Everyone talks about trauma-informed voice care. Part of me is happy about this because it has always been my belief that voice pedagogy in particular (and the performing arts in general) can only benefit from the integration of trauma-informed care.
But there’s also the other part of me – the one that is slightly worried about the ubiquitous use of the term in marketing, and the oftentimes poor understanding of what trauma-informed practice actually is. So instead of just worrying, I thought I would proactively put together a few thoughts for voice teachers (any performing arts teachers really) that might further understanding.
What is Trauma-Informed Care?
Trauma-informed care (TIC) essentially means providing healthcare, social services or educational instruction with a thorough understanding of how trauma can affect health and well-being. Usually, we look at five or six key principles:
- Cultural, historical & gender issues
It would lead too far to go into them here, but you will look at these in great detail in practitioner training, and you can also find a good introduction in the “Trauma-informed practice: toolkit” by the Scottish Government, or in this SAMHSA whitepaper.
It is important to understand that trauma-informed care is distinct from trauma-specific interventions, which rather seek to provide therapeutic support. Instead, TIC seeks to create a trauma-sensitive, affirming environment to reduce the potential for re-traumatisation and maximise a person’s agency and autonomy.
So yes, TIC is absolutely an important concept for voice pedagogy. It considers how an individual’s traumatic experiences affect their present behaviours and cognitions, and the best practices for approaching these sensitive topics in the studio. This starts with an awareness of how trauma may show itself through a singer’s language, choices, behaviours, and ultimately also in their learning.
On the one hand, TIC should not be mistaken for simply offering understanding, patience, and kindness. I would hope that these are a given in every voice studio anyway (although it sometimes still seems apparent that they are not). We absolutely need to understand the difference between TIC and just offering an empathetic approach.
On the other hand, trauma-informed care isn’t a therapeutic or medical intervention. To repeat: It is an approach to understand how trauma can impact the individual’s ability to learn and to interact, and to recognise that trauma is likely to affect both singing performance and interactions between teacher and student. Whether, and how deep, we are also involved in the recovery and collaborative/referral process depends on the depth of our training.
Where to Start?
I will provide you with a graphic that I often use when I train trauma-awareness so you understand that becoming trauma-informed isn’t a one-weekend-affair, but rather made up of stages that build on each other.
In my opinion, it isn’t necessary for voice teachers to go through all four stages, although of course they can. I would definitely recommend the first two, because they will already help you to address many of the issues and questions you might run into in your studio.
Voice teachers can get all stages of TIC training from various private educators, educational organisations or universities, and it is definitely worth doing your research before you consider a course or class: The training should be evidence-based, up-to-date on the latest research and ideally even have a specialism relating to voice and music pedagogy.
As an example, I offer an introductory self-study course, and I also run individualised, 1-2-1 trainings. Both are good jumping-off points for people who are just at the beginning of their trauma-AWARENESS or -SENSITIVITY journey. To become truly trauma-INFORMED, you would move on to further in-person training, which has to be ongoing and supervised. A couple of online classes or courses will not make you trauma-informed, I can’t stress this enough.
Appropriate training will not only equip you with a more thorough understanding of trauma and its potential impacts on the voice; it will also teach you skills to effectively manage your own stress levels, and/or situations that may emerge when teaching students who have experienced trauma. As the saying goes:
To become truly trauma-informed, you need to start with working on yourself.
When Talking About it Isn’t Always a Good Thing…
I’ll be honest with you: Influencer culture is a pernicious issue when it comes to trauma-informed practice. I wrote about this at length here, and it is a hill I am willing to die on, even if it sometimes gets me into hot water with certain segments of the influencer-crowd and their audiences.
Some (obviously not all) people simply misunderstand, or at least misappropriate, the terms “trauma” and “trauma-informed care”, and in my opinion, this does more harm than good (I occasionally have to support people working through the fallout, but naturally this remains anecdotal and pertains to my practice only).
The advice given (and sometimes also the encouragement of parasocial relationships) is often unprofessional and somewhat undermines the progress of mental health- and trauma-awareness work over the past couple of decades. I see a blurring of lines between trauma-informed care and trauma-intervention time and time again, to the extent that even questionable or downright triggering “trauma-resolution” techniques are regularly recommended. Needless to say, this does a great disservice to trauma survivors.
