I recently lost my voice to laryngitis for six weeks. During that time, the sounds I could make ranged from a whisper to a croak to a flimsy peep. I couldn’t speak or sing. When I opened my mouth, I never knew what sound would emerge. What I did know was that whatever noise I made didn’t feel at all familiar.

I’ve had my share of upper respiratory illnesses, but I’ve never had laryngitis. Even with a cold, I could always find some part of my voice that worked. As a voice coach and singer, I’ve learned how to access a wide variety of sounds in my voice. If one part was afflicted, there were many other choices to access.

Until it was gone, I had no idea how many functions my voice plays in my life. Not only is it the primary way I earn my living, I use it to celebrate and grieve, to express and digest the mysteries of my life. Singing is how I pray. Talking with beloved friends fuels my connection with them. Sharing stories and questions is a primary social and vocational activity. And singing harmony with others feeds my sense of community like nothing else. More than anything, my voice is intimately linked with my identity. Without it, I don’t recognize myself.

Whenever I felt sorry for myself – which I’m humbled to report was daily – I did the Buddhist practice of sending compassion to people in the world who were suffering in the same way I was. I sent blessings to people had lost their voices to an illness or physical condition – and to people who used to love to sing who couldn’t do so any longer. I remembered people whose history of trauma makes it difficult for them to express themselves – not just for a few weeks but for years or a lifetime.

A recent client told me she stopped singing completely at the age of twenty after an abusive boyfriend raped her. Twenty years later she opened her mouth to sing a simple song in my teaching studio and out came a stunning voice. I thought of the uncountable songs she missed singing in those two decades –and all of those people who knew her as “the quiet one,” not as “the woman with the lovely voice.”

I considered the many people across the globe – especially women, minorities, children, and people who are poor – who have no say about fundamental aspects of their day-to-day lives. Millions can’t vote, become educated, choose their spouses, speak their minds, do meaningful work, or make basic decisions I take for granted. Their voicelessness puts mine into perspective in a sobering way.

My voice returned just in time to lead a daylong voice workshop and a community song circle. It is a joyful reunion. Nonetheless, I am re-entering my voice more slowly than I thought I would. It’s taking time to recover virtuosity and ease, to rebuild trust that my sounds will be there when I try to access them. Now that it is back, I am recommitting to use the precious gift of expression and freedom to support others in finding their own voices.

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Mr. Brown

I’ve been clearing out.
The recycling bin has been filled three times with detritus from my past.
I’ve saved very little, but there is one piece of paper that is so precious, I had to tuck it back into the file.

In 1975 I was a junior at Stillwater Senior High School near St. Paul, Minnesota.  My choir director, Denis Brown, wrote some comments on the parent/teacher conference form that pulled me up short:  “I know Barb gets discouraged because of her vocal problems.  I would continue to urge her to be patient and apply proper techniques consistently to grow.  Sometimes I have the feeling that Barb gets discouraged and gives up temporarily.  I do not recommend that approach!”

I wish I could tell him that I didn’t give up…that in my early twenties, I started singing solo jazz.  That I can sing before thousands of people with joy and ease.  That I am about to make my seventh CD of original music.  That I am carrying on his legacy of helping people discover their voices.

Denis Brown died in his fifties.  I never had the chance to thank him for his generous teaching.  He was diligent, wise, loving, and demanding.  I think of him every day and pass along many of the lessons I learned from him to my own voice coaching clients.

Two days after I uncovered the piece of paper with Mr. Brown’s encouraging words, I was offering a program to a group of teachers and staff at Phalen Lake Hmong Magnet School in St. Paul.   I told the story of Mr. Brown and told them, “I can’t thank Mr. Brown in person, so I’m thanking you instead for all you do for the children.”

I also wanted to honor the staff member who was newest to education and their “venerable elder.”  I first offered a CD to the fresh-faced young woman who was brand new to teaching.  Then I asked who had been in education the longest.  Everyone pointed to the back of the room to a smiling, white-haired man.

As I made my way to him, someone in the room shouted, “His name is Mr. Brown!”  I stopped in my tracks and burst into tears.

Another Mr. Brown.

This warm, gentle man was kind enough to fold this tall, weeping woman into an embrace.  He also agreed to be part of this blog.IMG_2398

This Mr. Brown has been in education for forty-six years. A former second grade and middle school teacher, he now is a part-time school counselor.  He worked for many years in Inver Grove Heights in the years when it was a primarily Caucasian suburb of St. Paul.  These past years he has been working in the inner city, first at a Native American Magnet School and now at a Hmong Magnet School.  “I’ve learned so much in these past years,” he told me.  “I plan to keep working until someone asks, ‘What’s that old guy still doing around here?’”  Then Mr. Brown threw back his head and laughed.

