Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ 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.


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.


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:








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.


confronting the rational with the embodied

Monday, June 24th, 2013

I just left the ph.d. defense for my capoeira teacher and friend, Lang. Her dissertation on capoeira focuses on how the Afro-Brazilian martial art form is both a powerful site of transformative learning and a challenge to strictly logical/cerebral learning indoctrinated in us in academic institutions. She began defending her thesis this morning by bringing in the whole group and playing in the roda at the beginnning.

The University of Toronto is really strict about these things: defenses are not open to the public and we were not allowed to be present during the actual defense. But we were allowed to provide a ‘demonstration’ prior to the defense. It was never so clear to me how challenging her work is to the institution as it was in that moment: the capoeiristas, in our whites, singing and clapping and kicking each other in the face playing and laughing, while the committee sat around a table watching. Lang had the courage to invite them to come stand in the circle—a few were eager but several were extremely resistant. We did our roda, then we capoeiristas left, and Lang is there now, defending her work and her choices. I don’t know how it’s going but I do know that I admire her commitment to embodying her very argument. And I felt not a little jealous that she invited this vibrant community to sing and dance and transform the very room in which she is defending her ideas. To not have to walk into that room alone.

I wonder if I can somehow make a similar choice when the time comes for me to defend. Given my dissertation focus is historical, I’m not sure how I can make exactly the same choice outside of trying to raise the dead, but it does open my eyes to the kinds of choices we are told we have and the kinds of choices we can make for ourselves and our work. Perhaps there is a way to integrate my singing practice, perhaps even just to warm up and sing in community prior to such a cerebral exercise/rite of passage might remind me that I have a body as well as a brain. That I love to think about music, but not as much as I love to make music.

I can’t speak for her committee, but Lang’s work has changed how I want to engage in academics.

Professora Lang in the roda in Brazil in the Filhos de Bimba Escola de Capoeira


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.


beginning and beginning again: six strategies in starting with a new voice teacher

Tuesday, September 13th, 2011

I went back to school this week to begin the 3rd year of my Ph.D. in Music Education, and I was often cheerfully greeted with “Happy New Year!” In this corner of the world, September feels like the real start of the year. Whether you are in school, have kids in school, or have simply been conditioned through previous years of school, we approach September with the fresh optimism of beginners, even with a longing for a summer that has slipped by.

This beginnings-time-of-year was underlined for me this week: I had several new voice students begin at my voice studio. And they remind me that beginning (again) is a frightful and amazing place to be. Some students are true beginners, having never taken a voice lesson, and one or two have rarely ever sung. But some are merely beginning with me, having sung lots before, studying with other teachers. Whether you are beginning or beginning again, embarking on singing lessons with a new teacher means navigating a new relationship that is both a practical skills-building endeavour, as well as an incredibly intimate and intensely personal journey. Singing often feels vulnerable. Students are trusting their voices, and in a way, their whole being, to another human being in a one-on-one setting.

Navigating a new singing relationship often takes some time find an equilibrium and know whether the fit works for you. Here are a few suggestions for you if you are embarking on singing lessons in a new voice studio:

