Have you ever become so frustrated on how you just can’t get the right key or perfect pitch? Have you ever felt a longing to find your voice? In this episode, Janine Hamner Holman sits down with Julie Dean as she shares her voice journey, and how she learned the essentials to finding your voice and how to not feel so ashamed about it, voice artist or not. Tune in to learn how to find your true sound and put it into practice!
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Finding Your Voice with Julie Dean
What am I paying attention to? Vulnerability and the power of breath. If you read our last episode, you read Wayne Brown and me talk about his work to help men, in particular, understand and be open to vulnerability as a key skill for leaders in the 21st century. The reality is that anything that we think may have others judge us has the opportunity to make us feel vulnerable. Yet, the power of vulnerability is massively misunderstood.
The reality is that when we get vulnerable, other people get interested in us. It is the biggest thing that pulls somebody else into what you are experiencing. When we can get vulnerable, when we can tell the truth, when we can be honest, when we can be genuine, that’s when other people like us the best. That’s when other people get the most curious about what’s happening over here where we are. That’s when we have the opportunity to move and engage other people.
When we find ourselves in a place of vulnerability and we feel hooked or scared, we have the opportunity to stay in that place, to stay present to vulnerability, and to use our breath to calm ourselves back down so that we don’t get thrown into our amygdala, the fight, flight, or freeze center in our brain. It’s where we can no longer be genuine and honest because the only thing that part of our brain cares about is, “Am I safe?”
The reality is that being open, honest, genuine, and vulnerable has us feel unsafe because others might be judging us. Our brain equates the possibility of somebody else judging us and judging us negatively as something that could threaten our life because that’s all that that part of our brain cares about. Am I safe? We feel unsafe when we have these opportunities to be vulnerable.
As I was talking with Wayne, and as my guest and I are going to be talking about in this episode, that’s where the juice of life is. When we can let other people in, when we can be honest with other people, whether it’s in a business or personal setting, that’s when we have the opportunity to connect and enjoy what life has to offer.
I am thrilled to introduce you to Julie Dean who knows plenty about connection and enjoying life! I’m going to tell you about Julie, and then I’m going to tell you a little bit about who Julie Dean is for me. Julie Dean is a singer-songwriter from Charlotte, North Carolina, where she has been a voice coach for over twenty years, from technical training for singers of popular music styles to heart-centered voice work for anyone struggling to find their voice.
Julie’s mission is to show that every voice has value and worth. She specializes in working with recovering injured voices to adult beginner singers to helping professionals maintain their vocal strength. She has added personal coaching for finding voice confidence in recent years. Known as a versatile singer and musician, Julie is in demand for a variety of musical events around Charlotte, both as a solo performer and with her duo, Beauty and the Blues.
Welcome to the show, Julie.
Thank you. I’m so glad to be here.
Julie is my cousin. Julie is one of my all-time favorite humans on the planet. I have two amazing stepsons but I was never blessed to have children of my own. Julie has an interesting place in my heart. Here, I get to get vulnerable because I get moved when I think about how much I love her. For me, she is somewhere between a daughter and a sister. That’s how she lives for me in my heart.
She’s one of my great loves on this planet. She and her partner, Keith Serpa, do the intro and the outro for the show. In a little bit, we’re going to listen to that full song, but right now, I have a question for Julie. Tell me, what is something that you have become aware of that people are not paying attention to, either consciously or unconsciously, and what’s the cost of that?
To continue with the idea of vulnerability, you said that maybe some people confuse what it is and what it isn’t, but maybe everybody can identify that vulnerability feels a little scary. Maybe we could all agree on that. For me, it is like the beginning of any heartfelt work and any heartfelt relationship, and any connections that you want to make. I heard or read something like confidence is a byproduct of when we are able to be vulnerable and it takes courage to be vulnerable.
As a voice teacher, I would say that most of my clientele come to me with whatever their goals are. One of them is always “I would like to have more confidence in my voice when I sing or when I’m presenting.” I think, “Of course. That makes so much sense.”
