Monday, September 01, 2014

Why Sing? (A New Essay for A Better World)

I was recently asked to write about singing and why it is important in my life. The piece I wrote (see below) will be published in The Drawing Network's new bulletin, A Better World, which is available to anyone for the asking. And what the heck is The Drawing Network?

"Our goals are to get equal time for the ARTS as for STEM subjects, i.e. maths, sciences, formal literacy etc. and to recognize the community's obligation to provide appropriate schooling from age-2 through  the elder years. The ARTS are essential for psychological development, psychological health, optimum learning, bringing joy to the curriculum. We have neglected the ARTS by assigning them to the outer edges of the curriculum as frills.

Correspondence is welcome: drawnet (AT] shaw {DOT) ca   PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD.

Why Sing?

Why sing?

I fall off the rolling log of singing practice as often as I scramble back on. Embarrassed to be heard, and teased as has happened more than once, I’m the only person who sings in my apartment building, and have a voice that carries punch. It is hard to hide, and hard therefore to keep on the log, to keep my voice flexible and strong enough to climb the songs I feel most moved to sing. But...

As an infant, I cried without thinking, opened my voice and swallowed up the world with my sorrow and my rage. Unworried by my drooling, I gurgled happily, my meaning clear to me at least, and clear I am certain in my eyes, the texture of my voice, the wobblings of my limbs, to anyone who cared to understand. I was at ease with my body, inside and out, and the sounds I made were as natural a part of it as the skin that held me together, the hair that curled from my pate, the sensations that bubbled through me and rippled into emotion and from emotion, yes, into sound.

What were the sounds I made? Were they speech, or song, or some thing from which the two arise, a primitive ancestor of all the civilization of voice that surrounded me, embedded as it was in the mew of cats, the chitter of birds, the scrape of chairs on linoleum, the sound of my own sigh as I was falling into sleep?

It was only with instruction that I learned the strange idea that certain sounds were acceptable, even delightful, even beautiful, and other sounds outrageous, irritating, wrong. And as this instruction continued I learned as well that in the category of sound called singing, there were true notes, off notes, notes which hit me so sharply sidewise that I laughed in fear to hear them, and shrank in fear from making them. I endeavoured to be true. To be right and strong and delightful. To be flexible and controlled and Good. But knowing how close the wrong note sat to the right had me live in subtle fear.

Oh, there were many lessons regarding singing as I grew up. One strange one was that, outside of the enclave of my singing family, it seemed that any time I began to sing people would turn the radio on. Rather than, gods forbid, joining in, the reminder of music had them reaching for its proper type. Music, I learned, was being wrested from the familiar, the shared and the bonding, and plugged into the professional and remote. Only those with recording contracts were good enough to be heard to sing.

But. And here is the rub.

Have you ever run? Run, not just in panic for the bus, spleen stitching and lungs afire, but run often enough that your body builds in strength and you begin to feel the antelope in you stretching supple powerful muscles and coursing with the birds?  Have you ever learned to dig? Learned the placement of the spade and the pressure of the foot and the easy swing that bites the earth out of its bed and shapes the land? Have you ever played a sport, or immersed yourself in yoga, or taken to the mountains so many times your legs and heart and eyes grow bright and strong and you can breathe a giant breath and take the world into yourself and exhale it out again?

Well, that is singing, too. But it is inward exercise. Muscles no one sees, let alone thinks much about, a cage of muscles that supports and connects you to organs and bones and synapses you barely knew you had, orchestrated by the vast intake of air, the training of your lungs till they become not just flabby bags that keep you aerated but bellows capable of more than you had ever dreamed, instruments as precise as a jeweller’s tools.

Running that marathon with your breath and vocal chords, standing still or swaying in your place, fills out the last remaining territory of your body and wow—the strength you find in that. The joy in it. To feel utterly your own body from within and without and, just as in your infancy, to find no blank spots in your self: toe tingling from breath powered by note set free by diaphragm, and mind, and heart. An athlete of the voice.

