Hello – we are Jenny Goodman and Bid Cousins, singing leaders who belong to the Natural Voice network.
We’re going to explore a couple of questions this month, namely:
Can singing change your life?
Can singing change the world?
We’re building a specific project on what we’ve been observing and doing for years, and we’d like to share that with the Transition movement. We’ll be very interested to see whether and how you are inspired to try some of these ideas out to promote individual and community wellbeing, and to support Transition. Feel free to contact us through the blog comments or by email.
Time perhaps for a bit more about ourselves. We’ve both had careers spanning both music and community/organisational development and have both worked as facilitators in a range of contexts.
Bid lives in Scarborough where she teaches a regular WEA group called Singing for Health, plays the Celtic harp, and leads song workshops.
Jenny runs a drop-in singing group and an acapella performance group – Far Cry – as well as fronting the band Jenny and the Good Men and being half of the singing duo The Blameless Hussies. She is based near Huddersfield.
We believe that singing changes things – for the individual, the group, the community and the world. That’s why we do what we do. We also believe that singing together is instinctive and natural to human beings and that humans may even have sung before they talked, just as babies make sounds before words. Yet for many people in UK culture singing is something permitted only to the special and the talented, maybe because we have become disconnected with the idea that singing serves a universal function – to bind us together and help us through life – rather than to make individual stars. Our singing practice has been dedicated to this idea, which is part of the shared philosophy of the Natural Voice network.
So how does that link the Transition Movement and what we want to explore in this month’s blog? The transition movement is about challenging norms, recognising that change is afoot, demonstrating how we can live differently while respecting the planet. We believe that singing communally can be part of that process, by inspiring individual change, creating a sense of belonging and giving a creative voice to our desire for change.
We’ve already been talking to participants in our groups and here is what some of them say:
'Singing has been life-changing for me... I am taking care of myself properly for the first time in a very long time. I am delighted with my progress. Thank you'
'I feel good in mind, body and spirit every week after singing with the group. I always feel relaxed and at peace through the effects of singing, I feel present and in the moment.'
'An opportunity to lose oneself in creating a beautiful sound.'
'I experience joy with each class, everything...gives a good feeling from the breathing exercises throughout the learning of songs, the singing and listening within the group'
( Barbara has COPD. Her nurse recently asked what she’d been doing different in the last year. Her breath capacity has improved enormously. Singing is the only thing that could have made the difference.)
'I like coming because it makes me feel like I belong to something, and helps dispel feelings of isolation, loneliness and separateness... I feel like I belong to something much larger, the whole singing community.... the fact that you are getting us to explore our own voices..helps me personally to explore the power of my own voice in other contexts as well... I gain confidence about using my voice about other things in my life. I have more self-esteem and value my own stance, my own opinion .'
Jenny talked with her group about how singing helped them with depression and anxiety, and how emotional ups and downs are evened out. They also talked about the physical impact of singing – feeling more balanced and relaxed, breathing more easily, relieving asthma and climbing hills (important in West Yorkshire!). When this group were asked for images to describe the experience they became quite lyrical – ‘the smell of a new mown field at daybreak with a hint of dew’, ‘ a lark singing’, ‘the sussuration of a corn field’, ‘waves on the shore’ ‘ a happy family laughing, stamping and playing together’
Jenny’s group Far Cry, as a performing group, has a different focus. For this project Jenny is writing and arranging a song with them:
I cannot change the world alone
But you and I can cast a stone
that ripples on the water, ripples on the water
Many ripples turn to waves
and turn the tide to better days…
Listen to Jenny’s group singing:
Here’s what one member of this group says about this song:
‘I love this song! I spend a lot of time working one-to-one with individuals and sometimes I think “am I making a difference?” – but we have to trust that our individual actions will ripple out into the wider world. This song reminds me that what I do is important and that we’re not alone’
Another group member shares how singing has sustained her through troubled times:
'Prior to joining a community choir I had no experience of singing with others. I got into singing as I felt it would be good for me emotionally and psychologically following the sudden death of my eldest daughter.... Singing with others is for me a very healing and supportive activity which helped and continues to help me deal with my family tragedy'
Other Far Cry members talk about the feeling of connection and the teamwork that flows from the vulnerability of exposing your voice to others, the sense of creating a single sound together.