I’ve worked over the years in a number of ways on performance workshops and building confidence and one’s voice is the gateway to having confidence. There’s an element of fake it until you make it that exists. There is no getting over the fear. You do it with fear. Being vulnerable is, “I’m going to do this thing that’s important to me, and that may mean that people will see me,” and that can be scary. Ultimately, every time I’ve allowed myself to do that, it has been exhilarating, brought me contentment, or helped me gain confidence in some way. That is important.
The more I learn about what confidence is, the more I learn what confidence isn’t or what erodes confidence. The internal judgments that we have erode confidence. Striving for perfection erodes confidence. All those things come back to that we’re afraid of what people will think of us. Oftentimes, there are books written on it, like, “Don’t give a flying whatever.” How do I do that? How do I not give all the whatevers? That’s a practice in and of itself too. “I’m going to do it and I can’t care right now.”
Ultimately, what I have found for myself and what I recommend to my students and my clients is that whenever you catch yourself in a judgmental thought about yourself or a judgmental thought about somebody else, stop. Just notice it. The more we judge others, the more we will judge ourselves. That’s where our loop of fear gets caught. We know that we judge others. Everybody else is judging us.
I discovered that one night at one of my first open mics ever. I thought, “This is what I’ve heard of open mics. This is what this is.” I’d watch someone get up there. Someone would get up and sing a song and I’d think, “They’re so good. I don’t think I want to do this.”
Then someone else would get up and sing a song and I’d think, “They weren’t that great. I could do this.” I kept comparing myself to whether I would do this or not based on talent or what I perceived as a lack of talent. After an hour of doing that, because this was a two-and-a-half-hour event, I was exhausted and thought, “I’m not having a good time.”
I thought, “What would it be like if I enjoyed everything and did not compare myself?” It was a much better experience than the last hour and a half. That was my first experience of trying this idea of, “What if I stopped?” Stopping being judgmental is pretty hard, but the idea is that you notice it. You notice and think, “That’s not helpful.” Just you can practice getting the thoughts away.
We spend so much of our life either judging ourselves, judging other people, comparing, or thinking, “If that were me, I would not do it that way,” or “How could they possibly be doing it this way?” That thought is often followed by, “They’re such an idiot.” We spend so much time in that head space whether we’re talking about ourselves as we’re moving through life or ourselves as a performer.
When you think about it for a hot minute, we’re all performing at some level a lot of the time. At work, we have a presentation that we need to give or we have to talk to our boss and it makes us anxious. We have to talk to that person who we need something from, but they’re always such a pain in the butt. We need to talk to our spouse, our partner, our kids, our best friend, our parents, or whoever.
We think about it and we rehearse it like a performance, but we usually do that on top of an already existing belief about how it’s going to go. If I know I get to talk to Julie, that’s how that sentence comes out of my mouth. I get to talk to Julie, not I have to talk to Julie because that’s never how it occurs to me. There are other people in our family that I would say, “I have to talk to them.” There are certainly many other people in my work and personal life who would go in the “I have to talk to them” category, which is then on top of a belief that I have about that person.
It’s a judgment that I have created about that person and, therefore, I know how everything having to do with that person is going to go. I love this idea of, at least at the moment, I’m going to decide that I get to talk to this person who I have historically found challenging, but I’m going to let all that go for right now. I’m going to get to talk to this person. We’re going to get to have a conversation, but I’m going to let go of the judgment and the preconceived ideas and see how it goes. I’m going to pay attention to my voice.”
There are million reasons why I wanted to have you on, but one of the reasons is because you’ve been doing such interesting work around the power of our voices and how we use our voices both for good and for evil and how our voices can serve us or get in the way of what we are trying to communicate.
I’ve sung my whole life. I’ve reflected and realized singing for me was likely a way for me to regulate my nervous system in a very chaotic childhood. Singing always felt safe for me. Being up on stage always felt like a relief, which I know for some people would be the opposite because finally, someone was listening to me and everybody else was quiet in the world.
I’ve been teaching voice lessons for over twenty years now. I started in that classical realm as I was taught. I started teaching the year American Idol premiered and so people want to sing anything and everything. I had a kid come in and wanted to do an ‘80s power ballad for an American Idol audition. I said, “I don’t know how to help you with that.”
