Archive for the ‘Thinking’ Category

beautiful women singing in a beautiful city

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

The Twentieth Anniversary Season Concert for Echo Women’s Choir happened this past Sunday. I had the pleasure and privilege of guest conductingBeautiful City concert poster a substantial portion of the concert. I don’t have any video or audio–yet–so you’ll have to take my word for it: these 80 women sounded wonderful.

The program was pretty eclectic: some gospel, some worker/protest songs, an Arabic love song, a few pieces from the Republic of Georgia. The central piece was a composition called ‘Sun’ (conducted by my colleague Alan Gasser), with text by Eliot Rose and music by William Westcott–this full-on, massive sounding,insane piano-accompanying, hard-to-sing vocal yearning for spring. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard that much sound in Holy Trinity Church before. It was glorious.



Echo is a community choir, meaning no auditions to get in, just have to wait patiently for your name to come up on the wait list–maybe about a year. If choral singing is your thing, or maybe your thing, there are numerous choirs in the GTA for every singer and for every taste. A good starting place  are the Canary Pages of Wholenote magazine that come out in May. You can find the pages in stands around the GTA, or browse their online map of choral groups. I got the pleasure of writing the editorial for this year’s edition, too.

But for me, Echo has been an amazing experience, and I’ve been blessed to be a part of their singing work.


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.


Phenomenon of Singing in Phenomenal Newfoundland

Thursday, July 14th, 2011
Deanna near Ocean

The Eastern-most woman in North America

Well, that was an incredible 4 days.

Up at 4:30 am on Sunday to catch a plane to St. John’s for the Phenomenon of Singing International Symposium VIII, At Memorial University Newfoundland, the academic part of a GI-NORMOUS choral festival called Festival 500.

Let me tell you, there really were no downsides to this journey. In fact, I’m not really sure what to say, or where to start.

Highlights from the Symposium:

  • Kate Munger, who began Threshold Choirs in California about 10 years ago–groups of women who singing to people who are dying. She was warm, thoughtful and best of all, taught us several songs in harmony. Singing at an academic conference is rarer than you’d expect (or want)
  • Louise Pascale (Lesley University) who volunteered in Afghanistan in the late 1960s through the peace corps, and creating a collection of children’s song with a local musician. In the intervening years, the Taliban had suppressed all music and culture, and about 7 years ago, she decided she’d try to get the songs back in case this was the only remaining record. The project has grown massively, producing one collection of songs, and another one in the works. Stories of people weeping as they heard these songs, not having heard them since they were children. Deeply moving. Check out the Afghan Children Song Book Project, and if you know of sources of funding pass that along.
  • Kiera Galway (my fellow Ph.D. student at University of Toronto) examined the tensions and joys of (re)presenting culture, land, and history based on her research with NL Youth Choir Shalloway.

I presented a paper too–thinking through the difference between being safe and being comfortable in community singing, thinking through how we as singers experience transformative kinds of learning when we feel safe to take risks and looking primarily at the work of critical pedagogue bell hooks and her idea of a love ethic.

But what really made the Symposium exceptional was that it was attached to this massive choral festival! Literally a 1000 choristers, either whole choirs or individuals coming to sing in the “Come Solo” Choir assembled through the week. Performances day and night, and some truly astounding presentations. The ones that blew me away: Lady Cove of St. John’s (conductor Kellie Walsh; Rajaton of Finland (and that’s pronounced Rye-a-ton. If you pronounce it like I did, you will feel decidedly uncool). And here’s a youtube clip of the insanely amazing Indonesian Youth Choir Cordana. Here’s just a tiny excerpt:

In the words of a colleague, I think I just had a choralgasm.

St. John's from Signal Hill

St. John's at dusk (view from Signal Hill)

But to be honest, nothing at the Symposium or the Festival could match the sheer awesomeness (in the biblical sense rather than the valley girl sense) of St. John’s. My first glimpse of Newfoundland and those rugged cliffs as the plane banked over the Atlantic brought surprising tears to my eyes, and I remained weepy for the rest of my days there. Cape Spear, Signal Hill, whales frolicking off the coast…unimaginable beauty.

