Finding Our Voice

Margaret Evans speaks with a woman whose own experience of 'losing her voice' on the world stage has led her to champion the voiceless.

Margaret Evans speaks with a woman whose own experience of 'losing her voice' on the world stage has led her to champion the voiceless.

The story of a man's struggle to overcome his soul-destroying stutter hardly seems the stuff of box office success. Admittedly, he was the King of England at the time, albeit reluctantly, and his struggle took place against the backdrop of looming conflict in Europe. As we all know The Kings Speech was a huge cinematic success with Geoffrey Rush starring as George VI's highly individualistic Australian voice coach Lionel Logue.

Nevertheless, it begs the question how much the film's success speaks to our own deep seated fears of being struck voiceless in the face of overwhelming challenge. Public speaking is right up there on the list of phobias, along with enclosed spaces, wide open spaces, heights and spiders! I clearly recall holding my breath, many times, and silently willing Colin Firth as King George on in his battle with himself to find his voice - and ultimately himself. I'm sure we all did.

One woman who understands the conflict deep at the heart of George VI and many others who have 'lost their voice' through emotional trauma is vocal coach Dr Louise Mahler.

A former opera singer who was accepted as a protégé by the acclaimed German soprano Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and who scaled the heights of the intensely competitive opera world to be offered a soloist's contract at the Vienna State Opera, Louise gave it all away when she found she, too, had lost her voice.

Looking back 21 years, Louise can see her gilded career path was undermined by unrelenting pressure: "It was hideous, massively competitive. As a girl from Brisbane I thought I was the most competitive person I had ever met. But a lot of the people I was dealing with were from the Eastern bloc and they were tough." Says Louise, the opera stage offered their only route out of poverty and obscurity and they'd fight tooth and nail for every opportunity.

Now able to laugh about what was clearly a deeply confronting period in her life, she recalls being beaten up in her dressing room by one rival while another refused to get out of her costume because she wanted Louise's role on opening night. "It was so ugly, you wouldn't believe. Someone was murdered in the toilets while I was there - a dancer, not a singer. It was that kind of atmosphere."

Being accepted as a protégé of Schwarzkopf, widely regarded as one of the greatest sopranos of the 20th century, seemed to offer Louise the pathway to stardom that others could only envy.

"She was massively famous. She was a goddess," says Louise. "She told me I needed a heavier sound and she completely changed my technique. As long as I was with her, I could imitate her beautifully. There was a review of a concert I did in London which said it was obvious who I worked with because I sounded just like her.

"It's fascinating in retrospect and to sound like Schwarzkopf is fantastic. But you know what? You don't want someone else's voice. You want your own voice.

"It wasn't my voice, it wasn't my technique. And with the pressure I was under in Vienna, the whole thing just fell apart. I found I just didn't know what I was doing.... the sound just wasn't coming out."

Personal pressures also came to a head and Louise looks back on this time of "no husband, no career, no money" as "one of those periods in your life you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy."

Coming back to Australia, she recalls "feeling really quite shattered and with an enormous sense of failure. I had wanted to be a soloist in the best opera houses in the world and instead I had nothing. "

As if the loss of her glittering career wasn't enough, medical problems surfaced in the form of chronic bronchitis. After being prescribed drugs for her constant cough, which Louise subsequently discovered strip the moisture from the vocal folds and literally take the voice away thus perpetuating the problem, she took a life affirming decision to heal herself.

For the next six years, she focused on building a career in the business world based on her economics degree and retraining in other fields including organisational psychology. "I realised my own problems were emotional so I didn't sing for six years. Basically, I didn't open my mouth. It became more and more important for me to look at the emotional side and how people mess up their voices.... and to take control again of my voice and help other people do the same.

"I never consciously thought about finding my own voice again. It is only in retrospect that I can see I was healing myself." Remarkably, at least to the conventional world but far less so to those of us accustomed to such stories of self healing, Louise's awakening to her own role in creating her illness and thus her power to heal it, led to spontaneous remission from her chronic bronchitis. "I put down the drugs and I never coughed from that day."

