Archive for the ‘listening’ Category

deanna’s got talent. or not.

Sunday, February 28th, 2016

I recently had breakfast with a dear friend. Someone I’ve know for many years. He’s made an incredible career for himself, particularly as a playwright and an actor, with a gorgeous singing voice to boot. At breakfast, I told him how through college, I envied him his talent–he seemed to get involved in so many things. A whole bunch of opportunities seemed to fall in his lap. But as I watched him develop as an artist, I quickly realized that while, yes, he is a gifted performer, he works his ass off. He seeks opportunity. He creates opportunities for himself. As I recounted this at breakfast, I thought I was being generous in noticing that his work ethic  equaled or exceeded his already considerable talent.

My friend’s response? “I don’t believe in talent.”

He went on to say that the idea of talent is a trap: talent suggests something innate. That those who are declared not to have talent should, or do, give up. Those who are deemed talented either get complacent or have the weight of producing genius every time they create. Nobody benefits from decrees of talent.

huh.

Then today I was in a wonderful vocal improvisation workshop led by David Hatfield–a warm and wonderful teacher from Vancouver here in Edmonton for the weekend. And I found myself remembering when I was first introduced to this style of improvisation (based on the work of Bobby McFerrin). Back then, I was shy, anxious, yet eagre to be seen and heard and found worthy. I didn’t know how to start an improvisation, didn’t know how to make interesting sounds, how to join in. I was afraid of, on the one hand, sounding terrible (possibly the worst outcome for a singer). But on the other hand, I was afraid I would attempt to show off and my vocal contribution would be ego-filled, not in service of the music emerging in the group. Even though I did really really want people to think I had something special, something extraordinary, I didn’t want people to think that I thought that. That would be gauche.

Welcome to the jumble of anxieties that filled my mind back then. Yeah, vocal improv was rife with anxiety, my brain running rampant over my creative and embodied impulses.

Today, I kept thinking about that introduction to vocal improv so long ago because today was so very different. I am much more comfortable improvising. I am comfortable in my own skin–largely because I like myself now. Through my work with Fides, I know my body and voice, and I’ve got tools now to help me enter into music, to listen, to follow my body’s physical gesture, or open my mouth and see what sound comes out and follow that. I kept exploring vocal improv over the last ten years, and learned to let go of trying to be a genius in favour of trying to be curious.  Also, I am also a better musician now from all of my conducting training, my performance experience, and my graduate studies. In short: I’m a better musician because of all the work I’ve done, and continue to do. My musical lines today were more complicated, more interesting. But at the same time, I’m totally happy to be a fool. To sound bad, sing wrong notes and stumble along. I’ve discovered that while singing made-up music feels so terribly risky, it turns out that nothing terribly bad happens when I sing a wrong note. I just keep singing until I sing my way into some more interesting notes.

Throughout the entire day, I felt grounded, present with others but not losing myself either. I wasn’t perfect by any means, and there were far more accomplished singers and bigger risk-takers in the group. But that fact was a gift rather than an insult: what an honour to learn from each singer, who came with varying levels of experience and who each gave something uniquely of themselves.

And now I really know, I KNOW, my friend’s point. Talent is a shallow way to think about how we engage in the arts. It suggests the start and end point are the same. “Talented” renders artistic practice into a Yoda-like tautology–you either are or you are not. But this is a false way of thinking that splits the world into artistic winners and losers.

In fact, artistic practice is about engaging in exploration, risk-taking, curiosity, and willingness to make something bad. Artistic practice is work, it is continual growth. Throughout today, I didn’t care whether I was talented. I only cared to sing and follow musical impulses. To sing in community. To learn from others. To find times to stand out and find times to support the musical excellence of others. Above all, to sing in service of the music.

Thanks, friend.

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Reflections on RIME

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

As you might know, I am finishing my PhD in Music Education at the University of Toronto. So last week I attended the international conference known as RIME: Research in Music Education in the beautiful University of Exeter in England. This was the view from my bedroom window:

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Besides the tremendous views, I also got a lot out of the conference itself. Now that I am back in Toronto, I find I am left both excited and troubled about the state of music education world-wide.