Thank you to both Mr. Browns.
Thank you to all of the hard-working teachers and para-professionals and custodians and cooks and librarians who manage to bring humanity to an increasingly inhumane system.

You will be remembered and blessed by those whose lives you touched.
And you may never know who they are.IMG_2400

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About Singing

“I’m the world’s worst singer.  Can’t carry a tune in a bucket!”

“I used to sing. Then I stopped.  Went to school, got a job, had a family, got busy.  I sure miss it.”

“The only reason I go to church, confidentially, is for the singing!  Where else do people sing any more?”

As a visible singer in the world, I hear a LOT of stories about singing.
Some are tragic.
Some hilarious.
All touching.

Mostly I hear about why people don’t sing.
They’re waiting for a better time, the right teacher, or – heaven forbid – the perfect voice.

Here’s what I have to say about singing.
Want it to sound beautiful every single time you open your mouth?
It won’t happen.
Want to quit your day job, be “discovered,” get a recording contract, make a ton of money?
Don’t hold your breath, Sweetheart.

Music is not a commodity.
It’s not a product for sale.
It’s not something you need extensive training to enjoy or claim as your own.
It’s just….well….HUMAN.

All of the judgment, money, and competition (don’t get me started on “American Idol”….) has so little to do with the deep nourishment that comes from singing. Especially if you’re a “Singer” — which I often pronounce “Big-S Singer.” (Yes, enjoy that double entendre…). If you’re one of those, your heart breaks a little every day you don’t sing.
Your soul gets pruny and wizened.

When you do sing, suddenly there is a storm of inner critics telling you to sit down, shut up, get trained, don’t make a mistake, etc. So you have to assume that trying to sing at all is a big mistake.  That one magical day those critical voices will fall silent and leave you to your singing pleasure.

Well, don’t hold your breath about that either!

As I told a new singing friend this week – those “brain rats” aren’t going to be quiet. It’s downright foolish to wait for them to be quiet before you sing, sing, sing.
Just sing anyway.

Sing in places where singing isn’t expected.
Sing for lonely people.
Sing your prayers.
Sing in traffic jams, with or without the radio.
Sing while you walk in the park or shop for groceries.
To quote the great Sufi mystic, Hafiz:
“Sing some songs to your pets and plants;
why not let them get all drunk and wild?”

Sing WITH people, too. Cultivate a dozen useful little songs for marking life events — like the sun coming up AGAIN (!) or welcoming a stranger or expressing grief.
Then teach them to the people in your life.
Become the song-carrier in your community.
You don’t need a fabulous voice to invite people to sing.
In fact, it can make them more comfortable to try it themselves if you are less than perfect.

Sing past the crazy notion that unless you make your living at something, it doesn’t count. Sing past your own personal “American Idol” panel saying snarky things and voting you down.

Most of all, sing into the deep ancestry we all carry — of people who persisted through unthinkable hardship, privation, displacement, and pain by raising their voices in beauty. Remember them.
Ask them to sing with you.

I guarantee they will come –and walk beside you in those wide open fields of blooming, buzzing, enlivening SONG.

Posted in community, music, oral tradition, self expression, singing, voice | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Music as a mode of travel

September 2, 2009 was a perfect day. And by some miracle, I found a way to share it.

That day I was on a songwriting retreat at a tiny, beloved island in the border waters of Minnesota and Ontario. The days are long there. I awaken before dawn and slip into the cool, still water before I am awake. I emerge refreshed, dress against the chill, and make my way to the eastern end of the island to watch the sunrise across the water. Loons call. The breeze comes up. Another day of wonder begins.

I live deeply at the island – away from phones, computers, cars, keys, clocks, money, even running water. I follow rhythms and impulses in ways I can’t in the city.

Near the end of a particularly delicious day there, I sat down at the piano in my cabin and started writing a song of gratitude.

The last of the sun’s rays poured in as I wrote. I was certain that the song would provide me with a way to re-live that magical day any time I wanted. What I didn’t expect was that the song would make my experience vividly available to other people.

Every time I play the song, people tell me that the song carries them to the island. They feel the chill in the air during “the brilliant, watermelon dawn.” They smell the “sweet basil crushed between the fingers.” And often, they share the “grateful tears for having lived this perfect day.”

I wonder how songs – and other art forms – are capable of transmitting very specific experiences of memory, emotion, or experience from one imagination to another? What might this capacity mean in a world of increasing isolation and loneliness? What function will music play when the oil runs out and we need to find other ways to travel the world?

