Please tell Mind Body Spirit Magazine something about yourself and how did you get involved with this type of practice and what training have you had?
I am a composer and pianist (Guildhall School, Brunel University). I studied voice outside academia in various alternative and non-classical contexts. I have been a registered Voice Movement Therapist for over twenty years. I have been involved with Tibetan Buddhism for thirty years and learnt Tai Chi in the 1980’s.
I have written extensively for the voice, notably two full-length chamber operas; The Descent of Inanna and Siddhartha-Spirit Child, both commissioned and premiered in London by the contemporary ensemble Lontano. The operas are known for their prominent use of a mix of operatic and non-operatic voices. I have written orchestral, choral and chamber work, many songs in contemporary classical and extended vocal technique, experimental, pop and folk idioms.
I have done research into different types of singing, apart from the use of voice in a therapeutic setting, I studied with North Indian classical singers - the Misra Brothers, performance artists Meredith Monk and Ida Kelerova, Indian raga specialist Gilles Petit, spiritual teacher and voice leader Chloe Goodchild, gypsy singers from Spanish Flamenco and Balinese Temple singers. I practiced meditational chanting for many years.
I am interested in community and ran a salon des artes for eight years (ending 2009) from my home, The Loft, in North London, where I hosted around seventy events, inviting many musicians; classical, folk, jazz, Indian, African, Middle Eastern, Chinese, contemporary classical, electronic, post modern, free improvised, ambient, new age and gypsy.
In the last three years I have uncovered a new vocal-improvisation-performance and therapeutic practice, entitled, by my partner, after some exploratory singing I did at a friend's gathering, when he said –‘it feels like a vocal form of Tai Chi’. 'Vocal Tai Chi' was born in early 2009 after this rather amazing comment.
In December 2011, at a friend’s performance party, I said for the first time I would sing Vocal Tai Chi on purpose, as it were, rather than intuitively as in 2009. By naming it, prior to singing it, a discernible buzz of interest stirred the room. The response afterwards was very positive and ‘VTC’ began its journey with concerts, afternoon workshops, private sessions, master classes, a Spring school and a Winter school in the last three years.
How did I get to this point where, what was a spontaneous moment at a small, private gathering, turned into a professional creative and therapeutic practice?
Well, while many things were in place, they were not joined up within an applicable holistic practice that included all the various threads of my work. Many of the elements have been listed at the start of this interview, but making a whole fabric of all these elements was eluding me.
With my training in music I learnt to listen for nuance of musical tone, phrase, pace, form - all the elements of musical language. In combination with this I always held close to my ear, what may be called soulfulness,which, during the height of the eighties avant-garde, was not always easy. And I always had a willingness to take musical (and personal) risks when engaging with composing and singing and kept the felt-sense of my musical callings central. Along with this I found the experience and philosophy of Tai Chi provided a base of stability and fluidity that all music-making (and indeed life) needs.
So while these elements were already in my field of work and awareness somehow it was the naming of them as one 'thing' that helped me and others see the integral nature of all the elements working together. I thank Jazz Rasool for intuiting that connection between the many threads that I've followed over many years and finding just the right way to contain them in a title that neatly bridges several worlds. The work was there before the title came but the title brought it out into the world.
These various threads I've mentioned are some of the elements I help people work with in private sessions and workshops through a mix of processes. They are some of the main building blocks of creative music making and can always be attended to with increasing finesse, offering developmental outcomes at every level, from beginners to professionals.
In November 2014 I introduced Vocal Tai Chi to a ‘bigger world’ in a public event alongside the concert pianist Cassie Yukawa (played Carnegie Hall, 2008). We worked together with Bach and improvisation in an event called the The Listening Space, directed by Simon McBurney. This experience showed me that this singing approach can go beyond the workshop or ‘friends and family’ concert setting. There is an as yet untapped approach that could be developed as part of an ensemble performance - a new form of chamber music seemed to be present that evening. I am hoping to develop new artistic collaborations along these lines in the future while continuing to facilitate this work for the general public.
