Text: Ndéla Faye
Illustrations: Terhi Ekebom
Elisa, 36, stood on-stage with her head held high and her back straight while digging her nails into her palms. She drew a deep breath; her senses felt heightened. She could not see anything in front of her, as she only had one thought in her mind: her upcoming singing performance. She had spent months preparing for a monthly open mic event, and this was her chance to finally get over the stage fright she had struggled with for years.
She stepped in front of the microphone and opened her mouth, but no sound came out. With shaky hands she reached for the water bottle on top of the piano. She attempted to clear her voice, took a few more sips of water and sent a deep wish to somewhere above that it would help. Alas, it did not. Her shoulders slumped, and she could not fight back the tears burning behind her eyelids. Elisa turned on her heels and sought refuge behind the curtains. Overcome with disappointment and rage, she felt as though her voice had let her down. Even though it took her by surprise, this would not be the last time it happened. Elisa simply had to adjust to a new normal, one in which she could no longer rely on her voice.
Issues associated with singing are common, but their effects on a person’s psyche are not yet well known. For many, singing is a powerful experience, and it can bring meaning and vitality to a person’s life, according to researcher Anne Tarvainen.
“If the experience is hampered due to a vocal disorder,” says Tarvainen, “it can be a very hard knock that affects a person’s life in wide-ranging ways.”
Tarvainen is also a singer, songwriter and voice coach. Her ongoing research project The Feel of Singing began in 2018 and is funded by Kone Foundation. Over 300 recreational singers with vocal disorders, the inability to sing or hearing impairments have taken part in the research. While they represent different age groups and various singing styles, the research aims to explore what collective bodily sensations are associated with the act of singing.
Several of Tarvainen’s interviewees describe how vocal issues threaten their enjoyment of singing – a form of expression that has previously been a source of joy and fulfilment.
“Negative experiences and feelings of failure can lead to not wanting to sing at all. The person might feel they no longer measure up to what is considered to be ‘aesthetic singing’. Quitting singing can in turn lead to the weakening of support muscles, which has a further detrimental effect on singing,” Tarvainen explains.
In her research, Tarvainen questions reigning norms about what constitutes “good” singing. Her research highlights types of singers and singing that have previously been studied mostly through the lenses of disability, incompetence lack of skill or some other problematic element.
Sound is created through the collaboration of many organs
Elisa’s voice started to grow hoarse a few years before her experience at the open mic performance. Singing a lullaby for her child started to feel uncomfortable, and at times Elisa made up excuses to avoid the nightly routine. It felt as though something was stuck in her throat, and she could not clear her voice no matter what she did.
“I didn’t know what was wrong. I didn’t feel like my usual self. It felt as though my voice and a part of me was missing,” she recounts.
Elisa decided to go to a doctor, who referred her for further tests. The results showed she had a benign cyst attached to her vocal cords. Although this meant the cyst was essentially harmless – and not a cancerous growth, for example – it was the reason behind Elisa’s vocal issues. A cyst can place pressure on vocal cords and prevents them from vibrating optimally, causing hoarseness and other vocal issues.
Humans do not have specific organs dedicated to creating sound, unlike birds and whales, for example. In humans, sound is produced through the collaboration of several organs: the respiratory system, larynx and nasal and oral passages, which form the entirety of the human vocal system. Each element has its own separate function unrelated to the production of sound, such as swallowing and breathing. When a person sings, the organs are assigned secondary functions.
Sound is created when the vocal cords converge and vibrate as a result of exhaled air. A sound’s pitch depends on the rate of the air vibration: a slow vibration produces a low sound, and a fast vibration produces a high sound. The stronger the air pressure on the vocal cords, the wider the vocal cords move apart, allowing sound to resonate more deeply in the body. If the vocal cords are relaxed and the gap between the cords is open (as during normal breathing), no vibration occurs and no sound is generated.
The sound produced by singing is a result of the cooperation between the brain, nervous system and muscles, as well as the vibration of the vocal folds and changes in the resonance and expiratory intensity of the sound. All parts should work in harmony with each other to make the production of sound seamless and for singing to feel effortless.