I urge you, dig your garden, run your kilometre, bow and rise through your dozen vinyasas and then stand still and engage your voice. Discover the union of inner body and outer—both toned, both gleeful in their strength—of breath and stance and sound.

Another thing. Who sings? Who sings what? Who are you when you sing? That subject is as vast as humanity.

Long ago I wanted to learn something of my ancestors. The first thing I did was to listen to their music. To begin to learn the metre of their language. To link my voice with theirs and wonder, why was it sung that way? Why so much sorrow in their songs? Why so much hilarity? I didn’t even like the music when I first heard it, the strident fiddles and the driving rhythms. But that time is long since gone. Their music is in my muscles now. It is in my tears and my dancing feet. It rescues my vocal chords from disuse and brings past and present face to face in me. Over time, of course, I learned more of their story, fleshed out the breath of their music with grittier details. But the stories alone would be empty without their voices. I sing now with my great-great-grandmothers, warning of false young men, and I laugh and cry along with them. I sing with my great-great-grandfathers, who might never see land again, and I cherish their labour and their risks. I sing with the people I never got to meet, and find them in me, and love them still.

Why sing? So many, endless reasons. Better to ask, why live? What else can a child do?

Bob Steele, founder of the network and the driving force behind it, is a professor emeritus from UBC and his essays on the importance of art education are stirring and informative. From the website:


Fellow educators, parents and teachers: this is a serious situation and we are not addressing it seriously:

When we undervalue spontaneous drawing in the home/school curriculum we risk compromising children’s language developmentAs language is critical to mental development, mental health, and learning  we compromise these as well. Putting it so bluntly and in language that may sound more like propaganda than scholarship, I risk alienating you, but consider the following observations:

 1) Children are born with a built in propensity to draw in response to vivid experience. My analysis of hundreds of spontaneous drawings suggests that in the early years it is their most useful language for articulating their acute perceptions, their subtlest and most complex thoughts and most intense feelings! Perceptions, thoughts, and feelings, these take shape in a drawing response!

2) It begins as scribbles and crude graphic symbols in the preschool years and, with nurturing, evolves into full-blown picture making in the kindergarten and primary years. Ideally, children in the preschool period thrive on a “daily draw” of some twenty minutes or so. A caring adult needs to be in attendance, not to show or demonstrate, but to inspire and motivate. The connection to emerging literacy begins in these years with pre-drawing and post-drawing conversations about theme and finished drawing.

Returning to the initial mood of alarm, all children have drawing as a potential but how many homes with preschool children have “daily draw” routines? Should parents be alarmed?  Should PACS be concerned? Should school systems become actively involved in promoting preschool drawing? Should advocates of democracy and civil government pay attention?

3) Kindergarten/primary: these are the years when most children get to draw but typically to facilitate emergent literacy. This is good, but no substitute for free drawing where the focus is on articulating personal perceptions, thoughts and feelings and the goal is making pictures that tell stories. It is also time to integrate drawing into the core curriculum in language arts, science, social studies and art.

K/Primary teachers recognize that spontaneous drawing is a language phenomenon and an aid to literacy. Should they ask themselves if a more broadly based agenda  would contribute more to the well being of their children? Should they examine the arts and crafts segment of their programs and consider making spontaneous drawing a core activity of all art projects? Might they conclude that many ‘crafty’ time-fillers  are indeed counterproductive to language?  Should all art be language, devoted to expressing and giving form to meaningful and heartfelt subject matter?

4) In the intermediate years and beyond, free drawing time is still very much a worthwhile activity and every opportunity should be taken to integrate illustration into Language Arts, Social Studies, Science and Art when learning is enhanced.

To insure that older children get the psychological benefits of spontaneous drawing should there be scheduled opportunities for free drawing built into the week’s intermediate timetable and beyond? Are these the years when introducing art history, aesthetics, and the sociology of art would be advantageous?

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