The Musical Body Song-versations
Have you ever had a sense of having something that you wanted to share, that was unfolding, emerging, and a dialogue, not an end product, not a show or performance, but something that was ongoing, and cultivating community, courage, connection and vitality?
For me, part of that something has become The Musical Body practice. I want to share with you about The Musical Body practice and workshops I have developed, and through which, I have found a home, a place to return to, and an unfolding and emergent dialogue, in sound weaving.
The Musical Body Song-versations.
Improvised Singing. Life. Exploration.
Cultivating vitality through improvised singing.
“You’re a singer, right?” “So, you must….., and you must…..? why don’t you …… or why can’t you……. or where is your …….?”
Questions that I often respond with a “hmm.. I’m not sure how to answer this, how long have you got to chat?”
Yes, I am a singer, ….And…..I guess I’ve often associated ‘singer’ with do-ing something, with certain strings of achievements and landmarks and expectations, and for me, singing has been something a bit more tender, private at times, intimate, with me; my heart and the birds, with me, some flowing under me-me, and the spaces between me and other play-mates.
Singing, or being a ‘singer’, has been about improvisational spaces, listening to a flow, more about being and connecting with the world and others, responding and enchanting curiosity, and, showing up to live, life, now.
An endeavour or occupation of ‘singer’ wasn’t something that appealed to me growing up, I sang because the world sang me, love sang me, feelings sang through me….. it wast something I ‘did’, so much as, that flowed through me.
Throw yourself into the river of life, and find yourself in the great ocean, Julie’s teacher told her.
You can’t go with the flow if you’re not in the river. Her mother told her.
In recent years, I have pursued being a ‘performer’ with the gusto of a fighter pilot meets monkey with his hand in a container that contains a banana, unable to pull the banana out because of its shape, but unwilling to let go of the goal. It was something I wanted so bad, I was willing to sit, trapped, ignoring health and fatigue, for the sheer desire of grasping that banana that, to an onlooker, is obviously the wrong shape to leave that particular jar.
You may relate to a desire to ‘do someone proud’: which, for me, became this idealised notion of ‘freedom’ being doing whatever I could do, as much as I could do, in order to achieve as much as I could before I die……Well, like the monkey…my life-span was starting to look a lot shorter than before, and quite unhappy, as I was focusing on something to fulfil me, doing proud…rather than “Be-ing myself proud” through singing.
So, people often ask me ‘What is The Musical Body?’, are you a singing teacher? or, ‘So what is improvised singing, is it like Pitch Perfect?’ Living my life through the emerging vocal improvisations, allowing creations to inform, and connect me to the world, this is The Musical Body. Sharing and gifting and dialoguing, listening, responding and understanding…….perhaps Ill go back to a story to clarify a bit.
I’ve been a vocal improvisational explorer since childhood. I wrote my first song (or third or fourth) as a 5 year old, about cows eating, from the words in a book I was reading with my mum, and I recorded it onto a cassette. At 10 I volunteered at a soup kitchen and decided I wanted to help people and auditioned for the Australian Girls Choir with my Classical Music Singing Grandmother. At thirteen I won a public speaking competition with my talk on Optimism, went on my first choir tour to Europe and decided I wanted to be a motivational speaker. Throughout all that time, I performed lipsinking dances for my family, but the improvised song-writing was something I shared on rare, intimate occasions.
I saw these improvised songs as clues about the universe, treasures that had emerged from within, mysteries manifested into song-form.
At sixteen, I attended my first youth leadership program, Discovery for Teens, where a milestone was that I improvised dance in front of others for the first time to ‘Celebrate good times, come on!’ after my friend Tiana encouraged me to face my newly developed teenage-fear of social suicide via being joyful in public.
