Interviewsand Articles

 

A Conversation with Melanie DeMore: Sound Awareness

by Richard Whittaker, Nov 30, -1


 

 

The music program at St. Paul’s Episcopal School in Oakland, California opened my eyes. I have grandkids there and have been treated to several of their school concerts. Every student, from the kindergarteners to the sixth-graders, performs. The performances, under the tutelage St. Paul’s several music teachers, have always been impressive. Striking is the eclecticism of the music chosen, the quality of the children's performances and the musical versatility of the instruction that is always in plain evidence. Listening to my first concert there, it was immediately clear that in the pedagogy at St. Paul's, music education is regarded as an essential part of a real education.
     In the past, I might have agreed with this proposition, but I’d never really had the direct impression of the truth of it. This happened at one of their concerts. It's not easy to describe what I saw. During one class's performance I began to notice the unusually rapt attention the kids were giving to their conductor/teacher. And I began to notice something about the teacher’s bearing and attitude toward each child. There was a kind of dignity present that I’d never seen before—not a stuffy thing, in the least. But I could see  a demand was being placed on each student in which there was an implicit quality of respect for each child. I could see how nurturing this demand and respect was for a child’s growth. I could see this, and I had no doubt about what I was seeing.
      After that, each time I attended a student concert at St. Paul’s I always looked forward to what it might bring. And what I saw in the most recent concert compelled me to action. After the concert I approached two of the music teachers and proposed an interview. Melanie DeMore’s class had performed a number of songs
a cappella that included hand and arm movements and body slaps all in a syncopated rhythm. It was a relatively complicated matter and the performance required more than just memorizing the tune and the words. Body movements, timing and rhythm, the words and the melody all had to fit perfectly together. And each child had to be on the same page.
     How could this complex demand and engagement not foster some kind of deep and beneficial development? Traditional cultures seem to know about the importance of such things. But by and large in our schools, it seems we’ve forgotten the crucial need for cultivating more than just the ordinary thinking function. At these concerts I could feel that a broader kind of education was taking place. It was exciting.
     Melanie DeMore’s career is a multi-faceted one. She is a solo performer herself, facilitates vocal workshops for professional and community-based choral groups and has taught her “Sound Awareness” program in schools, prisons, and youth organizations in the US, Canada, Cuba and New Zealand. DeMore was a director of the Oakland Youth Chorus for 10 years and is a founding member of the critically-acclaimed vocal ensemble “Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir” and is also a long-standing member of “The Threshold Choir.” She is on the faculty at California Institute of Integral Studies and at UC Berkeley.
     After 21 years of teaching at St. Paul’s she is moving on to new challenges so I felt myself especially fortunate to have approached her for an interview when I did. In the midst of her busy schedule we found an opening to talk on a sunny morning the 4th of July.

 
 
Richard Whittaker:  I want to just plunge in here. I was so struck at that last concert at St. Paul’s with how you had your class singing and also slapping their chests and doing all those things in perfect rhythm.
 
Melanie DeMore:  Body music, body percussion. 
 
RW:  So where does that come from?
 
MD:  It has a lot of its roots from hambone and from slavery time. You know, the drums were taken away. That’s why so much of African-American music is so rhythmic in terms of syncopation in the music—and then the dance, because we transferred all the rhythms from the drums that were taken away into our hands and feet. We turned our bodies into drums.
     I work with a lot of choirs and with kids showing them how to make music not having anything other than your self. I think that’s really important. It’s a great way to build community, too—everybody moving together and making this massive living drum organism, which I love to do. It’s really hard for adults to learn this sometimes, but with kids, I just break it down and before you know it, it becomes part of their rhythmic body language. I love that, and I love to see the light go on in their eyes—“Wow, I can really do this!”
 
RW:  So that calls upon more of oneself. Is that aspect interesting to you?
 
MD:  Absolutely! I really feel, whether I’m working with kids or adults, there has to be a whole body involvement with the music. If you can get that kind of rhythmic thing going on, there’s an energy generated because of that knowledge within of how the music feels physically in the body. So even if a person is just standing there singing something, this cultivates a sort of bubbling energy that is moving through them. They’re not just standing there with a song coming out of their mouths. Their whole body has been energized, rhythmically.
 
