The Mermaid: A Conversation with Fides Krucker – Julie Trimingham

I live by the salt water, and look out every day on a rock where seals sunbathe; my distance vision is impressionistic, the bodies lounging where rock meets wave might as well be mermaids.   Traditionally half-fish, half-woman, and drop-dead gorgeous, mermaids, at some point, got confused with the traditionally half-bird, half-woman sirens, whose singing voices were notoriously beautiful. Both animal-woman forms caused shipwrecks, or brought bad luck, although some could bestow boons, as well. In today’s popular imagination, the mermaid/siren is commonly thought of as possessing great physical beauty and an irresistible soprano, and she seems to have lost her danger along the way. Weeki Wachee Springs, in Florida, has been featuring professional mermaids in an underwater stage with glass walls since 1947. There are now mermaid schools in Los Angeles, Montreal, Colorado, and the Philippines, among others. Students pick out a colorful monofin and dive in. Mermaiding is now a verb, a hobby, a job. It seems all fantasy, fetish, and sparkle. But I was interested in a mermaid’s interior life. And now, my friend has become one. A mermaid. So I thought I’d ask her.

Fides Krucker is an internationally acclaimed singer specializing in contemporary vocal repertoire. Based in Toronto, she is also a teacher, writer, and vocal composer.  Her current role is the Mermaid in DIVE, a work she co-created with writer Richard Sanger and composer Nik Beeson.

Permission to Scream

bird:girl image

Martha fell off her perch in the Cincinatti Zoo one hundred years ago.

I wish I’d known her, known the darkening skies when 2.5 billion of her species, the passenger pigeon, flew in one large airborne colony, their beating wings deafening human ears below. Drawings by Audubon show a pretty bird, refined lines, the female colouring subtle and elegant. With a single flock taking three days to fly over Chicago only forty years before Martha’s death who could have imagined their extinction? We hunted, made pigeon pie, tore down the trees that made up their habitat, and despite their vast numbers and intrinsic life skills…flocking, foraging and reproducing…they did not survive.

Is a domesticated woman a woman in danger of extinction?

Several times this year I have flown over Chicago’s suburbs, my commuter plane alighting on the Midway tarmac. I am here to create the vocal work for an opera about women raising their voices against unjust labour practices in the garment industry in the early 1900s.

A person’s voice is emotion laid bare. Coming from the Autonomic Nervous System, it is the perfect instrument of self-betrayal, of exposure. Women come to me every day for singing lessons, some have lost their voices through tension or the desire to do well, the need to measure up or to become someone they are not. Some no longer feel any pleasure when they sing and some have never sung but always wanted to and had a hunch they could. Some even say they want their voices to stop betraying them! So strong are their social instincts that they would rather disguise the truth and fit it.

The female voice is expected to be docile, pleasing…a certain kind of ‘musical.’ This is what the ancient Greeks ordained within Athens’ walls and these strictures continue to influence us today. But the free female voice is the call of a siren, ecstatic like the voice of Janis Joplin, Eva Cassidy, Aretha Franklin or Ann Wilson. A powerful range of emotional colour: joy and sorrow and rage. Ask Odysseus – he had to lash himself to the mast to maintain his boundaries.

Everyone seems to know that singing is high stakes, lying close to the bone. The inside of my mouth, openness of my sinuses, grip or ease of ribcage, neck, diaphragm, belly and anal sphincter, all make my voice sound the way it sounds. Shapes and holds influenced by family and culture; I conform or react, often unaware. Personal resonance sacrificed, vocal cords no longer in tune with my true self.

I wonder if I am on an endangered species list? 

To make the opera we start with birdsong and forbidden female sound.  I want women to learn the ‘ugly’ in their voices, give themselves permission to scream. I want us to de-commodify our bodies and souls and sounds, consciously identifying with the full range of our music making, from beautiful to terrifying. I want us to no longer have to please or to be our own lovely product. I want women to taste the fineness of their nervous systems by giving voice to moan, groan, sigh, whisper, whine, screech and holler. Women singing from upper and lower mouth; these mouths making us real in this world…staking territory, calling for a mate, protecting offspring, sounding alarm, singing for the sake of song making, thriving creatively, working meaningfully, migrating, making community. What a fine weave it takes to yield and to aggress. Would we hold duality more easily if we had the temerity to be more animal than domestic?

The Chicago opera, 3 Singers, is one of two performances I have been developing this year with birds at the core of the vocal creation. Visual artist Sara Angelucci has invited seven singers to co-create a piece about avian extinction called A Mourning Chorus for the Art Gallery of Ontario and in this one I am a vocalist as well as one of the composers.

Trying to sing like a bird has been humbling. Humans have a single voice box that houses two vocal cords; when they vibrate against one another even gentle contact brings forth scraps of sound, small gauges of feeling. Birds have two syrinxes, low in the chest, not in the throat like ours. Each syrinx is made up of a single vocal cord and controlled by the air blowing from one of their lungs into that side’s bronchiole. This is why bird sound is so complex, so hard to approximate. A human would need two voice boxes coordinating at lightning speed to come up with the compositions that their two syrinxes make by nature.

I’ve become hyper-aware of how tiny birds are; this is part of what makes their range so high and their song so agile. Their heartbeat and breath rate are much faster than ours, their tiny ‘vocal cords’ vibrate more quickly, their resonant spaces are ever so fine, it is natural that they spin out higher melodies. Gradually slowing down the recording of a bird call allows the tone to drop and at a certain point the bird’s song inhabits my human body, sitting in a heftier resonance, with a pitch that feels true to my womanly range. A sweet compassion settles in as my bird brain comes to life.

What I am thinking about while trying to sing like a bird is an individual woman’s true instinct and how that might intersect with or differ from our strong social instincts. The birds are offering a way to play with voice outside of the rights and wrongs we might associate with female sound. Could this shift expression and interaction; would there be value in finding some true wilderness together? The more deeply we delve into creation the more differences I experience between my idea of what a bird is and my experience of being a woman. I just can’t get over the fact that a bird uses 100% of its air when making a sound. Oh! How often I have held some breath in reserve, hedged my bets, been stingy! Where has my sigh gone? That flow of feeling from behind the sternum, close to my heart…speaking from my heart. How I wish I could be free of learned behaviour that limits or lies.

Is it possible for a woman to fully inhabit her voice, like a bird does? 

The first female workers in the American garment industry must have been flying blind as they took on employment outside the home and then on top of that took on factory owners who were not providing safe environments or decent pay. I develop an improvisational structure for rehearsal, hoping to prompt vocal material full of discovery and transgression, so that we too can fly blind. I ask the performers to start with 1) their already well developed, individual, bird sound and then transform that into 2) sounds which contain both vowels and consonants while retaining ‘birdiness’ and from that stretch musically into 3) complaint, expressing freely, through partial words and sung sound, something that is of great personal concern, something worth fighting for, and then 4) turn this into a slogan that could be used by women demanding control over their work lives and their bodies.

We work on this exercise over two full days. The women touch and amaze me; this is difficult terrain. The low, throaty moan of the rock pigeon (Lara) moves through a sexual abuse lament, into a string of NOs that reclaim self and spirit, finally arriving at a divine slogan, more aria than chant, “No gods, no masters!” The high, frenetic, and brilliantly shrieked cries of the blue grosbeak (Jenna) transform into an academic rant about how individual each person’s body and needs actually are, leading to the metallic shred of “Eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what we will!” No vocal decorations remain to distract us from the urgency of her bodily convictions. Our third bird, the ruby kinglet (Maggie), has a cheerful and tuneful little hook. She moves all flap and feather into a driving rap about the amazing resources a woman has, the beauty of her sex, her moon led rhythms and fecundity. The slogan “Bosses beware, when we’re screwed we multiply” is completely ‘experienced.’ All three of the slogans we land in were used in the American labour movement of the early 1900s.