That spurred me onto my training in working with contemporary music and in the voice science field, understanding how the voice works differently in different genres of music. As knowledgeable as I have been about the instrument itself and probably subconsciously realizing a connection between our emotional system and our nervous system, I’ve always identified there’s a psychological component to singing, that fear of being up in front of people.
Some people would rather die than speak in public. Here we are singing, which has got an extra possible judgmental factor on top of it. Some of us can’t help ourselves. We still have to do it. That feels like that’s something is overpowering our fear in that way.
It wasn’t until I started doing my own personal work on healing trauma, complex PTSD, which often people in chaotic childhoods come away with. Working on how I relate to the people closest to me, my partner, my parents, and the healing through those relationships, it was all about my work and noticing how the throat closes up. There is a reason why we have the expressions “cat got your tongue,” and “I got all choked up.” When we are having an emotional moment that causes us to either tear up or get afraid, the muscles in our throat clamp down to make it harder to breathe, much less say anything.
The vocal cords are the gateway to your lungs. If those muscles clamp up and your vocal cords are starting to close in, that means you don’t breathe. This is not very helpful when you want to say something important or when you sing something that your heart is desiring. That’s why I’ve been doing a lot of the nervous system work and training personally. I’ve learned it from an educator’s or coach’s standpoint. I got certified as a trauma support specialist to see it outside of myself so I could recognize it in others when people’s voices are getting clamped down.
I use a lot of nervous system regulation exercises, breathing exercises, and body movement exercises to help the nervous system go, “It’s okay. I can do this. I can make this sound.” Most of my clients are singers or want to explore singing in some way. Some people want to explore what their voice can do or strengthen their voice if they’re public speakers.
When I say most people come to me saying they want confidence, what I’ve also realized in my experiences with all of these people throughout the years is that many people are dealing with a self-worth issue that is different from building confidence. Much of that self-worth can be developed or thwarted when we’re children and when we go through trying experiences and whatnot.
It’s being able to give folks a place to talk about what they’re afraid of away from the people that they’re afraid of. Practicing speaking the thing or practicing reframing the thought that’s in your head and saying it out loud, giving power to the words which I thought of when you were using the example of “I get to talk to or I have to talk to” is the power of language. It pairs with the power of forming the language, which is your voice. When you say out loud, “I get to,” and hear even the tone of your voice like you’re saying, “I have to talk to my mom. I get to talk to my mom.”
The tonality and pitch.
It’s framing it in a particular way, then your body can feel it, can feel that pitch change, can feel like, “Okay.” Even if it’s a little bit of a fake it until you make it, your body still gets the energy of, “I get to,” which implies to your body, “This might be exciting.”
I love the word exciting and I love the word exciting in this context because I’ve done a little bit of singing. I’ve never been a solo singer but I’ve sung in choirs and choruses. I have a belief, especially about my singing voice, that it is too low. I recently had the opportunity to attend a workshop that Julie was leading that was magnificent with a group of women on a beach. It was about women finding our voices at the beach. If you’ve ever heard me talk about my happy place, it is the beach. That was a wonderful experience.
One of the things that got revealed to me over the course of that time is that not only do I have this belief about my singing voice, which I’m sure is born by the fact that when I was singing in choruses and in choirs, sometimes there were not enough lower voices. I was put with the boys. I was put with the men because I can hit a lot of those tenor pitches. That got transformed in my brain as it’s too low and I am extremely far away from a soprano. In my brain, it also became like that’s how girls should sing. Girls should be able to sing those breathy high notes that I can’t begin to sing. I can’t do a baritone, but I can sing significant tenor notes.
When our family would get together at Christmas, our extended family on our mother’s side, which is how we are related, our mothers are sisters. I would often either sing a harmony line or bump down a whole octave sometimes from where the through line of the song was, where the musical line was. That all got put into this mesh in my brain called, “My voice is too low.” The end of that sentence is, “My voice is too low for a girl.” It’s not that my voice is too low for the world. My voice is too low for a girl. I’m a girl, and that’s not right. That’s not okay. That’s not good. There’s a problem here.
