Carpool Karaoke

My voice coaching studio is a place where clients from all walks of life are invited to enter into their full voice, whatever that means to them. In the course of our work together, I encourage them to be playful, embodied, tender, wild and frequently LOUD.

When clients really cut loose and make big sounds, they frequently suggest that the police could be at the door any minute. The police! The fact that full expression could be considered illegal tells me just how vocally suppressed most of us are.

One of the conundrums many clients face is where and how to practice their newfound vocal freedom. Even singing songs in a normal tone can be problematic in an apartment, condo or townhouse setting. The shower offers great acoustics, but many people feel self-conscious about making any noise in there if family members are around.

That leaves one place where people feel free to cut loose – the car.

I’ve been enjoying James Corden’s car pool karaoke segments on the Late, Late Show. Corden invites famous musicians to go for a ride with him through LA. As they drive around, they sing along to the musician’s big hits and do a little chatting. His segment with Paul McCartney took place in Paul’s old neighborhood with stops at his childhood home and the neighborhood pub where the locals were treated to a surprise concert.

When these segments first started coming out, I was skeptical. What could be interesting about watching people singing in a car? After watching a few of them, I was hooked.

Corden has tapped into a powerful shared experience. Who among us hasn’t cranked up the car stereo to sing along with an artist we admire? To witness someone doing that familiar activity in the actual presenceof the artist takes it to another level.

Corden’s child-like enthusiasm, wide open heart and beautiful singing voice are also keys to making it work. He’s a wonderful stand-in for each of us – blending awe and admiration with playful collaboration. He is a complete enthusiast — the antithesis of Hollywood cool and slick. He fully surrenders to the experience, expressing puppy-like joy one minute and sweet tears the next.

I’ve wondered for years where people will go to sing when we give up the habit of driving alone in our cars so much. Our planet can’t handle the amount of emissions we’re asking it to bear and cars are a big contributor to the problem.

I hope by the time we end up with more shared transportation, we will have gotten over our shyness of singing in public. What would it be like to have busloads of harmonizing humans making their way through our streets? Will we have subway cars designated for certain kinds of singing? Will we go to work singing in the Motown car and return home in the camp song car? What will the free improvisation car sound like on a rainy afternoon? These public spaces could come to life in a joyful way.

I do hope we get less timid about singing in public. In the meantime, we can ride – and sing –along with James Corden and his lucky passengers.

Posted in singing | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment


Today my brother and sister-in-law are picking up Mom’s car. They will clean it up and sell it in the coming weeks.  I don’t know why this is making me so tender, but it is.

Mom hasn’t driven her 2001 silver Buick Le Sabre for years now. We’ve been hanging onto it because she thought it would be too hard to get in and out of a different car. Last week when we tried to use it to go to a doctor’s appointment, the battery was completely dead. Out of necessity, she got in and out of my Subaru just fine. Just like that, her need for the car suddenly disintegrated.

Of course, it’s the right thing to do. She pays good money for her rock star parking spot in the underground heated garage, not to mention insurance and tabs.

Even so, letting go of the car is another diminishment – another sign that the scope of her long and interesting life is shrinking.

Mom’s been a widow for a long, long time – 27 years. After Dad’s death, she took on all of the things he used to tend, including all things automotive. The Buick was the first car she purchased on her own and she took impeccable care of it.

That car gave her the power to just up and go – to do her grocery shopping at 11 pm or check on the spring flooding on the river downtown or go to church several towns away. She drove it – bravely – into the big city to attend many of my concerts, all without the benefit of GPS. It carried her to innumerable celebrations at my brother and sister-in-law’s place an hour’s drive from her home. It made many trips to her hometown of Des Moines, sometimes with her at the wheel and later with my brother or me driving.

When Mom stopped driving, she did so like the grownup she is — calmly and without a fuss. Since then she and I have taken that beloved old car on many jaunts:

  • our annual drive up the river to admire fall colors
  • visits to the orchard to get her favorite treat, apple rollovers
  • driving by the old family place to check progress on the new owners’ remodeling
  • tending Dad’s grave
  • spontaneously visiting old friends and neighbors around town
  • and so many dinners at her favorite haunts

As we were driving around in my car last week, she kept remarking how strange it was to be out in the world after being housebound for so many months. “Oh my!” she’d exclaim, “Oh my!” We agreed that getting her out and about more often is a good idea, especially with winter coming. I look forward to driving Mom around town, listening to her reminisce about her 60+ years in this place. No doubt, we’ll both miss that old Buick.

