Reclaim your voice. Anyone can sing. You don’t need to read music notation. Listen. You can make beautiful music with your voice.
These are the messages of the “natural voice network,” something I read in Caroline Bithell’s well-cited 2014 book “A Different Voice, A Different Song: Reclaiming Community through the Natural Voice and World Song.”
I had to experience it for myself. I googled “natural voice network” and found a website with details of upcoming events. There was a free rehearsal at St Margaret’s House in Bethnal Green. It’s a part of East London I knew well, for I had lived and worked near Victoria Park some thirty years ago.
A kind woman led me to the small chapel in the courtyard. I would have never found it myself. I was neither early nor late, but the space was filling up quickly.
A dozen women and two men stood in a circle looking at each other hesitantly. No one spoke. I guessed we were all strangers to each other. The air was full of expectation.
I found a corner to lean against and looked around the cosy chapel. Except for plastic chairs stacked near the altar and some near the entrance, the only pieces of furniture were the brown upright piano and piano bench.
A few latecomers skirted in last minute apologetically, dropping their bags aside before composing themselves.
Our leader introduced herself as Michaela. She got us to warm up, pursing her lips to make a hissing sound “sssss” — then followed with vocables (syllables that don’t mean anything). The warm-up exercises of voice and body rhythm relaxed us. I told myself to remember these exercises to warm up my ukulele group in Boston.
After the warm up, we moved ourselves to form our voice groups: six sopranos, seven altos, six tenors (all female), and two bass (male). I walked to the other side of the room to join the altos.
Michaela led us to sing a few lines of an African song. It did not matter that we didn’t know the foreign words or what they meant. She played the melody line for each part on the piano, first for altos, then tenor and bass. She was the only one who had the musical notes on a sheet of paper, and I was tempted to get close to read the notes. She played our lines a few times for us to remember our notes, sing our parts while she was teaching another voice part. Soprano came last. With each additional voice part, I felt the energy of my voice blending with others and the music taking shape.
After we heard our vocal parts, Michaela split us into two choirs. One group remained silent while listening to the other group. All we could do in that chapel was watch, listen, imagine our notes, and sing. Some of us covered one ear to focus. The combined sound was breathtaking, cushioning and caressing, wrapping around me into the very core.
How I wished the choirs I joined during my four years at conservatory were as mature as this. My classmates, usually half my age at the time, arrived late and left early, often different times, interrupting the class. They didn’t take choir seriously, for they were instrumentalists. The voice majors didn’t take choir seriously either because they were soloists. It was considered a necessary evil at worst and a socialization opportunity at best. Meanwhile, I, a student of composition and piano teaching, took two choir classes each year to improve my solfege, and while at it, learned to harmonise vocally. Our teacher was often frustrated that we chatted noisily and didn’t pay attention. He told us that there was a shortage of choir conductors in the Netherlands because there were so many amateur choirs throughout the country. Nobody listened. I believe him now.
Our leader and teacher, Michaela of the Voice Energy Project, taught us the beginning of two more songs: Freedom and Queen’s “I Want to Break Free.” For me, it was a different and more effective learning experience, starting with the bass, and moving up the range.
During the loo break, people talked to each other like old friends. The individual anxieties we felt before we began singing had all disappeared. Studies have shown that social bonding for those who sang together was deeper and quicker than those participating in sessions of creative writing or craft work. I had read of so many documented benefits of singing.
At the end of the two hour session, we did several improvisation exercises. “Choose a pattern and stick with it,” Michaela said and began with a riff. We joined in, and the voice looping of twenty three singers soon filled every corner of the room. Next, we were allowed to change the pattern. This created a different sound field.
Before we said good-bye, Michaela told us that the way we’d learn our part was by listening to recording clips. No notes. No sheet music. It was a different way to learn. She wanted us to memorise our parts and be present. I thought about what she said knowing full well that I couldn’t return the following week. [She also added that sheet music was available for those who wanted it.]
I agree with memorising and being present. However, I’m skeptical that I could learn as quickly and as effectively by listening only. I prefer the old way.
As a pianist and ukulele player, I prefer the crutch of an instrument to accompany myself and sheet music to read from. Learning to sing without reading the notes feels too risky and vulnerable. While I love to harmonise and sing a capella, I would prefer to learn my part by reading notes and playing them on the piano to make sure I’m not flat.
Unfortunately, I am unable to commit to attending these two-hour rehearsals each Monday evening in Bethnal Green starting 24th September 2018. However, I am grateful to experience natural voice network and will include it in my music thesis. In any case, I shall definitely use some of the exercises as ice breakers in other occasions.