How to be present while singing
Anne Tarvainen’s interest in the physiology of sound production first began in the 1990s, when she encountered vocal issues of her own. During a wisdom tooth extraction, a nerve in her tongue was damaged, which caused her tongue to become partly paralysed. This resulted in an imbalance in the tongue, larynx and neck muscles, all of which are needed for singing. After half an hour of singing, Tarvainen’s voice would sometimes disappear completely.
“It came to me as a surprise how much this all affected my singing. All of a sudden, singing became difficult, and my voice didn’t feel like my own anymore.”
She received help from a phoniatrist, a doctor who specialises in speech production and issues with the mouth, throat and voice, but she still felt as though the connection to her own voice was lost.
“I thought I’d never sing again. Traditional tongue movement and voice exercises helped, but only once I started to incorporate them with body awareness did my voice start to rehabilitate.”
Tarvainen started to do improvised vocal and tongue exercises, during which she let out various free, unrehearsed sounds. She wanted to feel comfortable with her own voice again. Slowly, her voice started to rehabilitate. She was already teaching singing, so she started to implement the same techniques during the lessons. These thoughts and feelings started to materialise into a bigger idea, and in 2017 Tarvainen launched the Voicefulness method. She now utilises the technique in her work as a vocal coach.
In Voicefulness, the idea is to create body awareness through the voice. Attention is shifted away from the voice itself, and no attempts are made to modify it or improve it. Sound is produced spontaneously and naturally, and in this way, according to Tarvainen, a person can get to know their own body and voice without feeling any pressure to perform.
“We explore how to learn acceptance and how to be present and relaxed with your own voice and within your body. Voicefulness is used to practice presence, emotional expression and personal body awareness. In Voicefulness, there is no need to perform music or make aesthetically beautiful or even intelligible sounds. We aren’t moving within the realms of music or speech at all. It is just about letting out sounds, and the goal is to form an accepting relationship with your own voice and body,” Tarvainen explains.
Aesthetic sensations can also be felt inside the body
The Feel of Singing research is also based on body awareness. In scientific lingo, body awareness or bodily consciousness means becoming aware of the proprioceptive and interoceptive sensory information produced by the body. Through proprioceptive observations, we sense things like the internal status of our body, our posture, movements and the tension in our muscles. Through interoceptive observations, we sense our body’s organs and their functions, such as our heartbeat, breathing, satiety and emotions – all part of the autonomic nervous system.
According to prevailing views, sensations associated with aesthetics are experienced through seeing or hearing – and not inside the body. Tarvainen disputes this idea. Her research focuses on vocal somaesthetics, which is the idea that the aesthetics of singing are not only related to the sound produced but also to the bodily sensations associated with it. In other words, the aesthetics of singing are based on the positions and movements that tickle the proprioceptive senses. Aesthetic sensations in singing can be, for example, feelings of liveliness, empowerment, beauty and connection. In a body-conscious state, a person senses even the subtlest of movements and sensations within their body, according to Tarvainen. They can be aesthetic in the same way as eye-catching colours or sweet-sounding melodies. And as with visual arts or music, not everyone has to like the same things.
The best singing experiences are felt throughout the body
Who determines which sounds are acceptable? Are the limits set by the singer themselves, or are they defined by culture? According to Tarvainen, we often force our voices to do things that do not feel good in our bodies. Singing is often performance-oriented, and sound is often whipped into a mould to meet the aesthetic ideals set by our cultures. For example, in the music industry, auto-tune – a computer program designed to correct pitch inaccuracies – is commonly used. We accept being unable to achieve similar performances live as those performances recorded in a studio. This is because studio recordings are often not realistic or even achievable by the human voice.
Tarvainen is interested in what kind of cultural barriers have been set for singing, stating, “Not all singers and all kinds of singing fit into the mould set by our society, which is often very rigid. The pursuit of perfection and the constant pressure to perform often mean that we are detached from our own bodies. It feels like we see very little value in singing purely as an experience. Perhaps we could learn to listen to singing in a new way. ”
The singers interviewed by Tarvainen describe how the best singing-related moments have been bodily experiences. Through singing, the singers form connections with their own body, other people, the environment, the world, God or even the universe. The interviewees describe their best singing moments as empowering “peak experiences”.