Watch Far Cry performing one of their favourite songs, Never Doubt.
All through October, BBC Radio 4’s A Choral History of Britain has been exploring aspects of what singing means to us , as well as our great choral tradition itself . A young cathedral chorister interviewed as part of the first programme in the series is paraphrased below:
‘ I feel a better person when I sing. I feel happy, all my troubles disappear, and I feel stronger and more confident when I am singing in the choir’
There’s lots of research on the benefits of singing. Here’s a couple for starters:
Singing also plays a part in movements for social change. Singing together stirs the blood and brings a sense of unity. This of course is why football supporters chant and why the right song at the right time can turn a random bunch of people into a group with purpose and confidence. Witness the Estonian ‘Singing Revolution’ and more recently Connie Lim (‘MILCK’) leading massed singing of her song ‘I can’t keep quiet’ at the Womens March following the election of Donald Trump in 2016.
Ali Burns, a highly respected composer for voices, and fellow member of the NVN, has written many songs designed to unite people in different situations – whether to celebrate the seasons, protest violence or sing farewell to loved ones. Here’s what she shared with us about the power of singing:
“ to quote Pete Seeger ‘…I always thought the right song at the right moment could change history’ – Pussy Riot, and Milck’s fantastic ‘I Cant Keep Quiet’ spring to mind as modern examples of brilliant moments of change connected to songs. I’m constantly thinking about how I can engage with what’s going on in the world through song. At the Moment I’m singing O So Seo – the Korean plea for unity and peace by Korean composer Geong Wanhee whenever I get the chance with a group. And over the summer, when things were worsening rapidly between USA and N Korea I wrote and taught Let Peace Descend at Voice Camp: needing to acknowledge to myself that Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are also part of our global tribe.
‘We are tribe and we are circle, beginning without end; We are the Alleluya, we are the quiet Amen; We are blood and muscle and together we are kin; One people, asking when… will peace descend…”
I sometimes get emails from around the world with stories of where my songs have been sung and have changed situations for people: perhaps the most notable is the little blues song I wrote in reaction to a bombing of civilians in Lebanon, Give Me Wings, which is used by several people in the USA who are singing in prisons and with prisoners waiting on death row. They’ve told me stories of how that song has a special power to help people come to terms with impending death.
Give me wings in the morning so that I can fly
Give me wings in the morning so that I can fly
Give me wings so I can fly above this poor sorry world,
Give me wings, give me wings, give me wings, give me wings”
Bid returns again and again to the words of Julian of Norwich:
'All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well'
She set them to music , initially as a memorial to a dear young friend , but the words and the round she wrote have echoed in many places now. This song has travelled far; and it’s always a pleasure when people say it has been a comfort to sing it. Songs like this, sung in small or large groups, create a meditative space that bonds and succours.
So, where does all this lead us? Over this month we’ll be blogging about our groups and the experiences we share with them; we will be creating and singing new songs of change and we’ll be asking our groups to reflect on the experience, while we reflect too. We hope you enjoy the journey with us and we’d love to hear your thoughts.
Bid and Jenny
Meet the authors
From that flows an open access approach where everyone is welcome to our groups regardless of previous experience – we teach entirely by ear using acapella harmony songs from a range of world, folk and contemporary traditions and our own arrangements. We believe that voices singing in harmony together have an unbeatable feel good factor, builds individual self-confidence and well-being, AND binds communities together. We combine many years of leading singing groups, choirs and projects across the UK and internationally – working in a range of settings and with a wide range of groups.
We are also experienced performers and song-writers. Jenny currently sings and writes with acapella duo The Blameless Hussies and acoustic/roots band – Jenny and the Goodmen as well as writing for her community singing groups – her most recent writing project is working with children at a local school using their words and ideas to write a new song celebrating their community. Bid is a musician and singer playing Celtic harp fiddle and viola. She has worked with community choirs writing and singing music celebrating the land and history. Her current composition project is a suite of music for Celtic harp inspired by North Yorkshire.