Voice over matter: Life coaching and singing lessons go hand-in-hand with Heather Hightower

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Heather Hightower works with clients to find their voice through singing. Photo: Martyn Kyle Heather Hightower works with clients to find their voice through singing. Photo: Martyn Kyle

What would rock my world?

That’s the question Heather Hightower tells her clients to ask themselves before their initial voice session.

Hightower has been singing and studying music for more than 15 years, and she’s always had a fascination with the concept of coaching. After a stint teaching music lessons in Guatemala, two years ago she started working with clients in a way that combines life coaching with voice coaching, and pushes the boundaries of voice and the role it plays beyond singing.

“There’s something magical that happens when you step into the space of making music,” Hightower said. “It has this symbiotic, grounding effect, and connects to the rest of your life.”

As a reporter, I’m used to being the one to ask the questions. And as someone who is utterly tone-deaf and still recovering from being shushed in my high school church choir, I’m used to strictly limiting my singing to the shower and the car. So when I stepped into Hightower’s home studio last week, I was more than a little anxious about the prospect of spending two hours talking about myself and singing with someone I’d only previously met twice.

Clutching a mug of peppermint tea, I settled myself onto one of her couches, eyeing the piano a few feet away and wondering what I’d gotten myself into. When she asked me what would rock my world, what would leave me feeling empowered and energetic when I head back home in two hours, I had no idea.

A typical two-hour session usually includes some combination of singing together and talking about anything, deep or otherwise. A lot of her students wander in with a simple desire to learn how to sing, but she said many of them leave with a newfound empowerment and understanding of how they can adapt those skills and use their voice in other areas of their lives. Hightower said she’s worked with clients who struggle with social anxiety so severe that they can barely leave the house.

Despite her own exceptional singing voice, which is widely sought after for weddings, after-school programs, and local performances, it’s clear that Hightower’s passion lies in tapping into her friends’ and clients’ musical talents and making them comfortable as they begin exploring the potential of their own voice.

“If we have a surging of energy that’s coming up through the body and trying to make its way out through this tiny, gorgeous little portal of your voice, and you have no concept for how to support that energy, it’s really common for there to be a physical shutting down,” Hightower said.

Facing both physical and mental shutdown is what her work is all about, Hightower said, and she’s watched clients transform both professionally and interpersonally in terms of confidence and the ability to stand up for themselves. Hightower has a way of creating a safe space, even for those of us who can’t carry a tune in a bucket.

Acutely aware of my intense fear of singing in public, Hightower assured me that we could start out with just a conversation. We’ll see how the talking goes, she said, and we might not even make it over to the piano. O.K., that’s a little better.

After closing our eyes and relaxing for a few minutes, allowing our thoughts to “drift by us like birds,” the conversation flowed surprisingly easily. She remembered a personal writing project I’d mentioned earlier, so we dug into my life as a writer thus far and where I want my career to go. A David Sedaris-style book of essays has been writing itself in my mind for years, and Hightower advised me to replace the “Man, I really need to work on that” thoughts with something more positive and proactive.

“When we change the way we see our world, our world changes,” Hightower said.

I’ve always had lofty career aspirations, but there’s something oddly intimidating about putting them into spoken word. After 90 minutes of discussing my writing routine and how to find the motivation to work on personal projects, she had me say something I’ve never spoken aloud before.

“Sit up straight,” she said. “And say, ‘I am a best-selling author.’”

Once I said it twice, louder and less sheepishly the second time, she grinned and announced that we were ready for the piano.

Hightower parked herself at the piano after we had cycled through a sequence of stretches—which she said are vital for singers—and we dove right into a set of voice exercises. (Much to my coworkers’ disappointment, I turned the voice recorder off for this portion of the session.)

We’d already spent an hour and a half talking intimately, so what’s a few minutes of singing? I certainly won’t be signing up for open-mic nights anytime soon, but I squawked out notes that were higher than I’ve managed in the past, and was surprised at how easy it was to sing along with her. And that’s the whole point, she said. Some clients find they can connect first by singing together, at which point they can more easily open up in a conversation. But others, like myself, need that security through talking before braving the spot next to the piano.

Hightower’s approach to coaching isn’t for everybody. It’s an intimate coach-client relationship, she said, and there’s a lot of vulnerability that comes with singing alongside another person.

“It’s very scary, and it’s courageous to start to exercise an instrument you haven’t used at all,” Hightower said. “But as you get used to feeling that energy, it opens up this whole new experience of yourself, and in that flow, I’ve found that cognitive things sort of reveal themselves.”

And what would rock my world? Being a best-selling author, obviously.

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