Voice Movement Therapy and The Beauty of the Dared Expression: A Brief Introduction to Voice Movement Therapy
By Anne Brownell, MA, LMHC, VMTR

Presented at the International Association for Voice Movement Therapy Conference Oudtshoorn, South Africa, October 2, 2011
(First given in German at the 2009 IAVMT Conference in Stiermark, Austria}

As Alexander Lowen, the mid-twentieth century founder of Bioenergetics, notably said,

“It is the limitations of our being that make us sad and angry and constitute our fear. If one wants to change character (and, I would add, change restrictive habits of body, mind AND voice), it is not enough to talk about feelings; they must be experienced and expressed.”

(Alexander Lowen, Fear of Life)

The human voice reflects both physical and psychic states and has the ability to convey cognitive meaning and affective expression simultaneously. It is our primary instrument of communication for both ideas and feelings and can move us with words and beyond words. It is the only instrument wherein player and played upon are contained within the same organic form and therefore can achieve its fullest expression when firmly grounded in the body. It has two main channels of communication: the words we say – the symbols we use to convey our cognitive, thinking message; and the way we say them – the tones and qualities of voice which express the affective or feeling message underlying what we speak or sing.

Whether one is working with one’s own voice, with singers or other performers, with clients in psychotherapy, or with individuals experiencing developmental or injury-related impediments, change of some kind is the order of the day. Whether one’s expressive facility, in singing or in speaking, has become hampered by issues or conditions from childhood or by trauma experienced later in life, it is the investigation and subsequent embodiment in song and story of these issues – with all their shadows and their lights – that moves us toward the fuller expression and depth of communication we desire.

This is the point of view of the relatively new discipline of Voice Movement Therapy (VMT) as it has been received and developed from the pioneering voicework of Alfred Wolfsohn. There are several key figures involved in the development of VMT, and the first of these – the Founding Father, if you will – is Alfred Wolfsohn.



Wolfsohn, a German Jew serving as a medic in the trenches of World War I, had the experience of hearing severely and mortally wounded soldiers calling, crying and screaming out their fear and anguish in an astounding array of pitches and tones. In the thick and deadly muck which was the reality of trench warfare, a tunnel collapsed and Wolfsohn had to choose whether to try to crawl back to rescue a dying comrade – and risk almost certain death himself – or continue to crawl toward the living.

He chose life, but when sent home from the front found he could not rid himself of constant auditory hallucinations; he still heard his comrades screaming. Discovering that neither doctors nor therapists nor teachers of singing could relieve him of the voices that were driving him mad, he – like many other pioneers of new forms of alternative therapies – sought to cure himself. He believed that if he could reproduce, could literally embody these voices, he could exorcise or at least find a way to live with them. While engaged in this endeavour, he made some significant discoveries:

First, he learned that the work he had created for himself – a combination of vocal, physical and spiritual exploration – was useful to others, as well. After the war ended, he moved from Germany to London where for many years he ran a voice studio. Secondly, from his war experiences and his work on himself and others, he determined that any given human voice was not limited in range or quality to the prevailing vocal categories of soprano, alto, tenor or base; nor to specific gender roles; nor to the qualities of tone perceived by the culture of the day as aesthetically beautiful – but that it was capable of much more extended and varied expression. As a result, he developed his concept of the vox humana, a universal human voice of astonishing range and multiple timbres with which to express experiences and emotions in sounds both “beautiful” and “unbeautiful,” but congruent with the subject matter.

Wolfsohn lived and developed his kind of voicework at the same time that Carl Jung was achieving pre- eminence. Wolfsohn’s method of vocal development as a path to personal and spiritual growth had much in common with Jung’s process of individuation, and Wolfsohn sought to interest him in considering the importance of acoustic as well as visual images. Jung was not interested, but Dr. Paul Moses, a well-known otolaryngologist intent on diagnosing vocal conditions by ear and introducing principles of psychotherapy into vocal analysis, took up Wolfsohn’s cause and secured public hearings for him and his students which were favourably reported in the press. In addition to demonstrating the greatly extended range and kinds of sounds they were able to produce – much of it dysphonic or disrupted – he was able to prove that this kind of extreme singing need NOT cause vocal damage.



After Wolfsohn’s death, his student, actor Roy Hart, became the leader of the group and took the work into theatre, establishing first a company and later a school to explore and expand many of Wolfsohn’s ideas and techniques. Whereas Wolfsohn prioritized a kind of therapeutic voicework which employed some theatre techniques and was primarily intended to facilitate personal growth, Hart used voicework to expand the range and qualities of sound available to actors, so that they might touch more deeply their own emotional truths and convey them to audiences. He established his own form of the work which continues to this day as theatre-based personal exploration, but without a containing therapeutic framework.


