Years ago, I knew Stephanie Rooker as a ferocious vocalist who headed the soul outfit The Search Engine, but for the past few years, Stephanie has been training extensively in a healing modality involving music/sounds, aptly called sound healing. Just this month Stephanie launched Voice Journey Sound Center, a unique course of vocal training that uses the tenants of exploration and inner work to help students reach new vocal abilities, that in turn increases mental clarity, physical well-being, emotional strength, and other physical, physiological, and emotional benefits.
Stephanie met up with me for a quick meal in Soho, where she taught me simple sound healing techniques, and talked rather candidly about her experience negotiating her solo music career and her community based healing work through music, realizing that they are really not so disparate--in fact--they are both equally valid in her life's work. Stephanie uses her unique experience as a jazz/soul vocalist, her training in West African music and the many traditions of the African Diaspora, as well as her healing work to create something intimately hers, yet hugely accessible to all.
What exactly is sound healing? And how do you teach it to people?
Everything is vibrational. Sound healing, very broadly, is basically using vibration to change the state that you currently are in. It can be something as obvious as your breath rate, your heart rate, physical frequency, or your nervous system, and other vibrational parts of our existence: mental clarity, stress, tiredness. Low frequencies make people tired. High frequencies make people stimulated through their brain. If you are really tired, and you go as high with your voice as you can, your brain will wake up, and you shift in your vibration. You can call that sound healing.
You can open up your listening. You filter out a lot of listening a lot of the time, and you shut a lot out. If you just open up your listening and take in everything that you hear, it’s really an amazing and stimulating practice. It’s like opening your awareness, or like putting on glasses. Suddenly you see things clearer. Basically, sound healing is that in any way that you can think about. There’s sort of a constructed new-age idea of sound healing that it has to be chanting, kirtans, etc, but really it’s very broad.
For me, it’s all about the voice, because the voice is inside of you. Unlike other instruments that you see externally, the voice vibrates within you, so it has a much more direct effect on our physiology, your brain, everything. So, how do you teach that? There are a billion different ways. There are a lot of different traditions.
Indigenous traditions have been doing this forever. Pretty much in every indigenous tradition, there is some element of sound healing, connecting to spiritual or healing practices. There are a lot of places to draw from. And even in just music—if you think about avant-garde improvisational vocal jazz type stuff, it’s about making sounds in creative ways, and breaks all of your perceptions about what it is that you’re supposed to do, or what’s within a paradigm.
For me, Voice Journey is about connecting to your voice in a new way so that you can use your voice in an expanded context, whether that’s singing higher, or improving our tuning or your pitch. It is also, maybe more so, seeing where the voice can take you: How your voice can shift your state of consciousness, how your voice can shift your mood, how your voice can effect your physical body. That’s the real crux of it for me. The former part almost comes as a result to the latter part. You can practice scales and techniques and exercise. Sure your voice can get better because you’re practicing, but to get to the other place of where the voice can take you, surrendering to whatever it wants to do, that’s where most people have their issues, because they get in their own way.
The truth is the voice can do so many more things that we could ever imagine if you just let the voice do what it does. So often we feel like we have to do it. It goes back to the whole ownership of work thing. Am I doing this to me, or am I just making sure I’m as out of the way as possible, so that I can fully experience this process.
"For me, Voice Journey is about connecting to your voice in a new way so that you can use your voice in an expanded context, whether that’s singing higher, or improving our tuning or your pitch. It is also, maybe more so, seeing where the voice can take you: How your voice can shift your state of consciousness, how your voice can shift your mood, how your voice can effect your physical body."
What is your process with your students?
It’s different for everyone. It depends on what they want and where they’re coming from. I always start with a humming practice. That sort of puts us in the present moment, vibrationally. Sometimes we work on music. I have some students who want to work on songwriting. Some students think they are not singers and they want to be, so we do more work to help them truly experience their voice.