Singing involves various emotions, and the experience is influenced by where and with whom the songs are sung, as well as the kind of songs performed. Sound affects the whole body and creates powerful sensations. The physical boundaries of a singer’s own body may seem to disappear, and the singer may feel like they are one with the world. Some respondents in Tarvainen’s research describe feeling as though they were hovering above the ground or flying.
“For many people, singing is very important in terms of their sense of self, their identity and social cohesion. It is clear that singing is associated with rich bodily experiences, but very little scientific research has been conducted on this – although the relationship and correlation between singing and well-being has been studied a lot,” says Tarvainen.
In her research, Tarvainen wants to enable a large group of participants and their experiences to be heard and then highlight the rich experiences that have been overlooked in previous research.
“I don’t just study problematic experiences but also peak experiences. I understand personally how important they are.”
Respondents to Tarvainen’s study describe the feeling:
“At best, I feel like I am levitating, and I feel invincible. Singing makes me feel blissful. My body feels light and fast and responds to all thoughts and feelings. I can do whatever I want.”
“It’s as if time and boundaries disappear, and no worries or pain in the world can touch me. Poetically, I could describe it as being at one with the universe.”
“Singing makes me happy and makes life feel important. It is wonderful to float among the soundwaves.”
So what kind of a sound is classed as “bad”? What kinds of sounds evoke unpleasant feelings in us? Is the notion of a bad sound ingrained in us biologically, or are all things related to aesthetics determined by culture?
In modern popular culture, “poor singing” and being out of tune are often selling points of singing contests on reality television. Often, pitiable singers offer entertaining, second-hand embarrassment to home audiences, who are gasping at the fact that someone has dared to perform in front of cameras with limited singing abilities. Voices that veer from the norm are usually only valued for their entertainment purpose.
However, the “nature versus nurture” debate has its dangers. If we equate the production of sound with something that is a necessary and primary feature of humans, we completely exclude others from the conversation, including Deaf and non-verbal people.
Deaf and proud
Rap-artist Signmark, a.k.a Marko Vuoriheimo, was born deaf into a world where music is usually a thing reserved for the hearing. Deafness is a big part of Vuoriheimo’s identity, and he is proud of his deafness.
“I was born Deaf, and my parents are Deaf. Many of the people in my extended family are also Deaf. I am a proud carrier of the Connexin 26 gene – so proud that I have a tattoo of it on my arm,” he comments, showing off his tattoo of a DNA’s double helix interwoven with a treble clef.
Connexin 26 is the most common gene to cause hereditary deafness. Its mutations can cause congenital deafness, or deafness that begins before age two. According to the Finnish Association of the Deaf (Kuurojen Liitto), about 10,000 to 14,000 people use sign language in Finland. Of those, around 4,000 to 5,000 are deaf. The Deaf community is diverse, and they have their own language.
Some Deaf people can hear more than others – and some cannot hear anything. Some use hearing aids or cochlear implants, others do not. Some hear different pitches in melodies, while some only feel the vibration of the sound waves of the music and the beat of the drums and bass.
Deaf people are often lumped together under the medical term “hearing impaired” (now considered outdated and offensive by many), alongside “hard of hearing” and “deafened” individuals. At least one in ten Finns can be included under this umbrella term. However, “Deaf” is also an identity, and Deaf people have their own culture. Further, sign language is counted as a language group whose linguistic rights are guaranteed under the Finnish Constitution. Vuoriheimo, for example, does not consider himself to be disabled in any way, although he is often officially classified as such.
“Every Deaf person chooses the instrument they want to use.”
Signmark is the world’s first Deaf artist who raps in sign language to secure an international record deal. Despite discouraging comments and reluctance from some friends, Vuoriheimo set out to realise his childhood dream to one day see his own music videos on television. Signmark entered the music scene 16 years ago, and fortunately times have changed since then, although, he says, “there is still a lot to do”.
Through his songs, Vuoriheimo is able to talk about matters that are important to him.