That was my first journey to Newfoundland, but it won’t be my last.



it’s like falling off a cliff, over and over

Thursday, June 9th, 2011

The vocal pedagogy that I practice and teach mostly draws from the work of Fides Krucker. I just got back from a lesson with Fides, and through my vocal and pedagogical training with her, I’ve come to understand singing as an integration of contradictions that demands the quiet but complete bravery of leaping off a cliff.

In one of my first singing lessons with Fides, back in 2003, she was coaching me through a vocal slide, trying to get me to find air flow without pushing or straining the muscles around the vocal folds. She told me “it’s like you’re falling off a cliff, over and over, all the way through the slide. Feel yourself fall off a cliff about 3 times on the slide up.” That’s Fides for you. Don’t just fall once but THREE times. And singing with Fides IS like falling off a cliff over and over: scary, exhilarating, and continuously challenging no matter how much “progress” I make in my vocal work. There’s always something else to let go of.

Fides has developed a unique and to my mind highly effective vocal pedagogy that draws from two seemingly opposite traditions with results that far exceed the mere sum of both. First, she draws from the Roy Hart school of extended voice technique, primarily through the work of Richard Armstrong. This technique offers what Fides calls cathartic work. A kind of vocal exploration of voice that follows emotional and physical threads rather than seeking perfection and beauty in every note. Her particular version of extended voice technique invites in the cracks, frays, burrs, growls, skips, yells, whispers, and tremors. Further, students are encouraged to follow our bodies, let our intellects (along with our self-judgements) to take a back-seat and approach singing as though we’re not quite in control of the whole thing. How extraordinary to begin singing from a place of curiosity and exploration of the voice, rather than judging which sounds are ‘good’ and which are ‘bad.’ To figure out how my body naturally breathes, and learning to follow what my body already knows rather that what my brain thinks is smart or right or good.

At the same time, Fides has integrated core principles of bel canto technique, which, contradictory to what I just said, demands precision and a kind of mental acuity and control in vocal production. Bel canto, literally “beautiful voice,” is of the Italian tradition that underpins most operatic singing, and while the technique varies widely, it’s characterized by a pure, beautiful sound that balances the lower and upper registers in the human voice (Wikipedia offers a pretty decent overview of bel canto, as a starting place, if you’re interested). For Fides, bel canto technique offers the technical grounding to the extended vocal work, containing singers’ cathartic experiences within technical precision and sound research on vocology (how the voice works in the body). So while students might experience something like a psychological purge through extended vocal technique (and trust me, I have purged an awful lot through our lessons), our wild explorations are always put to service of vocal technique. We remain attentive to our bodies as instruments AND as homes of our hearts and minds.

This blend of two divergent singing traditions informs Fides’ work, yet her work exceeds a simple integration of previous disciplines. Fides demands singers (including herself) to engage contradictions in the embodied here-and-now of singing: technical precision and emotional intuition; mental acuity with body knowledge; learning to control with learning to let go. A kind of embodied dialectics. A clear confusion. A wild precision.

At my lesson today, Fides brought me back to that cliff metaphor. But this time instead of falling, I’m leaping off the cliff, making adjustments as I fall. I’ve given up control while controlling what I can. It’s been a big sustained jump, verging on a continuous freefall. At moments, it almost feels like flight.

Fides wouldn’t encourage students to take leaps that she herself wouldn’t take, figuratively and literally. Here’s a short film called “Opening Night” by Julie Trimingham from 2001 starring Fides with Richard Armstrong. The text on youtube describes the film as “an explosion and exploration of the moment –the breath taken– before the first note of an opening night performance is sung.” The film is a decade old, and Fides, true to her own form, has continued to deepen her own vocal and pedagogical practice by keeping herself on the edge of her own experience and knowledge through her practice and pedagogy, navigating that paradoxical line of heart and mind, life and art.


Firefly Creative Writing is Eating the Math

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

For the second year now, The Stop Community Food Center is running Eat the Math, a challenge to citizens all over Ontario is try living on a diet that a person on social assistance might receive from a food bank… and to blog about it. I would have done this but was too busy with my face in my school books and teaching to notice the call going out.

So you can, like me, live this test through Chris Fraser of Firefly Creative Writing. And because she’s a creative writer, her blogs are particularly entertaining and wrenching.

