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  • Jason Steadman, Psy.D.

Vocal training and mental health – How learning to sing better helps us also learn to live better


A woman performing a vocal performance into a microphone


Introduction:


We all deal with stress, anxiety, and fluctuations in mood in our daily lives. As a psychologist, I have always been particularly interested in exploring the things we do in our everyday lives and how those can be used to enhance mental health. In fact, when I worked as a researcher, this is exactly how I would explain my research interest to others.


Many of you may know about me that I am also a musician. In particular, I primarily identify as a vocalist. As a vocalist, I have had formal vocal training in my past, and I continue to use my vocal training regularly to help keep my voice healthy while pushing it to extremes as a rock vocalist. I’ve recently been experimenting with pitched rock/metal screaming, because why not[1]? It’s been a challenge, but I’ve learned a lot about my voice in the process, more, in fact, than I ever learned in my previous vocal training. It’s been through pushing my voice to extremes that I’ve been able to understand it better, and by doing so responsibly, my voice has stayed healthy (while also expanding my range).


In this post, I wanted to explore ways that I have found vocal training interacts or can interact with positive mental health.


1. Healthy lifestyles require discipline


The first benefit derives exactly from what I mentioned above. Discipline in maintaining my vocal health is a direct analog for how discipline must be used to maintain mental health. As a vocalist, my vocal health is an absolute necessity. Keeping up my vocal health is a practice – it’s not something that just happens. For singers, this means that we need to exercise all parts of our voices that we use in singing, while also recognizing when we’ve pushed to our limits and taking a step back so we don’t cause long-term damage.


Notably, in most genres, singing is quite different from talking (some types of country singers are a notable exception, where some singers use more of a melodic talking voice, than a true singing voice). So, vocal maintenance for singing requires us to use parts of our voice that we do not use when talking. This is why professional and other dedicated vocalists will actually sing on a daily basis. But we do more than just singing along to our favorite songs. We warm-up. We sing scales. We make rather weird, obnoxious sounds like sirens, lip trills, and humming through straws. We project super loud (I’ve personally set off “Loud environment” warnings on my smart watch, reading up to 95dB), and we practice singing super quiet too, and everything in between. We take a line from a song and sing it over and over again, practicing the pitch and rhythm, yes, but also the expression, breathing, diction, etc. to make sure that the lines we sing connect with our audience in the intended way.


We do all of this practice so that when it comes time to perform, we can do so as comfortably as we can that day. We’ve memorized the techniques so that our bodies can produce the response we need without us having to think about it too much. Now, the voice is an organic instrument that can be affected by the environment in both predictable and unpredictable ways. A singer who drank too much, smoked cigars, or even just slept poorly the night before may not be able to achieve the full range of his or her vocal talents. I live in Chattanooga, TN – a literal pollen bowl – a valley in between mountain ranges where allergens collect in insane amounts. Since moving here, I’ve been perpetually plagued with phlegm in my voice, that some days responds better to treatment than others. So, my voice isn’t always going to perform its best, because of allergens. Still, through discipline, I’ve come to understand what my voice can and cannot do even on “bad days,” and I perform accordingly (i.e., I may not REALLY GO FOR IT on a bad day).


So, knowing the limits of your voice is also important as a singer. Singing shouldn’t hurt your voice. There may be some discomfort and fatigue – you will feel like you’ve worked out, but it shouldn’t really hurt or cause you to cough. So, if you feel pain or even excessive fatigue, it’s important to stop. Think of it like working out any other muscle. If you push your biceps too far in a crazy bicep curl, you can tear your bicep. That’s never happened to me, but I bet it hurts like hell, and the recovery period is quite long. The voice is a muscle too – a collection of muscles, really – and if you push it too hard, you can do long-term damage. If, like me, you are a rock singer and you like to push your voice to extremes in grit, volume, etc., it’s important to learn to notice when it’s time to take a break for a couple days to let your voice recover.


Importantly, though, vocal recovery rarely means long-term, complete vocal rest. It just means wiser, more measured, therapeutic use of your voice to help maintain fitness without causing further harm.


These exact same principles apply to mental health. In fact, I say to my clients all the time that in order to use relaxation and stress management techniques when we need them (i.e., when we’re experiencing something stressful), we have to practice them when we don’t need them. So, just like a singer keeping up their voice so they can nail a performance, people need to keep up a commitment to stress management so that they can “nail it” when stress grows excessive.


For some ideas in daily stress management and managing other mental health issues, check out these other resources on my website (written for kids, but they apply to anyone).


Similarly, it’s important in mental health to know when you’ve reached your limits and to take some time to heal, therapeutically. Again, just like singing, this doesn’t always mean it’s best to take a complete break from life (though in extreme injury, that is sometimes necessary), but, rather, you need to discipline yourself in therapeutic ways to manage stress, and use them accordingly.


2. Unlocking Self-Expression:


The human voice possesses an incredible capacity to convey emotions and tell stories. Formal vocal training helps individuals unlock the full potential of their voice, allowing for a deeper and more authentic expression of their inner selves. So, discovery of one’s voice is, in and of itself, a direct analog to what often happens as people heal in psychotherapy – self-discovery leads to deeper understanding of the self, which then leads to a better ability to control how the self is expressed in daily life. Discovering your voice through formal vocal training achieves the same thing. By understanding your voice deeply, you can control it better.


Singing is also an outlet for emotions that may be difficult to articulate verbally, enabling individuals to release pent-up feelings and find solace in the music they create. By encouraging self-expression, vocal training provides a powerful channel for individuals to connect with their own emotions, leading to an opportunity for improved mental clarity and a heightened sense of self-awareness.