Excited because I saw many presentations that examined a wide array of music teaching and learning scenarios that wandered well beyond school-based choirs and bands: music education was constructed very broadly to include all ages, and many contexts, from underground rock music in Iran to music as a form of participatory culture to drama-oriented teaching strategies. And I also saw research about what I think of as traditional approaches to music education: school-based ensembles. And here too, I was excited to see how this research grappled with how to create culturally relevant pedagogies, and how to work with students more fully. In short, most of the research I saw considered music as embedded in, and constituted through, social relations rather than something that is separate from the politics of our daily lives.

I also walked away quite troubled. Music education around the globe appears to be diminishing: governments everywhere are simultaneously requiring post-secondary institutions to measure and quantify results, and demonstrate courses and programs in terms of market employability. Funding to music programs has been cut drastically. I’m not sure where I stand on this: I don’t want to suggest that music programs shouldn’t be accountable, or that we shouldn’t be thinking about what happens when students graduate, but the steady and constant erosion of music programs is alarmingly consistent and pervasive in many countries around the world. Add to that the erosion of stable faculty in post-secondary education, and it feels quite desperate indeed. I presented on a panel about the state of tenure in post-secondary music programs in Canada, and our research team painted yet another bleak picture for several reasons, not least of which being the shocking decline of tenure-track positions in Canada. Hiring freezes have been in place for…well, decades, in some situations, and tenure positions are disappearing.

Yet I am left feeling hopeful. Not about the state of music education in higher education, but about the capacity of music education scholars and practitioners to meet the challenge. These academics, from Norway, England, Ireland, Australia, Brazil, America, Poland, Canada, and so many other countries, are thoughtful, reflective, creative, and striving to make the world more just as best as we know how. Their passion ignites my own and I am newly excited to think and practice music.

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Pete Seeger: The Man of a Million Small, Powerful Actions

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

So Pete Seeger passed away on Monday at the age of 94. I, like so many millions of people, have been deeply affected and influenced by his music and his commitment to building a more just world through music. I never met him, but I have had the pleasure of singing and teaching his music. I frankly don’t have much to say that could add to the many amazing tributes that have been published, from the New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, and the CBC, to name just a few.

There’s a fantastic documentary on CBC’s program Ideas that lets you savour Pete Seeger’s music and ideas through his own voice. Definitely worth spending an hour to listen, if you are at all interested or curious about the man’s music and his ideas and experiences.

In 1993, Pete published a booked called “Where Have All the Flowers Gone: A Singalong Memoir.” This book has been deeply influential to me in my teaching, my repertoire, and my thinking about the social embeddedness of music. While he doesn’t explicitly focus on pedagogy, I’ve learned a lot about teaching through this book: how to piece together songs, how to contextualize songs through a wonderful combination of history, social, cultural and economic analysis, and personal connection. I love how, all through the book and the song transcriptions, he gives tips on how to involve everyone in singing. I can get behind anything that inspires a culture of singing.

I leave you with this story, as told by Pete in the Ideas documentary. It’s also in the book, but I love this particular version. It’s a story about the power of many people doing many little things. He doesn’t say here, but I know, from his other writings, that singing together is one of those small, mighty acts:

“I’m convinced that if there’s a human race here in a hundred years, it’s going to be millions upon millions of little things that save us. There’s a story I tell: imagine a seesaw and one end of the seesaw is on the ground because it’s got a big basket half-full of rocks. The other end of the seesaw is up in the air: it’s got a basket one-quarter full of sand. Some of us got teaspoons and we’re trying to fill that basket of sand. Most people are kind of laughing at us, scoffing, “yah, people like you have been trying for thousands of years but it’s leaking out of the basket as fast as you’re putting it in. You’re wasting your time.”

But we say no, we’re looking close. It was a little less than a quarter full and now it’s a little more than a quarter full, and we think that one of these days, that basket is going to be more than half full. We’re watching it closely, and that whole seesaw will go zzzoooooop! In the other direction, and all around the world, they’ll say “gee, how did it happen so suddenly?” Us and all our little teaspoons.

[…] These small little things…the powers that be can break up any big thing that they want. They can attack it from the outside, they can infiltrate it and corrupt it from the inside, they can co-opt it. But what are they going to do about ten million little things? They don’t know where to start. Break up three of them, four more like it start up.”

Thanks Pete, for doing millions of little things and encouraging us to do our own little things to make the world better.

ADDENDUM: Someone pointed out to me a great article from Canada’s online news site rabble.ca about Pete Seeger, focusing on his participatory approach to music performance. Dig this lovely quote from Pete: “I guess it’s kind of a religion with me. Participation. That’s what’s going to save the human race.” Read the full article here.

