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Songs from Seven Continents

by Sarah Jewell(more info)

listed in sound and music, originally published in issue 20 - May 1997

Both are worth addressing because they reflect our peculiarly British attitude towards making music. My answer to the first is “No”, I cannot actually teach somebody to sing in the fullest sense of the verb. There are aspects of the work that I can confidently lay claim to. I can pass on technical and stylistic information, I can help correct postural imbalances, through the application of various disciplines, predominantly the Alexander technique, I can deepen students’ awareness of their vocal mechanism and the respiratory system and its potential for full effective functioning and help train the ear for more keenly attuned listening and pitching. Most importantly, perhaps, I can endeavour to provide a safe and encouraging atmosphere in which to explore and be heard. Ultimately however, the primary function of the voice, that of communication, a student’s innate desire to express themselves with or without an audience. How often have we listened to a technically brilliant vocalist and felt unmoved and yet be shaken by emotion hearing an untrained voice pour out their story in song? So often as the manipulative skill increases so too does the distance from the truth. Of course, there are glorious singers who make it their life’s work to balance disciplined      technique with spontaneity and an honest intention to communicate as directly as possible from their essence. But most of us simply want to sing out loud and proud knowing we can share that joy! This is why I delight in running courses for people who consider themselves non-musicians, sometimes even tone deaf!

Songs from Seven Continents

This brings me to consider my response to the second comment: “Yes” it is a wonderful job and one which I was primed for at an early age by my family who believed there was no better way to spend an evening than around the piano singing folk songs. It is universally accepted that a good sing has a profoundly beneficial effect, I rarely have to convince anybody of its therapeutic value but it seems as a culture we have handed over our creativity to ‘professionals’ and ‘experts’ and nowadays you would be hard pressed to find a child who even knew the words of a folk song. En masse we have replaced the piano with the television and the P.C. and vibrant communal music making has become a thing of the past; a laughable anachronism. I know I am not alone in believing this development to be tragedy. So many people come to my workshops sensing that if only they felt free to sing they might fill an inexplicable void in their daily lives; as if our genetic memory holds on to a deep awareness of integration through music, whether we intellectually acknowledge it or not.

So what can we do to reclaim our birthright? Singing and its effects can be magical and its transformative powers are becoming increasingly accepted throughout the scientific and medical communities despite the lack of serious funding to prove and document results. Ironically, however, what seems less well known is that the fundamentals of good voice production for all are no great mystery. The common sense basis of my teaching is that the whole body should be involved to support the very physical activity of singing so that the energy expended is absolutely appropriate to the task. This requires a move away from the rigid classical tradition of poise and perfection drilled into us as children. From an early age we learn to inhibit our natural exuberance and train our voices into an unnecessarily narrow range of pitch and expression. Some children cope with this, but there are legions of walking wounded believing they cannot sing ‘properly’ and therefore, shouldn’t sing at all. Gradually, habitual tensions, postural misalignments and the judgmental restrictions of internally or externally imposed standards distort the healthy impulses of the neuromuscular responses causing sore throats, fatigue, flatness of expression and inaccurate pitching. Alexander himself was fond of saying that if we can isolate and prevent misuse then natural healthy use will surely replace it. The body work that I teach begins with a thorough limber to free the body as much as possible and refresh the mind. I must emphasise that no one element of my programme is sacred because each body and consequently each voice is unique. The practitioner has a responsibility to remain flexible in their approach, adapting to each client’s individual architecture and history. A light, uncluttered space, comfortable loose clothing, warm bare feet, ideally, a sprung floor to support movement and full length mirrors all contribute to a perfect starting point for voice work. A space that has a responsive acoustic that resonates back to the learner’s ear helps too.

The first challenge for the group leader is to engender an atmosphere of energised relaxation and pleasurable anticipation. It is worth remembering that the command ‘relax!’ is likely to have the very opposite effect! Human beings can give muscles the signal through the joints to tense but we have no corresponding neurological instruction to release. Conscious relaxation is therefore a process of not tensing. This sounds straightforward but we must never underestimate the fear that can arise as a person begins to re-condition their primary method of communication. It takes great courage to let go of a way of functioning that has served us, for better or for worse, all our lives. The vulnerability arises from our knowledge that we are an inhibited culture with a highly developed self-censorship programme. Simply expecting a body to relax that has spent days hunched up over a V.D.U. screen working to an impossible deadline may be unrealistic but Oh that tension is aching to dissolve! Through observation students can feed back to each other what happens to their partners as they prepare to sing; does the jaw retract? the shoulder lift? the toes claw the floor? Gentle suggestion is vital; we are so seldom the best judges of our own muscular responses because what feels familiar is so often not what is natural or healthy.

Through initiating a gentle repetitive movement the group begins to find natural rhythm. This has the effect of suspending cerebral interference and diffusing the fear of standing out, before the participants are ready to claim individual space. Simple folk songs with an accessible rhythm and melody are effective for building confidence. They function similarly to devotional chants and mantras without defining specific beliefs and can therefore be extended into heartily by all the singers.

Pioneering singers and teachers like Frankie Armstrong and Jill Purce have helped thousands find their voice again, often after decades of silence. Frankie, a leading light of the British folk revival in the Sixties has inspired a generation of teachers like me to explore the world of ethnic folk singing as a tool for releasing universal emotion. She particularly encourages women to drop into the lower registers to express their full power and men to explore the higher registers releasing traditionally feminine qualities into their expression. All these possibilities for creativity expand endlessly when I use them in conjunction with a knowledge of the harmonic vibrations of the chakra energy centres. No amount of teaching exercises can touch the effectiveness of learning a song that has built into its structure, a sound or pattern that resonates a particular area of the body or embodies a genuine emotion. Students at my sessions can become irrepressibly joyful when they begin to openly explore these new areas!