Now, it is important to remember that not all emotional expression is healthy. Some types of emotional expression, in fact, can make things worse. If a depressed person endlessly expresses depression, without hope, they will become more depressed. An angry person who spits unbridled rage will only grow more angry. Singers need to take note of this too. One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard from a songwriter came from Maggie Rogers, who, if I remember right, was quoting Marcus Mumford. Marcus (via Maggie) reportedly said that songwriters can write a number of emotions, but they shouldn’t write bitterness. In my interpretation, this means that we can write songs that contain lots of negative emotions, but we should strive to not leave those emotions unresolved (bitter). The advice from Mr. Mumford was that the singer would have to perform the song over and over and over again, and eventually that bitterness would weigh them down.


One of the reasons I became a psychologist was just because it is in my nature to remain relatively positive. I can find ways to resolve all kinds of emotion toward a healthy (or, at least, healthier) version. So, I naturally tend to write songs where emotions are resolved by the end of it. I can’t write a sad song without there being some version of closure somewhere in the song. I’ve found this is good for me. I advise other vocalists and songwriters to do the same. Too many of our colleagues (singers) have died by suicide partially because they couldn’t resolve the emotions they expressed in their music. So, yes, let’s express ourselves. But let’s do so in a balanced way – exploring all human emotions, and working to ensure the negative ones don’t get out of control.


3. Boosting Self-Confidence:

Engaging in formal vocal training can significantly boost self-confidence and self-esteem. As people progress in their training, they overcome challenges and develop new skills, which in turn reinforces a positive self-image. Patience is important in vocal training, as it also is in life. By learning to be patient with ourselves and appreciate even the smallest growths in our voices (and in our lives), we train ourselves to highlight positives and persevere through challenges.


Vocal training often involves performance opportunities, such as recitals or concerts, where people can showcase their progress. These experiences help build resilience and provide a platform to confront and overcome stage fright or performance anxiety, empowering individuals to embrace their unique voice and share it with the world. Increased self-confidence gained through vocal training can have a ripple effect on various aspects of life, leading to improved social interactions, public speaking skills, and an overall sense of empowerment.


4. Stress Reduction and Emotional Regulation:

Music has long been recognized as a powerful tool for relaxation and stress reduction. Humans sing for a reason. It’s in our instincts, in fact. Humans will sing even without ever being exposed to music. Music is like language in that way. Humans learn and use language without ever being told or taught how to do so, we just do it. Singing is the same. It’s just something we do. I think we discover singing through vocal experimentation as babies. As babies, we experiment with sounds, and we eventually produce something that sounds and feels like singing. We think, “I like that. I’m going to do it again.” Even the Deaf community use and appreciate music. They can feel the music, even if they can’t hear it.


So, through vocalization, humans are able to exercise our natural instinct to create and enjoy music. Singing snaps us out of the stuff in life we do because we “have to,” and instead highlights something we do “just because we can.”. Singing has been shown to release endorphins and decrease levels of stress hormones, promoting a sense of calm and overall well-being. Additionally, the act of singing engages various regions of the brain, stimulating cognitive function and promoting emotional regulation. Vocal training is really just an excuse to better understand this instinct and to use it more skillfully.


5. Connection and Community:

Formal vocal training often takes place in group settings, such as choirs, vocal ensembles, or even online communities. These communal experiences foster a sense of connection and belonging. Engaging in music-making with others cultivates a supportive and inclusive environment where individuals can share their passion and feel part of something larger than themselves. Despite how it may feel, most musicians and singers are an incredibly welcoming and forgiving community. We’ve all experienced the struggles and failures of trying to get our instrument to work the way we want it to, and so we are very understanding and encouraging when we encounter someone else going through the same struggle. So, there is no need to worry if you feel like you “can’t sing.” If you love singing, and are willing to work on it, then you’ll find a community of other singers welcoming you and willing to accompany you on your journey to improve your vocals.


Having said that, you may run into “naysayers” in your life – people who tell you, “Give it up! You’ll never make it in the industry.” Plenty of successful musicians have been told the same, and if you love singing and really want to make a career out of it, it’s worth it to learn to let the rejections roll off your shoulder and keep trying. At the same time, success in the music industry is not the best goal for singers (or any musician, really), and music doesn’t have to be a profession to be fulfilling. Learning how to appreciate music for what it is, regardless of its success, is another key to finding fulfillment as a singer, and that mentality translates to mental health too. Money and recognition by others is not the indicator of satisfaction that most people think it is. Learning to love ourselves and appreciate our work, even if others don’t share the same vision, can have a lasting, meaningful, positive impact on mental health.


Just don’t let it go too far. You also don’t want to become so self-assured that you’re unable to take feedback from others. If someone tells you your pitch is off, learn to listen to them and figure out what you’re doing that sounds “off” to others, and then work to correct it. Likewise, in stress management, if someone tells you you’re “too stressed,” don’t shrug it off and tell them, “Nah, I’m fine.” Figure out what it is about you that’s giving off the “too stressed” vibes and work to correct that.


Conclusion:


Formal vocal training offers far more than a pathway to musical mastery. It holds the potential to positively impact mental health by unlocking discipline, self-discovery, self-expression, boosting self-confidence, reducing stress, and fostering connections within a supportive community. So, if you’re singer, or want to be one, consider adding some vocal training to your life. It not only help you as a singer, but also as a person.

[1] If you’re curious, I’ve been taking online courses here: https://www.mymusicalvoice.com. Chris Liepe is an excellent teacher, and I highly recommend his YouTube channel and his formal courses to other singers.

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