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“the power of the arts”

Monday, September 30th, 2013

This past weekend I attended the Power of the Arts National Forum in Ottawa, hosted by the Michaëlle Jean Foundation and Carleton University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Let me first say that there are a surprising number of organizations in Canada working at the intersection of arts and social change. I learned about fantastic projects, like Beautifulcity.ca, which successfully campaigned for a new tax on billboards in Toronto to be streamed into arts funding. Or the research project Pedagogical Impulse, which paired visual artists and 6th grade students to explore ‘Canada and its Trading partners’ in interesting and unpredictable ways.

As an academic and as a singer, I found myself on the one hand feeling inspired at the amazing transformations art has participated in–of individuals, neighbourhoods, even cities. Yet on the other hand, the academic in me had this little niggle, this burr stuck to my brain, wondering who benefits most from initiatives claiming to save lives through the arts.

But as I listened to discussions, and engaged in conversation, I realized that many were struggling with questions of power and inequity, asking who really benefits from the idea of the arts saving lives. And Phyllis Novak of Sketch (another innovative project working with street-affected youth and arts) eloquently reframed the work of these kinds of arts-based social change projects suggesting that the task of finding and amplifying voices that are overlooked or marginalized or pathologized actually saves everyone: Canada’s collective is strengthened by virtue of these voices participating.

By far, the most powerful moment for me was the keynote speech given by Marie Wilson, who sits on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She described the role of art in the reconciliation process, but she also pointedly questioned the celebration of art at the expense of the people. “Canada often acts as if Aboriginal art matters more than Aboriginals Peoples,” Wilson argued, “As a nation we must not cling to our art collections as a substitute for respectful relations.”

I left with the powerful message that the arts are indeed transformative, and also fraught with issues of power, access, and cultural expression. To do the arts work without paying attention to these issues is irresponsible, which I’ve always thought. But now I think that the difficulty of the work is no excuse not to do it.

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looking back, looking forward

Friday, January 11th, 2013

Hey there.

So it’s 2013. Where did last year go?

2012 brought so much live music into my life, and I drank it all up like a thirsty man finding water in the desert. I have two young kids, so getting out of the house at all, let alone seeing tons of live music, is nothing short of manna. I went to Hillside Festival in Guelph, and to the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, in, well, Edmonton. Got to see Merill Garbus and the incredible tUnE-yArDs (watch this video for a sample of her crazy/raw/fun aesthetic), and I fulfilled a life-long dream of seeing kd lang perform—my expectations were high and she blew them away. Oh, and Leonard Cohen! He was unbelievably amazing. It’s been a big year for seeing live acts. And so much of it was so inventive, I felt really fired up listening to these exciting boundary-crossing kinds of musical works and performances.

Professionally, I was also extremely lucky to conduct Echo Women’s Choir in the Spring of 2012—a fantastic group of 80 women from various backgrounds and professions, all coming together to sing some pretty wonderful and at times pretty challenging songs from many singing traditions. The honour of conducting Echo was one of the two professional highlights of my 2012.

The other was the growth of my singing studio—some new students came in last year that have just been incredible to watch and work with. And students who have studied with me for longer all seem to have found newer and deeper growth in their vocal journeys this past year. I’ve learned so much from my students, and am so proud of what they’ve accomplished, and inspired by their willingness to risk and put themselves out there.

So in many aspects a good year for music. But still.

I miss singing.

Watching all that music and watching the work of my students gave me lots of ideas for some musical projects moving forward. Now that I’m in the throes of my dissertation work, I hesitate. Do I have enough time to take on another project, in addition to being a student and a teacher and a mom? I’m not sure but I think I have to try. I think my first order of business is upload some clips from my 2010 cabaret ‘Undone’ with Jen Cook. I was proud of that work, and I think I’m ready to share it, or at least pieces of it, with the world.

Next, deciding which musical project to start with. Stay tuned…hopefully by summer I’ll have something more to say here. I guess this is my New Year’s Resolution, though it feels like more. A commitment to singing, my own passion. But here it is: in 2013, I’m going to work towards more performance.

