Choir Lesson #6: Stagger Breathing

Choir Membership Teaches Many Life Lessons

Singing in a choir allows us time to practice being together with a shared goal. In a previous post, I discussed 5 spiritual lessons of the choir. I’d like to add one more: the wisdom of stagger breathing

Last week, I sang onstage at a bar. For a person who is accustomed to singing at church or in a theater packed with toddlers, this was a big thrill. I ended up there in a most unexpected way: singing in a social justice choir. It’s not something I could have imagined 6 months ago, but sometimes life takes crazy turns. After the performance, I was talking to another member of the choir and she told me about this quote:

stagger breathing quote for the choir

Aimee Van Ausdall

When life swells to a crescendo of activity and we are swept away by the busyness, self-care is vital. When we feel overwhelmed, we must take a breath. Trust that the others will cover for you. Step back in when you’re refreshed so someone else can take a break.

Trust, Self-Care, and Longevity

Stagger breathing requires trust. You must have faith that the people around you will carry on the work without you. In turn, you have to complete the circle by stepping up when others need time off. You have to be aware of the people around you. If they are more out of breath than you, wait until after they have taken a breath to take yours. With practice, you’ll be able to sense when the person next to you is taking a breath and when you should take yours. We all have different lung capacities.

You have to realize when it’s time to take a breath. Don’t wait until you are completely and utterly out of air. Your breath might be noisy and it will take longer to come back in. I encourage my choir members to relax into the breath so the air rushes in effortlessly. Keep your mouth open and pretend to continue singing. The illusion is that the sound is uninterrupted and you’re in the right place to rejoin at the beginning of the next exhale.

Stagger breathing in a choir means that you don’t have to make the sound all by yourself. We agree to work together to make our song seamless. The audience never knows who is singing and who is taking a needed breath. This is empowering as well as humbling. When we stagger breathing, there is no soloist. Our goal is to make a harmonious sound that we can maintain indefinitely.

We practice stagger breathing in a choir. We apply the lessons in life.

Silence: Exploring 4’33” by John Cage

Where Does Silence Begin?

Claude Debussy famously quipped “Music is the silence between the notes.”

Or consider this wisdom from an old Zen koan: “It is the silence between the notes that makes the music; it is the space between the bars that cages the tiger.”

Holding silence is difficult, musically and personally.

As a music teacher, I have noticed that the most common rhythm mistake is not counting rests correctly. We want to make the rest too short or add extra time. The correct silence, entered with intention and ended with beauty, is not easy.

In the headlong rush of our lives, creating space for silence requires effort. We turn on the TV or radio to create distraction. The noises of the house, office, people, and street are constant. Inward quiet is even more elusive.

4’33”

Composer John Cage has said that his most important work is 4’33”, an exploration of silence. In this composition, John Cage has written three movements of no music lasting exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The musicians simply sit on stage without playing instruments. The video below shows the soloist tuning her instrument and the conductor beginning each of the three movements.

The Musical Rorschach Test

How do you feel when listening to this piece? Impatient for it to be over? Curious about the sounds? Angry that people couldn’t be quiet in the hall? Perhaps you thought about the people at the concert who paid money to attend this concert.

I would argue that your perception of the piece reflects a bit of your subconscious. It’s like a musical Rorschach test. Everyone will see/hear something different. Your perception may change over time or with repeated hearings.

Rorschach test ink blot silence

Rorschach image

I first became aware 4’33” by John Cage in graduate school. A friend programmed it on his master’s recital. My reaction was, “That’s brilliant! Five minutes of music that he doesn’t have to prepare on his recital. Why didn’t I think of that?!” It seemed like a trick, a joke.

Now I am much more interested in the audience’s participation in 4’33”. In the video above, we hear noises during each movement and an explosion of sound between movements. This piece is successful because the audience has preconceived notions of what they are to do in a recital hall, ie. sit still and listen. But the hall is not silent. It never is. This helps me to remember that the audience is part of every performance. The audience creates an energy in a concert hall. Indeed, the audience is integral. Without an audience, the performance is just a rehearsal. Sometimes the audience is adding to the soundscape, as is made clear in 4’33.”

