Opera singer Bethany Hynes, a Don Wright Faculty of Music graduate student, asks her peers a simple question: what does your voice mean to you?
“Singers think about their voice a lot – how they function, how they sound and what it says about them as people,” she says. “It is a huge part of their identity.”
While the singing community does not openly talk about these intensely personal feelings, Hynes said there’s a growing need to acknowledge them and put them out into the open.
“Much like research in body image, I am trying to figure out how to get singers to have a healthy relationship with their voice,” she said.
Hynes is the world’s first researcher to explore different relationships between singers and their voices – she calls it the ‘voice image’ – and to provide a formal framework to link these relationships.
Collaborating with Western psychology professor Rachel Calogero, she is developing a study that includes formal and informal interviews with classical singers and opera singers at Western to find out more about their thoughts, beliefs and feelings about their voices.
“So much of their future, dreams and careers hinges on the question, ‘Am I good enough?’” Hynes said.
Often, singers and their voices are inseparable – which can be a source of pride and confidence and also lead to insecurity, and fluctuating feelings of self-worth.
Her research will be critical to helping singers cope better with praise and criticism alike.
Many artists view a critique of their performance as a critique of self: a poorly received performance translates to “I am a terrible and unworthy person,” Hynes said.
In many cases, music teachers are the sources of criticism because a part of their job is to help singers improve their singing through instigating change.
“Music teachers say, ‘these comments are about your voice, not you,’” Hynes added.
“For most singers, their voice is a part of who they are, and it is very difficult for them to separate the two.”
Hynes’s research will also help music teachers acknowledge these realities and vulnerabilities of students, and work through them by providing more sensitive and effective ways of guiding students.
Hynes will also explore the relation between image and stereotypes within the singing community, and how singers’ perceptions of their inner voice can affect both their external voice and inner peace.
In opera, for example, voice types are often linked to specific roles and personalities. Sopranos, for example, tend to play the part of a princess or a girlfriend or the “good guy.” Mezzo-sopranos, on the other hand, play the sidekick, witches and old women.
“These roles feed into stereotypes and they affect a singer’s identity,” Hynes said.
This is often further complicated by singers’ voices changing over the course of their careers, through vocal injury, illness or time.
For some, it may mean switching from a soprano to a mezzo-soprano – a huge change in repertoire and an equally big shift in identity and how others perceive them. Many singers find it difficulty to adapt, which affects their mental well-being and eventually, their careers.
“It is like throwing out your resume and having to build a new one,” Hynes said.
She hopes her pioneering research in voice image will provide “ideas, themes and vocabulary” she can apply to other circumstances, such as people who have undergone gender-reassignment surgery. For example, in some surgical cases, men successfully transition into women, but their voices do not go higher, which is often a traumatic experience.
“It feeds into damaging cultural stereotypes regarding women’s voices and it affects their self-worth and identity,” she said.