As soon as I saw Michael Wall facilitating our group that year, I wanted to be a facilitator of creative processes. At 18, I put that into action, made my first home-made album of songs Id written as a child and a few that had emerged in partnership with my friend Ryo, and started facilitating camps and programs. It was through facilitating in the experiential education field, from 2003, that I began connecting my love of improvisational songwriting and creative experimenting with group exploration and process. What stands out for me in that period, was that I enjoyed the role of ‘energiser queen and love fairy’, and would midwife improvised singing around themes of the camp, optimism, community, hope, or challenges of team work.
A thread that began early was this interest in story and themes that were emergent from the group/community, and the desire to play with only their voices, or an instrument or two lying around if we had them.
I had already begun the process of developing what I now call The Musical Body, and I was fuelled by the gung-ho go-go-go workaholic – enthusiasm Id developed gradually since 10 years old (having been a serious athlete since then).
Thank fully, at 16 or 17, I realised that professional sport was not my path, and told my coach “I’m not going to be training anymore, I want to explore life outside triathlon” (To which he said “there’s no life outside triathlon”, and, oh boy, was he correct!).
With relief and joy, from 2003, 13 years ago, I began facilitating creative processes on programs in Australia and overseas as much as I could, often voluntarily- or as part of an exchange or subsidisation (ie. Team Leading for Youth Challenge Australia in Costa Rica). During this time- I was exploring sound, movement, improvised dance, Yoga, the outdoors. I was exploring, investigating and tasting all kinds of approaches to creativity in segments and in combination with each other.
One thing that kept repeating was my natural connection with creating improvised songs from moments in my life and in the lives of people in the groups I was working with.
From 18 years old, at the youth camps, I would play with getting the camp participants improvising songs in their new teams as a way to create a sense of belonging. My facilitation was haphazard at times, I certainly had lots of questions and doubts that would emerge as I worked, in fact, I was really deep in discovering myself and healing, as I led others….. And
…..amongst my noisy thoughts, I would sometimes pause long enough to listen deeply to what the groups were creating story-wise and musically, and recognise that what they created with their voices, as a team/group, was a living organism, something evolving, something transformative….. And so, I was fuelled to continue the enquiry…
how do we song write our lives?
How do we create the soundtrack to our lives?
How do we live life, art and creativity- through this explorative process of improvised story-singing together?
I think if I listened to those songs that we improvised at those programs back in 2003 and even up until 2009, as with any recording of something improvised, I may laugh, or feel a bit uncomfortable at times, but I would definitely smile. Or, I may make a comparison to the work The Musical Body community create these days and think,,,,ewwwww wow I wish I could go back there with the refinement of my facilitation tools I have developed since studying with Anna Halprin and Soto at The Tamalpa Institute, or since immersing in improvisational singing studies with vocal artist elder Rhiannon …….But I’m sure I would also have compassion for the path that I have taken, and the rich friends I have made along the way.
Songs reflect a lot of what we are exploring at that time in our lives, which is why they can be such a rich source of cultivating and supporting health, wellbeing and growing awareness.
In the improvised story songs of the camps I worked in- I imagine a focus on team building and leadership as an undercurrent to many of those songs, but also; many of the songs would have generated particular kinds of themes around overcoming personal obstacles, developing a sense of community and connecting to nature.
It fascinates me, how improvised singing, and story-songs have emerged, grown with me, shifted, and, been weaved in and around my whole life. The more….. (as facilitators and vocal artists, or wherever we are ‘now’) we are able to listen to someone’s offering, or the impulses within us, or the silence behind all of that…….. the richer the experience, grace and breath of the musical tapestry potential in the life/art/nature we inhabit.
This excites me, because…….(after many years of searching and studying and doing and trying really hard to give and learn and receive and create, to heal, to grow, to write, to perform, to achieve TO ACHIEVE TO ACHIEVE… and improvise and do and do and do… AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE……..),
I am now allowing the music to be that river, moving and changing, that true nature that lives in relationship with life, not as a goal or product I am striving for, but something I am immersed in, and breathing in relationship with.
