Karin Wilson: The Art of the Voice Uplifted
Seven years ago doctors told Barbara Samuel the lump in her throat would change her life. She had no idea just how right those doctors were.
At the time, Samuel was a court reporter with a fairly typical experience of music. She bopped along to songs while driving in her car, and generally enjoyed music whenever she could. But it wasn't her life, her passion.
She was living in Edmonton when her voice unexpectedly disappeared. Doctors put it down to a thyroidal problem serious enough that she had only a fifty per cent likelihood of speaking again. She shrugged that off, convinced that as a court reporter she could pick up sign language and remain employed.
But something shifted when doctors said she only had an 80 per cent chance of singing again. Singing in those days was lullabies to her children, but losing that option of expression was too hard a hit. So Samuel made a deal.
"I made a pact. I said to Spirit: let me sing and let me have a voice and I will give it back to you," she says. "As soon as I made that pact, it was instantaneous and I knew it would be fine. I look back now and realize the lump in my throat was me not speaking my truth, and allowing me to sing that truth."
Since then Samuel has moved to Kelowna, learned to play the piano, received vocal training from local artist Ellen Churchill, started teaching students herself, started up more than one band, and is now musical director at the Kelowna Centre for Positive Living.
"I can't imagine life without song. I hear music in everything. I hear it when I walk, when a door closes, I hear it when I'm talking. I think the connection people feel with music is at a level that is beyond our reality it's primal. The spiritual experience is innate in us."
While Samuel's experience may be a highly unusual one, there is no question that music moves us, and it's done so for as long as humans have walked the earth. In every culture, it is music perhaps more than any other art form that assists us in transcending our human experience.
Ravi Shankar, who introduced the Indian sitar to the Western world in the 1960s, recently said in an interview with Life Positive that people come to a spiritual recognition of themselves through music when it resonates with peace, regardless of what form of music takes them there.
"If you listen to a finely-tuned tanpura in isolation and with a quiet mind, you'll feel a sense of peace. If you listen with absolute concentration to a church organ or Bach or a truly good musician performing any raga, you shall have a fantastic sense of peace. I consider that the final therapy."
Even atheist Friedrich Nietzsche knew music did more than stimulate the senses when he said "without music, life would be a mistake."
Certainly there is music with obvious spiritual connections Franz Schubert's Ave Maria, Beethoven's Ode to Joy, and the more current expressions found in the Christian-influenced lyrics of Australia's Newsboys. But some say music doesn't have to bill itself as faith-based or even use the word God or Spirit in order to have that higher resonance.
In his book Beethoven and the Spiritual Path, author David Tame notes that the "wisest of sages and philosophers have known that music is among the most potent of all means through which the human consciousness is altered". He also points to the strong connection between great composers and this muse, noting Robert Schumann believed the music he received was dictated to him by angels.
Jane Eamon, who won the folk award at the Okanagan Music Awards and was up for best gospel singer, believes music is spiritual not because of what it says about a particular faith, but in its outlook. Eamon rebels against any kind of labels. She's been chastised for being too spiritual in her works (her first album was called The Blue Madonna), and she's been scoffed at for not being spiritual enough. Eamon takes it all in stride.
"I just write what I write and it comes out and that's what it is," she says, still surprised that her work was even placed in the gospel category. "Any songwriting is a gift. It's the muse it's something else that directs your sound."
Eamon stretches her spiritual boundaries every chance she can get taking in influences from everyone from Christian rockers to the Indian-influenced blues music of Vancouver artist Harry Manx. In late March, she'll push those boundaries even further when she becomes one of 20 teachers at an intensive 10-week program at the Canada West School of Worship held at the Appleseed Lodge in Westbank. Other teachers include Lothar Kosse, one of the most well-known artists and worship leaders in Germany. Put on by fellow local musician Norm Strauss of the Kelowna folk band Smith, Funk and Strauss, the school has attracted more than a dozen students from around the world keen to learn practical studio performing techniques, songwriting, and the dynamics of selling spiritual music in the marketplace.
"When you craft spiritual songs, they are not strictly faith-based songs," Eamon says. "It could be a song about mourning the death of a father. Think of We Shall Overcome that's a spiritual song. You don't have to say Lord or God for the music to have a spiritual component."
Strauss says his real aim is to help Christian musicians remove their own barriers around keeping their music cloistered within the confines of the church. All artists need to grow and expand, and that includes becoming part of the larger music community.
"Typically what I see is that the musicians are concerned about their service on Sunday morning and they channel their energy into that," says Strauss, who has spent the last 15 years working with church music in Evangelical circles. "But the thing is, they get restless. They like doing the church services, but they always feel there is something more to it than that."
And there is. "What you want to do is become part of the life of the community and the arts life of the town you live in."
Strauss believes it is fear that gets in the way. "Sometimes that looks like an inadequate view of who God is and why music was created in the first place. Then what we do is project our own insecurities so we become fearful. It's like we sequester ourselves and don't venture out."
And that stills the creative spirit the very spirit musicians are trying to give voice to. Strauss wants his school to help students release that energy, so it can be shared in a more open creative and inclusive way. "Some of the most insecure people around are also the most creative people, and they need to know 'I am allowed'."
Strauss also notes that the spiritual component found in music is everywhere. A quick flip through the Psalms illustrates his point precisely. While David may be worshipping God, he's also living a very real life and wondering where God is amidst all the blood and betrayal.
But it is true, that getting spirituality into the general populace isn't easy. Eamon will be taking part in a gospel concert as part of the Arts and Life Festival in mid-May, but organizers have made sure the word "gospel" won't be mentioned. Instead the performance will be billed as "Joyful Noise".
"It's people's own hang-ups," Eamon says. "But the music is really about just ways and means of people connecting."
Ultimately, it's the mystery that people want. That's what stirs us, stimulates us, makes us create musical masterpieces. Why we as humans respond in that fashion doesn't really matter. What matters is that we listen for it, and that some talented people are engaged enough to take their experience to the next level so the mystery can be heard by many.
"We are not meant to know everything," Eamon says. "It's like opening a Christmas present every day. But there's too much evidence to discount that there isn't something here."
Karin Wilson is a freelance writer whose clients include CBC Radio, and numerous magazines. She is also the Associate Director and events coordinator of the Okanagan Institute.