I vividly remember “traveling” on the songs of a Tuvan throat singer who was performing here in Minneapolis. The Tuvan throat singers from southern Siberia actually sing the geography of the places where they linger with their herds. They replicate the sounds of a particular waterfall or rock face through their strangely beautiful overtone singing.

His songs became vehicles for carrying me to specific landscapes and ways of life I will never directly experience.

I find the same phenomenon when I lead community singing. The African songs carry us to dusty squares or rainforests. The Irish songs invoke the rugged coasts and impossibly green hills. And the song from the high Andes leaves us all a little dizzy.

Inside of every song we sing is some essence of the person who created it and to the land they inhabited. When we fully open and deeply listen, we are able to use songs to visit other experiences, worldviews, and geographies. It’s all there inside the music.

Tell me, how have you traveled through time and space on wings of song?

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In My Own Voice: The Brilliance of Karly Wahlin

Update:  Karly Elizabeth Wahlin passed away peacefully at home on August 20, 2012.  We who knew her were deeply blessed.  Now she is free.

In the winter of 2009 my friend and recording engineer, Matthew Zimmerman, called to invite me into a remarkable project that was being recorded at his studio, Wild Sound, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A 24-year-old composer named Karly Wahlin was seeking a producer for a collection of ten of her classical piano pieces and he knew I was the person for the job.

Karly lives with a genetic condition called Rett Syndrome. Rett, which mostly affects girls, makes it impossible for Karly to walk on her own, speak, control her movements, and even breathe in a relaxed way. She experiences frequent seizures, vision problems, digestive issues, acute anxiety, and orthopedic problems. Every day Karly struggles to live in her body in ways that most of us cannot imagine. Nonetheless, she and her music therapist, Karen Bohnert, found a way for her to compose music one laborious note at a time. Each song takes a year to complete. When I heard a rough recording of her music, I was touched by the beauty, wit, and purity of her musical “voice.” I whole-heartedly said yes to producing her record.

Karly named her CD “In My Own Voice.” This is particularly significant given that she was unable to communicate with the outside world until the age of ten. The breakthrough came when her mother, Lois Swope, began experimenting with stabilizing Karly’s hand on a computer keyboard. This facilitated communication enabled Karly to express her preferences, joys, love, and ideas for the first time in her life. And she had a lot to say!

Eventually Karly started a blog that is now followed by thousands of people around the world. She has become a powerful advocate for others with her condition and is one of a few women who are able to describe what it is like to live in what she calls her “Rett Body.” Karly’s great wish is to use her music and writing to support people with disabilities of all kinds to be recognized for their gifts, not just their limitations.

Karly loves many things: praying, music, her family and friends, good stories, writing poetry and blogs, her witty and rambunctious pony, Beau (to whom the song, below, is dedicated), and spending time in the beautiful garden her friends and neighbors recently created for her.  Karly is also a public speaker for audiences that have included professional groups, people in recovery from addiction, and others who live with disabilities. Her mother, Lois, reads Karly’s carefully crafted messages aloud to her audiences.  Karly is present for her speeches whenever her health allows.

As a professional voice coach, I think about voices every day. Getting to know Karly has changed the way I think about voice forever. Even though she can’t speak, I’ve come to recognize her distinct “voice” in the way she expresses herself through words and music. Our friendship has been forged through many profound conversations about self-expression, music, spirituality, creativity, living, and dying.

Karly’s poetry is elegant and deep, expressing both the truth of her struggles and shining gems of spiritual wisdom. I humbly offer Karly the last word. Here is one of the poems we recorded on her CD:

In the quiet of my heart
I am slow
I breathe deeply
I sit quietly
I think freely
I do not struggle
I love deeply
I contribute
I participate
I speak in ways others can hear
I am more than my body
I am

© Karly Wahlin (used by permission)

Karly’s blog can be found at:
Karly’s music can be heard and purchased at:

Portions of this post are excerpted from Full Voice: The Art and Practice of Vocal Presence by Barbara McAfee. (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., San Francisco).

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No one else can sing your song

Voices are so personal. They mirror our story – our gifts, doubts, history, mood, identity, and secret dreams. Every time we speak, we are revealing something about ourselves – the things we’re proud of and perhaps the things we most want to hide.

When people hear that I am a voice coach, they often roll their eyes and say something like, “Wow, you must hear the most horrible sounds in your studio!” Or “Good thing I’m not your client! My voice is so terrible it would land you in the hospital!”