Saying all that above about TRYING TRYING TRYING AND DOING DOING DOING….The Musical Body would not exist in its current form, if not for the rich meditation practices, singing explorations, music-playing, song-writing, improvised singing investigations, Qigong, Yoga, somatic studies, movement meditation and training in movement based expressive arts therapy approaches, that were part of my new sport in some ways after I quit Triathlon and Athletics in High School.
I can now acknowledge and appreciate that it is not what we do, but how we do it, and so, underneath all of these practices that have formed the program I now facilitate and have founded as ‘The Musical Body’, is an unfolding song of life, and an appreciation of an emergent and evolving relationship.
For me, the richness of The Musical Body work, is that it is life-long, and even when life ends, the music continues, and the songs emerge. After years of training, and ‘working hard’ and being enthusiastic and constant in my enquiry into co-creative song writing and vocal play, some of the training has finally melted away, so the joy can shine through, the athlete in me, training hard and going hard, has stopped taking those energy drinks and is ‘choo chooing” on a train in a corner in the back of my conciseness, and when she comes out- I have little chats with her and let her know, there is time to play, be a child, listen and song-write with others, it isn’t all WORK WORK WORK!! And in the stillness that has ensued from this gentle unfolding into sharing The Musical Body, over 13 years or more of developing its roots and structures- I’ve revealed- or reclaimed perhaps- the sensing and feeling body, and heart of myself from childhood, and also, a deeper listening and responding to what stories may be less obvious at first within the fabric of a group I meet with.
What is The Musical Body?
It was something I pondered as I wrote songs with my guitar on the toilet as a teenager, or on the piano before bed as a child. It was something I experimented with in the choir I led in Newham, and with my students at Mildura Specialist school in 2010, using my dance therapy tools, to ask questions through song, and for different participants to give ISR- (Inter-subjective responses), and see how we might engage in a dialogue about our lives through singing, and improvising sound together.
It was something a bit more shaped with the base of the experiential facilitation studies of 2006 and the camp program facilitation skills from 2001 and it was something with added structure of Dance therapy and movement based expressive arts therapy (Tamalpa Life/Art Process) studies in 2009.
It is something that had been around the world, in different programs for at least 13 years, that from 2010, became much more clearly articulated as a Life/Art process, a Life/improvised singing process, and a process to understand, play and cultivate vitality through improvised singing.
I developed The Musical Body to give greater structure to something that I had been experimenting and researching with for many years. I have fond memories of the joy I have felt, for the last twenty years, asking my nearest and dearest for a story or experience that I can turn into a song for their birthday or for Christmas presents, or actively moving through this process for myself, as a healing process, or as simply following the impulse to express what is alive in me or a moment of experiencing that has remained in my conciseness or of significance. When I went to California in 2010, (Tamalpa Institute), I had had many years of poor health, and burn out, and was so ready to revitalise my creative life, and, what I didn’t realise, was that, the work that was emerging in different programs, would be birthed more clearly, and that, the different branches, would all come together in a program which I look forward to each Wednesday at Clifton Hill.
The Musical Body is where spontaneous song writing about something in our lives as teenagers, meets meditation and inquiry, meets somatic exploration, meets jamming with friends and making up songs, meets group-shared improvised songs on a retreat or camp, meets the long-line of vocal improvisation and improvisational singing work of elders Rhiannon, Bobby McFerrin and Hilde Knottenbelt, who have supported my personal and professional shaping and emergence.
