It started with a milestone birthday and an unexpected, life-changing gift: a three-day singing workshop at the Body Voice Centre in Footscray.
This was not something I had ever asked for. Frankly, it was terrifying. Not only singing, but also improvisation and “exploring extended voice.” All that… in front of people… without the comfort of a loud, late-night karaoke backing track, or friends who had checked their dignity at the bar earlier in the evening.
When I look back on this three-day journey from awkwardness to awakening, two moments resonate. Firstly, a bell-strike of wisdom from the teacher, Linda Wise: “Find you place and you will find your voice.” At the time I took this to be a call to first listen to the sonic space – i.e. to tune into your emotional and physical surroundings – before beginning to improvise. I thought, “That’s all well and good, but I was scared to sing anything at all. What if I was out of pitch? What if the sound was ugly or uninteresting or ruined others’ enjoyment of the exercise?…”
As an acutely perceptive and experienced teacher, Linda could see these thoughts causing me to take what she called a “panic breath” – constricting my throat – just as I was about to sing. She could see how my fear of judgment was robbing me of my voice. Linda’s solution was partly physiological – having a colleague press gently down on my larynx while I sang until I could feel how to stop pushing against his fingers. It was also subtly psychological – replacing my fear of being judged with a curious mindset, open to learning and expressing whatever it is that my unique voice can do. This was my first step toward finding my voice.
The second moment was being heartily encouraged to join my local community choir (by the same person who had been pressing down on my larynx just a few hours earlier – CMVic stalwart and singer, improviser, performer extraordinaire John Howard). I knew nothing about group singing or harmony but was keen to try out my newfound instrument.
That summer my world was tipped upside down. My job was made redundant, I gave up on my calling as an academic, my marriage ended, I sold the family home and moved my things into an apartment of my own. Though I had found my voice I had now lost my place. I no longer knew who I was or how to find my way.
In this topsy-turvy state I arrived at Brunswick Rogues choir for Term 1. The friendliest welcome opened onto the most joyful 2 hours of singing, which immediately became the highlight of each week. I gained a new circle of friends and admission to the sublime world harmony singing. 40+ voices resonating together is felt so much more in the body than in the ears; and this provided much needed physical and emotional therapy as I gradually came to once again find my place.
This new place I now know as “community music”, and I take every opportunity to join CMVic camps, workshops and events. I now sing in many groups (from a Junkman’s choir to Madrigals and a band with the wonderful Nicki Johnson).
Group singing, along with the values of CMVic, have become part of who I am and how I find my way.
While I still have much to learn from the very practical wisdom shared by the CMVic elders, I know it is worth the journey, each time I experience the power of the circle in which we can each find our voice and find our place.
By Craig Barrie for Community Music Victoria