about the exercise that we did, at the beginning.  I invited people all to make sounds at the same time (called a ‘tone dome’). Their eyes would be closed so nobody would see who was doing what and we would simply make a sound Ahhhh (or no sound …), into the middle of the circle.  It didn’t have to be the same sound as anybody else, it could be higher, lower, whatever.  We did several tone domes, followed each time with a conversation about what people found themselves doing.  What did they find it easy or hard, and what theories did they have about their response? People were encouraged, for example, after the first tone dome to open their mouths wider and have another go and see what changed, and we talked about that as simply a question of giving ourselves permission, that whatever could come out was allowed to come out.  Now that in itself can be quite potent.  What do we allow to come out?  What would we allow anybody else to hear or see?

Int: It’s not just allowing it to come out, but doing so in the presence of others and a particular group as well.

AM: Yes, and what do we project on others by thinking, “It wouldn’t be okay for it to come out here because…” and all those fantasies that we have about others and what might come back at us. But what also happens is that, for example, people might find that they hear certain sounds and they say, “Wow that’s an amazing sound, that’s gorgeous, I wish I was like that”.  Then we get more projection going in terms of what counts as an ‘okay’ voice, what counts as having some kind of legitimacy. We have our own rules inside our head about why that voice counts as a legitimate voice but ours doesn’t quite as much, for example. It also works the other way: we might actually be quite irritated or unsettled by certain sounds that we hear in the group. Some people might find that it’s much easier to go first, to take the lead with a strong sound or whatever, while others may feel they are much more comfortable with waiting and hearing what other people do, and then just experimenting and seeing. Do we want our own note, do we feel more confident copying somebody else’s who seems quite strong, or do we find that we start a sound but then somebody comes in and we start to feel inexorably dragged into making the same sound as them?  So all those things go on.  Now at one level it’s just the voice, it’s just making noises, but there are all these other layers and layers of relating.  We start to discover that actually this has something to do with how we tend to behave around people and where we feel we fit or don’t fit. The experience of vocalising becomes an opportunity to explore voice as metaphor, a way of exploring ourselves, and ourselves in relation to others – and each of us can decide how we want to use this experience.

Int: Someone told me that she found it fascinating that in the exercise you did at the AGM, all the different sounds people made harmonised, even though each person was making their own individual sound.

AM: But not everybody would have actually experienced it that way. What I think is interesting is that some people within that circle would have been quite unnerved by that. Some people would have actually thought that there’s something false about it.  Some people would have felt, it’s almost as though collectively people colluded, as if to say there’s some way to do this and that would be to harmonise to make it sound ‘nice’.

Int: Do you sometimes have groups that don’t harmonise?

AM: Exactly….. there have also been groups where somebody has made a sound which cut right across that apparent harmony.  Some people in the group have been very troubled by that, others have then said, “Thank God you did that.  You know that felt much more real.  It felt it took us into a more engaged direct relationship with each other”. And anyway, often what counts in people’s minds as ‘harmony’ is culturally or biographically conditioned.

So it’s really interesting.  There’s no rule about how the tone dome should be and how it should turn out.  It simply provides the container for us to explore ourselves and our way of relating:  how do we relate to our own voice and how does that relate to everybody else’s voice? There is always that tension between the need to experience ourselves as an individual and the need to belong.
Vocal transference (forthcoming February workshop)

Int: I’m wondering what you have in mind for your workshop in February.  Are you going to follow the same approach?

AM: Well of course I’d like to see what happens when we all get together, and where the sounds will take us. I think it might be good to revisit the tone domes, as each time is unique and offers new insights, but I’d like to move onto new themes. The AGM workshop asked, “What’s my relationship to my own voice, and where does it fit with others? Am I speaking with my own voice or in fact am I still borrowing all this stuff from my parents, unconscious programming?” For the February workshop, I have two new questions: ‘Who do I hear in your voice?’ and ‘Who do you hear in mine?’.

This takes us into two areas.  The first is the personal, and how we project onto others: what do I hear in your voice, and in your whole communicative style? What does that evoke for me consciously or unconsciously? On the basis of hearing your vocal energy patterns (quite apart from your words), what assumptions do I make about your background, personality and mood, or about what you make of our relationship, or the current encounter with me? Similarly, what are you projecting onto me on the basis of just my voice?

The second area is professional. If you are my client, what are you projecting onto my voice? What is the transference? Our vocal energy patterns, as well as our language, can significantly affect the therapeutic encounter. I don’t know what you’re projecting onto my voice, and you might not know either. It gives a whole new spin to the term ‘voice projection’! How do we bring these things to the surface so that we can help the client? I think that’s a very interesting question that I would like to bring to people in the February workshop. The other side of this is vocal counter-transference.  In other words while I’m sitting here as the practitioner and you’re sitting over there as the client, what am I unconsciously projecting onto you through hearing your voice? For ten, twelve years now I’ve been exploring this question with various groups of psychotherapists. There are some exciting ways we can become aware of our vocal counter-transference and also use it in the service of the client.

Int: Well, I think that sounds like a fascinating subject for a workshop, and a very useful one for therapists to spend time thinking about. We must stop here but I hope our conversation has given people a taste of what is going to be on offer in February, and that they will be encouraged to come along. I for one am looking forward to it.

Workshop information:

Who do I hear in your voice, and who do you hear in mine?

What assumptions – conscious and unconscious – do we make about each other based on the sound of each other’s voices? For social fluency, it seems reasonable and necessary to do this – for example, discerning someone’s mood, meaning or personality based on vocal inflection and energy. Yet as practitioners, can we afford to let such assumptions go unexamined? What impact do vocal transference and counter-transference have on our therapeutic encounters? How do we identify ‘vocal projection’ so that we can help the client?
In this session, there will be opportunities to vocalize as a group, to engage in discussion, and to develop new professional tools. To voice or not voice during this session is welcomed equally. The choice that honours our voice more, moment by moment, varies from one individual to another. And the choice itself offers opportunity for further reflection, privately, or in the group, according to our individual preference.

Alexander Massey BA MA PGCE MSc has spent 25 years pioneering work that straddles the fields of voice, communication, personal growth, therapeutic intervention, transpersonal exploration, the corporate world, theatre and music industry. He trained therapists in his cross-disciplinary techniques at Guildford College for 8 years, and runs a voicework practice in Oxford. His paper on vocal counter-transference was a winning entry in the British Voice Association’s prestigious Van Lawrence Award. He was consultant for a Radio 3 documentary on how we shape our voices and vocal behaviour in response to our family and life experiences, and has been keynote speaker for the International Association of Voice Movement Therapists and facilitated sessions for The Guild of Pastoral Psychology, Raphael Jewish Counselling Service in London, and Oxford Psychotherapy Society. As a singer, Alexander has performed internationally in opera, recital, oratorio, jazz, world music, folk, and musical improvisation. Find out more at