The Bigger Picture
I genuinely understand that we are also talking about bigger issues here, like lacking availability of affordable care to the most vulnerable. However, this doesn’t change the fact that especially these vulnerable groups need knowledgeable and safe professionals to support them in their healing journey. Sometimes, “primum non nocere” can indeed mean abstaining from giving advice rather than trying out random techniques and approaches that might have the potential to cause harm.
And yes, I also understand why trauma has become a buzzword: It is indicative of the long history of marginalisation, stigma, and pathologisation of people who have experienced trauma. But letting the pendulum swing too far to the other side (“Everyone has trauma”, “I do this special thing on top of teaching…”) is missing the point:
Misappropriating TIC and/or the issues trauma survivors face, and a simplified approach that only applies general principles, ignores the highly individual nature of trauma-related experiences. The very thing that is often asked for (“You decide what’s traumatic for you”) is squashed by an attempt to give general advice in soundbite-form.
Having said all of this: Of course it isn’t all bad, and social media can also be helpful for trauma survivors, which is wonderfully and eloquently described in some of the research I have added to the reading list. Of course we can’t, and also don’t want to, go back decades into times when it was still common to pretend that mental health issues didn’t exist.
Therefore, it is essential for teachers to get their training from sources that are grounded in professional knowledge, and experienced in working in TIC and/or with individuals who have experienced trauma.
Do I believe that trauma-informed care is an essential component of voice pedagogy? Absolutely. Since most voice teachers seek to create trauma-sensitive, affirming learning environments for their students, it is essential for them to understand the ways in which trauma may influence learning and performance, to get trauma-awareness training, and to recognise the importance of working with trauma survivors from a professional and understanding standpoint.
However, it is important to do your research when you decide to embark on this journey:
- Don’t get your information purely from books, social media or psychology influencers on TikTok.
- Check people’s credentials: If they have insufficient training in TIC or Psychology (NB: Not every psychologist is trauma-informed by default – it is a vast field with many specialisms, and not all of them have a clinical or trauma-focus), or if their qualifications have been mostly obtained online, be very wary.
- The same rule applies to students, by the way: It is perfectly fine to ask your teacher where they got their TIC training, and if it had an in-person element.
- You absolutely cannot learn these things virtually alone, without any in-person supervision.
My opinion is that if someone’s training is lacking in these fundamental aspects, they should neither teach/coach them, nor use them in their marketing, but that’s just an opinion, and our profession is not regulated. At the end of the day, everyone can do as they please, and it is merely a question of personal ethics. Which brings me to a final statement that I have made before:
Controversially, I believe that we don’t need to use the term “trauma-informed” in our marketing at all. I’m not saying we can’t or shouldn’t, but we need to be absolutely clear about its implications regarding the clientele we will attract, and how it will change dynamics in the studio. It is enough to just be trauma-informed, and have it running in the background. The result for the client is the same, minus the very real possibility that they might think “trauma-informed” means “trauma support/intervention/healing”.
This is obviously different if you are a therapist or actively engage in healing work. In those cases, it is paramount for the client to know that you can help and support them effectively. For the voice teacher, however, adding “trauma-informed” to their marketing might get them more than they bargained for:
If even some teachers do not entirely understand the difference between trauma-informed care and trauma-intervention, as only recently admitted by some in a voice forum, how do we expect our clients to know?
Every so often, we need to ask ourselves hard questions, and one of those questions is the following:
If we are bristling at the thought of not mentioning the term “trauma-informed“ in our marketing, what are the reasons? Are they about our clients, or are they about us? What would change if we didn’t mention it at all, and what is the benefit if we do?
© Petra Borzynski 2023
Brunzell, T. (2021). Trauma-Aware Practice and Positive Education. In: Kern, M.L., Wehmeyer, M.L. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Positive Education. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-64537-3_8
Carello, Janice & Butler, Lisa D. (2014) Potentially Perilous Pedagogies: Teaching Trauma Is Not the Same as Trauma-Informed Teaching, Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 15:2, 153-168, DOI: 10.1080/15299732.2014.867571
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Wood, J.M. (2021). Teaching Students at the Margins: A Feminist Trauma-Informed Care Pedagogy. In: Carello, J., Thompson, P. (eds) Lessons from the Pandemic. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-83849-2_3