Trauma-informed voice care creates permission for survivors to feel their breath in ANY physical location that feels safe. In this way, we prioritize, honor, and empower felt sensation.
Singers that have experienced physical, emotional, or sexual trauma may have triggers and/or intense negative self-beliefs around body, breath, technique, and sound. Trauma lives in the body, which means that it can impact any aspect of phonation. As teachers, we can hold space for survivors by encouraging them to feel exactly what they feel, without demanding immediate change.
Telling a singer how or what to feel in their body (ie, “I want you to feel a lower breath…your breath is too shallow…feel the sound in your mask”, etc) may not acknowledge the present moment or their lived experience. Maybe their breath is “shallow” because a deeper breath feels inaccessible, unsafe. For some survivors, breath itself is triggering. For others (and even singers in general), they may not experience significant resonance sensation in the face. We must take care that our language does not prioritize the teacher’s goal over the student’s body. Instead, invitation-based language and asking “where do you feel…how does that sound…how might it feel different if?” grants permission for the singer to experience breath and sound wherever they feel it— the shoulders, clavicle, pelvis, throat, thoracic spine, sinuses….anywhere.
For trauma survivors, a “good breath for singing” is a safe breath, chosen by the singer. After all, when the nervous system is balanced (specifically the ventral vagus of the parasympathetic branch), we feel safely embodied, which is the first step for healthy, authentic phonation. In Trauma-Informed Voice Care, breath becomes less about involving specific physical locations, and more about establishing the whole body as a “safe container.” A balanced breath begins with a balanced nervous system. Provide space for your students to feel what they feel BEFORE suggesting any changes, even if your technical ideas are put on hold. You might be surprised what this type of exploration yields! The exercises below provide a scaffolding for helping students sense into their breath anywhere that feels safe. Remember that our moods, physical states, and preferences change over time. Even if your student prefers a higher, clavicular breath at first, empowering them to make their own choices builds trust. Over time, other areas of the body may become more secure.
Strategies for Breath Sensing
Feel what you feel, right now
Sit or stand comfortably with your eyes slightly below horizon or closed. Notice where your breath is living in your body, perhaps with a 4 count inhale and a 6 count exhale. Simply observe, without demanding change. Maybe you sense breath moving in the abdomen, the rib cage, or higher in the chest, shoulders, or neck. Maybe you sense breath moving in and out of your nostrils. Become aware of how and where your body is breathing, without judgement. There is no need to change this breath, find what feels safe.
Notice where your breath feels most comfortable from the exercise above. Consider that the breath could expand to the back or front of the body, depending on your initial sensation. For example, if you felt the breath high in the chest, imagine your breath moving 180 degrees into your upper back/shoulder blades. If you felt it in the lower back, consider how the breath might feel in the front of the body/lower abdomen. How does it feel to sense your breath moving in the front and back simultaneously? Consider how a 360 approach might impact phonation.
If you find yourself “gasping” for air (even a subtle suction noise, especially when inhaling through the mouth), think of the breath as something that we receive, rather than take. In this way, consider that the inhalation could be gentle, quiet, and released. “Taking” a breath implies scarcity, while receiving implies abundance. Alternate Nostril Breathing is a wonderful practice to help balance initial inhalation and the subsequent vocal onset. Notice what your tongue is doing when you breathe in through the mouth…then the nose. Consider which breath–through the mouth, nose, or a combination of both–cultivates a sense of receiving and letting go. Which feels more calm, quiet, and released?