Wendy Woolfson

Theory of Singing

As a traditional storyteller singing is a part of my practice as well as my passion, and my work. I love learning traditional ballads, children’s lullabies and rhymes and other interesting contemporary pieces that come up along the way. I have a theory about singing and where my voice for singing comes from, and it includes the voice I use for telling stories.

Trauma affects us all differently, and what made it clear to me that my trauma was getting in the way of things was when I stopped being able to sing and when I stopped telling stories. I don’t remember if it happened suddenly or if it was a gradual process. Trauma affects my ability to properly remember the timelines of when things occurred, so I can’t be sure exactly how this went down.

As I recall, around the time it began to happen I was doing a lot of driving for my other work and had a fairly long commute. I would listen to podcasts and music and of course, like anyone might, I would sing along to my favourite songs. Sometimes I would use the time to rehearse a story I was learning or practice singing a ballad. I’m really shy about anyone hearing me rehearse so the car is an ideal place.  And then one day it began. I opened my mouth to sing and nothing would come out. I felt my throat close up and just shut down, and then I cried. I kept trying every day but the same thing happened and most of the time it was the tears that would come. I spent many commutes weeping at my steering wheel and who knows what the other drivers must have thought if they turned and saw me. Somehow, I would pull myself together for work and get on with the day but the cracks were showing and it was only a matter of time before the dam would break.

What was happening here was that I had spent so many years coping with my trauma and feelings and putting on a brave face that now I was breaking. I felt deeply overwhelmed and was drowning in a depth of sorrow and despair that I never thought was possible. I was so far down in this pit of sadness I could see no light. I hurt on every level of my emotional being and I lived only to make it to the end of the day. There were a few different things that were happening in my life at that time that were contributing to my difficulties that I won’t go into here, but what I did know, was that my morning tears were not a normal response to all of that, and I needed help.

My voice had shrivelled into a dry little walnut that sat at the top of my oesophagus and blocked the passage of healing notes and words flowing to my body, towards my heart. My pain had grown so great that my connection with the creative part of me that bridges with the stories and the songs  was gone. The element that makes them come alive, the desire, the spirit, the dance. The heart. There was no heart left in me, it was broken, I was lost and full of fear. I felt utterly adrift with no shred of hope. What I did have was some knowledge and the smallest piece of courage.

I’ve worked in and around mental health for a long time, so I was certain where I needed to be. When I walked into the counselling centre to speak to someone, I knew this was my last chance. It was do or die and a desperate cry for help. Unsurprisingly, they put me on a waiting list, and to cut a long story short, after waiting for months I received a short course of counselling, after which they referred me on to another service for longer term in-depth therapy. Three years after that self-referral I told a story and sang a ballad at an event, and two years after that, therapy ended and I had found not only my voice again but my Self. What I discovered on that journey I can only say is true for me but I believe that the voice I use for telling stories and singing is the voice that comes not only from my heart but from my soul. When I’m participating in either of those activities, I am accessing the deepest aspect of me. I am consciously connecting inside of myself with the most creative and passionate part of who I am. I’ve felt it happen when I’m facilitating as well. Back then, I was so shrouded in despair that I had lost all access to that principle piece. I had shut down, and it was the most terrible time of my life, and yet somehow, I managed to not give up.

I had to put one foot in front of the other and lean into the pain. What this means is that during therapy I allowed my despair to step over the threshold and through the door where I looked it square in the face. She was not a pretty sight. I learnt to understand her wretchedness because she was a big part of me, and as I did so, it initiated a softening and an opening up, and my voice tentatively began to come back. I would periodically test it out and sometimes it would crack or I would just cry, until one day, I sang out, and then I cried again! It was an achingly long time before I could properly sing again but when I did, I found my voice had changed. It was deeper and more resonant. I could feel into my Self more, and as I told that first story, I understood my part within it in a different way. We’re all a part of the stories we tell whether we’re telling a story about ourselves or not, because we’re all connected, and when we sing, we are baring that truest part of ourselves, the most vulnerable and the most beautiful. Perhaps, this is why so many people shy away from singing because to do so will reveal so much of who they are, and not everyone is ready to do that or feels safe enough.

For me, singing feels like bringing my soul forward and connecting with my higher self, the element that is looking out for me. The part that steered me to counselling and gave me the courage to embrace my inner child, and her wretchedness.  I think it’s the closest thing I know to joy, and that might be the reason why sometimes when I sing, I cry.