“I want to tell stories about my life, my community and the world through music. Rhymes, the melody, rhythm and facial expressions, as well as body language come along with it. I use my body as if it were a musical instrument.”
When Vuoriheimo performs in sign language, the rhyming, flow and proper sign choices are important. The signing must look good, and it has to be understandable. He also tries to get the signs to match the melody. The rhymes, melodies and sounds must all be in the right place. Vuoriheimo seeks beauty in his performance, and he therefore spends a lot of time fine-tuning the signing. He can also rap out loud, but he prefers the rhymes to be sung by his musician friend.
According to Vuoriheimo, every artist has the right to perform their songs in whatever way they want.
“Every Deaf person chooses the instrument they want to use. I respect everyone’s own decision. There are all kinds of Deaf people around the world. There are Deaf people who want to be like hearing people, and there are Deaf people who cherish their deafness – and everything in between. Everyone does things their own way. That’s what art is all about.”
Vuoriheimo believes that the deaf world is completely separate from the hearing world. However, he also mentions the Visual Vernacular technique, in which performances are created using expressions and gestures. It is not sign language but closer to pantomime and poetry. It is storytelling in which movement is used creatively – and body language is the focal point.
“However, it is impossible for a hearing person to understand what Deaf people’s lives are like, and what our ‘sound world’ is like.”
The multiplicity of singing
Vuoriheimo is not familiar with Anne Tarvainen’s research, but he questions the fact that Deaf people, those with vocal issues and those without singing skills, are participating in the same research. He does not understand how sign language used by Deaf people can be researched in the same way as Deaf people who do not know sign language or someone who simply is unable to sing.
Tarvainen understands that a hearing person doing research on a topic that also includes Deaf people arouses suspicion. However, the purpose is not to lump together Deaf people and those with vocal issues, she says.
“My intention is to approach the bodily experiences of singing from different perspectives. I want to bring out a wide range of experiences. There are no homogeneous experiences for Deaf people or anyone else.”
In practice, Tarvainen conducts her research in three studies: people with vocal disorders, unskilled singers and Deaf people are studied in their own groups. In addition, the aim is to bring out individual and exceptional singing experiences.
One commonality is that the singers are likely to have different relationships with their singing voice, listening and their bodily experiences, compared to mainstream singers.
“This interests me because I want to highlight the various kinds of potential of singing and draw attention to singing and forms of expression that challenge the generally accepted ideals of singing.”
Tarvainen also wants to highlight the diversity of singing in her research. Singing can be done by silently humming inside one’s head or with sign language. And, as with any spoken language, an entire culture has been built around sign language.
“I have been amazed at how signs and body movements, as well as facial expressions, are interwoven in different ways in people, and how they express themselves in their own way.”
According to Tarvainen, our voices and singing should not be placed in such a rigid mould, like our current practices in singing and listening often do. Instead, singing should be performed in a way that feels best to the singers themselves – whether that means through clear-sounding melodies, a heavy metal growl or signing.
“We should learn to listen, look and sense different forms of singing with our whole bodies. We should learn to find the most important element, which is the musical and emotional expression conveyed by the performer, the way in which a person opens themselves up and wants to touch us with their performance.”
Background noise makes speaking impossible
Elisa has been singing since she was a child. She has been in a choir and taken private singing lessons. She feels singing helps her relax, and it gives her strength when other things seem difficult. Her singing has helped her through difficult life situations, like the death of a loved one and her separation from a long-term partner.
“Singing is my therapy,” she says, smiling. “When I sing, I can feel my body vibrate. I get goose bumps and shivers down my spine. Just before I start to sing, I feel like my body is charged, a sensation that I may not have even registered before in my body. When I get to sing, the charge relaxes and I feel blissful afterwards.”
The cyst in Elisa’s vocal cords was operated on in 2018. After the surgery, she received a referral for vocal therapy, but her voice remained hoarse. Today, even brief conversations are troublesome for her, as her speech quickly becomes strained alongside never-ending attempts to clear her voice.
“The lasting consequences came to me as a complete surprise. I was told that if I had sought help and gotten surgery earlier, I probably could have avoided permanent vocal issues.”
