Singing, with Strings

Sometimes the thing your heart wants, perhaps the very thing your soul most needs, falls right into your lap. It comes to you beautifully wrapped, an unexpected gift. But on closer inspection, you discover that those decorative ribbons are really strings attached. Do you accept the gift? Or reject the possibility because it carries unknown risk?

Yesterday I discovered that the phenomenal Ysaye Maria Barnwell is offering her workshop Building a Vocal Community:Singing in the African American Tradition at the Rowe Conference Center,  a place not far from my home.  On my fiftieth birthday.

I love to sing. I came to singing late in life, not until my forties. Growing up in a family of prodigiously talented singers and self-taught professional musicians, I always thought my modest voice was broken, better suited to poetry than song: “Poor thing. That child couldn’t carry a tune in a paper bag.” But when I was home alone doing ancient womanly tasks, like tending my garden, or  ironing,  my throat would open and overflow with my mother’s Baptist hymns  and my grandmother’s  quavering spirituals and Lady Day’s blues.

Nine years ago, I found my voice in a community choir. I was persistently invited to join Joyful Noise Gospel Choir even though I explained that I “couldn’t” sing.  For five years, I found my proper place in that choir– no longer a misplaced alto or soprano, I found my seat between the tenors and the baritones. I learned to sing out loud, in the choir and in the world. I became bolder in my work and more willing to take risks in my art. Joyful Noise dreamed of us collectively attending a workshop with Dr. Barnwell, because singing gospel and spirituals with others was a profound gathering home.  That gathering taught me that singing is a dialogue between the song you raise, the support of my response, and our shared listening for the possibility of harmony. This is a deep spiritual practice, one that healed my broken falsetto, leaving a strong, honest tenor in its place. When our choirmaster, and many members of Joyful Noise moved away, I cried for months.

And yesterday I discovered that Ysaye Maria Barnwell – the scholar and  bari/tenor from Sweet Honey on the Rock, the organizer of great Community Sings — is offering her workshop. In a place not far from my home.  On October 28th –  my fiftieth birthday.


This workshop costs hundreds of dollars, at a time when money’s too tight to mention. OK, not as tight as a long-line girdle, but definitely Spanx-tight.

And I don’t know if I can open my tender voice and heart in a room full of strangers to my culture, who are likely to treat it, and me, with some degree of unintentional disrespect. (I live in rural New England. Not exactly a bastion of racial diversity.)

If my intention is to act more powerfully in the world, how do I discern when something is an empowering but emotionally risky opportunity , or just another place to get deeper in debt and hogtied in somebody else’s  strings?

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  • Debbie  On April 5, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    As a many time attendee of her one day workshops, I say go for it! What a way to affirm who you are, where you have been, and where you are going. If that is your birthday wish, I would be honored to contribute.

  • Mati  On April 6, 2011 at 1:15 am

    Stunned you thought twice but so pleased you jumped. As for the money… the word could get around and it’s not like you need another gadget/scented candle for your birfday.

  • Intentional50  On April 6, 2011 at 9:01 am

    So, I’ll have to tell Dear Spouse what my friends should give me for my birthday!

    And, to be clear, the risk isn’t just the money. I live in a beautiful, progressive green place where I often feel unsafe and unsupported as a black woman. Like many people of color inn New England, I am frequently treated with suspicion, hostility or as an object of curiosity rather than as a human being. It is difficult for me to thrive — to find places where I can open my heart to sing — when I can predict that risking such openness is likely to result in being emotionally or financially hurt.

    Failing to anticipate and manage those risks has done great, dis-empowering damage to me in the past. Entering fifty from a place of power requires me to learn to manage those risks, while still taking life-affirming chances.

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