Since returning to Australia from my Life/Art studies in Californian 2010, I studied with Rhiannon in her ‘All the Way in’ Program for one year, which, completely transformed my life from being a teacher in schools and programs exploring story-songs and creative processes…to committing to music and creating a business-life-around my passion……..Words cannot describe the immensity of transformation that unfolded during studies with Rhiannon, and I am deeply grateful for her teachings, and the scores and processes which have supported my unfolding facilitation and improvised singing……And am currently brainstorming ways to support her manager Margie to bring her over in the vicinity of Australia to offer workshops sometime in the near future!! Back in Melbourne during these studies with Rhiannon, I met vocal improv elder Hilde Knottenbelt, who, unbeknownst to me, had been facilitating very similar work to The Musical Body, for 30 years!!! (which is longer than I’d been alive at that point when I met her!). Meeting Hilde and experiencing her Creative Voice work was truly a coming home, and filled me with joy. I had found a kindred spirit in Melbourne who was also facilitating a creative improvised singing process, and moreover, was also interested and highly skilled in facilitating story singing and exploring the emergent life/art process through improvised singing that has always been so close to my heart. Hilde’s strength and sensitivity as a facilitator of emergent story-singing has been an ongoing inspiration for me as I have refined my approach as a facilitator of this ‘genre’ of work. I enthusiastically adopted her as a mentor soon after, and have thoroughly enjoyed ‘Creative Voice- Life through improvised singing’ as a rich space of ongoing practice ‘for me’, to play and grow, with others. Along with this time enjoying being a participant, and taking off my facilitator hat, I have been enjoying many a collaboration with Hilde as vocal improvisational artists with dancers since 2012; including dance-voice collaborations in The Dairy I lived in, ongoing work with Vicky Kapo, and recently forming ‘FourNow’. Our connection has been filled with such a rich creative inquiry and ongoing joy, I am always grateful for the wisdom and joy that emerges from being in Hilde’s presence.
SINGING SADNESS, YEARNING OR SOUL.
SINGING FROM THE HEART.
My partner Tristam, who I met around two years ago, attended one of my classes after we first met. When we met, I noted that his name sounded like “triste” which in Spanish means sad. I felt something very rich in this connection, (amongst other things), especially as, a lot of the songs I had written in solitude as a child were sad songs (99%), whereas, in the camps and programs where I spent most of my time, facilitating story-singing, or teaching, the songs were mostly joyful and optimistic….and not so many had dabbled in other areas of the emotional spectrum. I found I was often yearning for more intimacy, space, listening and connection. I wanted to facilitate from a place that was accepting and encouraging of the freedom to express and explore a range of experiences through song, not just the happy moments necessarily. A noticeable shift took place over the past two years. In my life, in the past, I was acting-out the extrovert-people-pleaser role- ‘happy happy’ keep it together, as I mentioned previously…..So, when I heard Trist sing, I understood, on some level, why we had met. He sang/sings with such rich and deep and profound connection to his heart, a soul singer, born to sing sing sing sing sing SOUL. It is unquestionable, and undeniable. I would prefer to hear him sing around the house, than pay to see most famous singers that come to Melbourne. He has an authenticity and real-ness in his voice that, at first I was enamoured by, then, later on, I felt a bit jealous of when he sang on a few occasions in the house- but as I faced my own insecurity around ‘not being good enough’, and the painful habit of comparing myself to others, I came back to my initial feelings of inspiration and curiosity; which manifested in an interest in learning from and with him.
Throughout the past two years, I have been clarifying and connecting to a deep yearning for truth, and to connect to and express my deepest yearnings and love through improvised singing.
This has been an improvised love-song in my life, that is still being written.
HOW TO SING.
HOW TO LIVE.
FROM THE HEART. from the feeling. from within. (in the river rather than observing the river as Julie’s mum said).
Over the past two years, I have more and more often been able to connect to feelings, which before were unavailable to me most of the time.
Tristam, (with a ‘mmmm’ not ‘n’), mmmm, dear Tristam, he sings from feeling his heart (that was his trick, he told me). Feeling.
And I love it. I remembered where the sad songs had come from, an allowing place….And I remember it every day with deep joy now, when I sing for the day…..what it was to sing, from ‘that place’, with ‘that listening’…..before I got caught up in the goal-orientatedness of performing, ‘holding’, energising and ‘entertaining’ groups as a facilitator.