As I get off the homeward-bound flight from Chicago a song is playing at low volume on the plane’s PA. Innocuous orchestration, bland female voice, ‘on message’ with what we women have been learning and singing for eons. Trapped in the aisle I remember that Muzak was created for factory workers, to keep them both motivated and placated. The song’s words are trying to convince me to ‘hurt’ for the sake of love; apparently it is my job, as a woman, to suffer, wait and repair. Stepping off the plane into a grey Toronto morning I find myself so full of ‘why’ I could choke. I think of those first garment factory workers being forced by their foremen to trade sexual favours for the thread they needed to do their jobs. One hundred and forty-two women died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, and in 2013 over a thousand lost their lives in Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza building collapse – in each of these cases the women had foreseen the dangers and cried out their concern.

What will keep us all alive – women and children and men?

I would like to think that voice will…authentic voice, expressive voice, balanced voice…listening well, unmasking truthfully. Hearing everyone, making sound in community, ringing out the sound of community, not blending…and therefore no risk of blanding…into one another. True community coming out of unique individual voices. Space for each and every bird call within the canopy of life.

After the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union pushed for progressive reform, flocking together to call for comprehensive safety and workers’ compensation laws. In ‘A mourning chorus’ seven women inhabited birdsong, empathizing with extinct and endangered species, striking a chord with audiences through the voice’s ability to deeply touch a listener’s autonomic nervous system.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops  – at all –  (Emily Dickinson, published 1891)

I now hear birdsong everywhere; their cries, murmurations in my blood, helping me to identify my own unmediated voice. I pull a twig out of my hair and call a friend for tea. Let’s start the truth telling now.

Hummingbird at dawn

basuntirooftopsmall

Today I noticed something fresh; the sound of the human voice floating freely in the air. There is little traffic, no hum of tall buildings. I hear children’s voices and women’s voices and the men, too. Calling out to each other, singing fragments of song. Not competing with anything but the birds and the wind and the occasional dog or cow. I am out for a walk, taking a break from writing and the pleasing confines of Basunti, the retreat centre in north India where my friend Tessa and I are staying.

The birds in this nature preserve are glorious. I had read on the retreat’s website that they would be but they are beyond all imagining. It is March, springtime in this part of the world, and there are waves of returning birds. The lush garden gains more colour with each day; its natural orchestra swelling with new sections and new interactions between individual birds. Call and response, subtle triggers and not so subtle showing off between male and female. I wonder if the various species are taking note of one another, or if they stick to their own? I can’t keep up with the density of sound. Each song a motif; a symphonic richness Mahler would have appreciated.

I have had bird calls in my head most of this winter while working on a project for the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Canada. After months of trying to understand and then imitate bird calls, I can’t stop myself from trying to make sense out of what I am hearing here at Basunti and even reproduce some of the feathered cries under my breath as I do solitary yoga on one of the marble rooftops. The inside of my head is busy in a way it has never been before. The birds have colonized me.

Just this morning a massive flock of large blue-black birds flew overhead. Just as I noticed the flapping of their wings I heard gasps and ‘Oh, looks!’ from Bella and her father Dave. Along with Izzy (Bella’s mum) and Jono (her fiancee), they run this centre, combining intelligence, beauty, brawn and good humour so that yoga practitioners and artists can get away and, in my case, become comfortably unsettled. Bella, her dad, and Jono when pressed, are bird fanatics and they have never seen a flock so large fly so low. I felt I could reach up and touch the white tummies of these birds from my second floor balcony…exhilarating and a little scary.

A few days later, I find myself writing against a backdrop of full on human song. It is coming from the village next door. I ask Izzy what occasion is being celebrated. It is the festival of colours, short by Indian standards, only lasting the weekend; we are now into the last morning of ritual. The women’s voices are insistent – they have been singing and drumming for hours. I have just finished my morning’s work and need a quick walk before lunch to clear my mind. It is hardly five minutes to the village and as I pass the blue bungalow where all the women are assembled, I wave. They immediately motion me into the courtyard, pulling out a brown plastic lawn chair. They are all seated on the ground around the drummer who looks no more than ten. Her ebullient pace tethers schoolgirl to grandmother through shared rhythm. They sing hard and loud for another ten minutes, the same eight lines, an A section followed by a B section, and then the A again. The song circles incessantly gathering rather than dissipating energy. Their voices are fervent, nasal, strident and absolutely insistent. They are having so much fun. It is fantastically energizing. Potently real.

They stop for a moment and one of the young women asks me if I would dance. I blush. I don’t dance. But I feel I should offer something. I tell them I sing and would they like that? Could I sing them a song? The young woman translates and as they all gently wobble their heads at me I start in on an Armenian folksong that I love – first asking her to explain that it is about the moon and that I am singing in honour of last night’s full one.

No sooner have I begun than three doors fling open around the courtyard and three men dash out to see just what is going on. This makes the women laugh and I want to as well but instead make my way to the end of the chorus with my heart pounding and my voice overfilling my ears. I feel nervous in a way I don’t when on stage. We all grin at each other. I excuse myself and high tail it back to Basunti for lunch.

Their song is for community and in community. My song is from a culture which is not mine and a European performance tradition that sees me singing alone and usually with a little barrier between myself and the listener – maybe an orchestra or maybe lights or maybe even virtually, on a CD. A tradition in which I am supposed to pour my heart out professionally.

Theirs just seemed so fun! And I don’t think I had as much fun!

I can’t tell if my singing for them was a generous response or a desperate one. I know I wanted to thank them for their singing and their lovely invitation to participate. But I felt a little dose of fight or flight in my body while performing and it has left me with so many questions as well as a funny feeling about being ‘a singer.’ I feel sad now to think that for me it was performance and for them it might have been just a genuine part of life.

I like to think that everyone can sing. The sounds and impulses we need to express ourselves in this way come from our autonomic nervous system. For singers and actors a lot of time needs to be spent combing the fibres of the inner body to make a weave I think of as healthy, one that can be repeated night after night during the run of a show or opera. This is what I am writing about as I retreat from the everyday bustle of voice teaching and performance back in Canada. I am tying words to the page in order to describe just how to reconstitute emotions to make sure that all our juices are flowing freely. Voice integrating flesh. Truth and the fine tuning of self leading to deep inner harmony. Both expert and amateur all at once. Human resonance. Shared vibrations.

One afternoon Bella and I head up to the same marble rooftop where I have been practicing yoga. It is the end of the afternoon and our mission is to sing like birds before the supper bell rings. I have told her about my bird project back in Canada and she thinks it would be fun to learn how,  maybe even using this tool when she does art with the local children. From our perch we can see the Himalayas suspended above the far away mouth of this massive man made reservoir. I now know that this valley is where Alexander the Great turned back from his conquests and there are treasures below the water as well as above. A pink haze accompanies the setting sun as Bella and I start to make sounds that are anything but polite, our big bodies translating the birds’ caws and shrieks into patterns we can repeat. We practice for about an hour, laughing a lot as we get wilder and wilder, throats squeezing like genteel heavy metal singers, noses channelling some Janis Joplin like screams. Later that evening Izzy tells me that she asked Dave about the new birds in the garden…had he ever heard this particular noise before?

The next day at breakfast I have the pleasure of tasting a juice brand new to me…freshly squeezed. Dave explains that it is from a type of lime native to this part of northern India …its size and colouring that of an orange, with just a hint of green in the skin. The juice is a pale yellow, more like a lemon’s, however, the taste is neither tart nor sweet. It is balanced. Apparently this fruit is never eaten, only squeezed and drunk during the winter months. How lucky for me. Morning nectar, as I continue to explore my own true nature. Humming bird.

Naked Men Crying

steven-tyler1

January 2013

Steven Tyler is my boyfriend. Every time I listen to him on youtube I fall in love. There is something in the undisguised pain his voice lays bare that pulls me in – heart, head and pussy. I understand perfectly that I am needed when I hear that much pain. I know how to devote my time and intelligence to that. He sounds like he could use a whole lifetime of me.

