Blog

All The Way In: Improvising in Perugia

I have returned from the second instalment of All The Way In 2019. Wow. This group of people that I am working with are brilliant and skilled musicians and I feel privileged to be dong this year with them. We come from all over the world: Estonia, all over America, Tasmania, Myanmar, Puerto Rico, Sweden, Holland, Hawaii… and myself, from Yorkshire!

For our week in Perugia (Italy) we delved deeper into Rhiannon’s ‘Vocal River’ exercises, singing and moving (and I mean REALLY moving) everyday. I am learning about my body, my voice, my edges and where I shine, I am learning about composition, new rhythms and jazz solos!

I did have a ‘break through’ moment on my Italian week. There was a moment a few days in when we were joined by Tony, a percussionist. The task was to each get up and do an improvised solo, with Tony accompanying. A wave of fear came over me. I started thinking of ways to make my escape…. ‘I could say I have headache and just go back to my room and lay down!’ Then I remembered Rhiannon’s feedback from the week we had in Hawaii, she said something like ‘when you hear the voice in your head that tells you to step back, change that voice and just step forward’. With these words ringing round my head I stepped forward. I felt in control, I loved it, what I did wasn’t perfect but it was bloody good and something shifted. From that particular moment I have learned that I can trust myself, something half decent will probably emerge from my vocal folds when I put myself out there. It’s worth noting that I feel like it’s taken me a week in New York, 2 weeks in Hawaii and then this week in Italy (this is all over a 5 year period) to get to this point where something just seemed to ‘click’. A lot of people have expressed surprise when I have said I feel a lot of fear when doing this work. I think the fear comes from the judgement that I pile on myself (I know that a lot of people know what imposter syndrome feels like!), it would be so easy to not challenge myself and stay comfortable but there is obviously something about improvising and in particular Rhiannon’s approach that has kept me coming back to it. To summarise, it’s just fun.

Again, the only thing I can think to do is share what I am learning with my community with the hope that I find a group of people who want to step into this strange, challenging and exciting world with me so that I can do it more. That’s why I am putting on Flight. (Info at the bottom of this blog post)

The next (and final) stop is Atlanta in October, where we will be doing our final performance together. But I don’t think Atlanta will mark an ending. I know that through this year I have made friends for life and fully expect that we will be taking any opportunity we can to visit each other and collaborate.

Right, Better get on with my homework!

Here are some images and videos to get more of a feel for what happened in Italy:

A selection of moments

A song I am writing at the moment (unfinished!)

One night at midnight our house decided we hadn’t done enough improvising, here are 2 videos. One video is the good bits, one is the outtakes 🙂

2019 A Year Of Improvisation

Aloha,

In a few days I am flying back to Hawaii. I thought I would write this blog post as I am finding it very difficult to explain to people why I am going to Hawaii… People are tending to respond with a jokey comment about how I am off on my holidays (which I completely understand).

so if you want to know, here goes…

I first came across Rhiannon when I was at Bobby McFerrin’s weeklong set of workshops called Circlesongs in New York in 2014. Rhiannon was teaching a few workshops and these workshops were by far the most interesting and challenging things for me in the whole week. I loved how quickly Rhiannon created a community and facilitated a space that made it possible to cross over thresholds and explore new territory.

A few years later I feel that deep down niggle that I needed to do something. I needed to learn new things and create something. I looked on Rhiannon’s website and found Mele A Hakuwale. A week long improvisation course in Hawaii. After battling with a fair amount of imposter syndrome I auditioned and finally got round to doing it in June 2018. The week was so utterly brilliant. There was a small group of singers, facilitated by Rhiannon, working through her approach to improvisation, she has this approach beautifully summarised in a book called Vocal River (I highly recommend it as a resource for any improviser!). I made such strong connections with the other singers and when I returned I found my voice felt the strongest it had ever been, singing had a new ease to it. I found this effect wore off after a few months. On reflection, I am putting this down to my body. In Hawaii we started each day by moving our bodies in whatever way felt right to whatever fantastic music Rhiannon had selected for us that day. I haven’t incorporated this into my singing life at home. I want to. I also want to let you know that this course was the most terrifying thing I have ever done.

Rhiannon has a bigger course. It’s called All The Way In and it runs across a year. One week in Hawaii, one week in Italy and one week in Atlanta. 16 singers audition and commit to this course. I applied for funding (twice!) but didn’t get it. I started a Crowdfunder and got £400. So at Christmas I decided I was just going to go for it!

So that’s why I am going to Hawaii in a few days.

I am going because I need to learn more. I need to challenge my musical and improvising self. I want to know more about what my voice can do when given the chance. I want to meet more fantastic and inspiring people. I want to go back to Hawaii. I wantto create my own improvising community because I think it is a hugely satisfying thing to do and I find it beautiful to watch others improvise with their voices.

The year will be financially hard but I will be so nourished creativity that I am guessing it cancels out 🙂

I am going to be running some pretty amazing workshops throughout 2019. So watch this space!

Jess

X

Here’s some photos of me in Hawaii in June 2018.

Raised Voices Return

Raised Voices are awesome, if I do say so myself.

I started Raised Voices in 2012 because I wanted to create a community choir who I could try out some repertoire on. People have, of course, come and gone, but the core group who still come are a wonderful community of people from all sorts of backgrounds, not all musical. I bring all sorts of strange songs and ideas with me and what emerges is beautiful, funny, nourishing, singing. I continue to be grateful when people come and trust me. I love it.