A facilitator of The Musical Body is a present person to engage in a process; to support an intuitive flow….I don’t have to ‘do do do….’…..like I once thought I needed to….I don’t have a banana I’m trying to grab when the Musical Body participants arrive on a Wednesday….”get motivated” ”get healed” ”get fixed” “make something quick!!”……the banana is the breath…I guess…in, out, listen, pause…….and noticing what we notice along the way.
We are not working on numbing ourselves in the sporty-wanna-win-pursuit of that orgasm of that perfect sound, that awesome soul ornamentation or the perfect song in The Musical Body. Much like love-filled-sex or masterbation; in The Musical Body; we are feeling into the the pleasure of the voice, following our interest, enjoying the ride, getting the song that we want (to translate a teacher of mine Alice Cummin’s ‘get the dance you want’)……
Something my partner and I both share is a large library of songs within us, that come out at different moments, and for specific moments in our lives that are of significance, or for a particular learning. For example; during an argument recently, when my ‘fiery-putting coal in the train of go go go gotta work’ and ‘don’t want to care about putting time into anything except work’ and ‘being better better better’- and ‘being good enough good enough good enough’ flared up, Trist played me ‘Cats in the Cradle…’ and I quickly broke down, weeped, stepped back into centre, and remembered that life and relationship is much more important than finishing the to do list (during a shared meal….)
The Musical Body is a bit like this, time to park the train at the station and go on a frolic in nature, with the birds, sing life, and let life sing you.
Sharing a song, to others, with others, for others and receiving songs that are improvised by your classmates, similar to when Trist played me Harry Chapin, are given to us as a a gift, which, allows for new insight into life. I am grateful for my experience at the Tamalpa Institute, and during my Dance Therapy trainings of 2010, where I delved deep into this process of inter-subjective response, aesthetic responses, and to put these techniques/approaches into a non-therapy-work language: I am grateful to have learned more about relating to others, and myself in a more generous, compassionate and flowing way.
In the Musical Body, we are creating structure, banks, re-vegitation zones- for flow, creating dialogue and conversation through song, allowing time and space to notice how we are moved, and what moves us, and how we notice our impulse, and choose our response.
A rich learning for me, and many of my students, is in the recognising where we react from habit or unconsciously in life (like my jealousy of Trist’s voice based in an insecurity). Over time, we recognise what our steam train that we have been feeding coal for a few years for is, feels like, looks like, sounds and plays like!! And, we begin to stop feeding it, or we start shaping it and playing with it, and allow a bit more listening, a bit more space, to ask, ‘what does the music want’ (which Rhiannon often said during my ATWI studies of 2013).
This is the joy of returning to our true nature;
responding, listening, and interacting with what is within us, each other and the world, the future and past moments, and the present moments- of our life, with growing awareness. Entering and playing in that process, the one that cultivates vitality through improvised singing, that, and all the above, is what Id like to say when someone asks me “So, you’re a singer, yeah?” …..The process of
as I like to say (I’m not sure where I first heard this but…it has become part of my ‘language’), brings us back to the present moment. Improvisation is good that way, when the breath is an element of awareness or timing in the process, you will always sense on some level if you are constructing and filling in the gaps for the sake of it, or reacting, rather than listening and responding with and for the music. The latter creates something that is in the space between us as a group, the singing circle, the circle of singers at The Musical Body, that becomes our vocal weaving, that becomes the potential, that sparks new improvisations, and growth, and that integrates and influences life, because we are living life……now!!! And when we leave class, we can respond to situations with the wisdom that there are many voices we can choose from, and breath as a guide to our timing….and many impulses for action, but there is also a river, and beneath that river, is silence, (and once again, I am not sure where I read this…but I am sure it was said to me by Soto or one of my somatic movement teachers at some point) and somewhere, there is a something, starting the silence, and behind that and behind that…..When we step into that unknown expansive potential……it is The Musical Body in its truest nature.