RW:  With that embodiment…
 
MD:  Completely! And the audience can sense that kind of energy. Even if the singers are not actually physically smacking their body, that energy is there. Even if they’re standing still, you feel that. It’s kind of a three-dimensional experience of music—as a listener and as a participant.
 
RW:  I know the feelings can get involved pretty quickly with singing. But getting the body involved intentionally—I don’t hear much about that. So how did you get interested in this and realize that it’s an important element?
 
MD:  It’s kind of always been a part of me, but my eighteen years of singing with Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir has been important. We specialized in African-American roots music, folk music—music from the Gullah South Sea Islands, old slave songs, moans, all of those things. Part of our mission was the preservation of that. Our shows are very rhythmic, and I was the sticker. So I played the pounding stick, which is one of my specialties. I now do pieces with huge numbers of people stick pounding.
 
RW:  Would you say more about stick -ounding?
 
MD:  Stick-pounding is part of the Gullah traditions. It came from the time of slavery. The Gullah South Sea islands are off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. So the enslaved Africans who were brought to these little islands were separated from the mainland, so they were able to keep a lot of their Africanisms. Not the drums, necessarily. In the summertime, there were only a couple of overseers on the islands and the Africans had a natural immunity to malaria and all those other things that would happen in the hot weather, so they would just leave the folks there.
     And the Gullah people still, to this day, have a particular language, that all of these different Africans could understand. But most of them came from West Africa, from Sierra Leone and that area. They were very good at growing rice and there was all that water. So the slave quarters and the houses were lifted up on stilts, because of the water, and they would turn these praise houses where they would go to worship, they’d turn them into big drums by pounding drum handles on the floor. There would be one or two people pounding and they would do this particular dance called a ring shout, a holy dance, where you go counter-clockwise, and the hands never going above the waist. That is a direct connection with Africa.
 
RW:  You said holy dance?
 
MD:  Yes. The stick pounding originally is all part of a spirituality.
 
RW:  Have you studied that at all?
 
MD:  Yes, with the Cultural Heritage Choir. That was one of our specialties—and exposing that to the rest of the world. Because Gullah spirituals are very different from the kind of spirituals we’re familiar with.
 
RW:  So in what way was that holiness understood?
 
MD:  The slaves would get together in the woods, or in these praise houses. They were allowed one day to do that. It would be a way, as a community, for prayer—and everything was rooted in the striving for freedom. So all these spirituals, the ones that everybody knows, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, everything in all those spirituals was a striving for freedom. 
     Since slaves were only read stories from the Bible (slaves were not allowed to read or write. Anyone caught doing those things was tortured or killed), they took courage from the stories where the little guy gets over on the big guy. There are chariots, wheels, trains—all things about movement towards freedom.
 
RW:  In the spirituality, was there anything that came from Africa? Because that would not be a Biblical thing, right?
 
MD:  Of course. What came over from Africa was the movement, the dance. This is a direct thing from Africa—the movement, the dance and the drums to get you to a spiritual place. You see that in so many indigenous cultures. Movement, dance, song is the gateway to the spirit. And this is no different in that way. So those definite movements and all that, they are direct things from Africa. The line between Africa and African-Americans is a very thin line in that way.  There is so much of what is modern African-American culture that is directly rooted in our African past.
 
RW:  The singing you were having your class do at the concert sounded very African to me.
 
MD:  We were pattin’ Juba, and that’s directly out of slave culture where, again, the drum rhythms were transferred to the hands, feet, body slapping, etc. And it’s really interesting. Master Juba, William Henry Lane, is considered the father of modern tap dance.
     I like to talk with the kids about really engaging with their whole selves in music. This is a direct thing in any indigenous or ancient culture. There is no separation between music and body and art and life and death. It’s all just life.
    If you embody music, you don’t need all of the other trappings because you realize how much a part of it is like breathing. And that’s what I want them to realize. It’s not like “now we are going to sing” or “now we are going to paint” or “now we are going to dance.” We are alive. You know what I mean?
 
