What is Vocal Freedom anyway?

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VFPlogoHaving shared some of the background to The Vocal Freedom Project in a previous post, I thought it might be helpful to explore in a little more depth what I mean by the phrase ‘vocal freedom’ in this context. It is one of the ideas that is both multidimensional and holistic – you can think about it from a number of different angles, but in practice they all work together in a single, unified experience.

The Physical Dimension is the most obvious, in that it is the one we are most likely to directly perceive in ourselves and in others, both visually and aurally. We find physical freedom by shedding extraneous muscular tension – that is, muscular engagement that isn’t doing anything productive. Tongue, jaw, neck, shoulders, glutes are all areas we tense up when under stress then never quite loosen off again when the immediate stressor goes away. Our bodies get locked up, our breath becomes shallow, and we hear this in our voices as strain and loss of resonance. Vocal Freedom Project workshops start with the body as the dimension which is both most accessible and usually the most urgent to address.

The Freedom to Move is also part of this dimension. The zoom era of lockdown choirs boxed us in both physically and psychologically. Even if we weren’t trying stay on camera to inhabit our little on-screen boxes, the domestic settings we were all singing in hedged us in with the proximity of furniture and the awareness of neighbours. In VFP workshops we’ll have room to fling our arms out without fear of knocking over a lamp, and fling our voices about without fear of being overheard by judgemental non-participants.

The Psychological/Emotional dimension is, as the previous two paragraphs reveal, inseparable from the physical. It is anxiety that locks our breath in, and fear that restricts our movements. We have all swallowed a lot of negative emotions in the last two years, locking them away in our bodies as part of our coping mechanisms, but in the process diminishing our overall capacities to feel.

Musical Freedom is the means by which the Vocal Freedom Project addresses the need to loosen our psychological restrictions. Singing together in groups offers the opportunity to lose ourselves in a wider whole, but in our usual choral life, this freedom is tempered by the need to conform: to sing the right words, the right notes, use the voice in certain sanctioned ways. As I used to say in a comedy set: you might think that cults are controlling, but in choir they literally tell you when to breathe.

I’m not knocking that choral discipline; I dedicate a lot of my life to enforcing it in service of artistic goals that you can’t achieve without dedicated teamwork and attention to detail. But the Vocal Freedom Project has no goals beyond itself, and thus can afford to let its participants let go of the need to judge themselves and each other. We can trust each other to produce the vocalisations that are right for that moment, and thereby create the next moment for each other to respond to.

Expressive Freedom thus emerges as we relinquish our habitual self-monitoring. Anyone who has ever facilitated a thought shower knows that you have welcome all the unworkable, weird, or plain dull ideas for a while before the brilliant ideas will come out of hiding. And one of the magical things about collaborative music-making is that everyone else’s contributions fill up your attention so vividly that you don’t have space to be self-conscious.

That’s the analytical dimension. Holistically, the aim is simply to create a space where we nurture each other through shared vocalisation. I know how I want us to feel by the end of the session: centred, integrated, connected. None of these words adequately capture that state of course, but I expect you can imagine it, and I trust our participants to help each other get there.

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