Learning – teaching – learning – teaching

Reflecting on my fledgling practice as a singing teacher and building on my observations of other voice teachers last semester, has been a very rich experience for me, and educative in its own right. I haven’t been able to limit myself to learning and discovering about being a voice teacher in particular, and have found my reflections going deeper: what makes a teacher a good teacher (outside of effectively transmitting the skills and competencies of the discipline)? What are the conditions necessary for effective learning and how does one create them? What is it to step into the position of power and responsibility that a teacher has? This has led me to reflect on my teaching practice as it relates to a number of themes: holding spaceacknowledgement, impeccability, integritywitness, and service. For me, these themes relate to a variety of different, but similar roles: the teacher, the ritual leader, the workshop facilitator – anyone who is holding, guiding and facilitating processes of learning and change for others. This has been a very useful distinction / clarification for me that links this unit in vocal pedagogy with ritual studies, for example, and gives me plenty to ‘go on with’ as I take everything I’ve learned from MARCS into future work and life.

Holding Space: Safety, honour, ‘I’ve been there’

  • This is a quality or capacity that is intangible, and perhaps not clearly definable, but I believe essential. What does it mean?
  • In the first instance it is about creating and maintaining safe space. Without feeling safe, the (voice) student will not be able to open themselves, be vulnerable, let go of what they thought they knew, expose themselves publicly, and share their voice – ergo a deeply personal aspect of themselves…. All of which are necessary for effective learning, especially at any deeper levels than cognitive or informational learning.
  • To feel safe, I need to know that I am seen and respected for who I am, listened to and valued. So I believe that to create this as a teacher, I need to deal with myself in whatever way necessary (as well as taking care of the practical necessities) so that I can be present to my students in this way.
  • I also believe that in order to guide and facilitate processes where one must let go of certainties, and take big risks (therefore anything that relates to the voice and performance), I as teacher, need to have “gone there”… I need to have experienced the trust and vulnerability it takes to ‘go there’. This is something that is communicated tacitly to students that is intangible, but also in my experience clearly felt (if not articulable).

Acknowledgement: honesty, vulnerability, ‘returning to neutral’

  • I must be willing to acknowledge (appropriately) any breakdowns I’ve caused, to ‘fess up’ to mistakes, however difficult that might be, as this is the only way to restore trust that’s been broken.
  • Without acknowledgement of ‘what’s so’ the group dynamic will be out of kilter, undermining the trust and safety held in the group, and therefore inhibiting real learning and transmission.
  • Acknowledgement has the ability to ‘return to neutral’ the group dynamic, diffusing discordant energies and emotions.
  • My job as teacher is to acknowledge and not seek acknowledgement from my students.

Impeccability: being organised, timely, ‘on top of things,’ count-on-able.

  • I’ve realised that having a solid and dependable foundation of the ‘small things’ (ie. things relating to administration and organisation) must be in place in order for the big and important things to be built.
  • Impeccability in organisation is, in a way, the least of what’s necessary, but without it, the most important things – relationships, sharing, learning and transmission – will be hindered.
  • This is not about being rigid or holding excessively to practical necessities at the cost of spontaneity and adaptability to the contingencies of life. It’s about creating a solid and dependable container, or foundation, to safely hold the processes and dynamics of a group in flux (ie a group that is learning).

Integrity: honouring my word, holding myself to account

  • For me this is primarily about the relation I have to my word: what I say and write, ‘promise’ explicitly and implicitly. It’s primarily about holding myself accountable to my word, for without this, I cannot hold anyone else accountable to theirs. This kind of accountability is essential for the teacher / student relationship because it creates something solid, something dependable and something to stand on and create from.
  • Integrity is about having a clear yes and a clear no, communicating clearly and decisively so that the people around me know where they stand.

Witness: Really listening, really seeing. Beholding with care and without judgement.

  • This is a quality of attention one brings to a relationship that acknowledges the being and experience of another. It is about really listening; really looking, and holding another in one’s awareness without judgement or analysis (which are nevertheless important critical faculties of the teacher).
  • Part of this is being actually interested in my students. Asking them what’s important to them, wondering what’s going on for them, what makes them tick, what’s going on behind the surface.
  • The teacher – as the one who has more experience, wisdom, skill and knowing in the area being taught – also needs the capacity to witness that which the student themself is unaware of, in the sense of listening for the presence / absence then growing and development of a particular faculty or capacity.

Service: What am I in service of? Gathering and strengthening from the bottom up.