I wonder if you have a soundtrack to your life? And what is it that it is telling you?
Does it enchant you with wonder, is it an incantation, or are there stories that perhaps are not serving you anymore? I wonder what you would change the titles to? And I wonder how we might shape the musical fabric of our society collectively with the friends and family and community who we have grown with over the years?
That is the privilege of being in a community of improvisational singers,,,, we create and re create ourselves each week that we ‘show up’. We sing life, our lives are ‘lived’ through these improvised songs, and, like the songs I wrote growing up, or that you may remember as your ‘favourite’ songs on the radio at different points of your life, they become little landmarks and markers of rites of passage, growth, unfolding, and connection.
The Musical Body has its roots in many things, and, as Wednesday classes continue, as weekend workshops emerge, and free singing circles and potential for other expansions….I am always deeply moved and renewed by the rich sharing, listening and responding to each others experiences.
I find myself wanting to simplify how I explain it, and also wanting to explain it at lengths.
The Musical Body = moving meditation + sounding meditation + curiosity + exploration + spontaneous song-writing + jamming + story singing + body-voice exploration + community + cultivation of vitality + understanding + belonging + + + +
Looking back on all the vocal play and story-singing I did in my youth-youth (I turn 32 next year…so still feel like a spring chicken…and perhaps still will at 100 years old to be honest haha)…the work I facilitated on youth and adult leadership programs over the last 13 years, and with friends on the guitar, loop pedal, collective voices-ally and piano, gifts of songs about their sore-broken arm, or songs to my grandad about the “5 L’s that he taught me”, I am struck by the power of improvised song. I reflect that my favourite songwriting is when it is improvised pretty much entirely in one sitting…in and for THAT moment….and this is kind of what we do at the Musical Body…spontaneous song-writing… only that in The Musical Body, we don’t go back and repeat it and learn it to share on stage or at an open mic night…..it is a process of ‘song-writing our lives’, as I’ve often liked to put it.
The power of improvisational singing is therefore the power to transform our lives, in its reflection of the impermanence of THIS moment. It reflects the true nature of life.
And makes you wanna
and love it, more.
and connect us to our true nature…”MMMM” that is delicious…like a smile out loud; it generates health and wellness, and reminds us of what life is really about.
What is that thing for you? (that ‘this is what life is really about?) …does it involve…. play? connection? community?
It is many things for the different people who come along to The Musical Body, but that’s part of the beauty of this process, is that it has enough structure and flexibility, to allow for the different songs and meanings that we each want to bring and explore.
As a child and young adult, I would get young people singing and improvising songs about their lives and about our community, Id play guitar and piano and make up songs with others to understand and make meaning of the world collaboratively, and sometimes solo, creating a song about something in life.
Singing, being a singer, being a song writing, was about life being the blank pages, and the songs the ink….. what hasn’t happened yet, what is yet to be written, it is created in THIS moment, in the moments we share in The Musical Body. The story continues, changes, grows and transforms….over time. Breathing in, and out.
I’m so honoured and excited to continue offering this rich work, amongst a community of practitioners and singers here in Melbourne.
Singers. Our singing community. Our Story singing- life- exploring improvisational singing community. What an absolute gift.
I wonder- What is it this past day, week, year that you might like to have reflected back to you through an improvised song? Or, like Marshall Rosenberg asked in NVC, but in a Musical Body kind of way, what would you like to be acknowledged for in song that you have done recently?
Maybe you can sing a song to a loved one (I like to call these love-o-grams) about what you love about them, or something you shared together recently? (give them a call, leave it on their answering machine, or record it on garage band and email it to them).
I’d love to hear how they respond, or any of your responses to any of the above-
and feel free to check out upcoming classes and workshops at The Musical Body with Charlotte Roberts Facebook page.
And to join my mailing list, go to www.charlotteroberts.com.au
With love and warmth