One of the things that was so magnificent about being in this workshop with other women was, in part, letting go of the idea that there’s a problem. My voice is in a lower speaking register, and my singing voice is in a lower singing register, and that’s not a problem. It is what it is. There are things certainly about my speaking voice that are an advantage to me.
I think this whole thing about how we use our voices and what we think about our voices, and these ideas about my voice being too low got created. The first time I remember singing in a group of people was in the seventh grade. I would’ve been eleven. I’ve been holding onto that idea. I will be 58 in a few days so for nearly 47 years, I’ve been holding on to the idea that there’s a problem with my voice.
I’m curious how many of us have some preconceived ideas about our voices and how powerful that is. Part of what you get to do is dispel those myths and then empower us around something new.
I would bet almost everybody’s got something, some story about their voice in some way. It’s what Brené Brown calls the wounds that we get as children around the arts are creative scars. It is unfortunate, but commonly the case that our creative wounds and scars come from parents and teachers by no particular fault of their own. People these days are a little bit more sensitive to language and things that they say than our parent’s generation and certainly before them. The most rewarding client work that I do is with clients who were told when they were young that they couldn’t sing, shouldn’t sing, they were too loud or they should mouth the words in a choir.
I have one lady who came to me when she was 70. She said, “I remember they told me I had to sing in the Bluebird choir, and we all knew the Bluebird choir wasn’t the good one.” From that moment when she was nine, she thought she wasn’t a good singer because of that. No matter what the reality was, she held onto that. This is why therapy is good for everybody. I think, “Why do I have to talk about my past?” All the crap that went down happened when you were a kid. You’ve got to figure out what the source was. How old was I? How tall was I? Let me rewrite that story. How do I get in there and find that?
Let me go ahead and debunk a couple of myths. Everyone can sing. If you can speak, you can sing. How well you do it is relative. We could all maybe be in agreement that certain people have good voices, and then we find somebody who thinks, “I don’t like their voice.” Does that mean it’s not a good voice? I don’t know. What is good? What’s bad? I know certainly, in my opera days that they would not have listened to Dolly Parton as I did.Everyone can sing. If you can speak, you can sing. How well you do it, that's relative. Click To Tweet
My Dolly Parton fans don’t want any part of listening to opera. It’s a preference. It’s what you’re exposed to. It’s what you like, it’s what you don’t like. What you like and what you don’t like doesn’t mean that something is good or bad, but people make a common comparison that is the link that is somehow true for them, especially in the arts, because it’s subjective. Unfortunately, in the arts, at least for the last twenty-some-odd years, we’ve had competition shows that say, “You win. You are the best singer.”
It’s not like there’s a relay race and someone was the fastest. It’s subjective. Winning those shows was a lot about people voting from home because the boy was cute or sang out a long high note. Everybody loves a long high note. That has done a number psychologically on folks who already had some issues about their voice, especially if they wanted to do something fun, like sing karaoke or sing Happy Birthday.
I can’t tell you how many people have said, “I know this might sound crazy, but could you help me sing Happy Birthday?” So many times. I think, “Isn’t that crazy?” I’ve also analyzed it from a music theory perspective. It’s a weird song. It does not make sense to the ear. There’s a big old octal jump in the middle of Happy Birthday, which has four lines. That’s hard for most people.
I was going to say the most rewarding work that I do is with adults, often in their 50s, 60s, or 70s, who come and say, “I was told I couldn’t and I always wanted to. Is there a possibility?” Sometimes that is hard work because sometimes that means we’ve got to do muscle building that has laid dormant for a long time. The muscles respond with, “This is how we do this.”
Sometimes we’re doing ear training because if someone was told they couldn’t sing, maybe they didn’t match pitch well, then they never learned it. You can learn it and it’s best to learn these skills as a kid. That’s when your brain is pliable. It’s helpful for music and language. If there’s a kid in your life who you think can’t sing, get them to piano lessons or a voice teacher, and do some pitch training so that they don’t have to live with that their whole life until they decided when they’re adult they want to. I got sidetracked but I wanted to say that.