RW:  [laughs] Yes. What you’ve just said seems so important. Do you have any reflections about how this fact is largely missing in our culture, that the body and feelings and the mind, the whole self, needs to be involved?
 
MD:  It’s a particular problem in the American culture. I’m the lead teaching artist at this new program at UC Berkeley called TEMPO. It’s a youth arts education thing and one of the first things I’m doing is a workshop that will involve young people working with Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela.
     Now this is a perfect example of a culture where music is like eating and food and life. They have this incredible program throughout the entire country called El Sistema. It’s about forty years old and was founded by José Antonio Abreau. He decided to put classical instruments into the hands of practically every kid. In the poorest barrios he set up these programs where kids get fed and get these instruments. And they’re not dabbling! They are monster musicians. In Venezuela, and in lots of places in Africa, music is not a spectator sport. It’s life! Everywhere you go, people are making music! It’s part of their lives. So it’s not like, “Now we’re going to do music.” We don’t think that we’re going to breathe. We just breathe. You know what I mean?
 
RW:  Yes [laughing].
 
MD:  So when this man presented these young kids with these instruments, they weren’t like, “Oh, no.”  They said, “Oh, cool. That’s music. I can do that. Just show me how.” That is the difference. 
   When you hear that Simon Boliver Youth Orchestra you won’t believe it. And their conductor, Gustavo Dudamel—the guy is in his thirties—is now the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He’s one of the most exciting and sought after conductors, and he’s a product of El Sistema. He learned all of it when he was a little kid.
     Every little town and village and barrio in Venezuela has an orchestra. And they have no fear. What is this? Oh, this is a musical instrument. I can learn how to do this. Teach me. I’ll do it. And then they just do it. They have embodied the music. So when you hear the Simon Boliver Youth Orchestra play something right next to an American orchestra, that might be brilliant, it’s different because they so completely play their music from the inside out, and that’s why I think it’s so important.
     I get called in to work with a lot of professional choirs all over the place. It’s about really embodying the music. Knowing what you’re singing from the inside out. There are a lot of choirs out there, beautiful! doing great stuff, but the singers don’t embody the music from the inside out. Therefore you, as a listener, are only getting a two-dimensional experience.
     I think that whenever you go to a concert, whatever it is, the people should leave feeling way bigger than when they came in. It’s got to be food. Music, art—it’s got to be food. Otherwise, what’s the point? And people are starving!
    I’ve talked to a lot of choirs and I ask, how many times have you gone to a concert and they look great, they sound great, the lighting is wonderful and you’re thinking kill me now—because you’re getting absolutely nothing from them. There’s no exchange.  To me, it’s not art if there’s not an exchange. You know what I’m saying?
 
RW:  Yes, I do.
 
MD:  So I work with a lot of choirs. And I make sure that with every concert, there’s going to be some audience participation. People have to sing. They have to clap. It cannot happen without them! It’s important!
    One of the things that people bring me to do is create spontaneous choirs on the spot. I’ve gotten to do so many amazing things. I got to help with the 10th anniversary of 9/11 at Trinity Wall Street in New York. Julian Wachner, their director brought me there, first of all, to create a spontaneous choir in the cathedral, which I did, just me and the whole cathedral of people. It had never been done. No music scores or song sheets. I taught them everything on the spot.
     What I do is take away that fear, that thinking that you have to know something, thinking that you have to be perfect. Because you don’t, if it’s happening in the moment. And to hear the room fill up with sound. People are completely knocked out that they’re singing in three, maybe four-part harmony in a matter of seconds. I tell choirs that you should have at least one moment in your program where people sing, where there’s an exchange with your audience.
 
RW:   Two things I’m hearing here: exchange—the importance of having a real exchange—and the importance of being able to embody this music in ourselves. So can I assume that you value having music take place in person much more than listening to recorded music?
 
MD:  Well, I think there’s a space for both. If people experience music live, then they can transfer that to what they hear on a CD. By having had that physical experience of the music, people cannot help connecting later, even through a CD, with that physical experience.
 
RW:  It’s interesting to hear you connecting music with the importance of being in the body, here and now.
 
