Christine Isherwood has a tendency to sing out her thoughts, or raise her voice and change the pitch when she is explaining the nature of her work. That’s because the discipline to which she has dedicated the last 25 years of her life, and which she is now teaching on the Vineyard, is based on the voice and the exploration of its therapeutic possibilities.
Inside a former church on upper Circuit Avenue, Oak Bluffs, Ms. Isherwood recently opened a studio where she practices Voice Movement Therapy (VMT). She describes it as an expressive arts therapy that deals with catharsis, releasing the inner world into the outer, and exploring and expanding upon the individual’s innate creativity.
“By combining therapeutic principles with breath, movement, imagery, song and improvisation, VMT provides opportunities for exploration of the self and expression of the human condition, providing a forum for emotions to exist and be transformed,” is the description provided on Ms. Isherwood’s website
Ms. Isherwood is a former pop singer — as well as a trained therapist — and her clients include singers and actors looking to increase their artistic range. But the U.K native notes that one need have no vocal training, or even ability in the conventional sense, to benefit from her teaching. “It’s for those wanting to move, write, and sing their own self,” she said. “The brilliant thing is you don’t have to sing and get it right. We don’t work in the black and white keys. We work in the spaces in between.”
Most of her clients are seeking to overcome obstacles to growth and healing caused by trauma or repression, or looking simply to enrich themselves emotionally, Ms. Isherwood said. She likes to quote the ancient Greek aphorism, “Know thyself.”
VMT involves using the voice as a non-verbal as well as verbal conduit to communication. “The voice is a way of coming into contact with the self in different ways.” Ms. Isherwood said.
She talks about the way young children express themselves through pre-language sounds and how, as adults, we have lost that channel of expression. “VMT is freeing the human voice of restrictions imposed on it from outside influences,” she said.
Ms. Isherwood said that every session, group or individual, is different. She bases her exercises on the participants, their abilities, and their needs. “For some people the voice of assertion is difficult. For others it’s expressing who they are and what they want.”
Ms. Isherwood said that she often starts off with a “movement and sounding experiment.” She has participants tell a story — any story — even just what they did that day. “I ask them to put some words to it and then we write it into a song,” she said. “Everybody sings, everybody moves. Everybody’s a songwriter.”
Pop to therapy
Ms. Isherwood has been composing and singing professionally all her life. She moved from the outskirts of London to the city in her teens and started performing with bands. In 1986, she co-founded a group that wrote and performed musicals focused on topical issues such as AIDS and the Gulf War. The troupe toured all over Europe for seven years.
While still pursuing her own work as a singer/songwriter, Ms. Isherwood got involved in social and therapeutic work. She earned a degree in cultural studies from the University of East London, became an assertiveness trainer and studied humanistic and transpersonal psychotherapy.
Through years of working with the homeless in London, Ms. Isherwood determined that a different approach was needed. “I was seeing the limitations of what we were doing,” she said. “I recognized a need for therapeutic services. By just placing people in flats, they were destined to mess up again.”
At that point she decided to dedicate herself to therapeutic work. “I realized I hadn’t made it as a pop singer,” she said. “It was time I grew up and became a therapist.”
Ms. Isherwood was introduced to her current practice in 1995 by Paul Newham, the founder of Voice Movement Therapy. He expanded upon work originally begun by a WWI veteran named Alfred Wolfsohn. By using voice exercises, Wolfsohn, a German Jew, effectively healed himself of post traumatic stress disorder which had manifested itself in aural hallucinations. His work was continued by Roy Hart, a theater professional, and Paul Moses, an otolaryngologist. Mr. Newham combined the work of these three predecessors to establish the practice of VMT.
Ms. Isherwood apprenticed with Mr. Newham in London from 1997 until his retirement in 2000. During that time she met Ann Brownell, an American who also worked with Mr. Newham. Ms. Brownell purchased the old church in Oak Bluffs in 2003 and she and Ms. Isherwood founded a facility to train VMT instructors. For six years the institute was the sole resource for those seeking to become instructors. People from all over the globe were trained by the two women.
From the outside, the former church on the corner of Circuit and Dukes County Avenue, parallel to Tony’s Market, is just an unassuming wood shingled structure, notable only for its bright red door. Inside, however is a beautiful, light-filled space that still has a mystical quality about it. The building features a cathedral ceiling, high arched windows, a curtained vaulted doorway and stage-like area — previously the pulpit — and many original architectural details. The acoustics are marvelous.
Ms. Brownell closed the institute in 2009, but Ms. Isherwood continued offering instruction, traveling all over the U.S. and beyond. She took over the building two months ago and reopened the institute to the general public. Ms. Isherwood still teaches off-site, working with groups as diverse as performers, handicapped people, children and elders. In the fall, she will be training students at the Paul McCartney School of Performing Arts in Liverpool.
Ms. Isherwood believes that anyone can benefit from Voice Movement Therapy. “It’s about being able to express oneself. All the different aspects of the self,” she says, “I love language, but it has its limitations. It’s invariably an exploration of ourselves. We carry our stories in our bodies, in our voices, and in our psyches. It’s only in exploration of our story can we be free of it.”
Ms. Isherwood will hold a workshop, “Singing the Soul,” on Saturday, August 18. The cost is $60.
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