And may I be so bold as make a request of you for 2013? Go see live stuff. See some live music. See a play. See a dance show. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on big ticket concerts and broadway-style plays. In fact, it’s in many ways better to see the band at your local pub, or see the innovative work of your local theatre companies. Nothing compares to the live experience, not even in the digital age of facebooking and tweeting and youtubing. You have to be there.

OK, 2013. Bring it on.

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sing for love

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

At the risk of killing romance, I’m going to be honest: I hate valentine’s day. I buy pre-packaged branded valentine cards for my sons to give to their friends, and my kids will come home this afternoon with bags full of the same kinds of cards that bear not more than a tenuous connection to love. Same for the chocolates and roses we’re supposed to purchase for our lovers this one day: consumerist expressions of love. So I’m a cynic, a valentine scrooge: bah humbug on love, valentine style.

But this morning, I’m rethinking the value of a day in February dedicated to love. Many of you may know that February is Black History Month and I had the good fortune of seeing the Washington-based women’s a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock perform at Koerner Hall in Toronto last Friday night. I’m putting together a rehearsal plan for Echo Women’s Choir tonight, and I’m planning to teach the rain forest chant they sang as part of our vocal warm-up. And all of this has got me thinking…maybe we can reclaim valentine’s day as a day dedicated to love. Real love. Hard love. The love that struggles and works to make us better, as individuals and collectively. I actually can’t think of what we more need now, around the world, than (as Burt Bacharach insists) love.

So let’s celebrate love. Love as justice, love as courage in the face of fear, love as the struggle to make our own lives, and the lives of others, better. Sweet Honey sang “The Ballad of Harry T. Moore” last week, a song that chronicles the work of a Florida man who fought lynchings, and registered Black Floridians for the vote (a quick look at his accomplishments on Wikipedia). On Christmas eve in 1951 a bomb was planted in his home that killed Harry and his wife on Christmas Day.

Sweet Honey sings this story: the words and music combine to offer a story that is both horrible and courageous, and ultimately hopeful: “It seems I hear Harry Moore, from the earth his voice still cries: ‘no bomb can kill the dreams I hold for freedom never dies.’”

So in memory of Harry Moore, and in honour of those who are fighting for justice, and singing for justice, here is the song. Happy Valentine’s Day. May you truly walk, and sing, in love.

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David and Goliath Fundraiser Rocked the Dark!

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

Wow. What an amazing sold-out fundraiser on Saturday night for Echo and by Mariposa in the Schools.

In honour of Earth hour, the first half of the concert was performed with lights out. Holy Trinity Church looked beautiful in tiny pools of candlelight stretching all the way back.

Just how dark was it? Well, I got to open the show with my colleagues and co-conductors, Becca Whitla and Alan Gasser, singing a just-learned arrangement of the Afro-Cuban “Obbatala” by Glenda del Monte Escalante. You can judge for yourself:

Yep. Pretty dark. That darkness brought a huge gift, though: intense listening. Like everyone’s attention and energy brought us all palpably closer together. Makes me think we should perform in near-dark a lot more.

Echo sounded amazing. There were definitely several (many?) moments that more than a few members weren’t sure what to expect next, and we didn’t get lots of rehearsal time on a few joint numbers, but Echo members committed to the spirit of the performance and sang with great commitment and happiness. And that was clear from their performance. I had a few people say to me afterwards that the Choir sang with such visible and audible joy.   Particularly moving was the Chris Rawling’s Earth Chant that Echo sang in round behind Chris. And the close of the show, singing “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” with Ken Whitely…so wonderful!

The performers were amazing. Amazing in their performances to be sure, but also incredibly warm and generous in spirit.  Personal highlights: getting introduced to the music of Cameroonian artist Njacko Backo on kalimba; the stupendous performance by Gurpreet Chana–otherwise known as the Tabla Guy–playing his composition “Gratitude” on a percussion-like instrument that was recently invented (anyone out there remember what it’s called? A bit like an upside down steel pan, but more bell-like sound…); a wonderful and hilarious story by Marylyn Peringer; an incredible spoken word piece by Michael St. George called “I do” about his commitment to art and social justice; a raucous rendition of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” by David Anderson, accompanying himself with accordian…

I could go on, actually. There wasn’t one disappointing moment in the evening. Even the snacks were amazing.

Thanks for a wonderful evening, everyone.

If you missed this show, you’ll get a chance to catch Echo’s Spring concert on the afternoon of May 1, 2011. Details coming soon…

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