My vocal journey has taken me all over the world in search of songs, remarkable for their melodic and rhythmic intensity, to ground technique into a thrilling repertoire. Frankie has been progressively losing her sight for many years now and when I met her in Derry in 1991, I was recovering from a severe motorbike accident. After weeks of stiff lipped coping, I began to find release bent over and keening a deep mournful sound, she taught me that the body does not have to be conventionally perfect to achieve great things. I frequently have clients who sing fabulously through M.S. or epilepsy, from their wheelchair, in spite of their calipers. I take referrals from a range of complementary therapists to work with clients suffering from a variety of debilitating syndromes; depression, lethargy, congestions or anxiety. They do not require scientific proof that singing is healing – the sound of their voices, the lasting energising effects and the pleasure they give and receive is proof enough.

In 1990 I was teaching music for theatre, voice and physical storytelling at Fooltime Circus School in Bristol. The staff decided that we should run monthly skill-sharing sessions. Being the youngest and least established member of the team, I planned my class rigorously concentrating on exercises that would yield unquestionable ‘results’. However, as so often happens in holistic voice work, my plans were disrupted by the unspoken emotional conflicts within the group. I began with a yoga breathing technique to energise, for at the end of a long week, the fatigue ‘in the air’ was palpable. Then I introduced a vowel chaining exercise to warm the voice and set up vibration in the whole body. The group began to enjoy themselves and sang to the walls, their hands, a couple to each other and the atmosphere of antipathy altered subtly. From their tentative beginning the singers forgot my position as the teacher and I remember feeling slightly fearful that I had lost control of them. Whilst searching to re-establish my agenda I hit on an idea. I asked the least involved and most sceptical, a self-styled ‘non-singer’, to take the centre of a circle feeling that he would be the least likely to freely improvise. He wryly gave us permission to sing to his body. The group stood around him breathing deeply from the diaphragm and I asked them to observe his body, concentrating on areas that claimed their attention. Then I asked that they link the physical image with their own feelings about him and what he was projecting. I suggested, that, if it felt appropriate, they should lightly make physical contact with him. Slowly a variety of tones and rhythms began to emerge that created a soundscape of such complex texture and, significantly for him, profound melancholy that we all became utterly absorbed in its truthfulness. The unacknowledged antipathy in the room had found its medium through song which the instrument of his body had transformed into beauty. His jaw line began to soften, eyes close and his almost inaudible murmuring grew into a fully fledged lament – no words or judgmental debris to cloud the expression. I know we felt privileged to be part of this delicate reconciliation and musical revelation. Eventually the music died away as we took our hands from him, save one who remained in the middle swaying with the central singer’s rhythm, hands on his shoulders from behind, his body slumped into the arms of his companion who held him until his eyes flew open as he began to laugh, huge belly gusts  of pleasure and surprise. “I thought you couldn’t sing!” I said laughing too “I can’t, that wasn’t me!” But he knew now he could because it so clearly was. The room was full of companionship and clarity so we retired early to the pub. A completion.

I know now through listening, reading, leading and participating in workshops with people on a similar journey that my idea was far from original but rather an ancient and established practice most commonly employed by teachers of overtoning and practised in many shamanic and devotional traditions worldwide.

I have continued to explore this work further for the last seven years with variations and remarkable results. Perhaps the most memorable occasion was during a residential Body Harmony training on the Isle of Skye during the feast of Beltaine 1995. My sister Susie Jewell, a miraculous healer with a profound understanding of the releasing process had invited me to teach some voice work alongside her. Her participants softened and sensitised by the ‘listening touch’ were incredibly responsive to body songs and created some of the most awesome sounds I have ever heard. Some of their music was reminiscent of traditions they had no conscious knowledge of. With my particular interest in ethnomusicology, this was the most persuasive argument I have ever encountered for the reality of our incorporating previous existences into our daily lives. The recordings I took of these sessions still amaze and thrill me. The initial discovery of this practice has been the most significant step of my journey into sound and its unfathomable potential for unlocking our secret history.

“The aboriginal's religious duty is ritually to travel the land singing the ancestors’ songs; singing the world into being afresh” Sunday Telegraph review of Bruce Chatwin’s legendary book The Songlines.

The human voice is the first and most flexible of instruments and as each one is entirely original, it has a unique contribution to make to our own and others understanding of the world and our place within it. If we respect and nurture ourselves by taking the time to unleash the inherent music stored within our every cell, we can only be rewarded with a deeper awareness or our own essential nature.

References & Further information

1.    Freeing the Natural Voice, Kristin Linklater. Drama Book Publishers. P.O. Box 816 Gracie Station, New York 10028
2.    Healing Sounds: The Power of Harmonics, Jonathon Goldman. Element Books, 1992.
3.    The Healing Forces of Music, Randall McClellan. Element Books
4.    Beats of the heart, popular music of the world, Jeremy Marre & Hannah Charlton. Pluto Press: A Channel Four Book.

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About Sarah Jewell

Sarah Jewell is a composer, performer and voice teacher based in London. She teaches in Adult Education and is a co-founder, with Wendy Dunleavy, of the ground-breaking acoustic group LIPSYNC. Sarah also leads voice work training in the U.K. and Europe. For further information about forthcoming events and workshops, contact SONGLINES Tel/Fax 0171-813 1084

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