I am out at the Gibraltar Point, Centre for the Arts, on Toronto Island. I have been surfing hours and hours of youtube clips, listening to old rockers – mostly male (there are so many more of them) as well as a few women…thank god for Ann Wilson of Heart! I am treading a path and as I walk this pilgrimage it dawns on me what I am seeking: sustainability. I want to know who has been able to survive the life-ride called rock n’ roll….the challenges of performing in a sports’ arena with a monstrous acoustic and just too many people listening…the ridiculous pressure of having everyone think they are your girlfriend. I want to know who has been able to sing into his/her 60s with a voice that is still expressive and flexible and generous of spirit.

I listen to Steven Tyler again and again, adolescent pleasure in my obsessive thrill. There are two clips in particular that move me: one I have known for years, and one I have just discovered surfing within the mouldy walls of the old school house Artscape rents out to writers and painter. We are just spitting distance from Lake Ontario…and the chill of my wintry beach walks holds nothing over the chills I get listening to Tyler’s voice.

Watching the 2010 Kennedy Centre tribute to Paul McCartney I see that everyone is there: President Obama and his wife Michelle, Oprah, Paul with his new and younger girlfriend, Justin Timberlake, a star studded event indeed. For the fourth act of an eighteen-minute musical tribute Steven Tyler walks out, long coat billowing behind him, hair loose and flowing, grabbing a microphone stand draped with his signature scarf. He sings a four-song medley from Abbey Road, the B side. He sings each song like he needs to sing each song, need and virtuosity combining. Seeing him admit to the longing, the weakness and urgency of primal want, and still display his musical prowess strikes me as very volatile and courageous business. The experience is revelatory, useful. There is something new in it for me.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mjRfHqf_TaA

Joyous abandon from the first…

Oh look out! 

Steven jumps off his cliff taking me with him.
She came in through the bathroom window.
His voice hovers on the thrilling sill of debauch.
Protected by a silver spoon.
He knows this woman. I follow his abandon, his unbound self, looking for my own wantonness.
But now she sucks her thumb and wanders.
I hear the size of my obsession, want my need met by a man crying out with such vitality.
By the banks of her own lagoon.

I am alone with Steven Tyler and he is breaking my heart.
Once there was a way to get back homeward.
The pocket these words sit in is right beside the muscle of his heart…I can feel its exact location in my own body, feel its emptiness.
Once there was a way, to get back home.
I am amazed by the looseness of this man’s articulation. His enormous, malleable mouth opens excessively and occasionally he sucks air as if he has a death sentence…
Sleep pretty darling, do not cry.
The sound is naked, empty, bereft.
And I will sing a lullaby.
Can one adult sing another adult to sleep?

My capacity for solitude, my own wet creativity…as an artist I want these tools to be available to me for my own expressive needs. As a woman I want to engage with other human beings who can be articulate about need…understand its give and its take.

******

February, 2013

Today I hate my father – really hate him. He is sick – decrepit – a prisoner of his imbalance. I wonder if he has ‘locked-in syndrome’. I don’t even really know what that is – but he seems imprisoned and hardly communicates. I have been pitying him, looking for some kind of benign compassion that would allow me to see him regularly without too much emotional consequence. It’s not working today.

I walk into the room he and my mother share. Everything is as it should be. Family pictures on the wall, bed nicely made, his half now a hospital bed so that he will wander less at night, the floor recently replaced with solid hardwood to better handle any ‘accidents.’ I look down at the wood forcing myself to imagine my father lying naked in a puddle of urine. I know he has started to fall recently and that mum can no longer get him up and has had to wait hours with him for help – for some reason not calling an ambulance – waiting for dawn to ask my brother to come and lift him back into bed. I can hear his small groan of pain as Chris lifts him onto the sheets; Dad never betrayed too much. But today Dad is dressed well in pressed pants and a button up shirt. The colours look good on him. My mother cares for him so well in their current terrain; she makes hell attractive.

Things I have learned from my father
1) be private
2) don’t show weakness
3) don’t show need (for him this may be the same as weakness)
4) explode when necessary…somewhere past the end of your rope.

I look at him lying on his bed. I want to know how he is, what he would like. I try over and over again to see if he can understand me – simplifying each statement – I sit beside him, draw closer. He shrugs the smallest shrug I have ever seen; he does not know how he is. In my family we feel that much has been accomplished if we are able to get a single sentence from him over the course of a full day. In his current state everything must seem like weakness. We hang on each shrug, every virtually invisible nod or shake of his head. He is part of me – inside us all – and we want to know how that part of us is doing. I join him, lying down on my mother’s half of the bed. I am exhausted – from trying to figure out what I should do, how I should be. I do not know how to help.

When I was growing up my father was angry all the time. We tried not to provoke it and the lesson I learned was to fuel myself just like he had. Aggression, drive – seemingly safe channeling of things I did not have the time or patience to sort out – a way to escape my own sadness and disappointment. As a singer I sang my anger, sang my sorrow. I was drawn to opera, tragic scale, bona fide drama, and it met me. I discovered, through his business colleagues, that he liked it that I sang, that he talked about ‘his daughter, the singer’. This affinity I have had for singing dark material, sad stuff…when I get some distance on it…I can see that not only was I singing my own emotions but that I was working with my father’s backlog as well, his inheritance. You know, until just recently, I honestly had no clue why anyone would want to sing something happy.

Steven Tyler is in church. He looks rough, he sounds rough, but he is joyous as hell. He is singing the hymn Amazing Grace with Juliette Hamilton. He wanders, a bit lost, the top of his voice cracked with light; Juliette is dark aged wood, stable and certain, swaying gently from left to right, her core is so visible. They are two sides of faith, anchoring one another through the flawless musicality they each possess; pitch perfect effortless phrasing. I see them trust their differences, following the common emotional thread the song provides, grinning shared delight. Their grace is real.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zjogu3Uk9Fs

March 2013

My father is in the hospital for the third time this past year. We don’t yet know that this is his last week of life. My mother has the flu and so my brothers and I visit each day. I am to go to the Yukon on Friday to work with a group of young adults with intellectual disabilities; we have a variety show the following week. I spend two evenings alone with him before leaving. The first has an extreme sweetness, he seems to be hallucinating a horse and when I ask him he tells me about delivering bread for his father’s bakery when he was about six or seven years old. The second night is intimate in different ways. He is more restless and I help him with the most basic things, eating a few squares of Swiss chocolate, using the toilet. Each night I stroke his head till he falls asleep. My mother and brothers, the doctors and nurses, everyone as far as I can tell, think that dad will come out of the hospital soon. We anticipate a little more loss with regards to his faculties, but none of us believe he will die; we shrug just a little as we reassure each other of this.

On the Saturday my eldest daughter Magda visits him and I use the opportunity to call and have a three-way conversation from Whitehorse, Yukon to Hamilton, Ontario – two iphones and my daughter’s sensitive interactions connecting me to my dad. He listens to the stories I tell and I hear his voice, phlegm and scratch, still a Swiss accent after sixty years in Canada. I can imagine his intense dark eyes peering from behind his glasses. It won’t be till after the funeral that Magdalena tells me what he was actually saying, but I can hear his enthusiasm despite not making out the exact words. It is the most I have heard from him in a few years, and his fragile voice seems to stream through the little speaker on my cell phone. Vunderful, Vunderful! He thinks what I am up to with my northern troupe is Vunderful!

Looking back on that conversation and the preceding week I swear that my father lightened, lifted, let go, revealed himself. I wonder what he needed in order to do so. I know how strong his grip on life was. I feel it in my body everyday…in actions that need much less effort than I give them, in feelings I could allow myself to flow through with a little more ease…need I could express, weakness I could show. Remembering him in those last days I see so much light. I can understand how the word ‘vunderful’ could spring from his lips.