A lot of my students really want to incorporate their voice within their spiritual path, or their meditation practice, and so we work on that. We work on meditative practices that work for them, and put them in a place of a meditative mind state. Some people have to learn how to just have fun with their voice, and not think it’s a serious. Sometimes I just play with people, and play different games to get people into the creative process of just singing. It’s really fun. It’s the best teaching I’ve ever done. I’ve done traditional voice lessons, which in comparison is very surface level.
Teaching sound healing seems like a very different experience than being a performer.
I believe that I’m supposed to do this work, but the interesting thing about it is that it’s very humbling. It’s not like, “I’m Stephanie Rooker, and I do blah blah blah.” In this work, there’s a sense that I’m not really doing the work—that I’m facilitating the space, and that music is doing the work. There’s an interesting paradigm where—this is my work—but I also feel like I have a respectful distance from identifying too much with it, because I don’t feel like it’s me doing it. Does that make sense?
In you giving credit to "the music" and not yourself in this process, do you think that has to do with gender, and women historically and socially deflecting attention away from themselves?
I think because I connect very spiritually with what I’m doing, it goes in and out of having it be ego. That fluctuates from, “oh, it’s just little me over here doing this work,” to “I’m over here holding this space, using all of the skills and knowledge that I’ve gotten up to this point,” owning that, but not taking it to the next level. The other side of the ego says, “look how awesome I am. I made these people do all of this. I made them use their voice.” I’m not interested in that, but it’s interesting how that pendulum works. My teacher has really helped me a lot with that, Silvia Nakkach from California. I’m now getting certified in her Yoga of the Voice training. She’s a huge force. She has all of these phrases that she uses, silly isms, and one is “I’m innocent.”
I feel like, I am just doing what I’m meant to do. It’s less about Stephanie Rooker, which was me doing everything for me, about me, even though my music wasn’t about that. I was hustling gigs, I was trying to get press, it was all Stephanie Rooker. At a point I just felt like it was whack. There was also the business side that took over the art. I felt like a total poser, like, “I’m the shit, come pay me money to see me play.” Meanwhile I hadn’t practiced in weeks, because I was emailing everyone and freaking out about getting people to my shows.
Does that mean that your solo performing career is being pushed to the side?
I’m putting it aside for now, as far as the energy that I’ve been putting into it. I’m not putting any energy or time into booking gigs. Sometime ago, I was talking to one of my mentors right before the tipping point moving forward with Voice Journey— which wasn’t even Voice Journey at the time—but just this idea. Then I was dealing with this performer identity that I was struggling with, and which just clung to me. I talked to her about it. She said, “It sounds like the light is shining on that voice healing work for you. You’re never going to NOT be a performer. You’re always going to be a performer. When you have children, your newborn child takes priority, because it will not survive without you tending to it.” At that point I had been singing for 8 years or so. She said, “Your 8 year old can take care of itself. It can go make a sandwich. It can do those things. You’re not abandoning it, or kicking it to the curb.” So that was a really huge point for me, and it was very painful. It was super super hard to even pull away that little bit from my performance identity.
What was that like?
It was like a breakup with myself. Literally. I went through most of the emotions of a hardcore breakup, with bathtub crying with wine—the whole deal—and listening to my music. But you know what? I know it’s not over. I keep getting asked to perform. People keep asking me to perform with them, and to do projects or record. It’s just awesome. Every chance someone offers me an opportunity to sing, I’m like, yes! I’m taking this as a sign from the universe that I should never forget about that part of me.
"It was like a breakup with myself. Literally. I went through most of the emotions of a hardcore breakup, with bathtub crying with wine—the whole deal—and listening to my music. But you know what? I know it’s not over. I keep getting asked to perform."
Sometimes we want what we want, when we want it, and we are impatient for success. There is always a gestation period, that we as a society seem to forget.