I also wanted to debunk tone deafness. Oftentimes people will say, “I can’t sing. I’m tone deaf.” It’s rare for people to be actually tone-deaf. Four to seven percent of the world population is tone-deaf. If you’re tone-deaf, you don’t like music. Music sounds like a cacophony of random sounds. If you’ve been told or you think you’re tone deaf and you like music, you are not. You just might have to do some pitch training. That is a lot of ear training. It’s a miracle in and of itself how we make a sound. The ear tells the brain, “Tell the vocal cords to stretch that tiny millimeter space, and then we’ve got that pitch.” Scientists still don’t know how that works.
It’s crazy. All of these places of beliefs and stories that we’ve created as children about our voices and then in comparison. Now maybe kids are having an easier time, especially because your belief, “My voice is too low for a girl,” our society is saying, “What’s that? It doesn’t matter. There’s no difference,” which is helpful. If you had wanted to have a career in choral work, tenors are the least built-up section of choirs. You would’ve had a lot of good work.
I missed that opportunity.
Let me also say that the grass is always greener for everybody. I feel pretty good about my voice. I’m a singer and people like it. Still, when I hear my voice on a recording, I think, “Who’s that chirpy little butterfly?” While you wanted to sound like a Disney princess, I probably do and don’t want to. I want to sound like this sexy disc jockey, which I think you sound like. We all have our things.
My husband Jonathan had one of his cousins over for dinner. She’s a delightful young woman and her skin and her hair were so magnificent. She’s 21. Comparing myself at 57 to somebody who is 21, there’s never going to be any cheese down that tunnel. Yet here I was comparing myself to the beautiful 21-year-old. I have relatively straight hair. As I age, it seems to be getting a little more body and a little more natural curl to it, which is lovely. Thank you very much, nature. I’ve always wanted curly hair. We often look at other people who are what we are not.
We think, “That must be so great.” Two episodes ago, I had the opportunity to talk with Shaun Duffy. If you haven’t read that episode yet, I would suggest that you visit it. It’s called The Non-Linear Path. He was one of the coolest, hottest, and most popular boys in junior high in high school. We did not go together. We went to school together from the 7th grade to the 12th grade. I am not 100% sure that if you had asked him any of those six years, “Do you know who Janine Hamner is?” if he would’ve had an answer, I was not in his orbit, and yet we recorded an episode together.
He is now an artist, and he talked about how uncomfortable he felt with the idea of being popular and how unattractive he felt. He felt like he was skinny and weird-looking. We all have our own stuff. There’s no way to know what’s going on in somebody else’s head or heart. I got to participate in a workshop where someone said, “We’re always coming into somebody else’s play in the third act.” We don’t know what’s gone on before. We don’t know what their stories are and what has shaped them. Many of us have so much around the arts speaking, singing, or getting up in front of a group of people and saying or doing anything.
Earlier in this conversation, you were talking about the difference between confidence and self-worth. I’d like to come back to that a little bit. When you are getting to work with clients, how do you help them parse that out and figure out what issue they are having? They are likely thinking some version of, “I don’t have experience in doing this, and therefore I’m learning and it makes me feel nervous because I don’t know what I’m doing. How much is that feeling connected to my feelings about self-worth?”
It’s a little trial and error because it’s a new realization for me as I take each person’s experience and see what’s needed. What I’m noticing is when I’m with someone and they’re using the word should a lot, that tells me that they’ve got preconceived notions about what something should not be and they’re not accepting what is. Should usually follows shame. I find that where shame is present, that’s where self-worth is low. I’m pretty sure that’s all of us until we uncover it or if, by chance, you grew up in a healthy household. I don’t know. It’s that 1% of the population.
The other thing is perfectionistic tendencies. They’re focusing on one little thing. My experience is that people who are obsessed with getting the right pitch don’t need to be obsessed with getting the right pitch. They’re on pitch. Almost always, those people have some experience in their young lives where someone remarked about them being out of tune somewhere.
I think that also the general public doesn’t know how to properly describe a voice. There are some statements or phrases that are in the ether. “You’re off-key,” or other similar phrases. They’ve made a whole movie series out of it. There are so many phrases out there that people don’t know what they mean, much less what effect it’s going to have on somebody. There are so many misconceptions about that. For example, “voice nodules on the vocal cords.” They would not make you sound like a bass.