And now…

The light I witnessed in my father as he neared death is the same light I hear at the top of Tyler’s voice. The ‘resonance cracks’ that allow a person to cry are the same ‘cracks’ needed to laugh. As much as Dad would have been horrified by so unbound a performer as Steven Tyler, I am now seeing an essential connection between the two, both of them sensitive, intense and charismatic men.

Steven Tyler does not need me as his girlfriend; his wailing charts sadness expertly. He radiates joy doing this work. He lets me lean on him and I sink into his voice with my own cares and sorrows. I don’t need to cry on his behalf.

In the weeks following my father’s funeral I lessen my teaching load. In that void I accept a few invitations to sing and step out publicly with my voice; over and over again celebrating how wonderful it feels to communicate freely through vocal sound. I sing for myself, I sing for the sake of beauty, for the sake of pleasure, for the ears and hearts of others as well as my own. I simply have a good time, feeling need and fulfilling need; not questioning its rightness, trusting my own ability to give and to take.

dad at 20

Dad at 20…before immigrating to Canada.

Documentary Singing

Paul Dejong, the head of voice at Humber College’s Theatre Program, has sent me a youtube link. It is fantastic. A young girl…really, a toddler…is singing along with Adele in the back of the family van. She follows each curve of the melody and each curve of Adele’s emotional life within the song. Her ‘two-something’ ability to identify with thoroughly engaged temper tantrum holds her in good stead and she is really expressive within the container of this breakup song. Paul has labeled the link ‘innocent vessel’ and I respond with an under-my-breath, “holy autonomic nervous system, batman!” when the girl’s singing comes to an end.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YwhH2oc8fOk

I write about voice. My voice…the human voice…women’s voices.

Under this layer my writing is about body, the immune system, chronic stress, what is to be a woman, to experience men, menopause, relationships, my father, my mother, creation, transformation through art, disability, performance, the singers we all grew up with…the human autonomic nervous system and all the sounds it makes when we hear it come to life and express through breath.

The weave is so fine between these things that fully separating them out is not always possible, and so slowing things down – telling a story about how something felt, or concentrating on a smaller area to see its ‘warp and woof’[1]  – gives us a chance at sharing this information with one another. We are dealing with texture as we search for spirit.

The baby’s first gasp signifies new life; death rattles us out of our bodies. At either end of our time on this planet we are freer in our expression of breath and sound than during many of the years in between.

When I teach I am working with a student’s socialized self, their internalized beliefs about their own narrative and their animal bodies. I could also say that external expectation, the ability to self-regulate and very basic survival skills present as part of every lesson, every note sung. None of these things are good or bad, they are all a part of how we live as humans, but they can be out of balance, one thing favoured over another through nature and/or nurture. They can trap or limit us. How we have coped with life during times of stress has grown into ‘the way we are’, when in fact there are other equally authentic parts of ourselves which have gone to sleep through fear, misunderstanding or lack of practice.

I could explain everything I know by describing – as a general and much simplified rule – the differences between teaching men and women these days. Women I have to teach how to be fruitfully expressive, guilt free and balanced within their anger. Men I need to put in trusting touch with their sensing/sensitive/sensual virility/potency. To do this, a dance between bound and unbound begins, a tensile flow between light and dark. At the end of the day we each learn that we do need to have it all – the basic feelings or emotions of mad, sad and glad – and the actions of yield and aggress – whatever version or mix of male and female (mother/father) we are at any given moment. All of it without judgment.

My partner and I have just seen Michael Haneke’s award winning movie Amour. It was highly recommended by my friend Arsinee and I trust her ability to look at difficult things without flinching and also her intellectual rigour with regards to film and art. The story is a very sober look at aging and the actors are both in their 80s. I am permeated by their physicality in the days that follow our viewing of the film and wonder if the line between documentary and feature film becomes very fine when the story of the actors’ bodies, their age infused movement, their transparent sensing of one another, is so beautifully revealed by the camera.

Emmanuelle Riva in ‘Amour’

 

In my singing studio with a student who is successfully revealing her body/voice/impulses, I am struck by the thought that what I am trying to teach my students is ‘documentary singing.’ Of course they will apply who they are and what they are doing to a song or opera – but within that action and fueling their choices is raw vocal sound – sound specific to the species, not just the individual – and I want that sound to be revealed in a way that becomes a testament to the insides of the human animal, not just something shaped by the approximate and limiting narrative we repeat to ourselves daily.

Documentary Singing. Not just about catharsis, but about essential expression linked to a fully inhabited autonomic nervous system. I eat, I sleep, I make love, I cuddle my children, I growl at them, I hunt, I laugh, I shit, I hope. And I use non-judgmental witnessing and an integrated understanding of these things to create a sustainable singing technique in which I reveal, rather than illustrate, the state of being human. Each puff of breath that starts from behind my sternum, that flows the line of a song, or fuels a grunt of passion, has the opportunity to connect me to the shared state of being human as well as the personal and cultural residue that informs the shape and function of my cellular structure.

I have an irrepressible urge to reread Walt Whitman’s 1855 long and ecstatic poem ‘I Sing the Body Electric.’

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174740

The words pulse through me and I wipe tears from my face.

It is sensible to feel exposed when singing. I just heard Hugh Jackman compare the live-singing scenes the actors had to shoot for the movie of ‘Les Miserables’ with nude scenes…it takes a little time to feel comfortable in front of a massive film crew when taking off clothes or when the subtle arming of the speaking voice gives way to the preverbal sounds used in singing. I too have done nude scenes on stage and on film and I have to say I found them much easier than being made vulnerable by a song.

So many people say that their worst nightmare is to sing in front of others. We know the stakes are high, and we know that the singing voice comes from someplace very deep within, that it does turn us inside out. The autonomic nervous system is the seat of singing. It is the engine of feeling – for responding to threatening or friendly things around us and within us. It is the part of us that regulates ‘rest and digest’ and ‘fight and flight.’ It betrays us, as it should, and it is wonderfully expressive.

And so Hugh is right, we become naked when we sing. Doing this as a profession – as much as a person might say ‘I have always wanted to be a singer’ – becoming naked over and over again in front of strangers and with huge pressure to perform well, to earn money, to prove one’s worth – is almost too much for one person to bear. And yet when I get to be in the audience I gravitate to those singers who do indeed bare it all.

I have been looking at hours and hours of youtube footage of famous singers – wonderful performances, flawed performances, singers suffering and singers triumphing. And I have been listening to hours of interviews – singers coming clean about their addictions, their dark moments, their challenges, how diligently they need to care for their instrument. Sometimes eating well, sleeping well, finding balance in the mundane, sometimes crashing and burning…happy to survive.

As a singer (professional or amateur) I am using the part of my body that knows how to digest and how to sleep and how to make love in order to practice my craft – to convey feeling and thought. And what is constructed from this magnificent extension of the autonomic nervous system, in combination with the mind, is music. I recently read in an article on the U.S. government’s National Institutes of Health’s website that scientists suspected that music and the human ANS are linked. I would like to tell them that music’s genius comes from the ANS, indeed originates there. Music is a simultaneously delicate and robust activity, a musician needs to be a master of many dualities – soft and hard, expansive and contained, brilliant and contented, happy and sad, furious and self-possessed – in short a true familiar of the ANS – in order to create music or meet its demands. In fact a musician has the opportunity to experience the ANS not as ‘fight and flight’ in opposition to ‘rest and digest’ but as an integration of these potentially antagonistic states.

Singing is really transgressive and really dangerous and really exposing. It is a direct line to the place that we begin to tame, in particular, once language comes along. Language is one of our newest birthday presents – and because we are so enthralled with this gift we do not now how to play with it in proportion to all our other toys. Language can qualify things to the point that the original feeling is no longer namable. The way language has evolved through our intellectual capacity allows us to live in past, present and future.

Singing can hold us in the present moment through awakening and eventually balancing sensation. Return sense to ‘life’ when we are overwhelmed with daily concerns, or worrying about a planet under threat from global warming and from war. When I am too afraid or overwhelmed to scream about it – to do anything practical – the rock and roll singer screams out in a way that reminds me to feel my feelings and to listen to them. He or she jostles me free from the entropy I can get stuck in, gives me the courage to stop not feeling.