MD:  It makes you more deeply involved in the soul of the music. I’m going to be doing a massive stick-pounding piece with The Washington Chorus—again, with Julian Wachner in D.C. 160-170 people are going to be pounding sticks at the same time. It’s going to be extraordinary. And these people have never done anything like this! These are the folks who perform in tuxedos and evening gowns. So I was talking with Julian and he asked, what are they going to wear? I said, they have to be comfortable, because this is sweaty work.  I said, when you’re doing that, you need to be connected to that ground. When you pound that stick, and you’re singing, you’re whole body is going to be involved!
 
RW:  And that is such food, isn’t it? To have that experience of connection, because I don’t connect with it that much.
 
MD:  Yes!
 
RW:  I read somewhere online, that you’d majored in music at a school called Incarnate Word University. What is that?
 
MD:  It’s a Catholic University in San Antonio, Texas. It’s run by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, of which I was a member. Another story.
 
RW:  Now wait a minute. Say that again. 
 
MD:  I was part of that convent. Another life.
 
RW:  Really? You were a nun?
 
MD:  I was, for about five years. I actually didn’t take vows. It’s just another part of my life. I also used to be head chef at a restaurant.
 
RW:  [laughing] Really!? When was that?
 
MD:  That was when I lived in Austin, Texas. I worked at a restaurant there and earlier, I worked at Sears driving a forklift. I was a stock-picker. Oh, yeah. I’ve done a lot of different things.
 
RW:  That’s fantastic. What kind of restaurant was it?
 
MD:  It was kind of a high-end, American food place. Mike and Charlie’s Restaurant. This was in the late 70s and early 80s. I also made my living as an actor. I was actor in residence at UT Austin for a black playwright, Cheryl Hawkins. I was her main actor and I was in many theater companies. And I was a folk singer.
 
RW:  Wow! So, the convent. How did you get involved in that?
 
MD:  I was raised Catholic. I was born in New York City. Both my mother and father were brilliant singers, by the way. So I have all that in my background.
 
RW:  Did you ever get involved in Gregorian chant?
 
MD:  I’ve done some chanting. My degree from Incarnate Word is in piano, flute and music history.
 
RW:  Do you play those instruments?
 
MD:  Yeah!  But primarily now I’m a vocalist. I have people I went to school with who had never heard me sing. So that’s a whole other story.
 
RW:  I can tell this interview is only going to scratch the surface.
 
MD:  Yeah, but my biggest love now is really creating spontaneous singing community.
 
RW:  Having lived all these different things, I mean you have gathered some knowledge from living…
 
MD:  Absolutely. And all the stuff that I’ve done in my life, all of it is contributing to what I see as my vision now and as, really, my job for the rest of my life. That’s really creating spontaneous communities—working with choirs and groups of people to find the natural joy in singing together, because we need it. We need community. 
     I was just in Minneapolis, Massachusetts and then Madison and I was talking to someone about gangs and someone said, “Oh, gangs, terrible!”
     “Wait a second,” I said. “What is a choir, a classroom, a baseball team, a boy scout troop, but a gang?”
     He said, “What do you mean?”
     I told him that the same things that make gangs make all of these things. He said, but there’s no comparison. And I said, yes there is. In all of them there’s a striving for community. Everyone just wants to be connected. There are rules and expectations about how you behave. Everybody is pretty much on the same page. There are certain things that everybody agrees to in order to be a member of that group. There is some kind of initiation, whether it’s an audition, a tryout, a certain level of some kind expertise or a willingness to learn. In any of these groups you are expected to treat the others with respect. In all of these groups, there are leaders and there are followers. I said,  “What’s the difference?” There isn’t any. Everybody wants to belong to something.
     For a Blood or a Crypt, that is their community. They feel connected. Like-minded people. They know that people will have their back.  There are expectations. They know what they have to do to maintain their status in the group. Why is that any different from a choir, a baseball team, or a boy scout troop? It’s not any different. Everybody needs to feel connected.
    So you give people alternative ways to be connected and maybe they don’t have to go there because they feel they can be connected in another way. It’s really not any different. We are starved for connection.
 
RW:  We’re starved for connection.
 