It doesn’t make you sound much different at all except you can’t reach the highest notes and the lowest notes in your range. It’s the opposite. Singing in key, I’m in the key of C and all my notes are in the key of C. If you are out of tune on a pitch, you sing a pitch and one goes slightly flat or slightly sharp, that doesn’t mean you’ve sung out of key. That doesn’t mean that you sing out of tune. The expressions, “I sang a note out of tune,” and “I sing out of tune,” are very different.
People will create it as if it’s an all-or-nothing situation. The idea of singing flat or sharp occasionally is because we’re human and we are powering our voice with airflow and we’re pressurizing airflow in a very specific way. If our pressurization of airflow changes when we didn’t intend it, or our mouth creates a shape that we didn’t intend, that can make a pitch go out of tune slightly.
Most people don’t notice that when you are watching someone sing. Most people don’t even hear it when you’re listening to someone sing, but the person singing will hear that no doubt when they listen back to the recording of their singing because they are not listening for vulnerability, connection to the audience, or emotion. They’re listening for mistakes. “Did I do it exactly right? Did I do it perfectly?”
There is no such thing. We live in a society that says, “Sure, there is. Autotune.” In the singing world, that’s our nemesis for creative people who want to be artists of true expression and connectivity because it makes our sound seem unreachable. I’m always telling my clients, “Do not try and create an acoustic sound based on an electronic sound you’re trying to mimic.”
Even a voice in a microphone, you try and mimic that, you’re missing a whole link. You cannot acoustically produce the thing that you hear on the radio, on a CD, or on vinyl. When people have tight holds on perfectionism, that means that they’ve got some wounds about everything having to be right or it’s not safe. That tells me that that’s not just confidence. We have to say, “You’re okay. You are worthy as is, no matter what sounds you make.”You are worthy no matter what sounds you make. Click To Tweet
Let’s talk about that for a minute. Let’s talk about breath and the way that we can use our breath and how we sometimes forget to use our breath. I know you’ve been doing a lot of work in this domain.
Breathwork is something I’ve worked on throughout my whole life. Somthing I often hear from beginners is “I’ve heard if I learn how to breathe right, I can sing.” I always say, “You’re doing a good job so far because you’re here.” There’s not a lot that’s different from singing. If you’re doing some extraordinary singing like operatic singing, which is very far away from our speaking voice, that does create larger breath systems and lower flow out of your body. It creates a different thing you have to do and be conscious of.
When people sing, one of their greatest fears is that they’re going to run out of breath. I tell people all the time, “If you need to breathe, you just stop and breathe.” If that means you jump in a phrase or two later because you got scared, then you jump in a phrase or two later. Fear itself keeps people’s breath irregulated, it’s not that they are running out of breath, it’s the fear that they are. Sometimes the fear is so great that what happens is they don’t use enough airflow in a phrase as they’re singing because they’re trying to reserve it in case they need it, which then, phrase after phrase, creates the feeling of running out of breath because they are now almost hyperventilating. That is very common.
How often do we do this in life? We have a thought about something, “It’s going to be this way. I’m worried that this is going to go this way. This conversation is going to be hard. I’ve got to fire somebody, or I’ve got to put them on a performance improvement plan, or I’ve got to have a conversation with my boss, or somebody who is accountable to me, or these two people have been having conflict. I’ve got to get in there and have a conversation with them about it. It’s going to be wretched. I’ve got to call my mom.” We’re so afraid we’re going to run out of breath in singing that we create it, we run out of breath in singing because we are hyperventilating because we’re so afraid that we’re going to run out of breath.
It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It is a self-fulfilling prophecy, which is so much of what goes on in life. That was brilliant and awesome.
I’m going to tell you about an experience I had and then I’m going to tell you about all the exercises that I didn’t use and why they would’ve been helpful if I had. I performed my whole life in lots of different situations, big concert halls, little tiny venues, etc. I was co-hosting a house concert for a musician who was coming through Nashville. I was at my friend’s home, who was our host for the night. There were probably about 40 people there.
