This is a talk that Pamela gave at the Unitarian Church in Ottawa at an “Arts Night” on January 27, 2012, according to the name of the file I found on her computer.
I publish it here because it’s richly autobiographical.
Her notes indicate three possibilities for sharing her voice with the audience after the talk. I don’t know whether she did one, two or all of these:
- Experience healing voice with crystal singing bowls;
- Spirit of Life – The song which arose out of the discussion with the minister mentioned further down in the article;
- “These things will Never Die” Song with words by a master of the English language, Charles Dickens; Lee Dengler: Goshen, Indiana; Mennonite; composer of solo, choral and piano works.
I have always loved to sing. Some of my earliest memories are of my family singing together in the car and my parents harmonizing over the dishes. At the age of five, my older sister joined the junior choir at the church where our father was the minister. I had a hard time understanding why I couldn’t be there, too. She came home and taught me all the songs.
As my sister learned instruments in school, she brought them home to teach me: flutaphone, recorder, ukulele…I had some piano lessons (which I eventually traded in for painting lessons) and when the girl next door started showing us how to play her guitar, we both received guitars for Christmas. I WAS in the junior choir by that time, and the director found me playing my friend’s guitar during a break, and suggested I bring mine. That’s how I got started. I loved it: it was easier than piano, portable and it provided great background for my singing.
The Church gave me my beginning in music, and has played a role at many times: church choirs, learning the history of music by singing it – richness of various periods and composers. At the same time, growing up as a minister’s daughter there was a quest for something else.
I started flute in grade 6 when St FX University in Antigonish NS started a school band program. At 13, after moving to Sydney, in Cape Breton, I was able to continue with the flute but had only one year of singing in grade 10, a big disappointment; however, during that year I found a book of madrigals in a cupboard. As the singing program died, I lost my innocence, and stole a copy of the book. I knew about piano and flute lessons, but had no idea one could study voice the same way.
At 25, I set out travelling around Europe by myself, visiting friends in Paris and family in Holland and Denmark; and discovering sculpture and stone, architecture, and tastes and smells. It was wonderful! I felt restless while travelling through the North, until, coming down along the Romantic Road in Germany, I reached Lindau, a town south of the Bodensee, or Lake Constance, where southwestern Germany and Switzerland meet. There I felt like I was home. That was my first concrete experience of knowing another lifetime. That night, in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, sleeping on the floor beside a baby grand piano in a friend’s home, my life changed. I discovered lieder, the classical art songs of Schubert along with some Brecht and several other composers. Included in the stash on the piano was a song for peace I later learned was sung by the people in the Swiss Resistance. I had studied German for 4 years, and was able to grasp the lyrics, and in my heart somehow knew the song. I made copies of a few songs, and continued on my way. I knew by the end of the trip, I wanted or needed to study music, and voice and sculpture, which was also new to me.
Returning to Montreal, where I was living at the time, I entered a BFA program at Concordia. While waiting to begin, I heard an arrangement of the English folk song “Barbara Allen” working its way through my mind, beckoning me to write it down. I really knew I was ready, and the composer/arranger was born. In my third year, the inner voice came out again, asking how shall I actually earn a living. In 1989, I came to Ottawa for the national conference of the Canadian Association for Music Therapy, and by the time I left, I had had my interview and was on my way to Vancouver to continue my studies.
Music took on a whole new meaning there. When I was young I had found peace at the piano when family discord arose. In the piano studio at Concordia, I discovered how playing could support my breaking through emotional blocks. And my songs emerged that reflected the inner turmoil and joys of the period. In school I found that applying instrumental and vocal improvisation in therapy seemed natural. Working with others to express their inner world though song choices or rhythm instruments grew into my profession.
To sing takes courage. Other instruments take technical ability to make a sound, skills to sound good, but the instrument is what makes the sound, and its maker puts the quality into the instrument. The voice is different. It comes from our body and emotions, and I find the energetic model which comes from the Eastern traditions makes more sense for understanding this. Our quantum physicists have found that our bodies are made up of vibrating energy. These energy particles can be organized by sound. You’ve heard the expression “You are what you eat”. Well, we are what we listen to, too. Which means we are shaped by the sounds and other vibrations around us. In the Hindu tradition we learn about the chakras, or energy centers and aura or energy bodies, which are permeable layers of energy fields of different frequencies, which have a registry, of sorts, for our emotions, thought forms and spiritual beliefs. The child who is raised in violence and arguing, becomes fearful and defensive. There are studies by Dr. Emoto on frozen water which has been treated by emotions – words written on the bottles. The emotions bring about different crystalline snowflake shapes. Hate is angular and harsh. Love is symmetrical and proportional. We are what we listen to or sing.
At times, I have been so caught up in other’s songs that I have strained to hear my own melody, but something has happened and song finds me and pulls me back in. At times, I have forgotten to listen, and the realization has brought me back to its path. It is part of what I am. And once and a while, I realize I haven’t been taking my voice for enough walks, and it gets’ out of shape. I know how I am by my voice and what I am singing.
What is music?
It is expression, it is a way to voice the inexpressible, at times. Without words melody comes straight from the heart and reaches directly to the soul. I’ve come to realize that words can be limiting: we often struggle to say things which we have not yet consciously explored. But through instruments and the voice we can do it. Words are a prism or filter through which we seek to express. But the voice is owned even by ones without languaging ability. From the baby’s first cry, to our last gurgle our voices are with us. Using my voice, I have been able to build relationship with a man in his 70s who experienced brain damage at birth, and who, we suspected, had received little attention other than someone feeding him and changing his diaper for most of his life. His voice was loud and pervasive in the hospital where he lived, like a rooster. In his group home, with music therapy, he quieted down and showed preferences for different styles of music, especially the female singing voice. As I sang with him, we developed conversations based on sighs and tones, and on hearing I was leaving, he expressed his sadness. Another person, this one a child, who again had experienced neglect and abuse, found self-confidence and self-esteem through the discovery of his hidden talents, which emerged by playing and singing together. Music comes straight from the Soul and carries all the emotion needing to be expressed and doesn’t need any translation.
When I have doubts or questions, Spirit sometimes responds with a new song, a composition. It happened when I needed a way to address closure with a group of incarcerated teens, and again after a difficult conversation with a minister around theology. Songs may come in the middle of the night, as in the first case, or after meditation or walking the dog.
Music is comforting and grounding: The autistic child who centers herself through humming; The monk who uses chant to pray and its health-giving benefits. Music urges community. It brings communication, social interaction and expression; it is shouts of acclamation and joy, love songs and anger, and is shut down by fear and terror. It is a measure of the health of a culture and community. It is meditation. It offers a metaphor for life, and teaches us how to live in harmony.