Susan Hale
from: Susan Hale
Category: Voicework

The Fine Art of Vocal Toning

Vocal toning has been around a long time. Many of you reading this article have probably toned at least once before in groups. I first learned toning in 1974 in a psychology class in northern California. In 1975 I was introduced to it again as part of my Music Therapy training. The next year I took a workshop from Laurel Elizabeth Keyes, author of the book Toning. It was she who coined the phrase. I used all these influences early in my career as a music therapist, but only as a warm-up to singing or some other music therapy technique.


It wasn’t until 1984 when I worked with Susan Osborn that I had found home. Here toning wasn’t just about making sound, it was about deep listening into the body and expressing truth.  She described the first sounds as the compost from which the flower of the voice would grow. After working with Susan I began to lead groups which featured toning as a way to find and free the natural voice. For five years I led an on-going women’s toning group once a week. This was the fertile ground where I discovered the most about toning as a sacred art form.


Along my sound journey there have been three other influences that have helped me to refine how I approach voice.Michael Deason-Barrow, Director of Tonalis: Centre for the Development of Musician the UK,Iegor Resnikoff and David Hykes of the Harmonic Choir. While none of them teach toning, their teachings have been monumental in guiding me to become a better  listener. Because for me, that is what toning is all about, it is a process ofl istening. Many toning groups I have attended as a participant introduce toning as “Just making sounds.” And often that is what happens. People make sounds.And because we have been so repressed and it feels good to make sounds, and we want to express all the sounds we have inside of us. Someone has finally given us permission to make sounds. And out come the sounds: groans, moans, bird calls, cat meows, wolves howling at the moon. It’s fun. It’s energizing. But it can also be a little overwhelming in its cacophony. And sometimes it stops there.


Here are a few observations and some guidelines.


Because vocal toning is so free form, it is important to have some structure to enter and exit this realm. I use the simple, but effective, entry point I learned from Susan Osborn: breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth three times at your own pace.


This gives us a chance to relax, to listen to the sounds we have inside.


Toning isn’t just about making sounds. It is about listening. The first layer of listening is listening into the body and allowing the sighs and groans to emerge. It’s allowing the body to give voice to itself, and this layer of toning often isn’t pretty, it’s not musical, because most of us ignore our bodies, turning them into work horses. If you stay with this level of toning long enough it shifts.


The next level of discovery is the emotional voice which often grows out of the body voice. The body houses our emotions and as we allow ourselves to make sounds we may get it touch with feelings. The grief, frustration and joy that we have kept at bay begin to be expressed through sound. And again, this may not sound pretty. We do a good job in western industrialized culture in repressing our feelings. Toning allows them to come forth. This can be like a sonic compost heap, rich with potential. But it often stops there and also can be self-indulgent.


But if we stay with this layer of toning long enough it begins to shift. And for me this shift is essential. All the other sound layers have been in preparation for this, creating space within, a vessel through which Spirit can sound through. We allow sound the enter us and rise up from within simultaneously. There is a continuous sound stream. We have become part of the Great Voice singing the One Song. Our individual expression now merged with the collective sharing essence to essence, creating harmonic tapestries of sometimes luminous beauty. We have entrained, not just with the group, but with Spirit.


When we come to silence we listen for the subtle messages still pulsing in the air, messages from our guides or from the still small voice within. Then once again, we breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth, breathing out the essence of our experience. We have entered into an altered state together and now is the time to savor this subtle dimension of sound where wisdom can guide us.


I re-ground by moving slowly,becoming aware of hands, feet, head, neck, yawning and stretching, slowly returning, bringing back riches from the sound journey to share.


I pass a talking staff. I share my experience and pass the staff to my right. I believe this creates a bridge between the inner and outer worlds by validating the reality of the inner world and bringing into form through words. People often find that something they thought were experiencing alone is felt by the whole group. Together we have created a sound community.

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