Louise's own journey to healing and the insights it has given her will be one of the keynote addresses at The Gawler Foundation's annual Integrative Healthcare Conference, this year titled "Profound Healing-Sustainable Wellbeing". The event will take place in Melbourne on November 19 and 20 and has attracted such leaders in the field as Dr Craig Hassed, senior lecturer at Monash University's Department of General Practice and well known for his holistic approach, wholefood nutritionist and naturopath Janella Purcell, Professor Avni Sali, Director of the National Institute of Integrative Medicine, Siegfried Gutbrod, Therapeutic Director of the Gawler Foundation, Kabbalah teacher, Rabbi Dovid Tsap, Dr Vicki Kotsirilos, founder of the Australasian Integrative Medicine Association and 33 year old melanoma survivor Scott Stephens.

Louise Mahler's own experience of loss and subsequent empowerment has given her a deep awareness that so many others are experiencing equal misery - yet in many cases, people remained trapped in their own cone of silence.

"I could see we were all in the same tribe. We all have different journeys but we're all in the same tribe. In Western culture we're not good at handling voice and don't realise how it is so psychologically connected. We let the emotional mind run it and run it badly. We accept that it's almost as if we've been taken over by aliens and there's nothing we can do about it. It doesn't get addressed, it doesn't get discussed."

Determined to find out more, Louise completed a PhD on how we can use our voice both in business but also in daily life, focusing on our relationship with our voice and how we can improve it.

A key finding that has influenced her approach is that voice is integrated into the whole mind/body: "I've found that when I'm working with voice I end up working with the mind and the body."

And the starting point with any new client is always the breath. She has identified seven areas of blockage that interfere with an individual's attempts to produce sound. "It isn't about opening yourself up in any way. It's actually about stopping yourself from closing. It starts with the diaphragm jamming the throat, that stops the tongue going back, the mouth closing, closing the body, clamping the body, holding the body still.....

"It's all about how we block the breath. Voice is just breath, that's all it is. Sound is just air."

Working with survivors of Black Saturday has convinced Louise of the profound impact of our emotions on our voice. The terrible circumstances of their loss of loved ones and property had robbed many of the survivors of their ability to express their deepest feelings. As Louise explains, "I've found that under trauma, we create these blockages in our body that block the air. If we hold these blockages over time, they have long term effects. Basically, it silences us."

A totally unexpected finding of her work with the survivors was that 50% were experiencing hearing loss. While the specialist medical explanation was a reaction to the sound of the fire, Louise was aware that many had escaped the fire front itself, feeling intuitively that "it had nothing to do with the fire".

Her subsequent research turned up the little known Costen's Syndrome, which affects the temporomandibular joint that controls jaw function. "It's where you jam your jaw shut through stress and it's the stress on your jaw that crushes the Eustachian tube and sends you deaf." The cure, Louise advises, is as simple as opening your mouth! We all know examples in public, sporting and political life of people clenching their jaw muscles in response to stressful situations - serving as a timely reminder to loosen up as we handle life's challenging moments.

Louise's work with the Black Saturday survivors has touched a deep chord: she recalls an invitation to be a keynote speaker at a ceremony to mark the first anniversary of the tragedy as "the most honoured day of my life".

Louise's background on the opera stage is always instrumental in teaching voice awareness, whether her client is an executive learning how to handle the dreaded speeches that come with the job, people with a medical condition affecting their voice, trauma survivors or, frequently, sexual abuse victims whose experience has closed down their ability to express themselves.

"There's a thing in the throat called the false vocal folds which is part of the mechanism to stop water getting into the lungs to prevent drowning. But this part of the body doesn't differentiate between drowning from water or drowning from emotion. When you're drowning from emotion they just shut.

"When you know something about voice, you know there is a way to release those false vocal folds and they've proven it's a muscle under the eyes. There are specific exercises but the easiest way is just to smile. So when you smile you can actually hear it in your voice," says Louise.

And another helpful hint we can all put into practice next time stage fright threatens to spoil a speech night or important presentation, do what opera singers without the benefit of a microphone do "to get the power out".

"One of the critical ways is to work on the muscles to get power behind the voice....and the muscles you work on are those of the bum. Operas singers learn to sit on sound.... bend their knees and sit on sound."

The "Profound Healing-Sustainable Wellbeing" Conference will be held at Melbourne's Hilton on the Park Hotel on Saturday November 19 and Sunday November 20. For more information and registration visit www.gawler.org/speakers