It’s a shocking little amount of food in a hamper from the food bank. Someone on social assistance gets only one, maybe two per month, plus a mere $585 to live.

It’s inhumane. How could anyone sing when their body is starving? How could anyone do anything?

Follow Chris’s challenge at


if i collapse onstage, just drag me off and keep singing

Monday, October 18th, 2010

last night I saw a documentary about an incredible group of singers: young @ heart. I was in the library with my kids, and my two-year-old pulled the DVD off a library shelf and handed it to me saying “der you go!”  Seemed like a sign, so I took it out and watched it.  I laughed and cried.  I was inspired and challenged.

If you’re not familiar with the doc, it’s about a  chorus of seniors in Massechussetts that sings surprising repertoire.  Surprising in the choices (80-yr-olds singing Sonic Youth? The Ramones? David Bowie?) and surprising in how poignant and appropriate and fresh the songs become through their performance and interpretation. Through their very voices.

My favourite song (although it was darn hard to choose) was “Road to Nowhere” by the Talking Heads.  I’d like to embed the video for you, but can’t–maybe due to copyright?–so please. Take a sec, and click on the link and watch it now, then close the window and come back to me:

Wasn’t that AWESOME?  I don’t know about you but there was so much that I missed in the words of the original that were striking here…”We know what we’re knowing but we don’t know what we’ve seen”  and “we’re not little children and we know what we want”.  And dig the arrangement–the solo voice and chorus completing each other’s sentences and thoughts.  Individual and collective, continuous and disjointed.  And what a brilliant mix of instruments–piano, accordian, violin, drums. As Steven Holden of the New York Times wrote about Young@Heart’s rendition of Stayin’ Alive, their perspective infuses urgency into the music and lyrics:

Sung by people approaching the end of their lives, the song is no longer about strutting through the urban jungle with your elbows out; it is a blunt survival anthem. These singers, most of them well- rehearsed amateurs, refuse to go gently into that good night. For them music is oxygen.

I was inspired on several levels.  First on the front that I imagine many people felt…a “wow! if they can do it at THEIR age, I can do anything I want! It’s never too late!”  And this is true, I feel hopeful that my getting older doesn’t necessarily mean growing useless, as our society seems to assume about ageing. But the movie’s focus on seniors, whose stories are rarely considered by people related to them, let alone features of movies, makes this an exceptional topic.  Turns out we never stop wanting to belong, to make contributions, to be creative, and to have our art and consequently ourselves, taken seriously. My grandma and grandpa were in a residential home for the last few years of their lives. It was like a purgatory. A waiting station till death.  How much different would lives be if as we grew older, we knew we could continue to be valued, contributing members to social and musical scenes?

There’s an urgency to the singing–death is near for a chorus whose average age is 80. Several members say that if something “happens” to them, they’d want the chorus to keep going.  One lady says, “if i collapse onstage, just drag me off and keep singing.”  They have a passionate commitment to their music and their community like I’ve never seen. There’s a stripped-down, raw quality to Young@Heart’s singing, and willingness or perhaps urgency to be unrefined that cuts through social mores. A leaning on each other that’s about survival as much as it’s about friendship.

Something else occured to me as I watched the singers.  Singing is less about finding a perfect voice and more about finding the right container for the voice, no matter how unusual the container or the voice. Or maybe unusual is a prerequisite.  Some of the chorus members were ‘good singers’ in the ways that we learn to recognize ‘good singing’–full, pleasant voices singing on pitch, words and melodies fully remembered. But many weren’t ‘good singers’, and those were the voices, by far, that were the most satisfying. Huge and lusty and frayed.  Filled with colours of shouting, crying, wavering, frailty, strength.  Voices bubbling over with human experience.  Voices that forgot words and rhythms.  All so satisfying, and not in a “oh aren’t they cute?” kind of way.  In a really challenging and satisfying way that spoke to the experience of being human. So it struck me that artistic excellence is not so much about perfecting our voices to shoehorn ourselves into particular established forms and expectations.  It’s about finding the container (both in repertoire and in presentation) to express our full humanness.  It’s at once familiar and strange.  Disruptive and immensely satisfying.

I guess I should let my 2-yr-old pick my movies for me more often.