Newham: Origins of his interest in Voicework

In the year Wolfsohn died, Englishman Paul Newham was born. As one of the first artificially inseminated babies to survive and discovering in his late teens that the man he thought was his father was not, Newham “adopted” Wolfsohn as his spiritual parent and made it his mission to develop this form of voicework further. Like Wolfsohn, Newham also had a stormy relationship with the sounding voice. As a child, he was often exposed to fighting between his parents. Escaping upstairs, he would listen to what he later called “the savage opera” through a water glass held to the wooden floor to try to hear what was happening below. He had to guess this by the sounds, since the words were not audible.

Sensitized, like Wolfsohn, to vocal extremes and incongruities, Newham became acutely aware of the discrepancy – the disconnection – between what was often happening in real life and how it was more politely expressed in speech and song. Like theatrical and vocal innovators Peter Brook, Armand Artaud, Jerzi Grotowski, and Wolfsohn and Hart before him, Newham noted the way that English and European theatre prioritized precise diction and formal declamation over more emotionally based components of language.

He was also dissatisfied with the way that classical music – and opera especially – took socially reprehensible subjects – such as greed, lust and murder – and rendered them in exquisite tones and forms according a carefully established set of rules, many of which had been developed because of the Christian church’s insistence on banishing what it considered to be disharmonious and discordant sounds in music. In beginning to trace the expressive and healing use of the voice in the West, Newham discovered it had travelled a long way from its cathartic purpose in ancient Greek tragedy and become increasingly more limited, for example, than the extended range and multi-timbered virtuosity of 17th century bel canto style. In the Western world’s endeavors to banish so-called “ugly” vocal sounds, it seemed that the act of giving voice had been restricted and diminished. The right of an individual not only to express feelings spontaneously, but to tell his own story and sing his own song – including those matters which were considered “unspeakable” – had been lost. Becoming ever more interested in the right to give voice in one’s own way, Newham sought further understanding by investigating the role of voice in psychotherapy. Inevitably, he began with Freud and Jung:



It was Freud who demonstrated through the development and practice of psychoanalysis that the psychological health of an individual depended in large part on his ability to express feelings through the voice. Freud derived his cathartic method from Greek tragedy, where the aim was to purge feelings of pity and terror through singing and acting in order to discharge psychic stress. However, he made one major change: He believed that words could be substituted for deeds and that the process of abreaction – the ideal expenditure of energy in response to a past event in order to return a person to a state of psychological balance – could be achieved by words alone if those words were uttered with great affect. While this method has proven helpful to many individuals, it did not serve others who, for various reasons, needed a more embodied connection to the workings of the mind. In the development of his “talking cure,” Freud did not carry his notions of the voice further.



In developing his work, Carl Jung recognized that what he identified as complexes – those unconscious networks of sense impressions, images and ideas which we associate with the emotional tone of the body – could be heard in the acoustic tones of voice. He discovered in the disintegrating speech patterns of people suffering from schizophrenia that the pitches and qualities of vocal tone could express, without words, the affective nucleus of a complex. However, he did not carry this line of investigation further, but concentrated his active imagination and other techniques primarily on visual images. BUT, his concepts of Anima and Animus, of the male and female parts contained in each of our psyches, and the way of working he developed which he called Active Imagination had lasting impact on the experimental voicework that followed, and on Voice Movement Therapy, as well.



The first recognized body-centred psychotherapist, Wilhelm Reich, used voicing and breathing as a way of achieving release from the muscular body armouring which absorbed and held in check the dammed-up energies of repressed feelings. By extending and deepening restricted patterns of breathing with hands-on Massage, Manipulation and Compression, he was able to release pent-up emotions through screams, sobs and sighs, which helped to break up the muscular body blocks inhibiting the organism’s ability to change and grow. His student Alexander Lowen determined that the quality of voice often mirrored the nature of the underlying repressed emotions, declaring that the impeding of the body’s innate malleability was the curse of Western civilization. Both men were working with the disconnection between body and mind which they found in their clients.

The voice, located between brain and body and capable of conveying both ideas, through words, and physical sensation, through vibration, was ideally suited to provide a vehicle to strengthen the body/mind connection, but this didn’t happen. In fact, none of these pioneers developed a system for prioritizing the voice itself as a therapeutic modality. It took a medical man who was neither a psychologist nor a neurologist to begin developing this connection.