I drown myself in broken sounds as I surf the net. Janis Joplin, Ann Wilson, Robert Plant, Ozzy Osbourne, Tom Jones, even Ken Tamblin demonstrating how to be any famous dead singer you would like to be. Today it is Steven Tyler who really gets under my skin.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f_ivRmGbTXs

I go back to the role of the singer, trying to understand its contours, demands and risks. High priests and priestesses of emotion, experts at accessing and channeling huge gobs of feeling….sustainers of sob and laugh…professional ANSers.

I am reminded of Bill Viola’s piece Nante’s Triptyche. I saw it at the Tate modern some ten years ago and it blew fresh thought and feeling through me. The video images are truly larger than life, occupying one whole wall of a large room. On the left panel is video of his daughter being born in real time and on the right is the death of his grandmother. In the middle is the artist struggling underwater. As I remember it, his daughter was born and then, just as I absorbed the open and unformed features of that little creature, his grandmother died. In that moment I saw something that took my breath away even as hers left her body; his grandmother’s jaw slackened, letting go of a lifetime of tension as her soul departed.

http://www.artfund.org/what-we-do/art-weve-helped-buy/artwork/5383/nantes-triptych

Innocent vessel sings out her feelings, Steven Tyler never lost his ability to cry, a baby is born, my father is dead only three months now and I am suspended somewhere between all of this, thinking that I need to go on a really big walk in nature…every day. Find a simple old-fashioned way to work with the needs, desires, feelings, hormones and thoughts all pulsing through this body of mine. And sing….don’t forget to sing! Documentary style.

Sing with me, sing for the years


Sing for the laughter and sing for the tears


Sing with me, if it’s just for today


Maybe tomorrow the good lord will take you away

                                    (Dream On, Steven Tyler)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] The essential foundation or base of any structure or organization.

To yawn or not to yawn….

 

To yawn or not to yawn?

My still unnamed women’s choir is singing ‘The Girl from Ipanema.’ The twelve of us have been practicing for about an hour; our hips sway cool and gentle and our lips are articulating the text so ambiguously that the words sound more Brazilian Portuguese than English. We are playing between sensual satisfaction and the longing for more.

I am staging the piece as part of a fundraising performance we are doing for a women’s shelter in Toronto. We have visited Ernestine’s four or five times this past year, taking a new song with us each time. Singing with women from a whole variety of cultures and personal experiences, learning about each other as we practice expressing something new or urgent about being women right now in history. We join our voices without reservation.

I imagine the choir lining the hallway of the Old Mill, singing ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ as the guests walk from registering for the evening to the silent auction. For the next pass through the song I ask the women at this morning’s rehearsal to yawn whenever they want to – randomly – maybe yawn duets will occur or a series of solos, maybe we will overlap, or maybe everyone will yawn at once! I really don’t know what this improvisation will bring forth but I want to find a way to get inside the sensual, self-involved protagonist of this great Tom Jobim song.

The yawns are magic; they are sultry, intensely private and innocently exposing. The occasional delicious sigh slips out of a yawn and this plays with the ‘aah’ of the song’s lyrics. It is such easy Autonomic-Nervous-System-based storytelling – letting the song distill and become an instillation within the human animal. 

In a few weeks we will have the pleasure of playfully getting under the skins of the fundraiser audience and maybe even trigger a yawn or two in them as they shed their workday bodies to enter the fun of celebrating Ernestine’s shelter and the women who live and work there.

The young Brazilian, Astrud Gilberto, sings in the following clip. Her voice is fresh and naive – an uncontrived singer who was awarded a Grammy for her unruffled recording of this song. Stan Getz, her real life partner, is playing the sax. The falling snow and the stuffed deer head may be as frozen and artificial as the image of the listening women, but I love this footage for its perfect representation of our problematic collective ‘samba’ through the 60s and even more so for the big grin Astrud flashes at the end of the song.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=kDGUZeZWKZo

The Pandiculator

I can see the back of painter Joseph Ducreux’ mouth. It is gaping at me and the red of this open, fleshy aperture matches the red of his jacket. His belly slackens into a fawn-coloured waistcoat, relaxation gently straining at the buttons. Both arms spread out into the dark, negative space surrounding him, one bent and actively leading from the elbow and the other stretching to its clenched-fist conclusion. I can feel the air under his armpits. His brow furrows…his face also getting a workout…working its way away from its usual socialized set. Work and release combine.

It is 1783 and Joseph is pandiculating; he has let himself yawn to the point where his whole body has been led into a fulsome, wholesome, some-kinda-big-stretch yawn…an intimate, unguarded self-portrait. In 2013 we have lost the art of yawning. I don’t know about the late 1700s but I do know that today we might only yawn around those with whom we feel extremely safe, or maybe only when we are on our own, or maybe not at all. I am grateful that Ducreux captured his private comfy-ness, presenting it as a work of art, grateful that he had an interest in expanding the range of facial expressions beyond those of official portraiture, grateful that he survived the French Revolution to work beyond the court of Louis the XVI. He is my current god of yawning though he does look more like a slightly cranky backyard gnome than any deity should.

I am obsessed with yawns, obsessed with the good they can do. I have been using them for decades in my teaching and googling them for as long as any person has googled,  but only recently have I found the solid scientific information I have been craving to support what I have witnessed in myself and in my students. The online information, despite tens of thousands of entries, used to end with some version of ‘and we don’t really know what yawning is for.’ I would often reply, out loud and a little irritably, ‘isn’t it enough that they make us feel better?”

My accumulated knowledge at that time, the things I would use to encourage my students to take the yawning plunge, included…

1)    There are more yawns measured during transition from one activity to another than at any other time.

2)    In primate study when the big baboon yawns all the other baboons are expected to yawn too…and they do.

3)    Yawns bathe all the cells of the body in chemicals that are deeply relaxing, shifting us away from the tension we are holding.

4)    Our eyes leak and our mouths moisten, and this is good for singing.

5)    The inside of our mouths stretch, jaw tension is released, as is tension around the voice box. In fact the yawn is the only way to release the throat and create more room in the pharynx.

I would also tell them the story of my daughter Oksana and how she could not fall asleep unless she had completed her requisite thirty yawns, and in the morning she could not get out of bed without a round of yawns and stretches. I did not yet know she was spreading herself out, making room internally for the day to come, but I did know that it was a moment of transition!

About four years ago one of my students – a sloe-eyed, whimsically earnest and deeply intelligent poet – sent me an article by Andrew Newberg. Reading it brought one joyous ‘aha’ after another. It gave me a sense of the scope of the chemical value of yawning …just how complex this internal cocktail actually is. Newberg’s writing speaks to the social value of yawning, explaining that it synchs us up with one another. He also describes the value of yawning in the pursuit of self-awareness. I have often told my students that all I really want to do is offer a small yawning workshop to the leaders of this world at some summit or other, and now I have the article to back up this pie-in-the-sky dream of yawns as a way to healthy political collaboration.

http://www.upenn.edu/gazette/1109/expert.html

I no longer feel that I am yawning in a vacuum. Over the last two years I have found a Somatic practitioner, Eduardo Barrera (GravityWerks) who pandiculates his way to health and an article by Luiz Fernando Bertolucci who believes that pandiculating is an organic way to maintain musculoskeletal health.

http://www.scribd.com/doc/75324990/Terra-Rosa-E-magazine-Issue-9-December-2011

Transformation through yawning…a breath of fresh air.

We are five minutes into ‘Slipper Camp’[1] and the first moments of dropped bel canto breath have led to a room full of dis-inhibited yawners. Mouths widen, necks arch backwards leading the whole body into wee back bends, hands clench or spread, rib cages twist, torsos elongate (first one side then the other), bottoms drop and hips grind. The movements are ever surprising as well as ample and connected.

