Choir! Choir! Choir! – Synergy in Action

If you live in Toronto, enjoy music and you haven’t yet gone to a Choir! Choir! Choir! night (at Clintons at Bloor and Christie, Tues or Wed evenings at 8pm), I highly recommend you go. It is such a wonderful, transformative experience. I have gone now several times, and I always leave amazing and inspired. If you don’t know what Choir! Choir! Choir! is, it’s a weekly sing-a-long, where you show up on any of the nights (Tues or Weds), no long-term commitment necessary, and you learn how to sing a song in three-part harmony with a group of a hundred or so people (See here). When you show up, you are directed to stand in your part, which is ‘low, medium, or high’. Within an hour, through the facilitation of funny, talented and charismatic song leaders (Daveed Goldman and Nobu Adilman), the song is perfected and ready to be recorded. It is simply unbelievable – in an hour, the group sounds amazing! If you don’t believe me, listen to their recordings – there are tons of videos on their website. For example, here’s our recording for ‘Talkin’ About a Revolution’ (I was there for this one).
I have been thinking a lot about the magic of this, how a beautifully created song, in three-part harmony, can be taught, practiced and perfected in an hour. For a goal-oriented person (who also loves music), it is incredibly satisfying! And when I thought about it, I realized that Choir! Choir! Choir! is a perfect example of the power of synergy that can take place in groups, and that synergy is making this magic happen. I define synergy as the interaction or cooperation of two or more, to produce a combined result that is greater than the sum of their separate efforts. The sum is greater than the parts. The relationship between is just as or more important, than the individuals themselves. And in Choir! Choir! Choir!, the cooperation of learning the song is between hundreds of people, coming together for a common goal.
There has been a lot written about the power of synergy in groups. In one of my favorite books “Getting to Maybe” by Brenda Zimmerman and Frances Westley, they write (p.40): “Many are awestruck when they are told that a flock of birds, a school of fish or a hive of bees is up to fifty times more sensitive to changes in its environment than any single bird, fish or bee. In other words, they can respond to stimuli, like predators or windows, much more readily in this group formation than when they are on their own.” How does this happen, that the sensitivity to environment is so much higher in groups?
I like to imagine that we are flock of birds at Choir! Choir! Choir!. The synergy that takes place is because of our intense listening. In this group, our listening senses open up, 50 or more times higher than our listening in our individual, day-to-day lives. The only way that we can learn our part in the song so quickly, is through intense listening to each other. Firstly, we are listening to the other singers in our section, to hear our part. When we don’t remember our notes, we quiet our voice and listen to the singers who know their notes. We hear the right part and we follow along. The right notes carry louder and stronger over the wrong notes. The wrong notes drop away quietly, like rain dried up in the sun. No one even feels the rain, because we are carried by the sun. Once we feel more confident in our own singing part, we listen to the other parts so we can hear the magic of harmony.
In Choir! Choir! Choir!, the act of listening is more important than the singing. The beautiful singing can only happen from the listening. It is not one person who carries the song. Or even three people. The music actually arises from the relationship between the singers, and not within the singers themselves. Like a flock of graceful birds, we collectively take flight.


Resonance in Song

A year ago, my friend and I started a band. We went out one night and discussed how we loved music and wanted to have more music in our life. I have always been a musician, singing in choirs as a child, and playing guitar since I was 16 years old. But when life got busy as I became adult with kids and job commitments, sadly I stopped making time for music. My friend found music later in life, teaching young children in a classroom and learning the ukulele to use to engage her students. It was a pivotal conversation and a jumping point for what is now our cover band: Folked Up. We practice in my back den every two weeks or so, and we just have a fun time trying tunes and playing around with harmonies. And I am so happy that music has come back into my life.

What I love most about singing in my band, is harmonizing. I am not generally a religious person, but the only way I can describe my feelings when I harmonize, is that I feel the presence of God/the Ground of Being/something greater than myself. I hear/feel resonance – energy coming together and multiplying, like tidal waves carrying across the ocean and crashing on the shores. And I feel transformed by this resonance, fundamentally changed.

We decided to do a small house concert for friends and family, to mark our one year of making music together. We aren’t polished, we make mistakes and fumble, but despite our nerves, we wanted to share this piece of our lives. Here are a few songs for you to enjoy!:

Bad Romance (Lady Gaga) –

You Shook Me All Night Long (AC/DC) –

Down Under (Men At Work) –

Karma Chameleon (Boy George) –

I Will Give You Everything (Skydiggers) –

All About the Bass (Meaghan Trainor) –

Singing Again

My Dad gave me my guitar for Christmas when I was 16 years old, along with the Simon & Garfunkel Music Collection complete with chords. I started playing immediately, practising my chords over and over again until my fingers would be throbbing in pain. I loved it. I always loved singing, sang in choirs and school musicals, and my guitar was my way into deepening my expression. I started writing songs shortly after, and songwriting, singing and playing my guitar became a fundamental part of who I am. My guitar came everywhere with me through my 20s. In my last year of university, I decided to give away all of my possessions, except for my guitar. After university, I hitchhiked across Canada with my guitar in hand. I performed in bars and open stages across the country, not with any ambition to become famous, but because it truly was my favourite thing in the world to do. When I sing, I feel alive.