My mother and I are learning to let go of one cherished thing after another. One day she stops wearing red lipstick; the next day she can’t find the word she’s looking for. Now her car is gone. One by one these will continue to fall away until all that is left is love.

Posted in caregiving | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Somewhere Not Far from Here

It is a foggy morning in Bayfield, Wisconsin. I am visiting dear friends in their home overlooking Lake Superior. Before I am fully awake, I amble to the piano with my first cup of coffee in hand. I sit down and begin noodling around on the black keys, attempting to capture the deep, cool spirit of the morning, the lake, the fog.

My song, “Somewhere Not Far from Here,” was born in that sweet place. I never play it without returning to that moment with gratitude.

Somewhere not far from here
There is a song so clear
Inside the silence I sometimes can hear it
Anthem outside of time
Sung without word or rhyme
Taking me back to a place I remember
Song of such beauty
What you bring to me
Yearning, impossible yearning

Music is a form of travel. A song can instantly transport us back us to another time – a childhood campfire, a horrible date, a beautiful sunset shared with a friend. We can visit places we’ve never seen by listening – or better yet – singing songs from that place. And music carries us into the realms of mystery if we let it – if we soften into the sound, breathe it into our bones and let go….

Somewhere not far from here
There is so much to fear
The light all around me creates such deep shadow
Mother of Mystery
Darkness falls over me
Taking me down to a place I must go to
Song of such beauty
What you bring to me
Learning, indelible learning

Music opens us to the depths. It can carry us into the places we are reluctant to go, terrifying terrain that we must traverse in order to heal. It can open us to our tears, the kind that leaves the eyes scrubbed and the heart more at ease. There are songs that walk beside us in the darkness, silent companions that assure us that there is beauty available to us even here if we are willing to perceive it.

Somewhere not far away
Those who have passed away
Witness my living with eyes of compassion
This brief dance in space and time
Drenched in five senses
I’m holding the living flame here in this body
Life of such beauty
What you bring to me
Burning, unquenchable burning

Every day I think of my beloved ones who no longer walk on this earth. Their presence in my life is palpable. Each cardinal reminds me of Dad. I use Jim’s sweet word, “beauty-full” in response to something lovely. Lucy is with me when I sweep the floor and I wear Jamie’s good-time hat to carry his love of life into my adventures. Jack’s words live on in one song and Angie’s in another.

These “hauntings” rarely bring sadness. Instead I feel a sense of companionship that reaches beyond this world. Music reminds me that my love remains beautifully tangled up with these souls wherever they may be…. somewhere not far from here.

You can listen to the song here.

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Calamity Management

I’ve entered into a new phase of caregiving with my sweet 94-year-old mama. I’m calling it calamity management. Her memory is faltering more and more these days, so I’m trying to remember what I’m forgetting she forgot. Or something like that.

Just the other day I was prowling through her apartment, looking at every little thing to see what might be falling through the cracks. And there it was – her hearing aid dryer. The little dry brick inside needs to be changed every 2 months and it’s been 9. Oops.

The good news is that her hearing aids seem to be working fine – and now I have added that task to my schedule of things to tend.

I caught that one but missed the injectable diabetes medicine sitting on the bathroom counter. Of course, I knowthat it’s supposed to be refrigerated, but in all the times I saw it there, it just didn’t register. Now we’re in touch with the pharmacy to replace the $300 medicine. Sigh.

The refrigerator has become another recipient of my watchful care. Every week I throw out slimy salads and banish her collection of cookies to the freezer. (My brother and sister-in-law bring them home to feed their grandkids and other visiting relatives). It would be awful if she ate something toxic because I forgot to throw it out.

Each time I visit, I water the thirsty patio plants and check supply levels for laundry detergent, toilet paper and the mints Mom likes to give to the folks at her apartment complex. She used to know what she was running out of, but now it only becomes clear when it’s an emergency.