My next move is introducing Vocal Tai Chi in Berkeley and Woodside CA in April 2015.
Vocal Tai Chi, to be clear, is always improvised – there are no songs to learn or words to remember, only various recorded backing tracks that are optionally available as a support. When I sing Vocal Tai Chi I use my composer’s mind to guide me in the moment to some extent. What is delightful is that I am able to couple this with questions such as –
• Whereabouts in my body am I feeling the sensations, feelings or emotions that give rise to the impulses to sing right now?
• What happens if I sing, right now…even though I’m not ‘ready’?
What am I resisting - and can I let my voice go there too?
What am I resisting - and can I let my voice go there too?
• Can I work through this tension in my chest by singing in the head voice and then dropping into chest?
• What is the mood of the audience?
• What is the atmosphere in the space itself?
There are many thoughts that can wrap around the process of singing Vocal Tai Chi (above are a few examples) but eventually you find that, as you get more familiar with the idiosyncrasies of your instrument you gain confidence and the voice itself knows what to do… questions fall away.
All that remains are self-generating songs being sung just like this and never again like this. A full, unselfconscious, vibrant and authentic new music seems to evolve.
This can dissolve the barrier between performer and audience within the workshop setting moving towards a kind of social communion with all present. The listeners can experience a sense of almost co-creating with the soloist, the connection can be that close.
It seems that I have found what I have been nosing my way towards for years and I’m delighted that others are recognising the value of this by coming to events regularly.
Does your method differ from other practitioners, and in what way? Please describe your method and why it is an improvement?
I have several methods and none. One of my methods is drawing on the training I had in Voice Movement Therapy and involves a map of the voice that helps the client navigate around the range of the instrument without needing any musical experience. However, unlike Voice Movement Therapy, I work not so much towards a solely therapeutic outcome, but more towards an artistic outcome. I find this to be of a different order of experience for a number of reasons.
The therapeutic process in Vocal Tai Chi (deriving, as I say, from Voice Movement Therapy) can happen effortlessly in many instances. I think this may be because the focus in the workshops builds towards 'your solo spot' and there is an edge of exposure to this, as people know they have a chance to deliver something real and that heightens the moment for all. This is enhanced by the use of the microphone and the backing tracks which provide a recognised frame of reference that suggests so much in terms of our recognised cultural stories. There is a provocation implied by that and also a chance to make full use of the convention.
There is often a transpersonal quality that arises from the spontaneous songs coming to life in 'your spot'. Through singing a solo improvised musical performance, witnessed by others (what could be more revealing?) a declaration is made (however simple) signalling our full participation in life as it is lived in this moment. This can empower participants to feel they are singing, and indeed performing, (to fellow participants) with their truest voices. Performing in the workshops isn't a goal, but a natural part of the unfolding of the day. The listeners appreciate each other enormously and are themselves often as transformed as the performer is. It can be pretty electrifying to witness. When you sing alone you are close to an act of invocation and this can shift all in transformative ways.
This brings me to another one of my methods – singing at the microphone. Simple enough, but for many this is a scary and exciting moment. I emphasise the art singing solo in Vocal Tai Chi because the uniqueness of each person stepping out with their voice and their experience of life in that moment becomes an “I – Thou” exchange with the listeners. The cohesion of Tai Chi with individual vocal narratives creates a generous and playful environment where the light and shadow of life's waves are reflected vividly, whether or not you can 'sing'.
My main method must however be demonstration. I have become the example of the work that people are drawn to, to start their own vocal journey with VTC.
I owe a lot to my study of Indian classical music and the profound delicacy and depth of the section of the raga known as the alap. This has inspired me beyond measure and in longer workshops I introduce a session called ‘mindful singing’ which is an introduction to the SA RE GA (Doh Re Mi scale) tradition of Indian raga.
For more information, visit: www.vocaltaichi.com