But life gets busy and practical priorities sometimes overshadow passion. By my late-20s, my wife and I were planning the next phase of our life, of becoming moms. And my 30s was consumed with motherhood – making children (which we learned was not easy for us…), creating our family (non-traditional, solidifying our relationship with the fathers of our children), trying to figure out to balance motherhood and work ambition and exercise and finding time for self-care. And in the midst of this, my passion for singing fell off my radar. I was too tired and completely consumed with family life.

I realized, on the night of my 39th birthday, that I needed to start a band. I felt intense, realizing that this was my last year of this decade, and I reflected on what my 40s decade would look like. I realized that I had done so much in my life so far, I have two beautiful, amazing boys and a loving family, and my job is fulfilling. My 30s has been full and wonderful, but music is missing. And I realized that I had never been in a band, and I wanted to play music with others. When I sing, I feel alive. When I harmonize, I feel like I’m in heaven.

There is research showing that major life changes happen at the ‘end of decade’ years – 29/39/49 etc. Starting a band is certainly not as extreme as the examples in the article, of having an affair or attempting suicide. But I believe my band represents the idea that this is a 12-month transition to a new life stage. I am transitioning to my 40s, where life will be a little bit lighter and more full with song.

We’ve called ourselves ‘Folked Up’, because with a guitar, flute and ukulele, we’re really folky. We play a mix of folk songs and other tunes, with the aim to ‘folkify’ pop/rock songs. Here’s a few clips from our first performance for your enjoyment!

Young Girls (Bruno Mars)

All I Want and Karma Chameleon (Boy George)

Jolene (Dolly Parton)

I’ll Fly Away (Traditional)

p.s. I imagine my band to be ‘kitchen-sink’ style – the more, the merrier, lots of jamming in the kitchen. I am inspired by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. I would like lots more instruments and voice. I am practicing harmonic and tambourine to add more instrumental diversity. So…if you are interested in jamming, let me know – the more, the merrier!


Sharing My Authentic Self

I embarked on this year of teaching with the goal that I want to be the best teacher that I can be. I spent some time reflecting on last years teaching experience, as well as reading and thinking over the summer on what teaching really is all about. As I was thinking about this, I came across an amazing article that struck a chord with me, “Spirit Guides” written by William Deresiewicz – see here (and thanks Ann, for sharing!).

“… students gravitate toward teachers with whom they have forged a connection. Learning is an emotional experience, and mentorship is rooted in the intimacy of intellectual exchange. Something important passes between you, something almost sacred.”

And I realized that while I am strong in teaching with academic rigour (challenging students to think critically and question assumptions, engaging with small group discussion and experiential exercises etc), I have left my real self at the door. And I cannot reach that sacred connection when I am not being real. I have been too focused on the content, the end result, the outcome of assignments and evaluations as proof of learning, and not focused enough on the process.

So, in the spirit of sharing my authentic self with my students, I have started out by taking two scary but wonderful actions over the past two weeks:

1. I sang for our student orientation.

Many people know that I love to sing, and there have been years in my life when you would rarely see me without my guitar. Singing is my authentic self. We were organizing for our new student orientation, and the suggestion came forward that I could sing (thanks Marilyn!). At first, I said an immediate no, as it felt ‘out-of-the-box’ and out of my comfort zone. However, I changed my mind and decided to go for it. I decided to sing the song “I Hope You Dance” (by Lee Ann Womack), which is about the importance of taking risks in life. It was captured on video, so here it is –

Two small but amazing things came out of this. First, it inspired my colleagues to join in with their singing, and this was a fun and bonding moment. Second, it created an instant connection with my students. When I walked into my classes for the first time this week, they all commented on hearing my singing, and saying they were ready to dance. It set the stage for a creative and authentic teaching-learning connection right away!