Dr. Paul Moses, the Ear, Nose and Throat specialist who championed Wolfsohn, believed that the success of any vocal and psychological therapy depended on giving voice to those ideas and feelings for which words were inadequate. This was precisely what Brook, Artaud, Hart and Grotowski were trying to do in their theatre work by helping actors to remove personal inhibitions which prevented the physical and vocal expression of psychological material – in a process akin to psychotherapy. They believed that the sounds of language – what Newham later identified as ten vocal components – comprised an emotional communication as important as words and could reveal psychic images of personal and collective significance: what we now view as archetypes and subpersonalities.


Newham: Investigations and synthesis of voicework and therapy

In response to these psychological and theatrical investigations of the 1940’s through 1960’s, Newham felt the need to synthesize and create from diverse disciplines a true “psychotherapy of singing.” In his seminal book, The Singing Cure, he traced lines of development in several different areas in the use of the voice for expression and communication: in song and speech; in theatre and classical music; and in the development of both analytical and body-centred psychotherapy. In all these, he noted the shadow of the unspoken and unsounded – and how roots of the body-mind split could be traced both to the development of speech in the evolution of humankind and to the developmental process of each individual child learning to talk.


Evolution of speech

Human speech developed from a kind of vocal and gestural song and dance – a kind of proto-language which could NOT express an event, object, or element of feeling without embodying it. Over centuries, language progressed to increasingly abstract speech in which vocal symbols alone, without the direct sensory engagement of the speaker, could convey a message. This advance created great clarity in the articulation of ideas and the ability to reason and describe. However, it also created a separation, or disconnection, between the natural world and the sensing and responding bodily self – one of the factors in the formation of the shadow that contributed to what we recognize as a split between mind and body.


Developmental process of learning to speak

This evolutionary process is paralleled by the universal developmental acquisition of speech and language by children; they gradually have to give up spontaneous sound-making in order to learn the rules of the code – language – needed to function in an increasingly complex society. To do this, they have to give up the sensuous oral delight of unrestricted sound-making and the compelling power of vocalization without words to command attention from parents and others. They also become subjected to judgement: a word is the right word or it is wrong; its pronunciation is correct or it is not. Many vocal problems have their beginning during this formative time and it also often plays a part in the dilemma of singers who can vocalize freely, but become tense and constricted the moment they must add words to their vocalizations, especially within the fixed structure of song. Much of the craft of learning to sing within the formalized structure of a song involves a process of losing and finding again that spontaneous voice.


Losing and finding the spontaneous voice

As Newham recounted it: In the evolution of singing from the primordial voice-dances of our ancestors and the use of the voice in ancient Greek tragedy to promote healing in both actor and audience by inducing catharsis – the same effect Freud sought in his “talking cure” – the voice lost much of both its curative and its expressive potential. In large part, this was because of two widespread, culturally imposed forms of judgement:

1. The triumph of an aesthetics of “good” or “bad,” acceptable and unacceptable, as determined by the Christian church in its quest for ever more light to banish all shadows, and

2. A classical style of singing that evolved to favor a clear and seamless vocal line produced in one of four basic categories determined by pitch, range and certain qualities and combinations of sound.

A problem with banishing shadows in favour of light, of smoothing out ragged edges to make seamlessly beautiful sound, is that it can sometimes impoverish itself and limit the presence of contraries by which to change and grow. As Wolfsohn said,

“The psychological concept of the shadow corresponds to the aesthetic concept of ugliness. The beauty of the dared expression is that only in encountering and overcoming the dark side of oneself can one achieve true artistic expression, uniting all aspects of the self in order to feel whole and encounter others.”

(Wolfsohn, unpublished notes, Marita Gunther)

In other words, a sunset is not a sunset without its illumination by the coming darkness. In the second half of The Singing Cure, Newham outlined his system for a true psychotherapy of the voice which could work with extremes on a continuum.


The Principles and Purpose of VMT

Combining Wolfsohn’s therapeutic voicework with: the theatre work of Hart, Grotowski and others; the work of Reich in body-centered psychotherapy; of Jung through the process of active imagination and the concepts of archetype, animus and anima, and enantiodromia; and of Moses in creating categories of

auditorily recognizable constituents of vocal sound with which to view both physical and psychological conditions, Newham formed a multi-modal Expressive Therapy of the Voice which seeks to: increase the flexibility, durability and versatility of each individual voice through:

1. An investigation of its organic and developmental relationship to breathing and bodily movement, and

2. An exploration of how the components of voice and related movement patterns reflect different aspects of ourselves and our life stories and can be used to effect change and growth.

