The human voice reflects both physical and psychic states and has the ability to convey both cognitive meaning and affective expression simultaneously. It is our primary mode of communication for both ideas and feelings and can move us with words and beyond words. It is the only instrument wherein player and played upon are contained within the same organic form and therefore can achieve its fullest expression when firmly grounded in the body. It has two main channels of communication: the words we say – the symbols we use to convey our cognitive message – and the way we say them – the tones and qualities of voice which express the emotional message underlying what we speak or sing.
Voice Movement Therapy (VMT) was conceived by Englishman Paul Newham, based on the pioneering methods of vocal facilitator Alfred Wolfsohn and influenced by the theatre work of actor and director Roy Hart; the acoustical analysis of otolaryngologist Dr Paul Moses; the characterological bodywork of Wilhelm Reich; and the psychological principles of C.G. Jung. It is the first in-depth Expressive Therapy which employs the human voice as its main modality and is readily communicable to people of different cultures and backgrounds. It is both creative and therapeutic in that it requires an exploration of oneself and one’s issues through the contours of the voice and through the creative enactment of one’s personal story in movement and song.
It requires of practitioners:
- the development and maintenance of a malleable and flexible voice and body through the application of the core principles of Voice Movement Therapy;
- the ability to improvise and create original work;
- the knowledge and skill to use massage techniques specifically designed to aid in the free expression of vocal sound;
- the knowledge and understanding to combine artistic and body-orientated skills with therapeutic principles; and,
- the ability to work with the singing and speaking voice from both a physical and a psychological point of view.
The Founding Father is Alfred Wolfsohn.
Wolfsohn, a German Jew serving in the trenches of World War I, had the experience of hearing severely and mortally wounded soldiers calling, crying and screaming out their fear and anguish in an astounding array of pitches and tones. In the thick and deadly muck which was the reality of trench warfare, a tunnel collapsed and Wolfsohn had to choose whether to try to crawl back to rescue a dying comrade – and risk almost certain death himself – or continue his crawl toward the living.
He chose life, but when sent home from the front, he found he could not rid himself of constant auditory hallucinations; he still heard his comrades screaming. Discovering that neither doctors nor therapists nor teachers of singing could relieve him of these voices that were driving him mad, he – like many other pioneers of new forms of alternative therapies – sought to cure himself. He believed that if he could reproduce, could literally embody these voices, he could exorcise or at least find a way to live with them. While engaged in this endeavor, he made some significant discoveries:
First, he learned that the work he had created for himself – a combination of vocal, physical and spiritual exploration – was useful to others, as well. After the war ended, he moved from Germany to London where for many years he ran a voice studio. Secondly, from his war experiences and his work on himself and others, he determined that any given human voice was not limited in range or quality to the prevailing vocal categories of soprano, alto, tenor or base, nor to specific gender roles, nor to the qualities of tone perceived by the culture of the day as aesthetically beautiful – but that it was capable of much more extended and varied expression. As a result, he developed his concept of the vox humana, a universal human voice of astonishing range and multiple timbres with which to express experiences and emotions in sounds both “beautiful” and “unbeautiful,” but congruent with the subject matter.
Wolfsohn lived and developed his kind of voicework at the same time that Carl Jung was achieving pre-eminence. Wolfsohn’s method of vocal development as a path to personal and spiritual growth had much in common with Jung’s process of individuation, and for a long time he sought to interest him in considering the importance of acoustic as well as visual images. Jung was not interested, but Dr. Paul Moses, a well-known otolaryngologist intent on diagnosing vocal conditions by ear and introducing principles of psychotherapy into vocal analysis, took up Wolfsohn’s cause and secured public hearings for him and his students which were favorably reported in the press. In addition to demonstrating the greatly extended range and kinds of sounds they were able to produce – much of it dysphonic or disrupted – he was able to prove that this kind of extreme singing need NOT cause vocal damage.
After Wolfsohn’s death, his student, actor Roy Hart, became the leader of the group and took the work into theater, establishing first a company and later a school to explore and expand many of Wolfsohn’s ideas and techniques. Whereas Wolfsohn. prioritized a kind of therapeutic voicework which employed some theater techniques and was primarily intended to facilitate personal growth, Hart used voicework to expand the range and qualities of sound available to actors, in order that they might touch more deeply their own emotional truths and convey them to their audience. He established his own form of the work which continues to this day as theater-based personal exploration, but without a containing therapeutic framework.
Newham: Origins of his interest in Voicework
In the year Wolfsohn died, Englishman Paul Newham was born. As one of the first artificially inseminated babies to survive and discovering in his late teens that the man he thought was his father was not, Newham “adopted” Wolfsohn as his spiritual parent and made it his mission to develop this type of voicework further. Like Wolfsohn, Newham also had a fraught and stormy relationship with the sounding voice. As a child, he was often exposed to fighting between his parents. Escaping upstairs, he would listen to what he later called “the savage opera” through a water glass held to the wooden floor to try to hear what was happening below. He had to guess this by the sounds, since the words were not audible.
Sensitized, like Wolfsohn, to vocal extremes and incongruities, Newham became acutely aware of the discrepancy – the disconnection – between what was often happening in real life and how it was more politely expressed in speech and song. Like theatrical and vocal innovators Peter Brook, Armand Artaud, Jerzi Growtowski, and Wolfsohn and Hart before him, Newham noted the way that English and European theatre prioritized precise diction and formal declamation over more emotionally based components of language.
He was also dissatisfied with the way that classical music – and opera especially – took socially reprehensible subjects – such as greed, lust and murder – and rendered them in exquisite tones and forms according to a carefully established set of rules, many of which had been developed because of the Christian church’s insistence on banishing what it considered to be disharmonious and discordant sounds in music.
In beginning to trace the expressive and healing use of the voice in the West, Newham discovered it had traveled a long way from its cathartic purpose in ancient Greek tragedy and become increasingly more limited, for example, than the extended range and multi-timbered virtuosity of 17th. century bel canto style. In the Western world’s endeavors to banish so-called “ugly” vocal sounds, it seemed that the act of giving voice had been restricted and diminished. The right of an individual, not only to express feelings spontaneously, but to tell his own story and sing his own song – including those matters which were considered “unspeakable” – had been lost. Becoming ever more interested in the right to give voice in one’s own way, Newham sought further understanding by investigating the role of voice in psychotherapy. Inevitably, he began with Freud and Jung:
Please continue reading at the blog post: “What is Voice Movement Therapy? Part 2”
by Anne M. Brownell
Registered Voice Movement Therapy Practitioner
© 2000 and 2009 Anne Brownell, MA, all rights reserved