I climb in my car to run some errands. The On Being podcast starts up through the speakers and I instantly recognize the voice of Parker Palmer. My face blooms into a broad smile of recognition. His words are wise and funny and nourishing as usual. And that deep, corduroy voice of his imbues them with an irresistible kindness and friendliness. What I realize today is how much I learn from his voice…how his “music” is just as much of a teaching as his “lyrics.”
I get to thinking about other teachers and their voices. I recently heard the voice of cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien in a film. How many hours have I listened to that precious voice, so recently silenced, both in person and on recordings? I wept in a confusion of appreciation and grief. How I miss her deliberate, brilliant, kind, and silly way of teaching. Even her crackling, twinkling eyes somehow leak into the sound of her voice. I am grateful for the many recordings that will keep her “song” alive now that her living voice has been silenced.
In the early 1990’s I am in the south of France studying voice with members of the Roy Hart Centre. We work many hours a day in the ancient stone buildings, opening up our voices to new heights, depths, and colors. One day I step into the blazing midday sun and hear my beloved teacher Saule Ryan’s voice echoing across the valley. I respond to it viscerally. I have followed that voice like a beacon into unknown territories of voice and life. It means so many things to me – safety, challenge, friendship, joy. I step into a practice room and begin crafting a song for him. I put these words in the middle of it: “Wrapped in the silk and moss of your voice, I tell the truth, I have no other choice.” A few days later when it is finished, I play it for him for the first time – voice shaking, tears leaking. He is touched by the gift.
I have never recorded that song, but I do make a point of singing it for Saule every year when he comes Minnesota to co-teach our annual workshop. It’s a ritual I offer as a way of expressing my gratitude for his long and generous presence in my life. How fitting that I use the voice he called into the world to sing his song to him.
Over many years of voice coaching, I’ve worked with many teachers – those with the formal title and those whose work involves the practice of teaching in some way. When we teach or parent or lead, we are planting powerful memories in the people around us. Our voices echo on in their lives forever — whispering encouragement, conveying wisdom, cheering them on. When they recall what we’ve told them, they will also remember how we said it.
What beloved teachers are singing their wisdom into your life? How do their voices – or the memory of them – still influence you? What is the “song” you want to plant in the people around you? And what are the ways you can make it more beautiful and true?