One of the ways we sell house concerts is that it is an intimate experience with an artist. You don’t have to go to the big arena. There are going to be 40 of you. You’re going to be in a tight little circle around the artist. Nora Jane Struthers, our artist, asked if I would open with a few songs. She’s been one of my songwriting teachers. I thought, “That’s so nice. I would be honored to.” I was excited and looking forward to it. I was also playing host that evening, so I was taking people’s donations at the door.
I had a little bit of a job so I wasn’t the artist for the night. My focus was a little split. I got up to make some announcements at the beginning, then I went into my songs. I did not create enough space for my singing. When I sang my first song, I noticed my breath was very irregulated and it felt like I couldn’t breathe. I realized, and of course, because I know, I thought, “I’m not exhaling enough.”
When there was a moment to take a breath, I tried to exhale everything in my lung so that I could take a fresh breath and continue. Still, my voice was shaky. I was doing a couple of songs that I don’t typically do out because I don’t sing a lot of my songs out when I’m gigging at bars and restaurants because they’re intimate songs. It occurred to me, “I don’t have practice singing this song in front of people.” When I finished that song, I thought, “The next one will be easier.” It wasn’t easier and then I asked myself, “Why is everybody so quiet? Why am I so loud?” while I’m singing a song. Our brain is amazing.
The thoughts that go through it.
Still, my voice was shaky and I thought, “Okay.” Not anything particularly horrible about it. People who don’t know me as a singer would think it was fine. I realized that for the last couple of years, I only sang in front of bars and restaurants where people are not close to me and not paying attention to me half the time. It’s where people are clinking and talking and we’re singing over a roar sometimes. I often have a partner with me, so I am co-regulating my nervous system with him because he’s super relaxed and groovy all the time.
I had the thought, “This is what’s happening.” I recognized cognitively what was happening. Still, I did not stop and do the thing that I knew I needed to do, which was I needed to stop and take a few deep breaths and I could have. It would’ve been an audience that I could’ve said, “I got to regulate my breath,” and they would have responded, “Cool. I don’t know what that means, but okay.”
“That must be an artist thing.”
They’re the audience. They’re there for me. Whatever that little nugget in my brain was that was saying, “The show must go on. You must keep going. You don’t want to seem like you’re failing at something,” whatever that was, it wasn’t conscious. I did not give myself permission and I totally could have. The third song was fine. It wasn’t any better, but it was all fine.
They were all super-vulnerable songs too, as I tend to write in that style. That’s what people picked up on. “What a beautiful voice.” I heard that occasionally, but I also mostly heard, “Your songs were so meaningful. Thank you for sharing that with us.” In the end, that’s what it’s all about, anyway. It’s the connection that we make with people. I sure did shoulda, woulda, coulda myself all night. I kept telling myself, “That’s not helpful.”In the end, it’s all about the connection we make with people. Click To Tweet
I spent the evening regulating my nervous system by going to the corner, sitting in the back, and doing my vagus nerve exercise. This is where I do the “live long and prosper sign” by putting my fingers on either side of my ears. I inhale and I take a long exhale for each breath. I do two or three of those. I already feel my heart rate going down from telling you the story. My voice is getting a little bit calmer as I’m talking to you because that is the power of concentrating and being conscious about breathing.
The reality is, whether you are a professional singer or not, we are often in situations where this idea of regulating our nervous system would be helpful. It is also something that musicians may pay more attention to than us average folk. This would be a great place for us average folk to pay attention. We get triggered.
My husband had a conversation with two of his brothers. If you know my husband, just that sentence was a challenging conversation for him. In conversations with his brothers, there’s always going to be an opportunity for somebody to trigger somebody in that conversation. For the rest of the evening and well into the night (I woke up at about 1:30) he was still awake. I think he was trying to find ways to regulate his nervous system back to feeling okay, normal, or equilibrium.
This idea of regulating our nervous system through the power of our breath, especially in preparation for something that we think has the possibility of going sideways so that it’s much less likely to go sideways, if we come into a calm place and give up all of our preexisting stories about how it’s going to go, we can come into it fresh with curiosity. After the fact, if things do go sideways, then we have the opportunity to recalibrate.