Finding the Stillness

In the days ahead, I challenge you to find some silence, realizing that it is never truly without sound. The beating of the heart, the hum of machines, are with us always. It is not necessary to silence the world, only to find peace among the sound. This is the spiritual practice of silence.

Find a stillness, hold a stillness, let the stillness carry me.

Find the silence, hold the silence, let the silence carry me.

In the spirit, by the spirit, with the spirit giving power.

I will find true harmony.   -Carl G. Seaburg (based on a Unitarian Transylvanian text)

 

Con Text: Poetry and Music

Context

What makes vocal music different from instrumental music? Of course there are obvious differences like the lack of fingerings or bow marks. But the most profound difference is that vocal music has words. Singers are interpreters of text.

Vocalists breathe with the phrases of poetry. We must know what the important words are to highlight them musically. And we must also understand the content to build to the climax and resolve the falling action.

As performers of poetry and prose, we have an intimate relationship with the subject matter. Rehearsing the song, the words implant in the mind. Later, the subconscious brings the words to our lips when we are cleaning the house or driving in the car.

Music is a memory device

The other night, I was listening to Bryan read poetry to the kids before bedtime. He began reading an Emily Dickinson poem. I joined in the recitation, the poem readily spilling out, though I had no idea that I knew this poem. It is the text to “Hope,” one of the anthems our choir loves to sing. For the rest of the night, I couldn’t get the words and music out of my head. It’s strange how musical memory works – one little nudge brings back the whole thing in an instant.

Or consider too how you know your ABCs. To this day, I still can’t alphabetize files without hearing the Alphabet Song in my head. It’s so much harder to recite those 26 letters minus the musical cues.

The blessing of practice

text

Seasons of Love

This week, my church choir is singing “Seasons of Love.” I can tell you there are “five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes” in a year. More profound questions lurk behind the text. What would it mean to celebrate and remember every single moment? If we measured in love, how much would there be?

It is a gift that vocalists have to think about the text. We, perhaps more than the audience, benefit from the profound mysteries revealed in the poetry. We have time, through rehearsal, to take a deep dive. Vocalists have the unique pleasure of understanding text painting (the composer’s use of melodic and harmonic devices to color words with a particular emotion.) The music is in our bodies, goes through our bodies, resonates with our bodies. It’s physical, emotional, intellectual work.

I am reminded of Jason Robert Brown’s song “The Music of Heaven.”

“I come with my armor in place,
Emotions in check.
And thinking I’m smarter or just more realistic.
I sit with my frozen smile,
All the while reluctant to trust what I’m told,
Cynical, cold.

Challenging music of heaven to open a crack in my chest.
And let something glorious in.
Music of heaven should puncture me, suddenly blessed,
Let the music begin…

And I sit there with dry eyes and cold hands
Judging and standing apart
Dry eyes and cold hands,
Waiting and wondering, when will it open my heart.
When will it open my heart?
When will I open my heart?”

Music breaks us open. It finds its ways into the smallest crack of our hearts. But it is also possible to stay indifferent, to not let that crack open up. Musicians have to turn toward the music, to be vulnerable, to open our hearts. That is the only way that we can have a truly meaningful performance. This is a gift we give the audience, of course, but I wonder if it isn’t something we do for ourselves too. Aren’t we changed by the study, rehearsals, and performance?

The voice within

I know I’m not alone in experiencing music that comes to me unbidden. When my grandfather died, the family was at his bedside. I don’t know where it came from, but the song “I’ll Fly Away” began in my head. I started humming it, then quietly sang the words. My sister joined in, then our mother. We opened a window. Singing with my family in that moment felt so right.

There have been other times of heartache that other songs have come to me, rolling in like a storm or like sunlight breaking through the clouds. Unexpected. Perfect. Songs like “All Will Be Well,” “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, or “Something Told the Wild Geese.”

There seems to be a song in the jukebox of my head for every situation, every emotion. There are days when I feel like my life is one big musical. There’s something magical about the subconscious finding the right song for the moment.

A picture in my studio has this poem:

“An awe so quiet I don’t know when it began.
A gratitude had begun to sing in me.
Was there some moment dividing song from no song?
When does dewfall begin?
When does night fold its arms over our hearts to cherish them?
When is daybreak?” -Denise Levertov

What songs are playing in your head? If you turn up the volume and listen, is the song trying to tell you something, trying to open some crack in your heart?

A challenge to my choir and all vocalists

choir practice- I'm on the left with a drum

NUUC Choir

The church choir offers the perfect opportunity for spiritual growth through music.

When you are working on choir music, I challenge you to think about the lyrics. What do the words mean to you? Can you relate to that experience? How does the music help carry the message? As a performer, how can you help the audience feel and understand the text? And finally, I wonder if we can find ways to be more willing to receive the blessings of music.

I think Jason Robert Brown was onto something. “Let the music begin.”

Music as a Spiritual Practice: My Path

Music as a Spiritual Practice: My Path

The Beginning

spiritual practice at church

Covenant Presbyterian Church

Like many people, I first began to connect music and spiritual practice while a young child. I attended a large, stone Presbyterian church with my mother. The church was well endowed and had a huge organ, robust choir, bell choir, several children’s choirs, and occasionally an orchestra. It was a rich place for music.

My favorite service of the year was Easter. The church was full of people, the altar adorned with lilies, and the choir was resplendent in their robes. At the end of the Easter service, organist Trudy Faber would take the organ to its full volume and open the trumpet stops. I remember the sanctuary filled with sound, feeling the floor vibrate under my new white shoes. Even now, just thinking about it, the hair on the back of my neck stands up. As I listened to the organ in the grand sanctuary while gazing at the stained glass windows and flying buttresses, I felt divine ecstasy. This was an awe-inspiring experience that forever linked music with spirituality.

Music still has that power over me. When I am moved by music, I feel its spiritual force within me and a reconnection with the divine.

Practice, Practice, Practice

I don’t know where I got the idea to play the flute, but my mom remembers me telling her that I wanted to play and insisting on it until she relented. Practicing the flute was a pleasant escape from the intensity of my home. While other teens were talking on the telephone or listening to the radio, I was playing the flute in the safe cocoon of my room. This is where I learned how to be alone to be comfortable with silence, and to direct my own learning. (Just to be clear, I had no guidance on how to practice and consequently had terrible practice habits that wasted a lot of time.)

Practicing also cultivated grit because my commitment to the flute was unwavering. In fact, I never missed a day of practice during the entire four years of high school.

Much later, I would learn to meditate. I have come to understand that my music practice is a meditation, reaching that same place of calm and flow.

Music has also opened me up to a range of emotions. For a melancholy piece, I must channel the composer’s pain and reference difficult moments in my life. On the other hand, jubilant music makes me feel energized. Little by little, music has expanded my emotional intelligence. It helps me to simply sit with people who are sad without trying to “make things better.” I am learning to be present with uncomfortable feelings… without trying to change them. Performing music demands that a musician stay present and fully engaged, no matter the emotional intensity.

Music practice can be a spiritual practice. I learned how to be still, how to listen, how to commit mind and action to a singular goal. Music cracked open my heart to the joy and suffering of life.

University Studies

degree

MM from CU

The Apprentice, Dancing with the Stars, American Idol, Top Chef… the judging tables in these shows are less intense than music school. Universities accept only a fraction of students who audition. Fewer make it through the first year. Every week, professors offer criticism in lessons and studio class. Then there are the yearly juries and solo recitals. Music students are required to make fast progress while working through stage fright and self-doubt.

While many teachers tried to be constructive with their criticism, the voices in my head were more destructive. Am I good enough? Do they like me? What if I shake/get sweaty hands/can’t breathe? Facing these fears has been difficult. At times, the negative self talk was deafening, paralyzing. My playing suffered from performance anxiety. So I took classes in Alexander Technique and performance anxiety. I developed a tough skin.  Eventually, I learned that obsessing over these minor details did not serve the music. We do our best and then we move on.

Confronting self-doubt is a kind of spiritual practice because it leads to love and forgiveness.

Post-Graduate

flute studio in 1997

studio photo 1997

After graduating with a masters degree in flute performance, getting married, and moving back to Ohio, I worked to build a career in music. Very quickly I learned that there were lots of other people trying to do the same thing and they were just as driven, just as talented (often more talented.) It was thrilling to land a good gig but it also sent me into a spiral of over-work, self-doubt, and anxiety. Teaching, however, has always been something I love. I have a terrific home studio of flute students, teach classes for preschoolers at recreation centers, and work as a music director for a wonderful church, which is aligned with my spiritual beliefs. This wasn’t the career I had envisioned, but I have a passion for it. All of these jobs allow me to help others find joy in music.