The core of the VMT “system” is based on the metaphor of the continuous and flexible vocal tube and the identification of ten vocal components common to all voices.

Although I personally mistrust the words “method” and “system” – ever mindful of how they can become too rigidly adhered to and cut off new avenues of individual creativity in the process – Newham synthesized much of the foregoing work to create what I believe is the first true psychotherapy in which the voice is the main modality. It has neutral, objective terms for discussing qualities of voice across a broad spectrum and is based not only on creative and therapeutic process, but also upon a knowledge of acoustics and the anatomy and physiology of the vocal system in relation to the rest of the body.


Current work

Newham resigned from the work of VMT in January 2000, and its professional organization, the International Association for Voice Movement Therapy (IAVMT), re-incorporated itself at that time. We are continuing his work and have expanded the training by making it more specifically developmental and emphasizing the importance of group process in the creation and maintenance of a safe therapeutic container. We use the work for art and therapy, seeking to make our voices and ourselves increasingly responsive to processes of change and growth.

For us, as for Newham and Alfred Wolfsohn before him, VMT work begins not with the spoken word, its cognitive content or articulation, but with the affective aspects of voiced sound, and combines a basic knowledge of vocal acoustics and the anatomy and physiology of the vocal system with movement and massage, imagery and enactment, creative and therapeutic process. It is, in essence, an exploration of the self and one’s ability to communicate verbally and non-verbally through the voice. It is useful for individuals whose vocal expression is blocked, limited or otherwise difficult as a result of emotional or psychological distress, muscular tension and/or neurological or physical impediments, as well as for those who seek further personal or professional empowerment through the voice.

I would like to note here that work with different populations in quite a few different countries and continents is currently being done by VMT practitioners: in social work agencies, hospitals and clinics; in schools of various kinds; and in private practice; with people suffering from PTSD, AIDS and abuse; with children and adults experiencing developmental delays; with people engaged in becoming singers, actors and ministers. in short, in many different kinds of situations in which the issue of voice is of paramount importance to the individual in question.



In closing, I would like to summarize by saying that: The human voice reflects both physical and psychic states and has the ability to convey cognitive meaning and affective expression simultaneously. It is our primary instrument of communication for both ideas and feelings and can move us with words and beyond words. It is the only instrument wherein player and played upon are contained within the same organic

form and therefore can achieve its fullest expression when firmly grounded in the body. It has two main channels of communication: the words we say – the symbols we use to convey our cognitive message; and the way we say them – the tones and qualities of voice which express the affective or feeling message underlying what we speak or sing. The heart of VMT is, I believe, the achievement of the embodied voice, and its container is the song. The voice is the medium; movement grounds it in the body; and it is pursued within the crucible of a consistent therapeutic relationship.

The development of language, both in terms of the evolution of the human species and in the progression of individuals from infancy to adulthood, originated in vocal gestures without words and then became joined to acoustic and written symbols. This has often led to a de-emphasis on the emotions behind the words, an essential ingredient which we seek to recapture through the act, and art, of song – a process by which the song becomes the vehicle for both the expression and the containment of issues and affects, thoughts and emotions. To the fullest extent possible, VMT practitioners believe it is necessary to re-embody the voice, not just from the diaphragm up, but through a holistic engagement of body, mind and soul. The more we can connect our vocal output to our physical selves – the more flexible, durable, versatile and responsive we can make it to life as we experience it – the more we can ground ourselves in the reality of our whole being. Working with a particular set of vocal components, breathing and massage techniques, images, ideas, and the sounds and characters that emerge when engaging with one’s own story through the embodied voice, we seek to bring that voice into the world.



· Newham, Paul. 1993. The Singing Cure: An Introduction to Voice Movement Therapy. Shambala Publications, Inc, Boston, MA

· Newham, Paul. 1998. Therapeutic Voicework: Principles and Practice for the Use of Singing as a Therapy. Jessica Kingsley Publishers Ltd., London

· Newham, Paul. 1997. The Prophet of Song: The Life and Work of Alfred Wolfsohn, Tiger’s Eye Press, London

· Pikes, Noah. 1999. Dark Voices: The Genesis of Roy Hart Theatre. Spring Journal Inc, Woodstock. C