Practicing Basic Trauma Awareness in the Voice Lesson

At this strange time of living amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, most people are experiencing trauma. Trauma, generally, is experienced when someone is experiencing too much, too fast, or when someone’s needs cannot be sufficiently met. Those needs include health and well-being, food, shelter, water, sleep, clothes, financial security, emotional security, personal security, friendships, intimacy, and family.

People who grew up in situations where physical, emotional, and security needs were met consistently enough develop a better-regulated, better-organized nervous system. They generally experience a sense of safety, ease, curiosity, productivity, and creativity, even in the face of life’s challenges. They are resilient and realistically confident. Even these folks are likely experiencing a strain on their nervous system during this time.

People who grew up in situations where physical, emotional, and/or security needs were not met generally develop a nervous system that is less regulated and organized. Their sense of safety, ease, curiosity, productivity, and/or creativity are more affected by life’s challenges, with varying results depending upon the person. These folks will experience a much greater strain on their nervous system during this time.

What We Can Do in the Studio

As voice teachers, most of us are able to continue connecting with most of our students, which means we have a wonderful opportunity to be a positive influence. We can help provide connection and a sense of continuity during an unsure time.

Keep in mind that many of our students have experienced trauma before the pandemic, and will experience it after the pandemic is over. The same trauma-informed approaches that will be helpful in lessons during this time will be helpful when the pandemic is over, as well.

Prioritize your own self-regulation. A well-regulated teacher signals to the student that they have entered a safe space in which to connect and to learn. A tweaked-out teacher signals to the student that something is wrong, making learning and connection difficult and potentially triggering a trauma response in the mind-body. Do what you can to regulate your nervous system outside of lessons. This may include limiting news/media consumption, spending more time on stress-relieving activities, connecting with people who calm and support you, or sticking with a schedule. Find what works for you.

Have a plan and communicate it. Knowing what to expect helps our nervous system regulate. We also find comfort in seeing people in authority have a plan. At the beginning of the lesson, after checking in and seeing if they have anything in particular they want to work on or show you, give the student a general outline of the lesson. Some students appreciate more detail than others. For instance, one autistic student in my studio likes to know the lengths of time we will work on certain things, or the number of times we will repeat something. Guiding a student through a plan for practicing between lessons is helpful, as well, although we have to be prepared for the student to have difficulty sticking to a practice plan during this time. Singing is one of many things they will be juggling right now, and it’s rarely the most important.

Establish a connection ritual. This can be as simple as “How are you doing today?” or “What was the most fun thing you did this week?” or “Let’s share one tough moment and one hopeful moment.”

Validate their feelings. Our students may share more worries and negative feelings about what’s happening in the world right now. Let them know their feelings are valid and understandable. Resist jumping to problem-solving or telling them they shouldn’t feel a certain way.

That said, children in particular need regular reminders that they are safe. After validating their feelings, remind them of the adults they have in their lives who are keeping them safe and who love them.

Cut things into smaller bites. An overwhelmed system can have trouble breaking things down into steps, so you may need to cut information into smaller bites, go slower, and be more specific about what to do. Regularly ask, “What questions can I answer?”

Choose connection over productivity. Trauma affects the way the brain processes information and prioritizes activities, making it difficult to concentrate and be productive in certain areas. If a student just can’t be very productive right now, choose to foster connection, which will help them re-regulate and move toward productivity when their system can handle it.

Show appreciation for effort. Most people are dealing with a lot of stuff every day even when there’s not a pandemic. Recognizing any effort toward working on singing is encouraging and helps the student feel more competent.

Focus on positive resources. Staying connected to positive resources helps our nervous system regulate. Positive resources include supportive people, safe spaces, memories of doing something competently, overcoming obstacles, and more.

It’s necessary to work on areas that need improvement during lessons, but if a student seems to be hyper-focused on what’s going wrong, and, in particular, if it’s causing their nervous system to go into overload, they may be struggling to remember the positive resources they have available them to accomplish that task. This can make the task feel impossible to take on and complete. You can pause and ask questions that redirect them to positive resources connected to the task. After acknowledging that it can be frustrating when something’s not working they way you hoped, you might ask them to recall moments when something worked well around that task, or, if they can’t think of something, around a similar task. You can also ask them to remember the support systems they have available to them for this task by asking them who/what has helped them in that or similar areas. Help them recall why they love singing, who supports their singing, the ways they’ve successfully faced singing challenges in the past.

If they’re struggling in general to think of any positive resources around singing, ask them what areas of their lives are bringing them pleasure or satisfaction or make them feel competent right now. Together, you may discover a way to connect this positive resource to the task or to singing, or you may need to just appreciate the existence of something positive in their lives, even if it’s not singing right now.

Be aware of the student’s self-regulation. If a student is excessively winding up or shutting down while talking about something or doing an activity, their nervous system may be headed toward dysregulation. People whose nervous systems have trouble regulating often don’t notice when they’re headed toward a system overload. Thankfully, they can learn to better self-regulate with a trained somatic psychotherapist. While we are not trained somatic psychotherapists, we can still be mindful of the clues our students are sending that they may be starting to feel overwhelmed.

If you notice your student winding up or shutting down, you can gently, non-judgmentally bring their attention to it. If you’re noticing a major increase in tension, for instance, you might say, “I’m going to interrupt you for just a second to ask you what you’re feeling in your body as we work on this.” They may say, “Hmm. I think I was starting to tense up all over.” You could follow up with, “A little bit of tension is normal when we’re doing something new or challenging. Did it feel like a lot of tension or just a little?” If they felt that it was just a little, you can probably continue. If there was a lot, you could say, “Is there a way you can continue while feeling more relaxed?” If they say, “Yes, I think so,” then continue and let them explore that. Check in and see if they notice the relaxation. Let them know if you noticed it, too.

If they can’t seem to stop winding up or shutting down during a particular task, consider rerouting to a different one.

Say you’re sorry. If you didn’t keep it together as well as you’d hoped and reacted to a student in a way you didn’t particularly like during a lesson, just apologize. We all make mistakes and it’s important for students to see that we can acknowledge them, apologize, and take steps to repair any damage. We’re all dealing with excessive stress, and students will understand.

Encourage calm. Consider leading a short breathing, meditation, or guided visualization exercise during the lesson to help the student’s nervous system regulate. The Calm app has a wonderful database that you can use.

Encourage fun. We all need lightness in the midst of this weight. Recommend fun music activities and apps for your students. Remind students to incorporate fun in any form into their day.

Encourage connection. Consider hosting an online group meeting for students to see and hear each other. You can also encourage music playdates among students. Apps like Soundtrap, BandLab, and Acapella allow collaborative music making.

Connect to sources of help. Let your students know that they can trust you if they need to share safety and security concerns. Know your local social services contacts in case they need to be connected to someone who can protect their safety and well-being.

While no one would ever wish this pandemic on humanity, I believe we will come through this with deeper connections, and that our voices will sing out stronger than before. Let’s keep taking care of our students, ourselves, and each other.

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