Teachers tell me to sing the pitch, sing the interval, sing the motif, sing the phrase; and now play. And so I’ve learned the sound of my violin to be an extension of my voice; that my violin will only ever sing what my voice knows.
With this idea in mind, I sought a place, a community, where I could simply sing. Sing for song. Sing for joy. Sing to expand my musical sense and range. Enter Voice Works, a one week singing camp, some call it a lifestyle, at Fort Worden, a decommissioned-army-base-turned-arts-community, at the tip of the Olympic peninsula just west of Seattle. My choices were reggae, blues, jazz, gospel, Balkan, bluegrass, folk, rounds, harmony, technique, poetry, songwriting, accompanying. 150 people singing for a week. I chose to focus on harmony, Balkan, and gospel.
Jefferson (not airplane, not starship) Hamer taught harmony. With guitar in hand, he led a melody in the key of G, Shallow Brown, a sea shanty with spacious chorus. On the fly, responding to the chordal progression, he made up harmonies for alto, tenor and base and had us singing in 4-part in no time. The lesson being that harmony doesn’t have to be static; that we can make it up. Which he encouraged us to do. Without judgment, we listened to each other searching for notes. Figuring out what works best. Voices moving around the melody seeking to make shape with each other.
Eva Salina, our national treasure, taught Balkan songs. Although strophic and with short melodies, each song took an hour to learn. Slavic words can be difficult for English speakers. Melody was also unusual to us, as was the rhythm and the flexible tempo. Ornamentation proved tricky. But when we got the drone just right, the sound was electric, a buzz felt as much a heard.
Gospel with Dawn Pemberton. Oh what a night! A singer of grace and soul, Dawn is also a master teacher. If you had been there, within an hour she would have had you singing a solo part in 4-part, on stage, in a tune you’d only just learned. I witnessed her do this with an entire class. And she brought me to tears with her kindness and encouragement.
As an adult beginner on the violin, many times I’ve had to explain and defend my pursuit and my goals. Discouragement can feel relentless: “You do know that you’ll never be really good at it. You’ll never be a superstar,” is a common refrain, as if this is informative, or even relevant. In response to a question, Dawn did a 180 and went straight to “Of course you can do this. And this is how. And no, there is nothing in your make-up that will prevent you. You’ll have your own path. You’ll have your own timing. But you can do this. You will do this.”
This feeling, this attitude, is intrinsic to Voice Works. The approach that everyone has a voice, that everyone can sing, that everyone can shape a life in harmony and lift in joy. This is Voice Works.
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