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The singer's point of view

This is about my research position. After a year of thinking through the issues, it looks like I've reached the beginning. I played with these ideas for the recent Women In Voice 2016 season...

Where would I be without African American musical genius? How could I swing without jazz? How could I moan without the blues? How could I shout without gospel? To be born in 1961, a year that saw classic recordings made by singers like Ray Charles, Betty Carter, Nancy Wilson and Abbie Lincoln has been my great good fortune. Something no one could have foreseen in Upper Mt Gravatt at the time. Timing is everything…

Now, having had 30 years to challenge myself with these great repertoires and styles I have reached a time for reflection and contemplation. Why do I sing? What does it mean? Beyond the way jazz and blues enabled my big, clattering, dark sound to emerge, beyond the delights of the Great American Songbook, I have deeper questions to answer about the embedded meaning and purpose of singing in my own inner world, and in my local milieu. So I am conducting research towards a Doctor of Musical Arts at the Queensland Conservatorium.

I’ve thought about the mysterious nature of singing over the years and I have some hypotheses that I want to test against the ideas and experience of other singers. I’ll be gathering material for an ethnography of singers in my own milieu, asking them how their engagement with singing began, how does it feel and what does it mean for them. Of course, I share the same tendency to bias as everyone else, as in: ‘What I don’t know doesn’t exist’, so I need to be careful about how I conduct my research. But given all I have done and seen, I admit that I expect to hear from them something that resembles the illustration above (see the collage by Travis Bedel).

I wish I could directly share with you how it feels to stand on stage, bathed in light, lifted up bodily on the swelling waves of music, every whisper carrying to the back of the room. Some people will know how that feels, but if I could put it in a bottle I would, it is such a priceless gift. Sometimes I close my eyes and I can hear the audience begin to breathe in and out together. These are the times when everyday functional boundaries between us fall away and we all come to feel the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts, when we are all in the moment together. That heightened experience is what I want to better understand and explain, for myself and for others, specifically from the viewpoint of the person who has the privilege of channelling the group experience, the singer.

There is one occasion when this kind of human magic is close to the surface: a time when we don’t need lights and sound, when no one is getting paid and there’s no applause, a time when singing has its most immediate impact: a funeral. Recently I sang at a funeral. It was a very moving event. Our friend had died too young. He was a wonderful person, brilliant, charismatic and much loved. But his death was sudden and we were unprepared. All his family had to go on in preparing the event was one remark he made to his wife about a song he thought might be appropriate. Chance is you’ll know this song, it characterised a generation: ‘Am I ever gonna see your face again’, “No way, get f%#*ed, f%#* off”, being the traditional communal response. It was the ideal way to bring the group together and as I sang the song for them I felt useful, valued and embraced. Singing is like coming home for me.

We all have the capacity to sing, and against the longest odds for achieving reward or recognition, some of us are powerfully motivated to sing for others. As much as singing can be used to define group identities and weld together communities I believe people also need singers to give voice to their inner narratives through a mysterious mingling of selves, because in that state we can freely and safely recognise the emotional complexities of being human. There is a remarkable and valuable personal and social exchange in singing that goes largely unrecognised for many reasons. That’s the stuff I want to write about, from the viewpoint of the singer.

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