  1. Find out your teacher’s philosophy and pedagogy. Have a conversation in advance of the lesson to get to know your teacher to find out their philosophical and pedagogical approaches, as well as their experience if that’s important to you. I like to have this conversation in the first lesson, but not all teachers do, so make sure to find out so you get a sense of how your values might match up. These values form the foundation of the working relationship.
  2. Know what you want to get out of taking lessons. Are you looking to improve your upper passaggio? Are you looking to extend your breath? Are you hoping to explore and find your singing voice? Are you hoping simply to make sounds that you feel happy with? Whether you have precise technical goals, or general hopes, know what they are and discuss them with your teacher. This will help your teacher guide your lessons and it will also help you both figure out the fit between you. Also know that your goals often change as you study singing, which is ok. But knowing why you’re starting is important.
  3. Adopt a stance of curiosity. Curiosity allows you to embark on the adventure of singing with a new teacher and trust them to take you to new places. Curiosity also allows you to ask questions of what’s happening and articulate to your teacher how his or her approach might be different from what you’ve experienced before. Curiosity invites questions without judgement, which can be quite productive and help you bridge previous experiences with this one.
  4. Voice your discomfort. If you are feeling physically or emotionally uncomfortable in any part of the lesson, talk about it. If your teacher is experienced enough, he or she will either adapt the exercise to fit you better or help you work through it so that you feel capable of taking this on. Feelings of discomfort are normal in singing lessons, so most teachers have worked through this with students and have strategies to help you. You don’t need to be a suffering artist, unless you want to be!
  5. Suspend your suspicions enough to go along for the ride. Sometimes a teacher will take you on a journey that, at the start, looks weird or wrong or even scary. But sometimes, these moments require some faith and courage to go along for the ride and see where you end up. More often than not, you’ll be surprised and excited at the destination. If you’re not, extend your faith just a little more to try again. If you’re continuously disappointed or anxious though, you might need to find another teacher.
  6. Pay attention to how you feel during and after your lessons.  Does your body feel more open? Do you feel lighter and more open in spirit? Do you feel like your voice is changing in ways that make you happy? You won’t always walk away from a lesson feeling good. Vocal journeys have plateaus and even some dark places, but often those hard lessons occur just before a major break-through. However, if you’re feeling conflicted, confused, and unsatisfied over the course of several lessons, you may need to find a teacher that’s a better fit for you.

My STAR Interview!

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

I am blessed to know many incredible women. One of those women is Sarah Hopen,  Chief Administrator of STAR Company: the Society of Technicians for Administrative Removal. STAR Company is in the business of taking care of the book-keeping, filing, and organizing of creative people so that creative people can…well…create.

Thanks for that, Sarah.

And thanks for this: STAR Company profiles an artist in each newsletter, and this month, I got to be interviewed! With Sarah’s permission, I’m reposting the interview here, but if you want to see it in its original setting, go for it.

Oh, and STAR Company runs the Starry Nights house concert series, which raises funds for Toronto’s Art Starts–a really excellent organization promoting arts-based community development in Toronto.  Starry Nights premiered Jen’s and my Undone Cabaret in May, which has opened up a bunch of new, exciting opportunities for us.

So yeah. Thanks, STAR Company.

Deanna’s Interview

Share a little bit about your approach to voice work. How did you come to be where you are today?

[Deanna Yerichuk] It’s been a long road, and there’s no end in sight. Fortunately, I’ve learned that it really is all about the journey and not the destination. My first voice teacher was Alice Wright in Edmonton, and I started studying with her when I was 17. Alice was the first person to get me to see beauty in myself. She knocked down all sorts of arbitrary walls and defenses I’d set for myself and introduced me to a whole new level of risk-taking: I found out that doing things that scared me tended to open up really interesting possibilities. I took a diploma program in music theatre (from Grant MacEwan in Edmonton if anyone is curious). I still have a soft spot for music theatre, even though I haven’t acted in years. When I moved to Toronto, I was introduced to folk music (yes, replete with guitar), world musics, and choral singing, all of which suits my desire to collaborate and discover and explore sounds outside of my comfort range. I now study with Fides Krucker who is incredible. From Fides, I’ve learned not only that it’s ok to make un-beautiful sounds, but in fact these wild and unbeautiful sounds can be immensely satisfying for both performer and audience. She has also taught me that learning how to sing is all about engaging opposites: technical precision with body and emotional intuition; mental acuity with body knowledge; learning to control with learning to let go. I’m finding singing and performing more exciting, more satisfying as I approach it less with judgment and more with curiosity. So now I perform solo and with groups and choirs, and I teach singing out of my east end studio. Oh, I also have 2 boys, which is surprisingly excellent training in creativity, curiosity, and gaining/losing control.

You are not only a vocal performer and teacher but also a researcher. Where do these experiences overlap for you? What is your area of interest right now?

