Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Singing Is Good For You

I've written before about why I think singing is important. Mostly I've focused on social and political reasons that I think singing is vital in modern society. But there's also a mounting body of research that shows that singing is good for your physical and mental health. And now, thanks to my friends Sam Turton and Jane Lewis, we have links to health research on singing collected in one place.

I thought you should all have a chance to read some of these articles. Enjoy!

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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Music is a Necessity

My fellow songwriter Lynn Harrison beat me to it! This inspiring speech by Karl Paulnak at the Boston Conservatory has been making the rounds of the internet. It's a moving and incisive treatise on why music is not just an added frill, but an essential way of responding to the world around us. And why we need music now more than ever.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

No More Crows and Canaries


I can't count the number of times someone has said to me "I can't carry a tune in a bucket." Inevitably, when I probe a little more, I find out that someone has told them they can't sing.

It might be a teacher who asked them to mouth the words at the school concert, or separated the whole class into "Canaries" and "Crows." It might be a spouse, a parent, or a sibling who told them to shut up every time they opened their mouth.

For some reason we think it's okay to tell someone they can't sing, and as far as I'm concerned, that's just wrong. Think about the logic here: would we ever tell someone that they'll never be a great orator, so they might as well not even try to speak? I don't think so. Singing and speaking are equally natural human activities, and yet we somehow think of singing as a special talent that only some are blessed with.

Singing is a skill, made up of subskills, and like any skill, it can be learned. Some people, for whatever reason, are quicker at picking up the skills. But even people who have considerable challenges matching pitch and rhythm can improve over time. I've seen singers go from having a very hard time staying in one key, to being able to carry a tune with conviction and confidence. Over the years I've led workshops and worked one-on-one with many singers, and I've yet to meet a person who can't improve. And the more you do it, the better you get at it.

So, I've said it before, but let me repeat: we need more places where people can sing together for the fun and joy of it. No more crows and canaries, people, let's get singing!

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Sunday, February 1, 2009

Song Circles

The other day I talked about song circles as a way to share music with other people. Some of you might be wondering, what's a song circle? My friend Gene just wrote a great post on his blog about song circles. And that reminded me that I once wrote an article for the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals' newsletter, Folkprints on the topic. Here it is:

Last night, I did something I do almost every week. I walked into the house of someone I didn’t know, I sat down in their living room for five hours, and I sang with them. Am I a member of a strange cult? Well, not exactly, but I am addicted. My addiction has brought me to houses across Toronto for the pleasure of singing in a group. What am I addicted to? Song circles!

Song circles come in many shapes and sizes, but the basic idea is a group of people getting together to sing and share music. There are song circles all across Ontario, each with their own unique character, attended by people who want to sing and make music with others. The great thing about a song circle is, anyone can start one, they don’t have to cost money, and it’s a great way of connecting with other musicians and music lovers.

The weekly song circle I attend in Toronto was started by a group of people who had attended Mariposa in the Woods (now called “The Woods Music and Dance Camp”), and it’s been going for almost twenty years [note: now it's more than 25 years]. The format is simple. We start sometime around 8:30 pm every Friday night. We sit in a circle (or as close to a circle as we can manage), and over the course of the evening, each person in the circle has an opportunity to lead a song, request a song, pass, or “defer” (meaning they can’t think of anything at that moment, but they might want their turn later). After everyone has their turn, we take a break, during which we eat all the snacks we brought. After the break, we continue, but we dispense with taking turns, and things become a little more spontaneous.

Before the break, we announce the next few locations (members volunteer their homes), and we line up more if necessary. Attendance is completely open-- anyone can come, although there is no formal advertising besides word of mouth. You can come as often or as rarely as you like. I have been to song circles with as few as three people or as many as fifty, but the average is somewhere between twenty and thirty people.

The emphasis in this song circle is on songs with good choruses or refrains that allow everyone to sing along. Over the years we’ve sung songs from many different traditions –sea shanties, lullabies, work songs, rousing gospel numbers, old-time country songs, Caribbean songs, pop songs, songs in different languages, contemporary folk songs, and lots more.