MD:   We really are. And that’s my job, to get people to be able to have that experience, this collective, communal experience in an environment—because people are scared. They think they’ve to got to know something and if you can crack that fear thing right from the jump, people can do anything. They can do anything.
     One of the things I’ve taught kids over the years—I wrote this tune called I Can Do That. I wanted them to get away from that thing of saying “no” when somebody asks you if you can do something—“No, I don’t know about that. I can’t do that.”
     So I came up with this whole philosophy for them. I said, I want you to say from now on, when someone asks you if you can do that, I want you to say, “Yeah, I can do that. I just don’t know how yet. Show me how.” Which is really different. You don’t start from a negative.
 
RW:  Yes. That’s beautiful.
 
MD:  So the song goes like this [sings] “I can do that. I just don’t know how yet. Show me how.” It has three little parts and it’s very rhythmic. “I can be that, show me now.” And the other part is, “You bet I can. It ain’t no thing. It ain’t no thing, but a chicken wing.” So all of these go together and, of course, it all has movements. It locks in and has all this stuff.
     I teach students things with a song like that and they will never forget it. I do it with adults, too. You plant that seed in their mind with a song and it becomes part of their physicality. Somebody will say to them, “Oh, can you do this?” and that song will automatically pop up. That just becomes ingrained in their body, which is really, really important.
     I direct the Oakland Community Children’s Choir—300 first, second and third graders every year, and I did a song for them called We Don’t Have To Wait. So the song goes, “We don’t have to wait ‘til we grow up…to make a better world. So listen up and have you heard, we don’t have to wait to be great. No, no, no. We don’t have to wait to get to be great. We don’t have to wait to be great.”
     I just want to plant that seed in their minds that even if they’re only this big, they have a voice. I tell them, “I don’t want you ever to have to say again, ‘When I grow up, I will do this.’ What are you waiting for?”
 
RW:   That’s beautiful.
 
MD:  And I tell them their observations are just as important as somebody who is twenty or thirty years older than them, because they see with different eyes.
     So that’s the power of music. You can expand a person’s world in a much quicker way that just saying, “Now you don’t have to wait to be great, blah, blah, blah.” It expands the way they think about themselves and their own power to be little transformative beings out there in the world. I think it’s so important.
 
RW:  That’s pretty amazing.
 
MD:  In my 21 years at St. Paul’s, I [pauses]—I want them to be full human beings out there. For ten years, I was one of the conductors of the Oakland Youth Chorus. I’m in the Chicago airport the other day and this man says, “Melanie?”  I look at him. He says, “Steve Rossi. I was in the Oakland Youth Chorus up until 1995.”
     I said, “Oh, my God! Are you still singing?”
     He said, “No. But my three children are doing music.” We got to talking and he said, “You know, you and Trent and Elizabeth, you saved our lives. You made an environment where we all felt safe to be who we were. I remember every single song we sung in the Youth Chorus! And I have carried all that through my whole life. I can’t tell you what that meant.” The man was 36 or 37 years old. That’s the stuff!
     And what about the woman in Haiti after the earthquake? Old woman. Underneath that rubble for two weeks. They found her because she was singing.
 
RW:  And she was singing in order to survive, too.
 
MD:  I have a line that I coined, “A song can hold you up when there seems to be no ground beneath you.” And it’s the absolute truth. All those miners in Chile, every day they sang. Every day.
 
RW:  Is that right?
 
MD:  Music. Singing. It’s food. It doesn’t matter if you’re going to make your living doing it. What matters is that you do it together with other people. That is what my job is now.
     Sometimes I think the connection between why music was written and created in the first place is lost. There’s a disconnect between the singing and the soul of the music. Getting stuck in looking at the words you can miss that human interchange. If you’re not conscious and your intention is not clear, your heart energy can stop right where that paper is.
 
RW:  Right at the page.
 
MD:  Right at the page. You have to be conscious in order for that circuit of emotion not to be stopped right there. You have to be intentional about it. You have to be very clear.
     Before every rehearsal, before every performance I always talk to each choir. “I want you to ask, as a group, who are we singing for? Who are we singing for today?” Then each person, inside of themselves, “Who am I singing for?” Because as a conductor, as a performer, as a choir, our job is to wrap our collective arms around every person in that room. That’s why we do it!
     You have to have some kind of food to be able to walk out that door and do the things you have to do.
 
