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


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


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.

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.

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.

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.