Here are some basic elements that I think can help any song circle work:
  • Agree on the format. When you first meet, have a conversation as a group about how you’d like your song circle to operate. There are lots of options! After you’ve been meeting for a while, have another conversation to see how it’s going and find out if you need to make any adjustments.
  • Adopt a format that gives each person a turn. If I had to name one aspect that’s essential to a good song circle, this would be it. It means that each person knows they will have their time and space without having to push themselves over someone else who might be louder or more confident.
  • Foster respect and appreciation for each person’s contribution. Some singers have difficulty with pitch, rhythm, or general confidence. But you will often hear “Nice song” or “Good job” or some other encouraging response when they are done. It’s amazing to see the progression over time as their confidence begins to grow. Fostering this kind of culture within the group requires a few people to “model” the behaviour in the beginning, but over time it can become a natural part of the group.
  • Listen to each other. The most important element of making music isn’t actually creating sound. It’s listening. At the Toronto song circle, things are more oriented toward voices than instruments. Although there are often plenty of instruments, we’ve learned over time to take our cue from the person leading the song – if they begin singing a capella, we don’t automatically jump in with instruments. On the other hand, sometimes a person will say, “this is in the key of G. I’d love to hear lots of guitars.”

Meet in a comfortable space. The right space will create the right environment. Private homes are wonderful that way, but if you are choosing a public space, try to find something that’s not too large for you—you don’t want to be completely lost—and look for a space that has warmth—comfortable chairs, good lighting, and so on. Wood surfaces are good for sound and atmosphere. Cement walls and tile floors usually make for a cold space that won’t feel cozy.

Those are just some of the things that I think make for a good song circle, but I started this column by mentioning that there are many different types of song circles. I’d like to hear from you about the song circles you attend.

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Music is a Natural Human Activity

Since my idea for a slogan for Toronto went over like a lead balloon, maybe I'll return to writing about something I know. Recently, over on the Maplepost (the Canadian Folk Music listserv) there was a discussion about open stages, "good" and "bad" music, and whether it's okay to judge or evaluate someone else's music. I posted a response, which I'm dividing into two blog entries, because I want to elaborate on the second part a bit more. But here's the first part of what I posted:

Once upon a time, in almost every society in which you can trace cultural history, music was a collective activity that was part of the life of a community -- pretty much everyone sang and danced, and there were special songs and dances for life events like birth, reaching adulthood, celebrating the harvest, the turn of the seasons, marriage, and death. Music and dance was an important part of the fabric of communities because it brought people together, passed on information, helped create a feeling of cohesion and social unity, and so on. Sociologists and anthropologists who have studied these things have noted that one of the things that marked this kind of activity in a community is the lack of separation between the singer/dancer and an "audience." In other words, there was no audience, it was a participatory activity that everyone did. The idea of whether you are "good" or "bad" at it didn't even make sense. There are some parts of the world where this is still true.

Today, we in North America live in a very different society. Music is generally not something that is woven into the fabric of most people's lives anymore-- it's something that we purchase, listen to, watch, but it's not something that everyone is expected to participate in on a regular basis. There is a clear separation between performer and audience. And we grow up with the idea that if we aren't brilliant singers (or dancers or players or writers or...), then we should keep our mouths shut. And many of us do. We get the message that singing is a talent, some people have it, and some don't, and if you don't have it, you are out of luck. I think this is a tragedy. It means many people are alienated from their own musicality and creativity, they never get the chance to try out their voices, or have the transcendent experience of being part of a large group making music together. There are fewer and fewer opportunities for people to participate meaningfully in music and other creative pursuits without being judged in some way.

In that context, I think it's critical that we create places and spaces where people can make music together without the expectation of perfection, places where people can sing or play purely for the joy of it, rather than for applause or adulation. Places where it doesn't matter what your skill level is. Where, even if the singer needs some work on their musical skills, their contribution to the spirit of the event will be recognized and appreciated. This might be a song circle, a jam session, an open stage, or some other kind of friendly musical exchange. We need these kinds of spaces because we need to bring back music-making as a natural human activity.

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

What Will Happen to the Old Chestnuts?

Recently there was an animated discussion on Maplepost about the fact that many performers today only sing their own songs, which raises questions about what will happen to all the songs that we used to sing, the old songs, the songs by other writers. And what about the current crop of songs? If no one other than the songwriter sings them, will they survive?

I'm a performer who has gone from mostly singing other people's songs and traditional material to mostly singing my own songs. When I first began performing, I didn't write songs at all. I had grown up in a folkie household, exposed to lots of traditional music, and lots of singing in groups at song circles and jams. At the time, I thought I just didn't have anything to say that hadn't already been said by someone far better than I ever could.