I dispense her meds and make sure the prescriptions are refilled on time.

After my Dad’s death 27 years ago, Mom stepped up with courage and determination. She took care of her old house with its huge yard and gardens. She managed the money, got the car fixed and figured out the thousands of small things Dad used to handle in their long marriage.

He did his best to prepare her as he was dying of pancreatic cancer, but who among us knows every little thing we do in the course of daily life? Now it’s my turn to answer that question in caring for her.

Last night as I was getting ready to head home, I sat down and had a chat with Mom. I told her that I wanted to make sure that she was cared for in every way….and that I knew that missing some things was inevitable. “I want to make it perfect and I know I can’t.”

She responded in her usual kind way. “Nobody’s perfect. And I want you to know grateful I am for everything you do for me, Barbara.”

Have I mentioned that she expresses her gratitude in those very words four to five times during each visit?

In this new phase of caregiving, I vow to befriend calamity, patiently respond to Mom’s repetitive questions, breathe through her confusion and forgive myself for everything I’m going to miss.

Posted in caregiving, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

What a Racket – Some Reflections on Noise

It’s high summer in Minneapolis.

Usually that means that I begin my days out in the garden, sleepily gazing at whatever is blooming while I take my first blissful sips of coffee. I was doing that just this morning when it began: the roaring, rumbling, crashing, beeping cacophony of the construction next door.

I live two doors down from Minnehaha Academy’s north campus. Last summer there was a huge gas explosion there that tragically cost two people their lives and gravely injured another. I was home when the blast happened and still remember the house shaking under my feet. It was the loudest thing I have ever heard.

Now they are in the process of rebuilding.

I work at home, so the constant racket has a daily impact on my work. I close my windows and turn on my air conditioning to block the noise in order to hear my voice coaching clients. When I’m trying to concentrate on something – like writing this blog or composing an email or designing a voice course – my brain gets scrambled by the relentless noise.

It also impacts my private time. One of my favorite places to be is in my hammock chair on the back deck. It’s the perfect spot for eating lunch, watching birds, reading books and chatting with friends. This year I’ve spent little time there. Their workday is often eleven hours long – from 7 am to 6 pm. That leaves a tiny window to be outside before the mosquitoes come out in force.

Summer is generally a noisy time here in the city. The road along the river and the bridge across it seem to awaken something wild in motorcycle riders. I hear revving in three pitches – deep Harley roars, crotch-rocket tenors and little motor bike whines. Several times a day UPS trucks careen around my corner with an urgent rumble. There are barking dogs, beeping car alarms and wailing sirens in the soundtrack of city summers.

This season has taken the noise up a notch.

My ears are unusually sensitive. It comes with the work I do as a singer, voice coach and song leader. I rarely have music playing in my house. No matter how wonderful the tune, it can’t complete with the resonant peace of silence. When I go out dancing, my earplugs come with me. On the rare occasions that I encounter a television (I haven’t had one for 30 years), I’m taken aback by how fast, aggressive and LOUD it is.

This onslaught of noise has got me wondering. Who is the sadistic person who designed back-up beepers? Today there are three of them, all one-half step apart in pitch. When they are all going at once, the dissonance makes my molars ache. What is the emotional impact of such constant and intense noise? How does it affect the workers at that construction site who hear it all day long in much closer proximity? And perhaps the biggest question of all, how can I find peace inside when all is noisy outside? Wish me luck…..

Posted in silence | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

A Tale of Three Gifts

Gift #1

July 4th would have been Karly Wahlin’s 33rdbirthday. She died at 27, weary from struggling with her challenging body and ready to leap into the new place she had glimpsed for years.

Her mother, Lois Swope, and I continue the deep friendship we forged through our love of Karly. The two of us are creating a keynote presentation that features Lois’s lessons from parenting a child with serious disabilities along with my music and reflections. Karly’s voice is also included through her writings and piano compositions.

Several years after Karly’s death, Lois offered me a touching gift – a handmade pillow that included fabric from Karly’s favorite soft white blanket. Lois and her husband, Gregg, collaborated on the design, making certain it included the river both Karly and I loved, plus pine trees and a red cardinal in honor of my father.