I remind the class that the word pandiculation comes from the Italian ‘pandere’ – to spread – we are spreading ourselves out. It happens so easily in this room, the geography of my piano, books and art, and the shared company, have become a safe harbour over time and now whisper sffortlessly to each person’s ANS.

I tell my current yawning stories – explaining that I yawn now whenever I go for a walk – the first initiation to walking and yawning coming some three years ago when I was in Stanley Park – massive red cedars inspiring massive release in my body. I tell them about my nightly ritual of reading and yawning – that one of the benefits of taking this time and having intentionally linked yawning to reading in bed is that I have significantly lowered my nighttime jaw tension.

As an extra benefit I share a secret; when I am post-yawns and my partner comes to bed I cannot remember a single thing that irritates me about him. I have just started to yawn as I write about this; I am picturing the warm lighting of our bedroom and cozy feel of the bed. I may as well be there!

I believe that we are meant to yawn and pandiculate our way from night’s modest, relaxed breath into the day’s activities and that before bed is a perfect time to yawn extravagantly once again – to prepare for restful sleep and let the concerns of the day slip out from under our thickening or thinning skins.

By 9am every ‘slipper camper’ is reaching for Kleenex, blowing noses and clearing throats. Pandiculating has opened both head and chest resonance through sinuses, pharynx, trachea and lungs. This spreading out of self has gotten into our connective tissue; the delicious tonic feeling of the yawn’s stretch works to release tendons and fascia, the fabric that binds our muscles and holds our joints in place. Our voice boxes are releasing from the habitual hold of our strongly verbal wills. Sinuses are releasing, phlegm is flowing and each person is displaying untamed facial expressions not usual within our social repertoire. I am watching an episode of ‘Wild Kingdom’ in the comfort of my home studio.

I point out that each person’s voice is beginning to make sound without the mind dictating what that sound should be or should be like. This is a subtle and important observation I am asking my students to make. As the yawns progress, shyness around unintended vocal noise making is loosening. The sounds are high and low, rough and soothing, anything they need to be, anything the body is letting go of through yawning.

I can often hear – in this moment – something of the truth of a student’s voice – a sound I might not yet know even in a long-time student – a sound coming from pure instinct without any organized evaluation connected to it. I ask each person to try and see this moment, not judge it, learn to recognize it and trust its veracity.

It is sound which will teach us about free voice and connected voice. It is sound and feeling which will teach us about work and pleasure, about balance. It is sound that will help rebuild the palette of live human expression, reminding us about the value of non-verbal sound, instructing us about what it is to have fulsome communication.

Now we are intelligent beasts ready to approach the piano without the usual baggage of judgment and habitual behaviour that we typically hold in our breathing bodies.

To yawn or not to yawn…how has that even become a question?

Let the revolution begin!

http://vimeo.com/59629693


[1] ‘Slipper Camp’ is my version of boot camp. It is a 45 minute vocal warm-up that draws from both the bel canto technique (traditional opera) and my synthesis of science and vocal experience.

N.B. The following descriptions are of the neurotransmitters, peptides, molecules and hormones listed in Dr. Andrew Newberg’s  yawn article embedded above.

YAWNER’S HIGH (in short)

DOPAMINE

Dopamine is a hormone and neurotransmitter of the catecholamine and phenethylamine families that plays a number of important roles in the human brain and body. In the brain, dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter—a chemical released by nerve cells to send signals to other nerve cells. The brain includes several distinct dopamine systems, one of which plays a major role in reward-motivated behavior. Most types of reward increase the level of dopamine in the brain, and a variety of addictive drugs increase dopamine neuronal activity. Other brain dopamine systems are involved in motor control and in controlling the release of several other important hormones.

Several important diseases of the nervous system are associated with dysfunctions of the dopamine system. Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative condition causing tremor and motor impairment, has been related to the loss of dopamine-secreting neurons in the midbrain area called the substantia nigra. There is evidence that schizophrenia involves highly altered levels of dopamine activity, and the antipsychotic drugs that are frequently used to treat it have a primary effect of attenuating dopamine activity. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and restless legs syndrome (RLS) are also believed to be associated with decreased dopamine activity.

Outside the nervous system, dopamine functions in several parts of the body as a local chemical messenger. In the blood vessels, it inhibits norepinephrine release and acts as a vasodilator; in the kidneys, it increases sodium excretion and urine output; in the pancreas, it reduces insulin production; in the digestive system, it reduces gastrointestinal motility and protects intestinal mucosa; and in the immune system, it reduces the activity of lymphocytes. With the exception of the blood vessels, dopamine in each of these peripheral systems has a “paracrine” function: it is synthesized locally and exerts its effects on cells that are located near the cells that release it. (Wikipedia)

from Psychology Today…

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain‘s reward and pleasure centers. Dopamine also helps regulate movement and emotional responses, and it enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move toward them. Dopamine deficiency results in Parkinson’s Disease, and people with low dopamine activity may be more prone to addiction. The presence of a certain kind of dopamine receptor is also associated with sensation-seeking people, more commonly known as “risk takers.”

SEROTONIN

Serotonin (5-HT) is a monoamine neurotransmitter. Biochemically derived from tryptophan, serotonin is primarily found in the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract), platelets, and the central nervous system (CNS) of animals, including humans. It is popularly thought to be a contributor to feelings of well-being and happiness.

Approximately 90% of the human body‘s total serotonin is located in the enterochromaffin cells in the GI tract, where it is used to regulate intestinal movements.The remainder is synthesized in serotonergic neurons of the CNS, where it has various functions. These include the regulation of mood, appetite, and sleep. Serotonin also has some cognitive functions, including memory and learning. Modulation of serotonin at synapses is thought to be a major action of several classes of pharmacological antidepressants.

When the platelets bind to a clot, they release serotonin, where it serves as a vasoconstrictor and helps to regulate hemostasis and blood clotting. Serotonin also is a growth factor for some types of cells, which may give it a role in wound healing. (Wikipedia)

Fast facts on serotonin

Serotonin is a chemical created by the human body. It works as a neurotransmitter.

It is commonly regarded as a chemical that is responsible for maintaining mood balance.

Serotonin is created by a biochemical conversion process.

Serotonin is manufactured in the brain and the intestines. The majority of the body’s serotonin, between 80-90%, can be found in the gastrointestinal tract.

Serotonin that is used inside the brain must be produced within it.

It is thought that serotonin can affect mood and social behavior, appetite and digestion, sleep, memory and sexual desire and function.

An association has been made between depression and serotonin. Scientists remain unsure whether decreased levels of serotonin contribute to depression or depression causes a decrease in serotonin levels.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can affect the levels of serotonin in the body.

If excessive amounts of serotonin are accumulated within the body then serotonin syndrome can occur.

Other ways to increase body serotonin levels include mood induction, light, exercise and diet.

(from medical news today)

OXYTOCIN

Oxytocin is a mammalian neurohypophysial hormone. Produced by the hypothalamus and stored and secreted by the posterior pituitary gland, oxytocin acts primarily as a neuromodulator in the brain. Oxytocin plays an important role in the neuroanatomy of intimacy, specifically in sexual reproduction of both sexes, in particular during and after childbirth; its name comes from Greek ὀξύς, oksys “swift” and τόκος, tokos “birth.” It is released in large amounts after distension of the cervix and uterus during labor, facilitating birth, maternal bonding, and, after stimulation of the nipples, lactation. Both childbirth and milk ejection result from positive feedback mechanisms.Recent studies have begun to investigate oxytocin’s role in various behaviors, including orgasm, social recognition, pair bonding, anxiety, and maternal behaviors.For this reason, it is sometimes referred to as the “bonding hormone”. There is some evidence that oxytocin promotes ethnocentric behavior, incorporating the trust and empathy of in-groups with their suspicion and rejection of outsiders.Furthermore, genetic differences in the oxytocin receptor gene have been associated with maladaptive social traits such as aggressive behaviour.