RW:  I will say that I’ve never left a concert at St. Paul’s without feeling that I’ve been fed that way. And looking at the kids, I’ve been able to see their own engagement. In fact the first concert I went to gave me clear evidence of the how a music program can be deeply important in a kid’s life. It wasn’t about, “Oh, that was a nice song.” It was from watching the kids and also watching one of the conductors, [Guy de Chalus]. There was a quality of respect and demand that I don’t think I’ve ever seen so clearly. And the kids totally responded to it with complete focus. It was amazing. And I saw this in the most recent concert with your group of kids, too. I could see this.
   
MD:  I think that’s what happens. Parents see this and they’re going, something is happening here. I’ve had many parents say, “I didn’t know my kid was capable of that kind of focus.” You have to see that in action. And I’m very particular with my students, as you can see, with the bows and the whole thing, with how they present themselves. There is a certain dignity we afford the people who are watching us and we give honor and respect to the music. We give honor and respect to each other. And we do that in part by how we comport ourselves. I always insist that they dress in sixth grade. I think it’s important that they realize there is a difference between everyday living and being in a concert. Particularly in our day where you can go to the symphony in cutoffs and flip-flops.
 
RW:  There’s a ritual aspect that marks a kind of separation: this is something we value in a special way.
 
MD:  Exactly. When I was with the Oakland Youth Chorus, kids from 14 to 21, I made a rule that after each concert—because we always had a reception—you must go up to three people who you do not know and tell them your name and thank them for coming to the concert. “Oh, no…”  But there is an exchange there. And it became a habit. And pretty soon, I didn’t have to tell them anymore.
 
RW:  That’s fantastic. And for them, it takes a little courage and then they find out that “Hey, this works.”
 
MD:  Exactly. And also, a lot of people think teenagers are all heathens. I know they’re not.
 
RW:  It’s a great thing to learn, that I can approach a stranger and, in most cases, you actually make a little connection, because most of us are afraid of each other.
 
MD:  And that kind of contact, again, brings it into reality. As a performer, there’s a kind of built in separation and I think it’s important to break that barrier. The big theme at the Chorus America Conference this year was  “Public Involvement” and that’s totally what I do, which is why they had me come and be the keynote speaker. There’s this huge gap between the symphony chorus, the symphony and so on, and the people who come.
    When I was talking about singing from the inside out somebody said, “But we’re singing Bach’s B-Minor Mass!” And I said, “May I remind you that Bach had twenty kids?” He was a living, breathing person. So why do you want to suck the life out of it?
     Inspiration gets sucked out. People think it has to be so perfect, but if the heart is not there, who cares? I could be listening to a recording. But if you start your rehearsal with “who are we singing for today?” that will add an element of your heart to it that might be missing.
 
RW:  Do you ever do any exercises along with that like, “Let’s stand here and see if we can feel that our feet are on the ground”? Like—get present.
 
MD:  Oh, absolutely! My warm-ups are all about that. I have people moving. I say whatever I do, you do. Then I have my “ha ho he” warm-up. It’s not based on any notes. I came up with this thing that whenever I put my arm out like this, they go “ha” and when I do this, they go “ho” and then like this, “he”—so whatever I do, they have to watch. It automatically builds ensemble. They have to do it together and they can’t anticipate. They’re on their toes, watching and waiting and you have to be in the moment. That’s why I can teach a song in parts in a matter of seconds. Once you get people past that fear part and say, “Don’t think; sing and speak exactly with me.”
 
RW:  Do you know C.K. Ladzekpo? I think he’s from Ghana.
 
MD:   I know his work. I think we’ve met.
 
RW:   I had dinner with him once with a small group. I was just kind of mind-blown by the little bit I learned from him about what drumming is in his culture. It’s so much more than I could ever have guessed.
 
MD:  Right. And sometimes in singing and in drumming, you think that the fanciest thing is the most important thing. And it’s not. When I do stick-pounding with large groups of people, there can be all kinds of complicated rhythms, but being able to maintain your part—you have to be able to maintain your part. Without that, part of the soul of the rhythm is missing. If you can’t maintain that and your intention is not clear and you’re not strong on that [she begins clapping a rhythm]….
 
