This is the fourth blog from our guest editors, Jenny Goodman and Bid Cousins.
We are gearing up this week for our weekend ‘Songs of Change’. We’re expecting about 20 people to come to Scarborough to join us for two days of intensive singing and songwriting, and we are looking forward to sharing the outcomes with you.
Meanwhile we’ve been reflecting on some of the things we do as Natural Voice practitioners and thinking about how others can apply them to their own singing but also perhaps to other transformational settings. Here’s a flavour of our conversations…
Questioning various members of my groups has certainly given me food for thought. It’s been amazing to listen to them talking about their experiences within the groups and also their own journey with singing – some of them rediscovering it after years of not singing (usually because of a negative experience or comment) or really taking their first steps on the journey. Some have told me of profound personal experiences and losses that singing has helped them through.
But what has also really struck me is how they home in on the practical aspects of how the group is run and it’s impact. There is a lot of comment on the sense of bond, equality, teamwork and lack of cliqueiness. Some say they have sung with many other choirs before and have never experienced such a strong sense of community. They identify two aspects of our approach that enable this. One is singing in the circle. Folk talk about how it supports the sense of connection because you can look across the circle and see others joining in, contributing their voices. They can make eye contact and support each other. They also have a sense of this “magical pot”, as one of them described it, which sits in the middle of the circle and which they are all adding to – making something which is so much bigger than the sum of its parts. The other aspect they mention – which I hadn’t thought of before – was the fact that they change part, singing with different people and so creating relationships across the group. This was mentioned by someone in Far Cry, my performing group. She talked about the sense of team and that changing parts allows you to work with different people. It is unusual in a performing group to change parts while performing, although it is something I have alway done in my groups. At times I have wondered whether to pursue this with Far Cry but her comments made me realise this is a significant element of ensuring a sense of teamwork. So… maybe some crucial learning and evidence of how our approach works and why.
It sees to me that when you are singing in a circle the sound becomes an entity in its own right in the centre, created and maintained by everyone rather than individual voices taking precedence as they do in a conventional choir seating arrangement. I encourage people to think of their voices adding to the mix to create something together that is bigger than any of us (the ‘magical pot’ you refer too – I like that analogy).
You build a different relationship between singers and audience also – where the singers can surround the listener(s) with music. Being in the middle of a circle and being sung to, something I call ‘having a sound bath’ can be an intense and magical experience. Those who use sound for healing know and use this quality. It can also work for formal performances though – Janet Cardiff’s ‘The Forty part motet’ – an interpretation of Thomas Tallis’s ‘Spem in Alium’, written in 1570 – enables a listener to walk into a circle of 40 speakers, each playing one voice from this extraordinary vocal work. It enables you to be part of the piece in a way that would be impossible in a concert hall. Tallis originally envisaged the piece for Salisbury cathedral, where eight choirs of five people were installed in the various side chapels and the listeners sat in the nave, surrounded by the music.
Another performance where the choir surrounds the listener – one I took part in – was the historic dawn performance of Helen Chadwick’s piece ‘Illa lucem’ by The Voice Project in Norwich cathedral cloister, in 2011. The audience stood on the cloister lawns in the centre and the choir were placed around the walls, within the arches, singing into the centre as the sun rose. Here is a recording of the same ensemble singing it on a different occasion.
I take your point about changing parts while learning a piece, and learning to sing all the parts too.It sounds really exciting that your group Far Cry also changes parts during performances – something I’d love to try. It’s a great way of acknowledging the multiple components that make up the whole. I also think the warm ups we do for body, breath and voice are a part of the bonding process too. Many of the exercises we do are faintly ridiculous – eg blowing raspberries, stretching and yawning, shaking the body – and shedding individual embarrassment as you share these activities means barriers and boundaries between people are eroded more quickly.
Regarding the emotional factors you mention – my WEA group recently suffered a bereavement with the sudden death of our oldest singer, a vital , vivacious 84 year old who lifted weights and did serious long distance walks like the Camino del Santiago. It was a shock not only to lose her, but to be reminded of our own mortality and the fragility and unpredictability of all our lives. I decided to incorporate a memorial for her into the weekly class, by including one of her favourite songs and inviting the group to sing it with this amazing woman and our memories of her in mind. I made no attempt to formalise this or create a ceremony; we did our usual warm ups and prep, then we just sang for Pat, and bookended the song with silence.. Yet it was as powerful, cathartic and beautiful as a good funeral can be. The person most affected by Pat’s death told me as much. Again, I think the circle helped. People joined hands without thinking, in unselfconscious unity. Often a song can do what the spoken word cannot.
The other thing which I wanted to respond to was your experience, Bid, of working in a multi cultural group to create unity. I have two experiences of this which came to mind. I have worked for the last three years in Corsica running a workshop for Corsicans and folk from the UK. What is interesting and moving to watch is the sense of bond singing creates across cultures and language. I often have to choose my material carefully because, although the Corsicans are interested in learning English language songs, if the words are too dense it becomes too much demanding. At the last workshop this September the connection between people was very strong. People worked together, creating rhythms and harmonies, supporting each other and it all culminated in a sharing of the songs in the church in the village. Having sung all our songs the group asked for a hebrew dance song I had taught them – it was a simple two part harmony so I taught the audience. Next thing everyone was learning the dance and dancing and singing up the aisle of the church – a magical cross cultural experience.
My other experience was doing a singing project with refugee and asylum seekers. I worked with a Kurdish and Ethiopian group and we shared songs – when I went with my choir to the Ethiopian church and when we joined in their song they were incredibly touched, and in the evaluation one of the Kurdish men said that when I learnt their song and sang it he felt “visible – because she sang our song it as as if she was seeing us, that we were seen”. In the same project I visited a refugee and asylum seeker meal which was held each month by the local Quakers. Along with my singing volunteers we shared some simple English songs with them and everyone sang lustily – but more interesting were the conversations or rather the sharing on songs over tea. There were women there from Zimbabwe and when I said “Oh I know a song from Zimbabwe and sang it they instantly recognised it and began singing. By the next session we brought some drums too and before long everyone was up singing and dancing together – a truly joyful experience.
You’re so right. Music of all kinds brings people together and unites them, even if the musical language differs. And being heard is so important…..There’s a little piece in one of the videos earlier on the blog where Julia ( one of the women who sings with me) says ‘Growing my own voice, knowing I have a voice, hearing my voice, – has been quite amazing’. There is something about having your voice, your songs, heard that validates your existence, your identity in a way that nothing else can. A dear friend I had encouraged to begin singing again some years ago told me later that his experience of rediscovering his singing voice had enabled him to speak out in other areas of his life and literally ‘find a voice’ where he had felt unheard for a long time . And you and I both know the pleasure and delight that comes from hearing a song you have composed being sung for the first time by others.
This weekend we have a varied crew of singers and songwriters from folk with no experience at all to poets, singer/songwriters and seasoned acapella performers. It will be interesting to see how we can build and unite a coherent singing group from this starting point, and if we can find a common musical language with which to express our desire for change in the world. Roll on Saturday!
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.