2. I came out.

I have been out and proud for over 20 years and yet I felt incredibly stressed about coming out to my students. During this first week of lots of stressful situations to deal with, this stress outweighed everything else. It kept me up at night, as I replayed how I would say it. I didn’t tell anyone that I was going to come out, because I didn’t want anyone to question why it was important. Before my classes, I questioned myself – do I really need to do this? Does it matter? But I knew deep down, even though I was afraid, that this was incredibly important. The reason is simple: I am married to a woman, and my gay family is such a HUGE part of my day-to-day life, that if I can’t share this, then I cannot be authentic. Last year, I taught my students and never came out. I thought that I shouldn’t need to, that my personal life has nothing to do with my teaching. But, much to my dismay, I realized that I was closeting myself by censoring the words I used when I spoke about what I did on the weekend. And I shocked myself, when one student asked me about ‘my husband’, I didn’t correct him. Self-censoring how I speak about my life and my personal experience is as far away from being authentic as I can get.

What was I afraid of, before I came out? Not being liked by my students. Being judged and treated differently because of homophobia. Not being accepted. But I knew that I had to do it, for myself, and for any of my students who are gay and feel alone in the classroom. I knew there wasn’t a choice.

I did it in my ‘let me tell you a bit about myself’ beginning of the class. I spoke about my work experience, then when I am not working, I am singing or with my family. I shared that I was a ‘little famous’ because of my alternative family, and that my claim to fame (true story) is that Oprah’s producers called me to explore the possibility of our family coming on the Oprah show (in the end, they didn’t accept us, which was very disappointing, especially for my wife…). And what happened? No big reaction from the students, at least not in class. Some clear smiles from students, who felt happy that I shared this. And for me, a big weight was lifted off my shoulders, knowing that when my students ask me what I did on the weekend, I won’t need to self-censor and speak without using pronouns. I felt a deep sense of calm, knowing that I have taken small steps towards my goal of sharing my authentic self and forging that sacred connection with my students.

Showing My Work…

I just finished reading “Show Your Work!” by Austin Kleon, and it has inspired me to think differently about my humble little blog here, The Ignition Condition. Kleon has challenged me to be more open, to share my process and thinking and my true vulnerable self. Just starting my blog over a year ago was a bit frightful, so I am proud of the work and writing that I have done so far. However, I have been pretty safe in this blog, sticking to my topic of ‘community and volunteer development’. While I continue to be passionate and curious about community and volunteer development, I find myself everyday thinking and wanting to write about other topics that I am passionate about and that I want to explore. So, whether in the long run, I need to change my title or tag line of this blog, for now, I’m just going to let myself be open and write about what I care about and what I want to share. I definitely know that community and volunteer development will still be a central theme, but I don’t want to feel restricted. What else am I passionate and want to write about? Parenting, parenting as a lesbian mom with a chosen ‘alternative’ family (you can read a description of my family here –, parenting two boys and wrestling with the complexities of masculinity and boyhood and how to raise my boys to be amazing men. What else? Mind/body awareness, mindfulness, Buddhism/spirituality, awareness of the present, trying to live my life with integrity and passion and how I struggle in doing this every day. What else? Teaching and learning, struggling with how to teach and make impact, how learning can be transformative (or not), how to support post-secondary students to be successful and what does success mean in the long run. Lots and lots of questions surfacing here. And last but not least, music, oh sweet music…integrating music into my life, singing and writing music, sharing music with others and listening to great songs. So, who knows what this will look like, but I want to be open in my writing and see what happens. I want to explore my thoughts and ‘share my work’. Thanks Austin Kleon for your inspiration!



Dancing at the Montreal Tam-Tams

I went to Montreal with my family this month, and the highlight of my trip was the Sunday Tam-Tams at the mountain. I love the Tam-Tams. The Tam-Tams is a public drumming, dancing, playing activity where hundreds of people join together on the mountain on Sundays to have fun. On the internet, it says that the Tam-Tams started in 1978, which is incredible that its been going on for so long. I love dancing. Not performance dancing, but social dancing, jamming, improv dancing. I hardly ever do it anymore and I’ve become more inhibited as I’ve gotten older, which is a bit sad but the truth. But this Sunday a few weeks ago, I let go and danced like I was 19 again, joining in with the drums and the other dancers.

I used to be really involved with the Contact Improv dance scene, in Toronto, Peterborough and in Montreal. Contact improv is a social dance – people meet up once a week to dance together, not with any music or choreography, but just free-form contact dance. Contact means exactly that – body contact. Weight distributed – sometimes you are slithering on the ground and sometimes you are flying up in the air like a bird. I am small, so I was often lifted in the jams and I would feel so weightless and free. I never was afraid.

Its wonderful to find community spaces to feel free – free to be uninhibited, free to dance. The Sunday Tam-Tams is this kind of event, open to everyone. People of all ages and backgrounds are there, and you are free to do what you want – play hacky-sack, chill out on the grass, drum or dance or sing. I didn’t speak to anyone there but I didn’t need words to feel part of the Montreal community.

If you are ever in Montreal, join the Tam-Tams on Sundays.