Can you do that again for our readers? There will be a recording of this on YouTube with both of us. You can see us, and see Julie doing this exercise if you would like to find it there. For those who are reading, how does one do this?
I’m going to do this breathing exercise and I’m going to follow it with a sound exercise. Probably one of the things we’re uncomfortable with, whether you sing or not, is your voice making a weird sound. It’s especially true for singers, but true for everybody. You’ve got to let your voice do what it wants to do and let it have the freedom to make sounds, including weird sounds, if it wants to. When I say the “live long and prosper sign,” like Spock from Star Trek, I’m creating space between my middle finger and my ring finger. I am putting the middle finger behind my ear and the ring finger in front of my ear and I am holding my jaw and letting my palms go down to my throat.
She’s holding the sides of her face like maybe you would hold a little child’s face. Her palms and her wrists are almost together, depending upon the length of your hands. Her wrists are almost together and at the bottom of her chin. Her ring fingers are on the sides of her face towards her nose. I’ve got to do it myself. Her long finger, her middle finger, is behind each ear.
I can feel my thumbs encompass the sides of my neck. The inhale is through the nose, slow and long. The exhale is going to be as long as you’re comfortable with. You want to be comfortably out of air to take another breath. Everybody’s lung capacity is different so there are no “shoulds” in here. Whenever you’re comfortable, take another inhale. We’re exhaling on each breath, making the Darth Vader sound. It’s not forceful. It’s easy, almost as if you were hissing the air out. I’m going to inhale through the nose real slowly, and I’m going to let my voice moan however it wants to.
A way to sustain energy is to try and do it on a pitch. Lower pitches are easier because that’s where we talk. Your voice will want to live there. The way to know your optimal speaking pitch is if someone says, “Do you like strawberries?” You go, “Mm-hmm,” that’s your pitch. Breathe out just until you’re comfortably out of air.
I did that for three hours recently…when I got my first tattoo! They said to try your best to regulate your breath. No matter how much I concentrated on inhaling and exhaling, what I found is that when you make a sound, you have to inhale. You inhale and exhale without sound, you can try and be intentional about it, but if you’re in pain, it’ll flex. It’ll change. I told my tattoo artist, “I’m going to be doing this,” she said, “That’s totally fine.” While I knew it wasn’t going to feel like puppies licking me, I did not have a concept of what that would feel like. My brain didn’t have a concept of what that would feel like for three and a half hours. It helped a lot.
What is your tattoo?
Janine, favorite place, the beach. There’s sea grass, ocean, clouds, and pelicans. There’s a little video of it on my Instagram page if you want to see it up close.
If somebody wants to find you on Instagram, how do they do that?
I was going to see if there was going to be a great place to play the full song that Julie and her partner Keith Serpa did for our show. The song is called Becoming, right?
It’s called I’m Beginning to Think. (see below to play their song!)
Julie, this has been magnificent, and I think the longest episode I ever did.
We have a tendency to talk a lot.
We’re good talkers in our family.
We like to catch up.
I hope everyone has enjoyed this as much as we have. I’m going to bring this show to a close. Before I do, I want to give you an opportunity. Was there anything you were hoping to talk about or anything that you wanted to bring in that we haven’t had an opportunity to?
No. I was along for the ride. Thank you for having me. I enjoyed being here.
Remember, great leaders make great teams. Until next time.
About Julie Dean
Julie Dean is a singer-songwriter from Charlotte, North Carolina where she has been a voice coach for over 20 years. She owns a private voice studio that reflects her belief in creating a space where singers can explore and find their voice in the most authentic way that suits the music of their heart, and where people can find confidence and ease with their voice from personal to professional capacities. A certified Trauma Support Specialist, she finds that it benefits singers and professional voice users to be aware of their nervous systems role in sound making. Julie is a frequent presenter/lecturer of voice workshops for local and national organizations. After earning a Masters in Music, she has continually sought the latest workshops in voice/body science to serve her clients.
Known as a versatile singer and musician, Julie is in demand for a variety of musical events around Charlotte. In addition to being a solo artist, she is also part of the duo Beauty and The Blues with Keith Serpa, and is a member of Sweetgrass Serenade, a folk country trio.