The pillow resides in the center of my couch and is symbolic for so many precious things: Karly’s wise and generous friendship, Lois’s clever hands, Gregg’s design insights and above all, being deeply known and loved.

Gift #2

Last spring, I was doing a series of musical keynotes for a large Catholic healthcare system in South Dakota. Sister Kathleen introduced herself after one of my keynotes. She closed our lively conversation with a mysterious question: “What’s your favorite color?”

Exactly 24 hours later, Sister Kathleen presented me with an exquisite handmade paper box. Inside was a chime made of seven royal blue glass pieces joined together with fishing line. As I lifted it from the box, its delicate music filled the room. Sister then handed me a small piece of paper with a list of seven gifts she saw in me. Each piece of glass represented one of those gifts. I read her words through happy tears. Is there any better gift than being seen, known and celebrated?

That chime hangs over my dining room table as I write this. I ring it whenever I need to remember who I am.

Gift #3

There is a new blanket on my bed. It’s way too hot to sleep under it in this high summer weather, but I keep it on there during the day, just so I can feast my eyes on it.

It was a gift from my friend, Julia Dinsmore. Our friendship spans decades and is founded on mutual delight, respect, creativity and veryloud laughter. I have written about Julia here before and continue to find great nourishment from her fierce work toward healing injustice. (Here is her well-known spoken word piece recited by Danny Glover.)

Julia bought the blanket on the Fond du Lac reservation in northern Minnesota. She has known my blanket’s designer, Sarah Agaton Howes, for decades.

Julia’s gift moved me deeply. It was outlandishly generous for one thing. It’s a glorious piece full of traditional Ojibway designs and was created in collaboration with Eighth Generation, the first Native company to produce wool blankets. Each time I look at it, it sings to me of honor, respect, beauty and long friendship.

Three gifts.
Three mirrors of the love that infuses my life.

Tell me, what gifts have meant the most to you and why?

Posted in friendship, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Singing Through Grief

Your grief for what you’ve lost holds up a mirror to where you are so bravely working.
                                                                                                                            – Rumi

One hundred people stream into a large, elegant room at a Methodist Church in Minneapolis. The chairs are arranged in several large concentric circles. At the center is a huge elk antler surrounded by an elegant arrangement of colorful cloths, candles, stones and flowers.

We have gathered on this Father’s Day to sing through grief together. The work is being led by Laurence Cole, a wise elder and prolific creator of community songs. Many of the people in the room know and love his songs from singing them at my local song circles. Others have encountered him at singing gatherings in the region. He is a powerful presence – a vital septuagenarian with a booming voice and deep well of wisdom.

Our purpose for this five hours together is simple – to metabolize some of the grief we are carrying, individually and collectively, through song and story. Laurence developed this approach based on his experiences in collective grief with West African wisdom teachers, Malidoma and Sobonfu Some’, as well as Francis Weller, author of The Wild Edge of Sorrow.  He integrates what he has learned from these teachers with his own gifts of reflective listening, storytelling and community singing.

I am still sorting out all I learned about community grieving from our time of singing, storytelling, weeping, laughing and moving together. Here is what I know so far:

Grief is singular and universal at the same time

The details of another person’s grief story may be vastly different from our own but hearing the truth of it can help us recognize our shared humanity. Listening to these stories reminds us that everyone is carrying burdens.

Song and sound can help metabolize grief

Singing together gets us connected to each other on a visceral level – through breath and vibration. It also awakens our emotions and softens our defenses.

There is also great power in giving voice to our tears. Many of us weep silently if we weep at all. We train ourselves to do so as young children. Hearing others cry out or wail can be uncomfortable at first, but it can call forth our own grief songs.

Deep listening is medicinal

A fundamental wound for many of us is the belief that nobody else understands the grief we carry. The dominant culture in the United States creates deep isolation for those who are grieving. They are pressured to “be strong” and “get over it” quickly. To speak your grief story into a community and have it reflected back to you in words and song breaks that isolation for both speaker and listener alike.

There is solace in beauty

Stepping into the territory of grief can be frightening. There is mystery in there….and for most of us, a backlog of unshed tears. Seeing beautiful things gathered from the natural world – flowers, stones, feathers, a pottery bowl of water – can help us remember the larger community of life in which we abide.

Posted in grief | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment