Thursday, December 22, 2016

singing lessons

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When I was a young child, a visiting preacher came to our country church. He brought his two daughters with him, and before he gave his sermon, they sang beautiful duets about Jesus. They had lovely voices which blended well. The preacher, meaning to impress on us their God-given musical talent, mentioned that the girls had never had any singing lessons. The congregation nodded and ooohhed in appreciation. I was puzzled. I didn't understand how not learning was a point of grace or even pride. After all, people who have natural abilities in sports, math, writing, art, or science find it extremely helpful to study under teachers who can aid them in their development and introduce them to things outside their own experience. Being self-taught (though sometimes the only option available to those with limited resources) is not a cause for pride or celebration. Why? Because that's just not how the communal, relational Creator set things up.

I have been singing since I was a child. Over the years, you could find me warbling melodies and harmonies in church, in school choirs, in a group of friends around the campfire, and even in a small singing troupe which toured part of the USA in the 80s. I love to sing, but I have never felt I was all that good at it. Sure, I can hit the notes and read music, but the tone of my voice has always seemed muddled, muted, even mousy, never ringing out clearly. In my late 20s, I decided that after decades of singing in my falsetto (which allowed me to fit into the mezzo soprano range), it was time to start using my lower-range chest voice. Those vocal muscles had not been used a lot, so I had to build up my stamina and work on my precision. My voice still tired quickly and I had little power or range, but at least I felt more comfortable, more like I was singing with my real voice.

This past September, for the first time in my life, I took private singing lessons. It is something I have always wanted to do and now I finally had the time and the opportunity. I found a very capable, kind vocal coach who challenged and pushed me (sometimes literally) in all the right places, but who also offered gentle encouragement every step of the way. It has been a rich experience in many ways, and I was surprised how much it required of me personally and spiritually. Here are a few lessons I learned in the process.

1. Singing is a whole body, whole person activity. It is not just about vocal chords and getting them to do what you want. We began each lesson with stretches and breathing exercises and letting go of any stress or tension. We made odd noises, we lay on the floor, we flapped our arms like airplanes and helicopters, we adjusted our posture. Sometimes we talked our way through to a more peaceful state of mind. Only after we prepared the body and mind did we venture into singing. I had no idea how much this body preparation affected my singing until I changed things up one week. I usually walked to my singing lesson from the metro station, a good half-hour through some of the most beautiful parts of Montreal. When Dean was away on a business trip, I decided to take advantage of having a car at my disposal and sleep in a bit. I drove to my singing lesson and arrived a few minutes late due to snarly traffic. It soon became apparent that something was different; my voice was more strained and less free-flowing. The only difference was that I had driven instead of taken public transit. As a result, I had not had any time to read and contemplate on the subway, no time had been given to walking and remarking on beautiful things. And it made a world of difference. What comes out of me is directly related to what I take in and to how I live, how I move in the world, and how much time I give to contemplation, preparation, and beauty.

2. Singing is about release, not effort. This idea really changed how I approach singing. I was used to my voice fatiguing rather quickly, but surprisingly, it was never tired after an hour-long lesson. I always came away energized and feeling like I was a bird floating in the air, able to sing with joy and gusto. And most of that had to do with just letting sound come out of me instead of pushing myself to make good sounds. This meant that a lot of focus was spent on the inhale (breathing, preparation, focus) and on letting the exhale (release) have a clear channel, obstacle free. And it worked. I discovered that when I access my whole body and mind in a deep inhale, I have quite a powerful voice. I actually surprised myself in many lessons, making sounds which had never come out of my mouth before. I was able to do this not by trying harder, but by letting go, by giving something away.
3. Singing is an exercise in vulnerability. I never realised how much fear was a part of my singing until my vocal coach started pointed out the tiny ways in which I was constricting my voice. I hesitated between inhaling and singing a note, I tightened up my throat when I came to a high note, I locked my hips and pushed out my chin to muscle out a note. I took shallow breaths and squeaked my way through my vocal break. All of it a result of fear, of thinking my voice would fail me and that it would produce ugly sounds. So we spent an entire lesson singing through and around my break, that awkward place between my chest voice and my head voice. And it was so much less ugly than I thought it would be. I found I had so much more strength and control than I thought I had. I also learned that tackling my weak spot head on and working to improve it in a safe place was a better approach than pulling away from it or avoiding it. Singing requires bravery and vulnerability. Fear masks and distorts my real, genuine voice, but when I am willing to be vulnerable, I can embrace and accept my unique voice and be willing to be heard for who I am.

4. You sing not only to others but to yourself. In one lesson, I was singing the late 19th century hymn, O The Deep, Deep Love of Jesus. It was not that difficult a song, but required some precision and lots of breath. I was singing it okay, but my teacher and I both knew that something was not connecting. It is a song about vastness, so I tried to sing it big, arms extended, launching the words out to the world. I couldn't quite pull it off. We tried several exercises - phrasing, physical movement, voice placement - but it still wasn't right. Finally, my teacher told me to curl up in a ball and sing it to myself. I crouched on the floor, wrapped my arms around my knees, and sang: "O the deep, deep love of Jesus, vast, unmeasured, boundless, free." And I was undone. Tears formed in my eyes when my soul heard the words it needed right then. Sometimes so much emphasis is put on projecting (or releasing) our voices that we forget to sing to our own hearts (see Psalm 42). We cannot project or give away what we do not first embrace and hold in our hearts.  

5. Singing is an exercise in integration. By design, singing is meant to be an integrative, holistic action. All of us have different aspects of our voice which are quite distinct: we can resonate in the chest, in the jaw, in the nasal cavity, and in the forehead. These all produce slightly different sounds. We also have a chest voice (the same timbre as our speaking voice) and a head voice (sometimes referred to as falsetto) which is more breathy and higher than our normal speaking voice. There is also the whistle register, the highest range, which is used to great effect by some sopranos (like Mariah Carey). It takes some training and practice to flow from one register to the next without strain or a significant shift in tone. I happen to have a very notable break between my chest voice and my head voice. That's just the way it has always been. But my vocal coach told me (and showed me) that it is possible to use these two registers together, to have the chest voice support the head voice so that I produce a much more solid, grounded sound. What? I had always assumed that the two were mutually exclusive, like jumping from one moving car to another, but I was wrong. They are actually meant to work together. Oh, segregation and compartmentalization, once again you rear your ugly heads.

The integration of my two voices or registers will take some time. It is such an unnatural sensation for me to access deep sounds when making high sounds, but it is possible. I know that part of the work is head work, getting my brain around a new, integrated way of thinking. Another part of the work is heart work, seeing my different voices as one. It is also spiritual work, having implications for how I perceive and practice my vocation(s). In other words, I must be careful not to compartmentalize my academic voice and my pastoral voice, not to separate my public voice from my private voice, not to divide my spiritual and my physical natures. For a culture steeped in specialization and individualization, integration is hard work. But it is worthy work because it results in more beautiful, grounded singing and a more beautiful, grounded life.

You don't have to take singing lessons to develop good spiritual practices concerning integrity, receiving and releasing, preparation, vulnerability, soul-care, and integration. But it could help. That has been the case for me.

Here is Selah singing O The Deep Deep Love of Jesus. Still undoes me.

Monday, December 05, 2016


Christmas is a time of year when we see traditions being enacted all around us. Traditions, at their best, tell a story. They are meant to be reminders of identity, history, and hard-won values. Unfortunately, traditions can easily become unmoored from their stories. When this happens, the tradition morphs into something else: it may become a hollow act practically devoid of meaning, or it may become associated with a different story, or the story may be revised to reflect a more convenient story. About a month ago, I heard aboriginal women telling the heart-wrenching story of the slaughter and conquest which accompanied the original celebrations of Thanksgiving in America. This inconvenient story has been removed from the tradition in favour of a more sentimental, Euro-centric tale. The tradition changes when the story changes, and we must resist whitewashing the stories associated with our traditions, for doing so causes us to lose our way.

Jesus encountered some very devout traditionalists in his time. The religious leaders dedicated to upholding the Jewish laws and traditions also turned out to be the most resistant to the good news Jesus embodied. For them, the traditions had become separated from the story of a merciful, redeeming, patient, generous God. Instead, the traditions became rigid rules and practices meant to protect and preserve Jewish identity and purity, and as a result, they were blinded to the story of God's loving compassion unfolding right before their eyes.

I did not grow up with a lot of Christmas traditions so I am discovering some of them for the first time, and the stories which they tell are rich and powerful. One example is the Advent wreath. It originated with the Lutherans sometime in the 16th century and was associated with fasting and mindfulness of the second coming of Christ. In the early 1900s it became associated with looking forward to the celebration of Christmas and, over time, symbols and meanings became attached to the tradition. The tradition varies somewhat in the church, but the Advent wreath tells a wonderful, accessible, memorable story of Jesus. Let me show you.

The wreath is a circle, reminding us that God's love has no beginning or end.
The use of evergreen branches is a sign of life in a lifeless winter, pointing to new life and hope of eternal life in Christ (hints of the original meaning behind the wreath).
The candles represent the light of God coming into the world through Jesus, his son. They contrast to the darkness in the world.
The red ribbon on the wreath represents Christ the Redeemer and the blood he shed for us on the cross.
The four candles (one lit each Sunday in Advent) represent a period of waiting. They symbolize four centuries of waiting between the prophet Malachi (Old Testament) and the birth of Christ (New Testament).
The colour of Advent in the liturgical church is purple, meaning that it is a time of waiting and preparation. The colour of Lent, a penitential season, is also purple, but Advent is considered a time of expectation, not repentance. Purple is also traditionally the colour of royalty, because the dye used to produce this colour was originally very rare and expensive and only the elite could afford to wear purple.

The First Candle is purple and is known as the Prophecy Candle, reminding us that God is faithful to keep his promises. The theme for the first Sunday of Advent is HOPE. In Isaiah 9 we read: "A child has been born for us. We have been given a son who will be our ruler. His names will be Wonderful Advisor and Mighty God, Eternal Father and Prince of Peace. His power will never end; peace will last forever. He will rule David’s kingdom and make it grow strong. He will always rule with honesty and justice. The Lord All-Powerful will make certain that all of this is done” (Isaiah 9:6-7, Contemporary English Version). This was written roughly 800 years before Christ was born. The prophecy concerned Jerusalem and Judah who were suffering under an Assyrian attack at the time. This was a message of hope given to a nation who longed for peace and for a righteous ruler. Most likely the people at the time did not fully recognise the messianic overtones in Isaiah's words, but when the writer of Matthew applied it directly to Jesus some 800 years later, Isaiah's message of hope came to life in the person of Christ.

The Second Candle is also purple and is known as the Bethlehem Candle, again reminding us of God's faithfulness and inviting us to be prepared to welcome God into our midst. The theme of the Second Sunday is PEACE. "But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village among all the people of Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel will come from you, one whose origins are from the distant past. The people of Israel will be abandoned to their enemies until the woman in labor gives birth... And he will stand to lead his flock with the LORD’s strength, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. Then his people will live there undisturbed, for he will be highly honored around the world. And he will be the source of peace…” (Micah 2:2-5, New Living Translation). Here we find a prophecy about a small, humble village being the birthplace of a world-renowned ruler who will bring peace. Again, the original hearers might not have understood the messianic implications, but when we read them today, in hindsight, the many references to the details in the amazing story of Jesus are quite obvious.

The Third Candle is pink and known as the Shepherd Candle. The theme of the third Sunday is JOY and it refers to the joyous good news the shepherds received from the angels. We find the story in Luke 2: "Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified. The angel said, 'Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.' Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, 'Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors'" (Luke 2:8-14, Common English Bible). Though the Jews were looking for a messiah who would make things right for them, the story of Jesus is filled with indications that God's mercy and favour extended beyond the nation of Israel. In the angel message here we find mention of "all people" which seems distinctly inclusive to us now, but might not have been taken that way by the original hearers.

The Fourth Candle is purple and is known as the Angel Candle because the angels brought news that God's love had come to the world through the person of Jesus. The theme of the fourth week is LOVE. "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won't perish but will have everlasting life" (John 3:16, Common English Bible). These are words spoken by Jesus himself and once again we see expansive words such as "world" and "everyone." This is the very nature of love: to grow, to expand, to overflow, uncontainable and unmeasurable. And this kind of expansive love which reaches even to the lowest of the low is what we see present over and over again in the story of Jesus.

The Centre Candle is white and is called the Christ Candle. It is usually lit on Christmas Eve to indicate that Christ has come, the time of waiting is over. The shift from expectation to excitement is evident in the story of Simeon found in Luke 2: “A man named Simeon was in Jerusalem. He was righteous and devout. He eagerly anticipated the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. The Holy Spirit revealed to him that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Led by the Spirit, he went into the temple area. Meanwhile, Jesus’ parents brought the child to the temple so that they could do what was customary under the Law [dedicate their first child to God]. Simeon took Jesus in his arms and praised God. He said, 'Now, master, let your servant go in peace according to your word, because my eyes have seen your salvation. You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples. It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel.'” (Luke 2:25-32, Common English Bible). Simeon, led by the Spirit, recognised in Jesus the hope, the peace, the joy, and the love which Israel had been longing for. He also saw the expansiveness of God's love and compassion (a light for the Gentiles).

The story of Jesus teaches us that God's salvific work is so much more magnanimous than we had hoped and also so much more humbling than we had anticipated. And that is why it is important to keep telling the story of Jesus, not only in words, but in traditions. Traditions serve as reminders, metaphors, symbols, and spiritual practices which keep us connected to the story of God and reveal to us again and again the divine desire to live in communion with humanity. In telling and re-telling the story of Jesus, the story told in the Advent wreath, we remember that we, too, need a Saviour to restore us to God. We, too, long for someone to come and rescue us. We are reminded to prepare ourselves, because in order to welcome Christ into our lives (our families, our work, our play, our relationships) we need to make space and remove the clutter. This is the message which John the Baptist preached: "Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight" (Mark 1:3). In Advent, we are reminded to minimize the distractions, avoid the detours, remove the obstacles, and make a clear path of welcome for God.

One of the ways we can do this is by making our everyday waiting (in lines, in traffic, in meetings, etc.) a spiritual discipline, an act of worship and devotion. Waiting can be an Advent practice which transforms our self-centred impatience into an act which reminds us of the hundreds of years that Israel waited for someone to come and restore them, to rescue them from their suffering and sin. Another way to practice Advent is to be attentive to stories of waiting and preparation which point use in the direction of hope, peace, joy, and love.[1] Whatever the tradition(s) you participate in this season, may you take the time to remember the story which is connected to the tradition, and find your place in a re-telling and re-living of it.


[1] One such story which has just been made into a movie (Lion) is that of Saloo Brierley. You can read an article of this amazing story of hope, remembering, and perseverance here.