The songs I chose to sing were songs that meant something to me. I spent a lot of time learning songs, getting inside them, and making them my own. I also spent a lot of time making music with other people, and through that I learned about listening, making space for other voices and instruments, and creating something spontaneously that is larger than the sum of its parts.

I firmly believe that if I'm any good at writing songs, it's because I spent so much time inhabiting other people's songs, and making music in groups. Without realizing it, I was absorbing the essential elements that make a song work.

When I write songs, I am absolutely writing from my personal experience - like it or not, I am the centre of my own universe, so it's impossible for me to do anything else. But my aim is to use my personal experience as a springboard to say something about that personal experience, hopefully something that will resonate with other people. There are certain things that all human beings go through: We are all born, we all grow and change, we experience joy, love, pain, loss, triumph and so on, we work and struggle, we try to improve our lives and the world around us, we mark important moments, we fall in love, we fall out of love, and then eventually, we die. In my experience most songs with any staying power somehow touch on those universal human experiences.

Recently I've been thinking about the fact that I mostly sing my own songs now. In a way, I wish it weren't so. There is a vast body of brilliant, beautiful, and compelling music out there that deserves to be sung and played. But there are many factors that discourage working musicians from playing or recording anything other than their own songs -- a few people already mentioned royalty income, but there is also the structure of many granting programs in Canada, which subtly, and not-so-subtly encourages musicians to write and record their own songs in order to get the maximum funds possible.

I love writing songs, but I also fear that by singing more and more of my own songs, I'm losing touch with my musical bedrock. And on a larger scale, I wonder if that's happening to us as a musical community. It's exciting that so many great new songs are being written, but I hope we aren't losing the old chestnuts and bits of gold from days gone by.

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Sunday, October 5, 2008

Rise Up Singing in Guelph

This weekend I had the pleasure of visiting with my friends Jane Lewis and Sam Turton in Guelph. Sam and Jane are musicians who, besides performing and writing songs, also spend a lot of time fostering community music in Guelph. Their organization "Rise Up Singing" offers music workshops that help people learn music in a supportive, inclusive environment. I was there to teach a guitar workshop, but over the weekend we had some lively conversations about community music. One of their missions is encouraging people to sing more, and seeing them in action affirmed once again the power of singing in a group.

I met up with Jane and Sam on Friday night at a local Guelph cafe where they facilitate a weekly public sing-along.For two hours they led an enthusiastic group of cafe patrons in singing together from a large book that they've compiled of familiar, singable songs (complete with an index!). The book includes everything from "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" by U2 to the traditional gospel favourite "I'll Fly Away." Every table had a few books strewn on it, and song requests were passed up to the front for Jane and Sam to choose from. We sang songs by The Beatles, CSNY, Sting, Johnnie Nash, Carole King, Leonard Cohen, and more, plus a bunch of traditional favourites.

It was a very fun evening, and as I sat there belting out "Our House" with a group of people I didn't know, I noticed that most of the singers didn't fit the general profile of died-in-the-wool music-loving folkies. They seemed more like "normal" people who had somehow stumbled onto this weekly event. And they were having an awfully good time. It reminded me that, unlike me, most people don't have opportunities to sing in a group.

It didn't used to be like that, of course. Singing used to be woven into the fabric of our lives, accompanying work, play, worship, love, celebration, birth, and death-- in short, everything we did could or would have been cause for singing. In North America we've largely become separated from singing as part of our community life, and we've swallowed the idea that singing is something that's best left to "experts." Early on we learn that we either have "talent," or we don't, and if we don't, we had better keep our mouth shut.

The notion that singing is something you either can or can't do is actually a pretty strange idea that runs contrary to everything we know about music and creativity. Music is a skill that can be learned. Like any other skill, some people are naturally more talented, and some people have the advantage of being exposed to more music making at an early age, but I have yet to meet anyone that absolutely can't learn to sing.

And singing in a group is a fantastic way to improve your singing. Not only does it help you learn to listen (which is one of the most important musical skills you can have), it also helps you build confidence in your own voice and allows you a space to try new things without feeling exposed.

Music gatherings like Sam and Jane's sing-along in Guelph provide a low-pressure, inclusive opportunity for people to experience the joy of singing in a group. So here's to Sam and Jane, and Rise up Singing. I'm glad to know they are out there, creating community through music.

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