Yeah. But I have to say, the whole transition with music and performing was a huge process in itself. I released “The Only Way Out Is In”, and was working with a publicist, and doing all of these things, and nothing was popping. Even my publicist was like, “I don’t want you to pay me. I really believe in your music. We’re going to get you something awesome, and then you can pay me.” And I was like “great!” Meanwhile I was enrolled in the Sound Healing Institute, and dealt with that creative bruise, of: I really poured my soul into this project, and it’s not catching. But I feel like if I hadn’t gone through that I process, I would not be where I am right now.
Now I feel like, that had to happen. Like I said, even in my music, I’ve always been about this. Also, awakening to all of the elements of sound healing has changed how I think about performing and how I think about music.
After the release of my record, I played a couple of gigs with my band. It wasn’t like I just said “oh the album sucks.” The album didn’t suck. I loved the album. It’s one of my proudest things, but it didn’t achieve anything externally for me. We did a couple of gigs, but I was realizing that I was shifting to a new place with how I was feeling music, and not everybody in the band could get that. I was feeling very much like I was running new software on an old operating system. You know what I mean? That’s why I was even more about chilling from performing. I was noticing a transformation with music, and I didn’t want to just plug into the old ways, because it wasn’t going to work.
I think when you said “gestation period,” I think that was part of it too. I got through that transition of what I think music is now, and I got an expanding context. It was a really intense period.
If there’s healing music, the blues is it. There’s such a mystery and lineage of it, the healing elements are just so obvious to me, you know what I mean? Having studied West African music and music of the Diaspora, you see all of those elements in it. At Oberlin I took a blues improv class, which was a turning point for me. The teacher, Adenike Sharpley—she was amazing, and I loved her—but she’s not necessarily easy to love. You either love her or hate her, because no one is entitled in her world. You have to work. If you are not doing the work—Just no. I immediately saw her as a teacher, and was willing to do whatever I had to do to study with her, and it wasn’t about having her like me. I just knew she was for real. That class really talked about elements about the cultural evolution of slavery and how that came out in the elements of the blues, and spirituals, field shouts. That’s been something that I’ve been checking out for a long time. I gave a workshop on this at my teacher’s retreat in Santa Cruz, California, and it was amazing. People loved it.
This is my demographic right? People who are so-called new agey and spiritual, who love to sing, but for whom there's somehow a cultural chasm that isn’t being bridged. I offered the blues class, and everyone loved it so much, they demanded that it be offered again the very next day. I think it really helped people to connect with those elements, but also in that context of blues as a lineage leading up to today.
I have also taught hip-hop workshops. For both, it’s just pulling out the elements: What are the elements of the music that work on us? What makes us love it? What about it makes us cry? Why are we crying? Or why are we laughing? And what is the function of these techniques, and the intense sensuality? It’s a release. All of it is a release. It’s bringing the context and lineage to the present day, and allowing people to really understand them and voice them themselves, but also with respect of the culture that it came from, and respect the culture that is still suffering today from the same shit. It’s very emotive. People really need a release more than they would ever know or admit. There are some awesome singers that are going to be there, but it’s not about awesome singers [laughter]. It’s about drawing those tools out so that people can use them, not in an appropriating way, but in a healing way. That was the thing that I was afraid of with a woman who commented on the events page for this upcoming workshop. In essence, she was asking, “who are you, white girl? Yeah, sure, teach us about the blues? What do you know about it?” I got to a place where I realized (with my husband's help) that I didn't need to defend myself, but that I do want to stand for how needed I believe this work to be & replied thusly.
I’m not claiming to be an expert. I’ve been challenged similarly about the whole sound healing thing by music therapists. It’s like, “what are you doing? You’re not a music therapist. You better know that you’re not a music therapist. Be clear that you’re not saying music or therapy in any of your work.” I’m like, I know. I’m just saying that there are elements of this that can be accessible to a whole lot of people, and if a lot of people are using these tools and are aware of where they come from and what they mean, there is huge healing that can happen, and huge transformations can take place.