It is on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines, a list of the most important medications needed in a basic health system.

ACETYLCHOLINE

Acetylcholine (ACh) is the most common neurotransmitter. It is located in both the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS). ACh was the first neurotransmitter be be identified. It was discovered by Henry Hallett Dale in 1914 and its existence was later confirmed by Otto Loewi. Both individuals were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine in 1936 for their discovery.Acetylcholine acts as a neuromodulator in the CNS and PNS. Rather than engaging in direct synaptic transmission between specific neurons, neuromodulators act on a variety of neurons throughout the nervous system. In the central nervous system, acetylcholine acts as part of a neurotransmitter system and plays a role in attention and arousal. In the peripheral nervous system, this neurotransmitter is a major part of the autonomic nervous system and works to activate muscles.

It is the only neurotransmitter used in the motor division of the somatic nervous system. In cardiac tissue acetylcholine neurotransmission has an inhibitory effect, which lowers heart rate. However, acetylcholine also behaves as an excitatory neurotransmitter at neuromuscular junctions in skeletal muscle.

(from about education and Wikipedia)

NITRIC OXIDE

Nitric oxide, or nitrogen oxide,[2] also known as nitrogen monoxide, is a molecule with chemical formula NO. It is a free radical and is an important intermediate in the chemical industry. Nitric oxide is a by-product of combustion of substances in the air, as in automobile engines, fossil fuel power plants, and is produced naturally during the electrical discharges of lightning in thunderstorms. In mammals including humans, NO is an important cellular signaling molecule involved in many physiological and pathological processes.It is a powerful vasodilator with a short half-life of a few seconds in the blood. Long-known pharmaceuticals such as nitroglycerine and amyl nitrite were found to be precursors to nitric oxide more than a century after their first use in medicine. Low levels of nitric oxide production are important in protecting organs such as the liver from ischemic damage. Despite being a simple molecule, NO is an important biological regulator and is therefore a fundamental component in the fields of neuroscience, physiology, and immunology. It was proclaimed “Molecule of the Year” in 1992.Research into its function led to the 1998 Nobel Prize for discovering the role of nitric oxide as a cardiovascular signalling molecule.

Nitric oxide has been shown to be important in the following cellular activities:

• help memory and behavior by transmitting information between nerve cells in the brain

• assist the immune system at fighting off bacteria and defending against tumors

• regulate blood pressure by dilating arteries

• reduce inflammation

• improve sleep quality

• increase your recognition of sense (i.e. smell)

• increase endurance and strength

• assist in gastric motility

(from Wikipedia and nutrition express)

GLUTAMATE

Outside the community of biomedical scientists, glutamate is probably best known as “monosodium glutamate” or “MSG” which is used as a flavor or taste enhancer in food. It is usually available together with other food additives and spices in most large food stores. Some people may also have heard the term “Chinese restaurant syndrome” which is a sudden fall in blood pressure with subsequent fainting after ingestion of very spicy food. Excessive use of MSG has been suggested to be the cause, but this is controversial. The use of glutamate as a food additive, however, is not the reason for the enormous scientific interest in glutamate.

Glutamate is the major excitatory transmitter in the brain

The main motivation for the ongoing World Wide research on glutamate is due to the role of glutamate in the signal transduction in the nervous systems of apparently all complex living organisms, including man. Glutamate is considered to be the major mediator of excitatory signals in the mammalian central nervous system and is involved in most aspects of normal brain function including cognition, memory and learning.

Glutamate is toxic, not in spite of its importance, but because of it

Glutamate does not only mediate a lot of information, but also information which regulates brain development and information which determines cellular survival, differentiation and elimination as well as formation and elimination of nerve contacts (synapses). From this it follows that glutamate has to be present in the right concentrations in the right places for the right time. Both too much and too little glutamate is harmful. This implies that glutamate is both essential and highly toxic at the same time.

It took a long time to realize that glutamate is a neurotransmitter

It may sound astonishing, but it took the scientific community a long time to realize that glutamate is a neurotransmitter although it was noted already 70 years ago that glutamate is abundant in the brain and that it plays a central role in brain metabolism. Ironically, the reason for the delay seems to have been its overwhelming importance. Brain tissue contains as much as 5 – 15 mmol glutamate pr kg, depending on the region, more than of any other amino acid. Glutamate is one of the ordinary 20 amino acids which are used to make proteins and takes parts in typical metabolic functions like energy production and ammonia detoxification in addition to protein synthesis. It was hard to believe that a compound with so many functions and which is present virtually everywhere in high concentrations could play an additional role as transmitter.

(neurotransporter)

GABA

GABA is made in brain cells from glutamate, and functions as an inhibitory neurotransmitter – meaning that it blocks nerve impulses. Glutamate acts as an excitatory neurotransmitter and when bound to adjacent cells encourages them to “fire” and send a nerve impulse. GABA does the opposite and tells the adjoining cells not to “fire”, not to send an impulse. Without GABA, nerve cells fire too often and too easily. Anxiety disorders such as panic attacks, seizure disorders, and numerous other conditions including addiction, headaches, Parkinson’s syndrome, and cognitive impairment are all related to low GABA activity. GABA hinders the transmission of nerve impulses from one neuron to another. It has a calming or quieting influence. A good example to help understand this effect is caffeine. Caffeine inhibits GABA release. The less GABA, the more nerve transmissions occur. Think what too much coffee feels like: that is the sensation of glutamate without enough GABA. (Denver naturopathic)

ACTH

Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), also known as corticotropin, is a polypeptide tropic hormone produced and secreted by the anterior pituitary gland. It is an important component of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and is often produced in response to biological stress (along with its precursor corticotropin-releasing hormone from the hypothalamus). Its principal effects are increased production and release of corticosteroids. Primary adrenal insufficiency, also called Addison’s disease, occurs when adrenal gland production of cortisol is chronically deficient, resulting in chronically elevated ACTH levels; when a pituitary tumor is the cause of elevated ACTH (from the anterior pituitary) this is known as Cushing’s Disease and the constellation of signs and symptoms of the excess cortisol (hypercortisolism) is known as Cushing’s syndrome. A deficiency of ACTH is a cause of secondary adrenal insufficiency. ACTH is also related to the circadian rhythm in many organisms.

MSH

The melanocyte-stimulating hormones (collectively referred to as MSH or intermedins) are a class of peptide hormones that are produced by cells in the intermediate lobe of the pituitary gland. They stimulate the production and release of melanin (melanogenesis) by melanocytes in skin and hair. MSH signals to the brain have effects on appetite and sexual arousal. Although known for its stimulatory effect on pigment cells, studies have shown that melanocyte-stimulating hormone can also suppress appetite by acting on receptors in the hypothalamus in the brain.  Melanocyte-stimulating hormone is also thought to affect a range of other processes in the body; it has anti-inflammatory effects, can influence the release of the hormone aldosterone which controls salt and water balance in the body and is also thought to have an effect on energy homeostasis and sexual behaviour.  However, further research is needed to clarify the exact role of melanocyte-stimulating hormone in these processes. (yourhormones)

OPIOID DERIVATE PEPTIDES

These peptides act as a natural analgesic, create feelings of euphoria, and regulate appropriate stress response in humans. (f.k.)

 

 

 

Archeology of the Female Voice…or how to reclaim the female ANS

I can’t stop thinking about the young Britney Spears. I found an old clip of her on YouTube – she is hardly ten years old and a contestant on Star Search – a TV show from the last century with Ed McMahon (Johnny Carson’s old side kick) as host. Britney is in a demure little black velvet party dress – with the kind of skirt a girl loves to twirl. I believe she has patent leather shoes on – Mary Jane flats with a little strap across the arch – and there is a bow holding back her long hair. Her eyes almost cross as she sings – she is so fixated on the mic and her use of it. She has pre-Ophelia aplomb and though the song is bigger than her years it is not in any way sexually or emotionally inappropriate. The song stays with me for days through her voice’s identification with it. The moment I do not want to lose comes at 1:29 on my YouTube link. She is inhabiting the climax of one of the musical phrases with her whole body – and that whole prepubescent and not yet pre-packaged body is melting at the knees. Her spine swoons, she is so deeply connected to herself, to her musical expression and to the material at hand…and I am so deeply attracted to her innate singerly-ness.

