Singing lessons, polyvagal theory, boundaries and the iceberg

Guest blogger Franka van Essen, one of our Registered Teachers, continues the iceberg story. Here’s Franka writing about her experiences as a singing teacher and life coach, and her interest in polyvagal theory, boundaries and helping your students.

Singing teacher

As a life coach and a singing teacher with an interest in polyvagal theory (the theory of ‘safety’), I have been pondering on how to combine – or separate – those two.
For the first 15 years of my career, I have worked as a -mostly classical- singing teacher. And I have always been very strict on the boundaries that go along with that job description: a singing teacher works with the voice and the human being that holds that voice, supporting the client with good diagnosis, providing accurate information, helping find strategies and exercises to make that voice work optimally. And ‘playing the therapist’ is not part of that job description.

Nevertheless, I often noticed that the way people were handling their personality and their lives and the way they were coping with the stuff that life was throwing at them, had a big impact on their voice. I got even more intrigued by the relationship between the voice and its owner; between the voice and the psyche and nervous system of its owner. Enter: the life coach.

Life coaching

Life coaching is all about helping your clients understand hidden belief systems, unidentified judgments about themselves and the world that hold them back from living their purpose fully. Guiding them to move forward into a professional and personal life that’s more aligned with their current values. And on the way, sometimes we stumble on painful events from the past, that need attention before we can move on.

The image of McClelland’s iceberg is a nice one to make that visible: all the life coaching stuff is underwater, invisible and hidden from view, yet has a profound impact on someone’s output and behaviour and thus on the voice.

And there the singing teacher comes back in: The way a client uses her voice (I mostly teach females), how she sounds, is directly visible, or should I say audible? It’s the part of the iceberg that’s above sea level, the part we can work with immediately as a singing teacher or vocal coach.

Yet, what I found so often in my singing teaching, is that the unconscious iceberg part underwater still resonates massively with the upper part that’s visible and audible. But as singing teachers we don’t have the skills nor the mandate to guide our students under that water surface: it’s way too cold out there, and we’re not well equipped. So, what to do?

The iceberg and the place in between: the autonomic nervous system

What if we explore that place of the iceberg in between the upper and low under water part? A place that can communicate with both worlds? I think the autonomic nervous system could be right there in that spot, in between. Polyvagal theory states that we mammals thrive well if we feel that we belong and if we feel safe.  So, from there we can offer a safe space and be a source of regulation for our clients. Of course, we need our bodies for that. Now, since our singing instrument lies within our body, we already are used to working on that physical level with our clients. That makes it an easy way in. Another great reason for taking this entrance is the fact that our bodies are always in the here-and-now. Being mindfully aware of what is going on, without diving into old stories is possible here.

Nervous system regulation means nothing more than one body sending signals of safety and warmth to another body. In polyvagal theory we call this engaging the ‘social engagement system’. Actually, that’s what we call co-regulation. And most of us as singing teachers do this intuitively, because we care about our students and want them to have a good experience when they are in our studio

Another way of regulation is self-regulation: by doing certain activities that slow down our outbreath and our heart rate, the body signals to the brain that it’s safe. And yes- as singing teachers we are sitting on a goldmine here. Suggesting singing a few long phrases, humming, SOVT, breathing, it’s all right there in front of us to offer to our clients!

Moving through dysregulation towards safety

The wonderful thing about offering an intervention like that to our clients is that we acknowledge where they are in their bodies and minds: we see they may be slightly dysregulated and we offer a practice that brings them back to a safe and connected feeling, without having to go into the difficult stories people may have. It is not our job as a singing teacher to help heal our clients’ issues. Our job is to help them move through the dysregulation, so they can go back to their original task: singing and performing!

This is not to say that you should never listen to the stories clients tell. But it’s wise to make a distinction between ‘offloading’ and telling a story for the first time that needs to be witnessed.  Offloading is usually a sign of fight-flight, where there is extra energy in the body that needs to leave the system, and this can also be done in other ways, as mentioned above.

It saves time, so the client gets to sing more, (we all know that client who talks 90% of the lesson ;-)) and – very importantly – it increases the risk of clients telling difficult stuff and getting upset all over again (re-traumatizing) much smaller. It also helps us stay within our scope of practice, being a singing teacher and not a therapist or psychologist.

Conscious choice

Sometimes it can be helpful for a client to take that deep dive underwater. When an old ‘story’ or belief keeps invading the singing process for instance. Or when old values seem to hinder a new singing pathway. But this should be a very conscious choice, made by the client and not by you as the teacher, no matter how caring you are. Make sure you have a list of trusted colleagues you can refer to! And in my case, when you are able to wear both hats, of the singing teacher and the life coach, it is very important to offer clarity and choice to your client, so that it is very clear which part you are working on: above sea level, underwater- or in between.


Are you interested in experiencing an ‘under the iceberg’ session? Perhaps there is stuff going on that prevents you from being the singer or singing teacher you know you could be. Book a 30-minute inspiration call – I am here for you

Or maybe you are a singing teacher and would like to know more about how to apply polyvagal theory and work with the nervous system in your studio? I am offering a 3-part online series (in English) in April. If you are interested, drop me an email info @