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I want to tell them how moved I am by the first tentative, shaky sounds emerging from a long-silenced voice. I want to shout about the joy that gallops in on a newly bold voice set free at last. I want to bring them to the room when someone who believed for decades that their voice wasn’t worth hearing is moved to tears by their own beautiful singing. I want to express the deep honor I feel when the exiled, imprisoned aspects of a person are granted amnesty and welcomed back home.

Those tender, vulnerable moments in the teaching studio touch me more deeply than a highly trained, confident performance ever will.

Voices are so personal. They mirror our story – our gifts, doubts, history, mood, identity, and secret dreams. Every time we speak, we are revealing something about ourselves – the things we’re proud of and perhaps the things we most want to hide.

I believe each voice is an essential part of our collective story. We are all part of a vast choir that is singing the song of life. When any of the voices fall silent, our song is incomplete.

Several years ago I co-created a song with Stephanie Pace Marshall, a brilliant pioneer in education who founded the innovative Illinois Math and Science Academy near Chicago. It was based on a poem Stephanie wrote for her grandchildren – and all of the children. As I began searching for the thread of the song, I found these lines:

“As long as you have breath, there is still time
To awaken the dream that’s been yours all along.
And if you don’t sing it, no one else can sing your song.”

Sitting at my piano late at night, I was grieved and overwhelmed by how many of the songs in this world will never be sung. Some will be stolen by poverty, war, oppression, and the chaos that runs rampant in the world. Others will be silenced by abuse, shame, perfectionism, and the loneliness that pervades our Western consumer culture. We are taught to doubt our voices – literally and metaphorically. We are encouraged to outsource singing to the professionals and surrender our ears to highly processed and perfected music.

When people walk into my studio, before they even open their mouths, it is an act of emancipation. They come to this work to be “unsilenced.” To reclaim some aspect of their full humanness. To share their most secret and sacred wishes. To open their mouths and – bravely, beautifully, tremblingly – sing their song.

And lucky me – I get to listen.

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What If?

I’m just being exactly who I am right now and seeing how that goes.

After spending nearly half of my time on planet Earth in some kind of earnest form of self-development, I’m giving it up.

That’s right, for the past several years, I’ve suspended my yearning after a new, improved, shinier version of myself. No more workshops, self-help books, therapists, coaches, rigorous exercise regimes, or radical diets. I’m just being exactly who I am right now and seeing how that goes.

Those persistent shortcomings that have been my trusty companions for lo, these many years keep showing up as they always have. Now instead of rolling up my sleeves, getting out my spiritual wrenches, and making a lengthy self-improvement to-do list, I nod and sigh and carry on.

I’m willing to bet that on the day I die I will still tend to impatience, judgment, a craving for salty-crunchy things, and a fundamentalist kind of loathing for any kind of fundamentalism. I’ll have flabby arms and so-so posture and a propensity to waste time on the computer.

This new phase of my life began in a cab in Chicago several years ago. I overheard a conversation between friends as we were driving through the drizzly streets:

Friend One: “I’m on a new raw-food diet now. I’m working with a pilates coach several times a week and enrolling in a new workshop series and working with a new business coach.

Friend Two: “Sweetheart, you’re such a lovely person. What if you stopped working so damn hard on yourself and just lived your life?

What if, indeed?

That proposition struck me so deeply that I went home and wrote a song about it (you can see a video of the song, below). The line that still makes me squirm a little is “what if all this striving to be my best was just self-hatred in a fancy dress?

I’m growing suspicious about the habit of self-improvement. It feels like a subtler, more “enlightened” version of consumerism… a kind of spiritual cosmetics industry. As long as I’m obsessed with a bigger (or smaller), better Barbara out there, I might not notice poverty and injustice. As long as I’m dithering about some intractable personality trait, I might not notice Nature’s incredible unfolding outside my window or my neighbor’s need for a friendly gesture or what a stunning miracle it is to be alive at all.

Just to be clear, I’m not averse to learning. As a singer/songwriter, I will continue to reach for the clear note, the true turn of phrase, the effortless piano riff. As a voice coach, I’ll keep listening deeply to beauty and wisdom within the voices of my clients. As a friend and family member, I’ll continue to bring my heart and attention to the precious humans around me. These things feel distinctly different from those other kinds of self-improvement projects I’ve given up. They seem to emerge from inside me rather than being imposed from some external expectation or standard.

Meanwhile, I don’t need to seek out challenges. Life will keep on bringing me nose to nose with my shortcomings. And when it does, I’ll whine and squirm and – as poet Theodore Roethke so beautifully writes – “learn by going where I have to go.


Posted in Humor, self acceptance | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment