The History of Voice Movement Therapy
Written by Anne Brownell
Voice Movement Therapy (VMT) is an Expressive Arts Therapy founded in 1992 by Englishman Paul Newham who took his inspiration from the life and work of Alfred Wolfsohn, a German Jew who, as a soldier in the trenches of World War I, experienced the sound of voices in extremis. After escaping from a collapsed trench in which numbers of his comrades were buried alive, Wolfsohn suffered what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder in the form of constant aural hallucinations; he still heard his comrades screaming. He sought relief by enlisting the aid of the psychotherapists and singing teachers of his day, but like many pioneers of new therapeutic disciplines, he could find no one to help him and so endeavored to cure himself.
These struggles took the form of reproducing the sounds he had heard in the hope of, if not exorcising them and the shadowy figures they represented, then at least learning to draw expressive strength from his demons and thus transform them into something he could use. During this process, he created a form of therapeutic voicework through which he sought to explore all the parameters of the human voice as a form of self-healing. He later took this healing work to others, building up a teaching practice in London and demonstrating his work both within and outside the United Kingdom.
After Wolfsohn’s death in 1962, his pupil, actor and director Roy Hart, took this work into the theater and became part of the sixties movement spearheaded by innovators Peter Brook, Antonin Artaud and Jerzy Grotowski, who explored theatre without words. Hart made his own productions and founded a troupe and school in Maleargues, France. He died tragically in a car accident in 1975, but his theatre-based work continues to be internationally taught.
Paul Newham, born in the year that Wolfsohn died, first experienced this type of work from Enrique Pardo, a member of Hart’s troupe and a gifted teacher and workshop leader. Newham subsequently went on to combine the therapeutic voicework of Wolfsohn with the theatrical work of Hart, also incorporating:
- A form of massage, manipulation, and compression which took inspiration from the work of Wilhelm Reich, but which Newham focused specifically on expanding respiration for singing and speaking and which could be employed while the client was actively engaged in moving and sounding;
- Therapeutic principles based on active imagination, archetypes and the development of a more realized sense of Self, conceived of by C.G. Jung, which Newham applied to vocal work;
- A way of listening to the various components of the voice which built on the creative listening techniques of both Wolfsohn and otolaryngologist Paul Moses, one of Wolfsohn’s strongest supporters and a contemporary of Jung, which Newham further developed through the delineation of ten identifiable vocal components and the metaphorical concept of a malleable, flexible vocal tube extending through the whole torso and responsive to both physiological and emotional change.
Newham began his work with non-verbal populations by helping them form a communicative facility based on affective, or expressive, sound and theatrical enactments. He then extended his work to others, seeking to explore, expand, and strengthen their vocal abilities through a particular set of voice and movement principles forming an active creative and therapeutic process for transforming one’s issues and dilemmas from problems in living to ways of releasing trapped energy to resolve or reconcile personal issues.
Newham and Wolfsohn held in common a need and desire to investigate the self through the process of embodying the voice. As Wolfsohn put it, “When I speak of singing, I do not consider it to be an artistic exercise, but the possibility and means by which to recognize oneself and to transform this recognition into conscious life.” He referred to this process as soul-making. According to Newham, “What VMT can change is the way a person experiences himself” which he sought to do by turning this way of working with the voice into an actively expressive therapeutic discipline.
A Bit About Our More Recent History
Norma Canner had a profound influence on VMT. The Norma G. Canner Foundation for Voice Movement Therapy, the school which provides the current training, stems from its two sources of inspiration and the purpose for which it exists: to facilitate the teaching of VMT in terms of the principles and practices set forth by its founder, Paul Newham, but in a more holistic and grounded way, as exemplified in the work of Norma Canner: VMT is the first in-depth Expressive Arts Therapy which employs the human voice as its main modality. It uses movement extensively because, since the voice is the only instrument wherein both player and played upon are contained within the same organic form, a flexible, versatile and durable voice can best be developed and achieve full expression when firmly grounded in the body. This work is therapeutic in that it requires an in-depth exploration of oneself and one’s issues through the contours of the voice and through the creative enactment of one’s personal story in movement and song.
By carrying on this training, Brownell and Isherwood and others who have taught on the Training seek to honor Newham’s creation, but also to infuse it with a philosophy, spirit and way of working which is respectful of individuals within the context of a developing group dynamic. Not only do we conduct the training in the presence of the group as a whole, but we have required that students live together in shared housing during training modules. Most importantly, we endeavor, within a developmental frame of reference, to honor the child in each of us – the original and primary source of our creativity – by providing a supportive if challenging environment in which people may dare to take the risks necessary to change and grow.
Respect for each individual, awareness of the importance of the group as a basis for social interaction, and a deep and abiding belief in the creative potential of each human being to effect their own healing and contribute to the well-being of others, are principles exemplified in the life and work of Norma Canner which the teachers of the Foundation that bears her name seek to uphold and convey to others.
VMT has continued to develop since its inception, as evidenced in the various contexts in which our work is now applied. On the Training, Anne Brownell has solidified and expanded Newham’s developmental work by exploring the connection between movement, voice and self. She has also emphasized the importance of group work and the therapeutic safety of each individual within the group context, and her non-judgmental approach to working with people is based on the same respect and opportunity for further development that VMT accords each voice, and on the knowledge of the importance of a safe holding container to allow individuals the opportunity, as Canner said, “to take risks and grow.” Christine Isherwood has expanded the scope and depth of John Rowan’s subpersonality work and also the use of fairy tales, while emphasizing the significance of personal narrative and spontaneous creativity in service to therapeutic goals. There has been ongoing development of the 10 Vocal Components, including their unique contribution to the context of voice science, and further research into the applications of VMT for various populations such as those with learning disabilities, members of the LGBTQ community seeking to retrain their voices to match their self-concepts, people with addictions, and new explorations in areas such as environmental studies, creative maskwork, reclamation of indigenous music, and shamanic work, to name a few.
Registered practitioners have presented on Voice Movement Therapy at conferences such as The Annual American Dance Therapy Association Conference; the New England Expressive Therapy Conference; The Roy Hart Theatre Conference at the International Centre for the Voice in London, UK; IEATA in Cambridge, MA; The European Conference on Body-Oriented Psychotherapy in Vienna; the Expressive Therapy Conference in the Czech Republic; our annual IAVMT conferences, and in various other medical, counselling, psychotherapeutic, and arts-based conferences and forums around the world.
Many of our practitioners are exploring and discovering new, effective and powerful ways of sharing this work in different contexts, demonstrating the efficacy of this work in health, welfare and educational programs by their individual efforts, and the work is becoming known. VMT is a relatively new discipline and, as such, is shared with the world by practitioners who are resourceful and passionate about the work: by taking it into fields in which they are currently engaged; setting up their own practices; giving demonstrations in schools, clinics, alternative education, and various social and therapeutic organizations; working with people from other disciplines such as Speech/Language Pathology, Psychiatry and Psychology, Creative Arts disciplines, Early Childhood Education and suchlike. It is an exciting and growing field and there is a great deal of interest in it. As a community, we gather and share ideas and discoveries and maintain an ethos of continued learning and development.
Voice Movement Therapy as a professional discipline is represented by the IAVMT. The Association is led by a Board of Directors who have adopted an Ubuntu approach to leadership. ‘Ubuntu’ is a South African term that essentially means togetherness, acting and contributing in favour of the community as a whole. We are nurturing our growth and finding innovative ways to adapt to global changes, and to expand and extend our VMT work to all those who need it.
Voice Movement Therapy in the World
Since that time – and with the advent of an increasingly global culture, the field known as world music, and the continuing development of various kinds of alternative therapies – the understanding of the emotional messages and psychological overtones expressed through the voice, as well as the message encoded in the words themselves, have all become increasingly important.
Voice Movement Therapy, grounded in anatomy, physiology, and vocal acoustics as well as creative and therapeutic process, is perhaps the most comprehensive and teachable of the many types of therapeutic voicework that have appeared and is a fully-fledged therapy of and through the voice. When working with individuals with no language or severe language delays, it offers an experiential, person-centered approach that is different from the many assistive technologies now available. For people experiencing delays, injuries, or from a different cultural or ethnic background, it provides a way of communicating through an affective, non-verbal language. For people grappling with issues to which they need to give voice, it provides a way available to the self-identified non-singer and non-performer, as well as the active singer or speaker, for accessing the creativity we all possess.
VMT has, since its beginning, been internationally based, accepting students both from the host country of a particular training and many other parts of the world. Newham conducted his primary trainings between 1991-2000 in London, but also in Switzerland and the USA. Between 2002 to date, the Foundation Training: The Voice Unchained has been taught by Brownell and Isherwood four times in the US, twice by Brownell in S. Africa, and now back in the USA with Brownell and Isherwood teaching the current Training. Isherwood has also taught extensive workshops in Austria, Canada, and Australia, and elements of the Training in China where Melanie Harrold has also guest presented. There have been apprentice assistants in the US (Eva Campbell, Austria); in South Africa, (most notably Ben van Bensburg, now deceased); and in China (Sophie Martin, Australia, and Gina Holloway Mulder, S. Africa).