RW:  And that really takes some intention and real focus.
 
MD:  Exactly. And see, I was the sticker in the cultural heritage choir. And that part, if it’s not there, it’s not a Gullah piece of music.
 
RW:  And that’s not easy, right?
 
MD:  You’ve got to maintain that and do sixty million other things. So that’s that thing about discipline, whether it’s Ghanaian drumming or whatever it is, each part is really important; that’s what’s forming the foundation that holds the rest of it up.  That’s one of the things about singing in community as well. Maybe you can’t sing all the trills, but if you can sing your third really strong, that allows this other stuff to happen. It’s just as important
     I have a dream of doing a huge stick piece with five hundred people stick-pounding on one of the wooden piers in Oakland. I could do it with professional percussionists, people who can’t hear, people who can’t walk, people in chairs…
 
RW:  And that reminds me, you’ve worked in prisons, too, right?
 
MD:  Yes. I worked at San Bruno. It was really about using music as a tool for your own rehabilitation. And I also worked in alcohol and drug rehab. I worked with young people, high school, in drug rehab and I developed a whole series of classes, called sound awareness, which I’ve been doing for the last thirty years.
     There are a lot of different aspects to it, but this particular aspect is about using music as a tool for transformative change. I was in a room with about ten teenagers and I’d asked them to bring in some of their favorite music. I have certain rules. You can’t criticize somebody else and you have to really listen. You have to give me three reasons why you like the music and “it has a great beat” is not acceptable. You have to tell me exactly what this piece of music does for you.
     So one woman was listening and I was watching her and I said, “This may sound like an odd question, but were you listening to this music when you were using?”
     And she said, “Yeah. How can you tell?” 
    I said, I can see it in the language of your body. When you listen to it you start nodding out. Your whole body just sort of caved in on itself. And I asked her how long she’d been in the rehab. She said, a few months. I said, do you realize that every time you listen to that music, it’s like pounding a stake into the ground of where you were?
 
RW:  In other words, it’s reinforcing that drug use.
 
MD:  It’s reinforcing it. I said, “When you listen to that, what are you thinking about? Because it has a direct connection to what you’re trying to get out of now. You need to stop listening to that. You need to find music that is going to propel you forward, not keep you anchored in the past, because music is that strong. It is that strong. It can do that.” And the rest of the kids were like, wow!
 
RW:  Nowadays we don't talk about the power of music like that. Plato did. Some of the ancient peoples knew that you use one kind of music for one thing and another kind for another thing.
 
MD:  That’s exactly right. This music is appropriate for coming into the world. This music is appropriate for going out of the world. This is what you play if you want to heal yourself. This is what you play if you want to put the hoo-doo on someone else. You don’t mix those things up. That’s the power of music and it has the power, like I said, to move you forward or to keep you anchored in the past.
 
RW:  Is there a problem of the misuse of music today?
 
MD:   I have a sound awareness class, sixth grade, based on American Idol, because that’s what the kids are watching. We talk about demographics, current events, statistics, we talk about racial issues, all of this because American Idol sort of encapsulates pop culture in America, and it’s about music and it’s about singing. A few years ago we had a kid on American Idol who was in the Oakland Youth Chorus, one of my kids. She was in the top four a few years back. So I figured the kids are going to be looking at it, let’s turn it into a unit. They had to keep track of the commercials every week. They had to keep track of the major news stories. It was very, very interesting.
     There were different parts to this about the effect of music in the culture and the possible ways of the misuse of music. So the kids have to write down each commercial, first of all, to see how many commercials are happening in each segment. You might have twenty-six things between one segment and the next. They had to keep track of that, what the scenes were, what the music was like and who it was aimed at.
     So one class I say, let’s look at our commercials. What’s different? One of them finally said, oh, there’s a lot of military recruitment commercials. And I said wow, isn’t that interesting? Why? And the kids said, “well, no reason.”
     You think so? Let’s go back. What’s the major news story?
     Finally one kid says oh, I know Miss Demore. They don’t have enough soldiers.
     I said, okay, so now let’s go look at our demographic. What’s the average age of the people who watch American Idol? Now they’re going, ohhh. Sort of interesting, isn’t it? Because these commercials weren’t there before that. So then I said, What do the commercials look like? Then one of the kids said, you know Miss Demore, they look like video games. I said, isn’t that interesting? Why do you think that is? So pretty soon they began to get what was happening.
     And we have a list of long vocabulary words and one of them was “arbitrary.” Nothing is arbitrary. So now they’re looking at this and going, wowww!
     About a month later, I said, hey you guys, let's look at our commercials again. What’s different from the last time?  Hey, there are no military recruitment commercials!
     Why?
     Well maybe they have enough soldiers. [makes penalty buzzer sound]
     Let’s look what the big news story is.
     Oh. Abu Ghraib.
     I said, Hmmm. Why aren’t there military recruitment commercials on American Idol?
     One girl said, Oh, people are really angry at the military because of that.
     I said, Exactly. You have to keep your eyes open.
 