Finding my place in the music community has taught me humility and given me a sense of purpose.

Growing a Soul

Meditation, prayer, ritual, yoga, fasting, and writing are all examples of common spiritual practices. I believe that studying and performing music can also be part of a spiritual practice. For some people, the point of spiritual practice is achieving a closer connection with a higher power. For others, it is liberation from this world. But for me, the goal of any spiritual practice is to grow a soul. Music has been part of my life since the beginning. I am aware of ways that it has shaped me into the person I am today. The lessons I am learning are about

Traveling a spiritual path means greater self-actualization. Music continues to reveal new ways to explore the journey.

Music as a Spiritual Practice

Since the beginning, music and spirituality have been inextricably linked.

Every culture in the world has used music as a spiritual practice in rituals for healing, connecting with the Divine, communicating with the spirit world, celebrating important events, and so forth. Ancient people knew the power of music and we do too. In the book Why You Love Music: From Mozart to Metallica- The Emotional Power of Beautiful Sounds, by John Powell, the front endpaper asserts

Music plays a hugely important role in our emotional, intellectual, and even spiritual lives. It impacts the ways we work, relax, behave, and feel. It can make us smile or cry, it helps us bond with the people around us, and it even has the power to alleviate a range of medical conditions.

This blog series will focus on how music can be used as a spiritual practice. Religious or not, all people benefit from activities that foster more compassion, more love, more generosity, more wholeness.

Look for the helpers.

How do you respond when something awful happens? Perhaps you feel sad or angry at first. But in the days and weeks that follow, do these events leave you feeling hopeless or are you spurred to action?

This week marked the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Once again, the news featured stories about the victims and about a world that was changed by senseless violence. However, alongside the tragic stories, the news this year also told about the people who were helpers.
Look for the helpers

The stories told about September 11 offer many examples of people who responded with generosity to the tragedy. For example, the people of  Gander, Newfoundland, didn’t seek out a charity project, but they offered generous support to the more than 7000 travelers who became stranded when American airspace was closed. Those travelers, after returning home, returned the favor by setting up a well-funded scholarship for the children of Gander.

There were many other hopeful stories too. Mental health professionals volunteered their time to talk with the first responders and attend to their emotional needs. Others went to NYC to help with the recovery efforts, risking their own health. And fire stations all across the country reported gifts of food, homemade cards, and other donations. I remember long lines at the Red Cross blood donation center in Boulder, where I was living at the time.

We have a choice when something bad happens: we can be paralyzed by fear and depression or we can work to make things better. Because we never know when we will called to be “helpers,” we have to be ready.

Be a helper.

I believe that the people who are best able to respond to a crisis are the people who are healthy – physically, mentally, emotionally. It’s normal to feel sad or angry when tragedy strikes, but I want to be the person ready to respond with action and love when called to help.

My goal is to stay balanced and spiritually whole enough that when the need arises, I will be able to respond immediately and generously. As a music teacher, I understand how important it is for me to be psychologically healthy when working with others. Music is my passion as well as my livelihood. It is also a source of strength when I’m not feeling grounded.

Music as a spiritual practice.

There are as many paths to the divine as there are people. Just as practicing yoga has multiple benefits, so too the study of music offers many spiritual lessons. For example, listening to music can help regulate our emotions. Participating in an ensemble can help us commit to something larger than ourselves. Practicing a musical instrument teaches us how to be comfortable when alone and how to listen deeply. Performing makes us confront negative self-talk. Vocalists must take a deep dive into the words, transforming text into something meaningful.

music and spiritual practice

music at NUUC

In this blog series, I’ll discuss ways to integrate music into a meaningful spiritual practice. I’ll offer some exercises and share my experiences as a performer, teacher, and church musician. I’m aided in this journey by my wonderful choir at North Unitarian Universalist Congregation. We have made it a priority this season to explore the role of music and spirituality in our lives and in our community.

How does music play a role in helping you become the person you want to be? Please respond below with your thoughts.