I was not planning on having this feeling – did not plan to be haunted by the young Britney Spears. I did not like her voice coming through the car radio when my two girls were four and seven and Britney fresh out of the Disney TV machine and being turned out as a pop singer. I did not like the tiny graspy grunt that she began each exhale with; the whiney sound that dominated the flow of that air. Her voice was artificial and pleading, and though she was in her late teens she dressed like a private school girl and aped the small dependent voice of a brain dead adult woman who seemed in need of another orgasm and not much else.

That ‘grrr’ of her grunt sounds to me like the remainders of a woman’s orgasm…a vocal relic[1]. Orgasm is a coming together of fight and flight with rest and digest. Accessing this collaborative relationship between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic functions of the Autonomic Nervous System is essential for a singer’s craft and it is healthy and natural. Curiosity around and practice of orgasm is the fifth piece of homework I give out – after yawn, sigh, belly-laugh and sob. It is a gift from deep within us. A route to learning how to consciously engage both work and release in a way that leads to renewable creativity.

In a variety of classes the week after my Britney epiphany I note the students who seem to be having a challenging time with bringing ‘work’ into ‘release’. I think concretely of the words grrrunt and grrroan. How they seem to conjure sounds located low in the body – how they have a little violence in their grrrip – the growling part of the sound. I know how good it feels to grrrowl. I recall how effective a dog is at keeping a threat at bay, without having to go all out, when he growls. It is such economical productivity. It has a hint of angrrr.

I surprise myself in early December 2012, by asking a group class what they remember of Britney Spears.  She seems incredibly distant to us all despite a whole decade of personal scandal so publicly displayed on supermarket magazine racks as well as her recent comeback. She was stunningly famous – selling more than 100 million albums worldwide – more than ten chart topping hits. When I demonstrate a version of the ‘grrr’ she used in her voice – albeit from behind my chest (avoiding my throat and her whine) – my students can recall this signature vocal relic of hers.

I ask them to try it out; it does not go very well. The five of them are trying to imitate my arms-length version of a star they can’t really remember. So I ask them to look for the sound within a sighing orgasmic phrase, re-membering it through body and breath, looking for some purchase behind the chest, and they all do much better! We analyze the sound; it has both desire and satisfaction. It is relaxed and forward moving and the longing is absolutely transparent…almost embarrassingly so. It is not yearning or nostalgic, it gives way to the sound of present moment’s unbridled pleasure. We go around the circle – each person bringing Britney’s tic to life, leaving behind the world of Disney, engaging in full-bodied sound. Maybe this is the sound that the record producers encouraged the young Britney Spears to pimp out, tone down and just ‘suggest’. Maybe they were trying to preserve the deep physical embodiment I experience hearing young Britney at 1:29 on Star Search – make it oddly age appropriate? Maybe they were caught between selling and feeling.

With enough encouragement the four women in the group get it. But our lone man has a harder time. I tease him that it must be easier for us women to show satisfaction, as well as continuing need or desire, given that we are capable of multiple orgasms. He laughs and tries harder to want more while retaining a feeling of deep satisfaction and he does find something akin to what the female voice seems to do just by nature. I witness this same thing in several classes that week – it is much easier for the women once they have jumped the hurdle of propriety – but for the men it is either the release of satisfaction or a galvanized and urgent need that seems more natural to them and not this complex neither/nor, all-of-it-at-once sound. But they do find it for the most part and I do get to think of early, and late, Tom Jones!

I miss the Britney who did not happen – the voice that did not develop or grow into maturity. I would have loved to hear that little one, now grrrown up, sing with Tom Jones. Watch him offer the same generosity I see him extend to Robbie Williams, or delight he beams at Janis Joplin, shared with the Britney who has been haunting me for the last three months.

 


[1] A vocal relic is what I call a particular class of sounds used in singing. They are more codified or formalized expressions of vocal sounds that actually happen in real life situations. They could be culled from grunt or whine or groan or holler for example. In a song or when they become a habitual vocal tic of a singer and not necessarily linked to the emotion that would have birthed the sound I find them far removed from what they are for us as humans by nature. And so for me they become relics – or distant memories of what we would call a feeling or emotion. This may make them safer for singer and listener – or even a kind of short hand for emotional intention – but it is no longer the chemical-changing emotional thing it originally was.

land/body/breath

AGO1

Eight dancers are moving through the intimate galleries of the Thomson Canadian Collection at the AGO…following the trail of folk songs that Ciara, my singing partner, and I are leaving behind. The acoustic is incredible and sung notes hang in the air forever, spreading and amplifying.

I am looking at some very famous paintings as I sing; I am honoured to be in the company of true celebrity. And as I move from room to room I see the unique and communicative topography of Sahara, and of Rick and of Andrea, as they inhabit space and gesture. I am finding it overwhelming to be this open…my breath and sound expanding…while taking in so much beauty. I try hard not to cry… but my job is to access all the resonators used in crying in order to sing! I want to touch paint and performer and public with my sound.

The piece is ‘land/body/breath’. Peggy has culled and curated choreographic phrases from her vast repertoire and they are the terrain the dancers are to inhabit and which we, the singers, will traverse. I marvel at the geography we all share. The Canadian wilderness, now muscle and bone and skin; breath flowing in and out, wind following the contour of northern shield and prairie grass.

Sarah, Kate, Sean, Ben, and Jessica join Andrea, Rick and Sahara in making sound. Spread through eight rooms they are now imitating the calls of birds – chirping, squawking, hearing each other, near and far. Pausing in their movement phrases to let their voices ring out. Birdsong turning the gallery into forest.

The coldness Canada is famous for is something to celebrate too. It tempers our daily experience and lives in our cellular inheritance. The dancers offer words along with with abstract ‘pioneer’ work gestures – frozen toes, red cheeks, mittens and gloves, avalanche, snowshoes, snowflakes, hot chocolate, snow angels, skates, fresh sparkling snow, snow, snow. Ecstatic winter.

They moan and lunge their way into the central gallery. Ciara and I have been waiting for them in this cathedral to Lauren Harris’ genius. We have howled like wind, and will continue as mosquitoes and babbling brooks, watching the dancers like hawks, melding our voices with their movement language, eventually providing some boreal beauty through a looped and luscious version of Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘Railroad Trilogy.’  Thirty minutes later we have arrived at the essence of Canadian landscape sharing a gentle throat singing pattern that takes us into Neil Young’s ‘Helpless.’

 

There is a town in north Ontario,

With dream comfort memory to spare,

And in my mind, I still need a place to go,

All my changes were there.

Blue, blue windows behind the stars,

Yellow moon on the rise,

Big birds flying across the sky,

Throwing shadows on our eyes.

Leave us…Helpless, helpless, helpless…

Baby can you hear me now?

The chains are locked

and tied across the door,

Baby, sing with me somehow.

 

Slipper Camp

Slipper camp is my version of a boot camp for the voice. Over one hour, in a group setting, I lead a class through my approach to vocal exercises. We begin by working on breath release, delving deeply into the parasympathetic functioning of the Autonomic Nervous System. We approach pitch as an extension of the human body not an external goal. We access resonance throughout the chest and head letting emotion and relationship fuel the opening of internal space.

Julie Sits Waiting – 5 Days Left

"Julie Sits Waiting is a small gem of complex proportions, bursting at the seams at every moment, giving the audience prolonged moments of spectacular sound and projection as the actors leave the stage, only to return to the fully engaged, and darkly invigorating story they tell through an incredibly diverse storehouse of physical and vocal brilliance."