RW:  That’s great.
 
MD:  So all those things, and the use of music in the videos and how does it stir you? How does it get you to buy things? So we talk about that. That’s the whole reason behind “you have to give me three reasons you like this song.” So the whole idea in my sound awareness classes is to get my kids to be aware of what they’re looking at and how they’re being influenced by what they see or hear.
     Part of the thing is that they want us to walk around unconscious. And when a student says, “I’m not influenced.” “Well I’m looking at five labels that you’re wearing right now. You got FuBu. You got Nike. Are you going to tell me you’re not influenced by what you see?” That’s not true. I said, “You guys, you’ve got to be careful because they’re making screens bigger! And wherever you turn your head, you’re going to be looking at what they want you to see.”
 
RW:  That’s tremendously important. And another thing that’s happening—to take just one example, United Airlines and their use of Rhapsody in Blue. There’s a constant erosion of good things by their co-option for the sale of products. It’s a kind of strip mining of the good, in a way.
 
MD:  Exactly.
 
RW:  That’s a cultural loss.
 
MD:  Right. And people hear that, Oh, that’s United Airlines. No, that’s George Gershwin. But as a teacher, I can use that. Now here’s the origin of that, which opens up a whole other gate. That can expand their world view.
 
RW:  If you’re there to help them.
 
MD:  That’s right. And I say, you think that’s where this comes from? Here’s the origin. Let me play you the original. And they go, “ohhhh…” So it depends on how it’s approached.
 
RW:  I ran across a reference to you being connected with music and healing. Is that right?
 
MD:  Sure. I do a lot of work with Kate Munger. This is someone you might want to interview.
 
RW:  You know what? I’ve interviewed her.
 
MD:  Well, I’m a charter member of the Threshold Choir.
 
RW:  Wow!
 
MD:  I write a lot of songs for them and they do a lot of my songs. And she’s a very dear friend of mine. And I work with other Threshold Choirs and help them strengthen themselves as a community of vocal healers. I sing at lots of bedsides and have been doing that for a long time, even from before I met Kate.
 
RW:  What have you seen in terms of music as a healing force?
 
MD:  Oh my gosh. I got a chance to go sing at a pulmonary unit in Berkeley. There were all these people in comas or people who could only respond with their eyes. I just went from room to room. I had my guitar. I would just sit and sort of sense what that person might need. One young woman, I started singing something and her eyes started darting around. I could feel and sense her joy. Even though she couldn’t move, I could sense that inside she was singing and she was dancing. I knew it.
     You can’t have your ego in the way. If you’re going to be of service, as a singer, you have to compleely get out of the way. It is so not about me. You have to have your heart in it, but you can’t let your own emotions get in the way of what it is that they need. Our job, as healing and bedside singers, is to really make a space for that person to be able to do whatever they need to do in their own transformation, to move to the next place, whatever that is, whether it’s to have a less difficult death, or whether it’s a healing process. Because you know, we don’t just sing for people who are dying. Sometimes we just sing for people who are going through a difficult time. It goes way beyond anything that you can imagine.
 
 
 
           
 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations magazine and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.

 

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