Opening Words

Here are the opening words of Full Voice: The Art and Practice of Vocal Presence.  It comes out next week.  Buy it on Amazon on October 4 to support Fifty Lanterns International and their great project in Uganda!


This book is not just about voice.
It’s about life.
It poses some big questions:
Are you willing to be alive?
How alive?
And in service to what?

The words “voice,” “vocation,” and “avocation” all share the common Latin root.  Vocare literally means to call, invoke, or name. The people who first made these etymological links recognized the deep connection between voice and calling.

Here’s what they knew. The voice emerges from the mysterious intersection of your body, mind, emotions, and spirit. For anything to get created, it must make the treacherous journey from the world of imagination to the physical world.

Your voice is the primary vehicle for making that journey.

If your “vehicle” breaks down on the way from the inside out, your gifts will remain locked inside you.  If what you are saying is at odds with how you are saying it, your listeners may miss your message altogether.  And without a connection with other human beings, your work can’t come alive in the world.

Your voice says a lot about you. Did you know that just by hearing you speak, a listener is able to determine your physical stature, sex, and age?  That the sound of your voice reveals detailed information about your health, mood, fatigue level, social class, race, and education level?  Long before they process the meaning of your words, your listeners are busy making up their minds about you based on the clues your voice reveals.  And you’re doing the same thing whenever you listen to someone else, whether you realize it or not.

Identical words spoken in different tones can express a diversity of meanings.  The answer to the ubiquitous question, “How are you?” can be answered with the word “fine” in way that indicates joy, boredom, rage, uncertainty, lust, or impatience.  How many exasperated parents have told their rebellious adolescents, “Don’t use that tone with me, young lady!”  Tone is so powerful that it often trumps the meanings of the words themselves.  If there’s a jarring disparity between your words and the sound of your voice, you can be certain that your listeners will give more credence to the sound than the actual content of your speech.

Given its pivotal role in our lives, work, and relationships, it’s astounding that we devote so little time and attention to the voice.  We don’t get training in how to use it well and lack a shared language for talking about it.  We walk around unconscious about the messages our voices are spilling into the world.  At the same time, we hold strong opinions about the voices we like and dislike.

Voice is at the heart of your personal relationships as well.  It is a kind of miracle that your voice has the power to connect your inner world to that of another person.  And it can shut someone out just as easily.  Our voices create a soundtrack for the lives of those closest to us.  The beautiful baritone singing voice of my Grandpa Fred is still vivid in my mind’s ear even though it fell silent in 1996.  I hear my mother’s voice in my mind every day, sometimes imparting words of love and wisdom, sometimes saying things that irritate me no end.  I recall in detail the sound of the blessing I received from a wise therapist in 1985, the scathing sarcasm of my dad at his worst, and the warm resonant tone of the teacher who helped me find my voice.  Whose voices are ringing in your memory right now?  How do you think the people around you will hear your voice in their memories?

The voice you have right now is not your fate.  It’s not fixed and permanent.

Voices change all the time.  You’ve changed yours over and over during your lifetime, sometimes on purpose, sometimes unconsciously.  Some aspects of how you sound are determined by physiology, gender, culture, language, and history.  Those vocal qualities aren’t open to significant change.  Other aspects of your voice, though, were cobbled together by a series of unconscious decisions you made along the way.  (Picture something made of duct tape, pipe cleaners, and Popsicle sticks.)

Some of those decisions served you well; still others suppressed parts of your voice that could be useful to you.  Aspects of your voice that were shut down can be reawakened and integrated back into your full voice.

They aren’t gone.  They’re just rusty.

Here’s another truth that’s woven through these pages: you don’t have one voice; you have many.  You vary the sound of your voice many times a day, whether you realize it or not.

Do you use the same voice at an intimate dinner and a sporting event?
With a prospective client and a smiling baby?
Do you talk to your boss the same way you talk to your pets?

You’ve got all the voice you’ll ever need in there – a veritable wealth of sound just waiting to be set free.
Every color in your voice is worth reclaiming.
Each one carries a piece of your humanness.
Reclaiming your full voice makes for a fuller life.
For what did we trade our raw, messy, human voices?
When did we start to believe that becoming less of ourselves would keep us safe?
What is the long-term cost of suppressing the wisdom of our instincts and emotions?
What is so frightening about the possibility of authentic expression?

This book asks you to consider what might be more interesting and important than your fear.
Invites you to shake off the lies that keep you tight, silent, “nice,” or scared.
To take off that muzzle and speak.
To drop your chains and dance.

Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “Most of us go to our graves with our music still inside us.”  The thought of all those wasted gifts is what calls me to this work.  Your gifts are not yours alone; they are your part of our shared destiny.

I hope you will use your voice in service to your vision.
I hope your loved ones will recognize your love for them by the sound of your voice.
I hope your “music” will find its way out here where it belongs and that your “song” will inspire other songs.
I hope your resonant and wise listening will invite the silenced ones to speak out.

May you experience the pleasure of your voice rising up from your deepest center, opening through your heart, flying unimpeded from your mouth, lighting up your eyes.  I haven’t found a feeling more wonderful than that.

It’s sheer joy even when it’s terrifying.
It’s what kept me going through the swamps of fear and self-doubt.
It’s the sound of a body fully alive.
It’s the shortest distance between your gifts and the world that is so hungry for them.
It’s your part in the great song that all of life is singing.

Full voice.
Full life.

Come, let’s begin.

About Barbara McAfee

Barbara is a voice coach, singer/songwriter, keynote speaker, and author who merges lessons from 12 years in organization development with the transformational power of sound. Her book, Full Voice: The Art & Practice of Vocal Presence (Berrett-Koehler Publishers) was a #1 Amazon bestseller in Business Communication. The book is based on her 25 years as a voice coach, supporting people from many professions in learning how to access the full power and expression of the voice in service to their work and relationships. Barbara’s musical keynotes blend practical content, sophisticated humor, and thought-provoking questions on topics including voice, leadership, and engagement. She was “the band” for Margaret Wheatley’s Women’s Leadership Revival Tour, which visited 15 North American cities. She also appears with authors Parker Palmer and Peter Block. Barbara has produced seven CD's of mostly original music and is founder of the Morning Star Singers, a volunteer hospice choir in the Twin Cities. She lives across the street from the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
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