the politics of music, the music of politics; aka I’m on strike

Strike! Strike! Strike! Strike!

I am (finally, really, truly) close to finishing my ph.d. at the University of Toronto, but as a Teaching Assistant, that means I’ve been a part of the highly publicized CUPE 3902 Unit 1 strike. I have lots of political opinions but perhaps will share those in another post. What I will say here is that I’m pretty sure being on the picket line is the opposite of writing a dissertation in every satisfying way–lots of people, lots of walking (albeit in circles), being blunt clear about the message.

Perhaps what I’ve most loved about being on strike (yes, that’s right) is deciding what side I’m on and putting my body and voice out there to stand my ground (or walk my circle).  It’s really a remarkable thing to walk on a road and block traffic  in solidarity with your fellow workers/students. It’s more incredible to yell and sing. To take up sonic space as much as physical space. There was a moment in a large rally where the entire crowd sang ‘Solidarity Forever’ and while I can never sing that song without sounding quite terrible, I shout-warbled my way through the chorus, understanding solidarity in a whole new way. And music’s role in that.

I’m not sure how this strike will end, but I’m pretty sure it’s changed me.

And for your listening pleasure, two songs:

1) The CUPE Union Picketeers (Audio only) written and performed by the Picketeers, with apologies to Stan Rogers, for this strike:
“God damn them all! We won’t sign for 8K under the poverty line!”

 

2) but maybe you’re not a folkie. Maybe funk is more your style. How’s about this old gem that someone shared with me today by Union, called ‘Strike’:

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Concert: The Divine Feminine

I get to work with the wonderful Echo Women’s Choir this semester, and am conducting a set at their concert on December 7 in downtown Toronto. I’m loving the repertoire this season: a couple challenging Ave Maria kinds of pieces (unusual for Echo); a ladino lullaby; some Georgian crazy-harmony pieces; a gospel piece. I think it’s going to be a fantastic concert.

poster for The Divine Femine Concert

Here are the details:
Sunday, December 7, 2014
7:30 pm
Church of the Holy Trinity (next to Eaton Centre on West side)
$15 advance/$20 at the door/$10 seniors, students, underwaged

To reserve tix: 416-779-5554

for more info: www.echowomenschoir.ca

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Join my mass choir at the Ontario Science Centre next week!

Next week, I’m leading a music lab at the Ontario Science Centre as part of their ‘Science of Rock’ special exhibit. Come join in the fun! The music labs last about 40 minutes and you have three chances to participate in the week:

Tuesday, Aug 19 at 12 pm and again at 2pm

Thurs, Aug 21 at 12 pm only

I’d love to stack the audience with some singers, so please join in! Feel free to tell others too! I’ll be touching on some physiology of the singing voice as well as some acoustic principles. Everyone will then learn a vocal arrangement of ‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams, complete with some body percussion!

Also, FYI, these music labs have been running all through the summer, organized by Topher Stott of League of Rock , and they are all fantastic. I saw ‘Be the Producer’ today that had kids controlling the volume of individual instruments in a live band (most of whom were from Big Wreck!) (the band, not the kids). Check out the complete schedule on the Ontario Science Centre web site.

Hope to see you there!

 

 

 

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Drop-in Summer Singing Class

I’m launching a series of 4 drop-in group singing classes on Wednesdays, July 23 to August 20. Affordably priced at $10/session, but you must register!

I also currently have a few spots left throughout the summer for private lessons on Monday afternoons.

For information on both, see upcoming.

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Night Songs: Celebrate Earth Hour with Music

This Saturday night, Echo Women’s Choir and Mariposa in the Schools are holding a
joint fundraiser at Holy Trinity Church. Tickets are $35, and come with free wine tasting,
plus incredible music from the likes of Gurpreet Chana (The Tabla Guy) and MelanieNight Songs poster
Doane, as well as Echo, and I’m going to conduct one of the songs and sing with them.
The whole evening is hosted by Andrew Craig.

Echo Women’s Choir is an 80-voice non-auditioned women’s choir based in Toronto that sings an incredible range of repertoire. Mariposa in the Schools is an amazing organization
that introduces the world’s oral cultural traditions to Ontario classrooms.

I must confess, one of the most magical things about this particular concert is that most
of it takes place in the dark, with only some candle light. In the magificant acoustic space of Holy Trinity Church (next to the magnificently busy Eaton Centre downtown),
I honestly can’t think of a better way to spend Earth Hour.

You can buy tickets at the door, and details are in the poster here.

And I’ve posted this before, but it’s so beautiful, that it deserves a second viewing. This is Gurpreet Chana playing his composition ‘Gratitude’ at the Earth Hour concert in 2012.

 

 

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

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”

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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confronting the rational with the embodied

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

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my ‘choir’ is performing tonight

I’m in a ‘choir.’ I have a hard time telling people I’m in this choir without putting quotes around the word. Because you see, it doesn’t look anything like any choir I’ve ever seen or participated in. If your definition of choir is a group of people singing together, then yes. We’re a choir. But after that, us and most other choirs depart ways.

You’re probably familiar with a typical choir: people arranged in rows according to voice type, facing a conductor and singing multi-part scored music. I’ve sung in these kinds of choirs, and I’ve directed versions of these choirs, and I love these choirs. I’ve been a part of choirs that have broken some of these traditions too, which I also enjoy.

But THIS ‘choir’, initiated and led by Fides Krucker (a strong influence in my singing and teaching, as you might already know), is a totally different animal. It has about 10 women in it. We meet in her living room, generally stand in something loosely resembling a circle, and begin with breathwork, sighs, yawns. We spend some time on vocal slides. We make eye contact with each other. We move around. We stand our own vocal ground while at the same time listening to each other, stealing sounds and gestures from others that we are drawn to.

Then we sing some songs. Mostly pop songs. Mostly in unison. Fides focuses on what she calls ‘vocal texture’—the individual and collective timbral quality of our singing voices demanded through the emotional and vocal journey of each song. For me as a singer, there is a palpable kind of emotional intensity through this approach to collective singing, whether it be joy or anger or sorrow.

It’s a pretty extraordinary thing, this ‘choir.’ At least participating in it is extraordinary. I don’t know yet whether it’s extraordinary to watch because we haven’t performed for an audience yet. Although we have had ‘performances.’

And these ‘performances’ might in many ways be the most extraordinary thing about this ‘choir.’ The ‘performances’ have all taken place at Ernestine’s–a women’s shelter in Toronto. We cram ourselves into a tiny room lined with green couches and a deliciously out-of-tune piano, replete with a few broken keys. And what makes it not-quite-a-performance is that the women of the shelter are invited to join in rather than just watch. In fact, the ‘choir’ sits among the residents on those horrid green couches. We all warm up together, and learn a song together. It’s more like a rehearsal or workshop. Except half of the women haven’t sung much, there are three interpreters, and children run in and out of the room constantly. It’s remarkable, because the ‘choir’ isn’t there to perform nor is the ‘choir’ there to use music as a tool to fix or improve anyone. We are all there working together, on our own and our collective vocal journeys.

If this is a choir, I want me lots more.

We have our first performance tonight at a fundraiser for the shelter. The women of the shelter will perform a song with us. We’re going to sing songs in various locations throughout the evening—outside by the fountain, lining the hallway, around a fireplace, and yes, even on the stage. It’s going to be a blast. I wonder what an audience reception of this ‘choir’ will be? I’m nervous and excited to find out. I’ll let you know…

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looking back, looking forward

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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