[Deanna Yerichuk] Whew, that’s a tough question. These areas all overlap in sticky, tangled, complicated ways. For me, what it all finally comes down to is the human voice and its capacity to express itself. I’ve been curious for years about adults singing and reclaiming their voices: how many adults don’t sing because someone somewhere along the line told them they couldn’t. Or shouldn’t. And how finding and reclaiming their singing voices becomes a transformative experience, often also leading to finding a spiritual voice, an emotional voice, a political voice, an embodied and connected voice. I’m particularly curious to find out how singing in community changes us personally and in our communities. How has Westernized perfection of singing colonized our voices and how can we decolonize and reclaim or find our songs, our sounds, our souls? And can I ask all of these questions without losing sight of the fact that singing often brings immense joy and pleasure?

What is your absolute greatest pleasure as a singer?

[Deanna Yerichuk] There’s this…I don’t know…I think of it as the sweet spot. The moment in performance when the technician in my brain stops nattering at me, and my ego falls away. The past falls away. The future falls away. There is only now. This moment. My body, my heart and my voice all line up in one conduit of musical experience between me and the audience. I’m no longer performing…I’m…singing. This is, hands down, the most gratifying moment. So far, they’ve only come in fits and starts, but I’d like to stretch them, like toffee, throughout my performance and my practice. The sweet spot is rather elusive. I can’t hunt for it. I just have to do my work as a singer, and sink in.

Do you have any upcoming performances or workshops?

[Deanna Yerichuk] I have both! I will be performing with Jen Cook in the Undone Cabaret on August 27 and 28 in east Toronto. It’s a semi-staged house concert with Tania Gill on piano and Chris Banks on bass. We did the show is the West End in May to wonderful response, so we’re looking forward to remounting the show in a different setting. I’m also teaching a couple of classes this summer: a class that focuses on foundations of singing (starting with breathwork) and a new class called “Solo Salon” in which participants work on a solo piece with me and an accompanist over 6 weeks, and the participants perform their solos in an evening salon at my east end studio. It should be fun! If anyone wants more info, they can check out my web site at or email me at

What is playing on your iPod right now?

[Deanna Yerichuk] my tastes have been largely influenced by CBC radio 2 and WFUV in New York lately: Meaghan Smith, Regina Specktor, K’Naan, the Decemberists, the Avett Brothers. Much to the surprise of my inner teenager I’m loving more country, especially Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton. Tom Waits often makes an appearance, along with Leonard Cohen.


making everything easier

Friday, June 25th, 2010

Last Saturday morning at breakfast, my 5-year-old was asking why my partner had to leave for the day.

“I’m going to campaign school,” my partner said (it’s election time soon in these parts).

My son thought about this. “Well,” he said, “if you’re going to school, there’s one thing you should learn first.”

“What’s that?”

“First, you should learn how to sing.  Singing makes everything easier.”

Singing makes everything easier!

After I stopped laughing, I started to consider the implications of this. Do I agree?

I’ve wrestled my fair share of singing demons. I’ve gone through long periods where singing felt awful. Or didn’t happen at all.  But I’m coming to a place where singing, which for me also means sinking into the present moment and my body, is a regular part of my life.  And singing might not make everything easier, but it sure makes everything worthwhile. When I’m engaged in a daily practice of singing, I find I enjoy gardening rather than avoid it. I love riding my bike. I want to connect to friends.  I find my family hilarious and wonderful. It’s like a someone put a bright filter on my life.

The trick is having a regular singing practice.

I’ve always struggled to have a regular practice. It’s easy to do when performances are lined up. It’s tough when I’m busy with not-singing things. Especially now that I’m immersed in academics, which despite being about music seems to be antithetical to making music (I’m avoiding writing a paper right now!). Yet, when I don’t sing frequently, I experience an opposite effect: there’s a gray filter on my life. I can’t focus. I ignore my body. I avoid my dirt-bomb of a house. I feel annoyed by the demands of my family.  It ain’t pretty.

Sing sing sing!  Even if it’s just breathwork for 5 minutes, or a couple warm-ups. It’s a start. It’s enough.

Maybe my son is onto something after all.

After my partner left for his day, I asked my son if he really believed singing makes everything easier.

“yep,” he replied, “especially campaign school.”

“Do you know what campaign school is?”

“yep. It’s where you learn how to fill the campaign tank for the barbecue.”