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.

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.’

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.

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.

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.

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.



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.


Renovations: digging the mermaid

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January 2009 – learning to love foundation

Renovations: Digging the MermaidThe man I am falling in love with is a slow moving creature. It is three a.m. and we are in my kitchen dancing to some music, a little drunk and definitely wanting to fuck. Or at least I am. He is hard…and despite this obvious indication that we should be having sex, he says he is not ready. In my muddled state I feel my heart drop gently into my belly. Disappointment. But somehow he manages to tell me this without hurting my feelings or making me question his desire for me…or his virility.

I wake up the next morning and marvel at all of this. I am almost fifty and for the first time in my life I believe I am moving at a pace that is giving me much-needed time to think — and feel — my way towards making a choice about sexual engagement. This man is becoming dear to me in mysterious ways that are related to the word “no.” And he is teaching me – through his slowness – about the time it takes to build foundation.

I have always valued my ability to be fully present in the moment of lust, and to let that lead me to decision. In the immediacy of the experience I recognize and reclaim myself. Sexual impulse brings me to life. I can organize a military campaign of activity around shared passion. And I can create all the fiction necessary to pitch ‘the idea of love’ to my inner editor. But in the end neither body nor head feels intact and the drama is exhausting. How nice it is to have the option to back out before chemicals and morality do their wicked dance of entrapment.



I am a singer and what I do with the inside of my body – in order to make sound – is invisible and is not fully processed by my motor-sensory cortex. This makes it hard to feel and difficult to boss around. It is under the purview of my autonomic nervous system and unless something is wrong, this branch of the nervous system does its work without letting me in on it. So within this body I need image and emotion to get to the heart of expressing and communicating my humanity.
I teach voice, too, and do so in my home. The boundaries between the personal and professional blur as I draw on my life experience as a mother, and use the art on the walls of my living-room studio to illustrate ideas and feelings. I love passing on the cathartic and technical expertise that I have accumulated over thirty years of singing in public and while teaching at my piano. My students dream about houses as they strip themselves bare, rewiring and re-plumbing their insides in order to free their voices and build technique.
To sing from the heart, foundation is necessary. The diaphragm needs to give way into the body so that air can come in by itself. This trust within the breath allows for courage. When our base – our pelvic basin – is rigid we armour through the chest. This is a superficial stab at strength and it causes us to force in order to be heard – I call this sound brave. Courage is different. It is open and heart felt. It gives and receives. The chest softens into a sigh and the ribs counter, expanding and protecting through flexible strength.

Ruthlessness and compassion discover how to collaborate as we risk speaking the truth. Within the singing voice this ebb and flow of air, this pulsing of flesh, leads to extraordinary sound that seems to surround the singer rather than being dependent on the striving of an individual set of vocal cords. Vital, vibrant, vigorous. The body fully alive in vibration…”


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