So now, after a short break from running Raised Voices I am utterly delighted that it is back in 2019. This time in partnership with The Peppercorn cafe. Yeah! I love The Peppercorn. Alex makes a wonderful array of food… cake, and the most amazing oat milk lattes. I go there on Thursday mornings to meditate and have breakfast which I can definitely recommend as a start to a Thursday. Visit and like here.

I am always a mix of grumpy and optimistic about the New Year vibes but I guess singing feels like the most optimistic, giving, nourishing thing that I can do; so here we are…

HCMF: Canopy Of Voices, HOOT and BBC radio 3!

I have just been reflecting on my experience as a choir leader for the performance of Canopy Of Voices at HCMF 2018. Worth writing down I think.

It all started when I saw a call out for choirs and responded immediately on behalf of the singing groups at Hoot Creative Arts (I ran it past them first!). The idea was to work with a musician from Manasamitra (South Asian arts organisation based in Dewsbury) to workshop ideas that would create a piece to be performed with several other choirs from the area. I love and respect both HCMF and Manasamitra (in particular the singer Supriya, look her up!) and don’t have much knowledge about Indian singing so it was an obvious choice.

I ended up getting far more involved than I first thought. (Side note, I also ended up being recruited to run some workshops with a refugee and asylum seekers group who performed with Hoot on the day) It quickly became apparent that the end product was going to be unknown until quite late in the process… and the piece was going to be a longer duration than I had expected which made me worry on behalf of my singers; I don’t want to generalise about anyone I work with but for a bunch of ‘untrained’ singers, some of which have issues with anxiety and confidence I wanted to ensure that this process was going to be inviting, safe and rewarding… and I wanted us to sound really good! Very wonderfully, while we were workshopping, we realised that a couple of Hebridean pieces that we already do in the groups used the same scale as some of the Canopy of Voices piece was going to be written in and so it was requested that we sing these at the start of the concert. Yum.

We arrived at the church the day before the performance for first rehearsal and the plan was to have the choirs all perform from the balconies in the church. A quick glance around my singers and another glance at the stairs confirmed that this wasn’t going to work for us. I wanted us to stay together, I didn’t want anyone to be split off from the group because they couldn’t make it up the stairs… so we stayed together. That meant we were going to have to stand front and centre. Yes! For me this felt so so important, we mattered, we were visible. (it was also quite nerve wracking).

The performance was beautiful. 19minutes of me waving my arms around while glancing at a score, a stopwatch and James Cave (who composed the piece and was leading a choir on the balcony) passed by with a sort of energetic stillness and that was it. Done.

I feel so so grateful to the singers who worked with me for this project. I feel that they had to put a lot of trust in me for this to happen. And do you know what, we absolutely smashed it and I walked out of that church with a massive buzz that I am still feeling now as I write this.

Also, there is a little interview from the day. Radio 3! A little bit of me, a little bit of one of the Hoot singers (Nick!) and some snippets of One of the Hebridean songs and Canopy Of Voices.

https://youtu.be/Slly52lwKzc

X

Thula Mama

I have recently started running Thula Mama again after a break. I saw an advertisement on the Babyccinos Facebook page that was asking if anyone wanted to run classes in their Meadow room. I had heard about Babyccinos from friends who have babies so I got in touch and went to visit. I loved the ethos of the place and the room was perfect. I ran a block of 4 sessions in Sept/Oct to see what would happen and it was wonderful. I love it. I have put together a little video so you can get a sense of what we do, as usual, I am singing rather enthusiastically while holding the camera… sorry about that. Click here to see the video!

I am running some more sessions up until Christmas, we will sing gorgeous winter songs. Yum. Here’s the flyer!

A little bit more about why I do Thula Mama…

I originally started running Thula Mama after going back to work following having my little one (Willow!) 5 years ago. During maternity leave I was lucky enough to have the support of my wonderful NCT group (shout out to the NCT girls!) and went to several groups for parents and babies. The groups were good. Baby massage, music groups, play groups… all for the baby. I was ‘Willows mum’ in all of these groups, which should have been fine, but for some reason, unfortunately, I wasn’t feeling good, I was very anxious and embarrassed when Willow cried and felt quite isolated. I had a tough start with breast feeding due to Willow being in special care and I punished myself for not being as perfect as I wanted to be…. I envisaged floating around like a glorious Earth mother, feeding my happy, satisfied baby. Anyway, that’s not what happened and I ended up getting some help from my brilliant and supportive doctor (also, a shout out to my partner who was, and continues to be, a rock… with a beard)

Anyhow, this brings me back to Thula Mama. I reflected and I started to feel better. I felt the need to offer a group for parents that would be for them, where they can drink coffee/tea/eat cake. I wanted to share songs and sing in harmony… proper grown up stuff that I believe is good for wellbeing, and of course, the babies also benefit for so many reasons. Therefore, I strive to create an environment where parents can come and feel free to feed their baby however they want, without fear of judgement. The babies are allowed to cry and the parents are allowed to cry and laugh and we will all just sing.

As I was writing this I came across this article…

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-42607141?SThisFB

Proof!

I can’t explain what it feels like when a room full of parents sing together, in harmony whilst holding their babies. Frequently I can’t actually get the singing started because everyone is talking to each other, which makes me smile.

One last shout out. My best friend had a baby and I think this is probably one of the reasons I started up this group again. The first time they came along I got choked up because I love them so much and because they came to my class, to sing with me. You know who you are!

What a pleasure.

X