For Elisa, the greatest difficulty is talking against background noise. When she has to raise her voice for a prolonged period of time, it strains her vocal cords. Even after a few minutes, producing sound becomes impossible. At that point, it is easier to just stay quiet.
“I’ve had to learn to accept that my singing voice is like this now, and it will never return to what it was like before. It’s been a hard thing to swallow at times, but I do my best to accept myself and my voice the way it is. It’s enough,” says Elisa.
Elisa still reluctantly sings lullabies, just to please her daughter, every night. These days, she asks her daughter to sing with her and fill in the parts that are too difficult for her own voice.
When you can’t catch hold of singing
Aava Uusikuu is a singer-songwriter who arranged her debut album, Water is Burning (Vedessä palaa), to poems by Mirkka Rekola. Aava Uusikuu is also Anne Tarvainen’s artist persona. During her best performances as Aava Uusikuu, she gets a sense of vitality from singing: she feels and senses her body in a completely different way than when she sings as Anne Tarvainen. At the same time, the knots and pains in her body release, and she feels as though her body comes alive. Uusikuu’s persona has allowed Tarvainen to approach singing differently: it has helped her to open up and interpret singing in a way that might not have otherwise been possible.
But when her singing does not go as well as she had hoped, painful emotions still surface. At worst, bad singing experiences lead to frustration, outbursts of crying, and fear and despair.
“My body is already tuned in while I wait to be able to start singing. If I cannot convey in my voice what I am feeling inside me, the knock can be a hard one. In that situation, I feel like I am a prisoner trapped inside my own body. What I wanted to let out from within me now has no way out. This creates a fear of what happens if I am never able to convey those feelings ever again. When the singing starts to flow again, the gratitude I feel is endless.”
Her research also highlights how voice issues and singing experiences a performer may deem unsuccessful often cause disappointment, sadness and even anger.
“This is understandable when you think about how important singing is to the respondents, and how much they lose with their vocal issues. It is therefore not just a loss of voice but, at worst, a loss of identity. As if they have lost a part of themselves.”
Of this, respondents in Tarvainen’s research describe:
“It feels distressing when you know you know how to do it, but you cannot make your voice work. It’s agonising. I’m really sad. Acid reflux takes away a part of my identity.”
“I would like to sing. I hate this disease that has made normal life impossible.”
“My voice also gets tired faster and becomes hoarse. Often my vocal range momentarily narrows due to strong reflux symptoms and returns to normal only when my throat gets better, which often also happens slowly. This creates feelings of frustration and failure and irritation in me. Also fear that I won’t be able to practice my profession to the full – or that I will destroy my voice with my own indifference. So guilt and shame, in addition to all the above.”
Through her own singing experiences and vocal issues, Tarvainen is able to understand the interviewees’ feelings and experiences. “During singing, vocal issues rise to the surface much more easily than when talking, for example. Singing involves so many strong emotions that when an issue arises, it can be a big knock – especially emotionally.” She believes we should broaden our notions about singing and learn new ways to listen to singing. Through singing, we have the ability to feel that we have a place in a community or to feel as part of this world.
Tarvainen believes people are gradually realising they can sing just for themselves. There is not always a need for an audience, nor pressure about performing or worry about the kinds of sounds we create.
“The state of the mind and body when a person sings allows them to gain access to new kinds of experiences and feelings, when the experience is at its best. Singing is associated with rich bodily experiences, and through it, we can express our own existence and place in the world and the universe. Based on my own experiences, I have understood that producing sound does not have to be a performance, but it can be an empowering, feel-good and safe space where I can be myself freely.”
Anne Tarvainen, Ph.D.
An ethnomusicologist, Anne researches the effect of body awareness on singers’ diverse singing experiences in a project titled The Feel of Singing: Aesthetic Body Awareness in the Vocal Experiences of Deaf, Tone-deaf, and People with Vocal Disorders, funded by Kone Foundation (Koneen Säätiö).
Artist and entrepreneur
Recreational singer. Elisa only appears in the article with her first name. She did not participate in Tarvainen’s research.