  • This for me comes from my faith in Christ, as the model of servant-leadership: the one who puts others first and above, and is of service from the lowest rung, always gathering and affirming and strengthening and uplifting the last and least. (aspirational goal!)
  • It’s about realising that it’s not about me. Teaching-as-service is about asking the question: What am I in service of?
  • It’s about love. Listening to where my students are at, what their needs are, what’s important to them, and crafting my teaching / facilitation from there. It’s about recognising and being responsive to the shifting energy of a group, and being willing to let it be different from what I thought it would be… Truly meeting the group where it is.


Beatitudes for a new year

Blessed are the unattractive for they will be found beautiful in the eyes of God.

Blessed are the dull, for they will shine.

Blessed are those who have been broken open by life, for they shall be channels of grace.

Blessed are the baffled, for they shall find coherence.

Digital Camera

Blessed are they that fail, for they shall be the chosen of God.

broken machine

Blessed are the rotten, for they shall become good compost.

Thomond waterlilies

Blessed are the strugglers, for they will find their home in God.

DSC_0833 (1)

Blessed are the stuck, for they will be drawn into divine flow.


Blessed are they who are left behind, for they shall be the beloved of God.

A perfect calibration of engagement and freedom

More like a king

I’ve just been writing a reflection on my journey so far with the Alexander Technique for which we have one group session once a week. I thought you might be interested, and you’re not getting anything else out of me this week, amidst chant transcription exercises, transcribing an interview on the practice of Kirtan chanting, learning my new chant Lilium Floruit, reading about the respiratory muscles, attending my first vocal masterclass and heavens, drinking a well-deserved pint.

The Alexander Technique (proudly Australian) “doesn’t teach you something new to do. It teaches you how to bring more practical intelligence into what you are already doing; how to eliminate stereotyped responses; how to deal with habit and change. It leaves you free to choose your own goal but gives you a better use of yourself while you work toward it.” (Frank Pierce Jones)

NB. “Semi-supine” is a relaxation posture used in the Alexander Technique where you lie on the ground with a book about three finger-widths high under your head, and your knees bent, feet flat on the ground.

* * *

Tomorrow will be our fifth class of Alexander Technique and we are in our sixth week of practice. It’s quite wonderful to look back upon my early reflections and to notice where I am now. There are a whole lot of things I’m aware of that I didn’t use to be. I’m more aware of how my head sits on my neck and what the feeling is when it is fixed, rigid, held in place, and what the feeling is when I am allowing it to be free, even to a small degree. And I’m more aware of how this pattern of control, of self-protection, this fearful and defensive reaction to life manifests in my neck, but is actually an inner attitude that plays out in my whole physicality, thoughts-actions, and in my being itself. To allow my neck to be free is such a simple directive and I watch myself and my classmates almost turn it into a joke. For me, I think this is because I’m actually profoundly confronted by the implications of this directive, my general incapacity to enact it, and the very sobering realisation that probably ever single facet of my life, my behaviour and my physicality is to some degree governed by fear – and the ‘control’ I seek to gain in reaction to that fear.

I’ve been more aware of that than usual and it’s uncomfortable.

Regular practice in semi-supine has been so deeply wonderful and such a gift to me. I have been practising about three or four days out of five and find it to be astonishingly powerful, working in ways that are completely mysterious to me. Most tangibly evident to me: I feel like it restores my body to neutral, and for that, is more restful, more relaxing, more restoring by far than doing some kind of ‘chilling out’ activity or even having a sleep. In fact often I’ll get up feeling as if I have had a sleep. I use it to begin my breathing-for-singing exercises and vocal practice and it is surprisingly potent in accomplishing what I don’t think I would know how to accomplish otherwise – that is, to do my breathing exercises from a relaxed and neutral body rather than kind of ‘on top of’ whatever I would have just been doing. It also provides a very clear break between the precious activity and my vocal practice which is no small thing. I can come off the back of an eight hour day, do my twenty minutes in semi-supine and then practice / sing for nearly an hour with fresh vital energy.

An unexpected result of this practice is that it seems to also restore my emotional body to neutral, and this is of HUGE significance and benefit to me. I am very porous to the world around me and other people’s energies and emotions can impact me to quite a high degree, let alone my own intense emotional life and deep feelings. Being here beginning this course has felt like something of a whirlwind of people, information, demands, new possibilities, new opportunities and it has been an emotional roller coaster with feelings of overwhelm. An additional factor is that I’m without most of my support structures and the main absence I feel keenly is the lack of physical touch, hugs, physical closeness with people I love. This is relevant because without this outlet for my emotional energy it just keeps building until it comes out in crying or irritation. What I’ve found with semi-supine is that somehow, magically, the emotional energy sort of drains away and leaves me relaxed, and no longer under this inner pressure. Also, and very interestingly to me, I’ll be lying there and it’s not uncommon for me to start sobbing in a strong way. The strange thing is it’s not necessarily that I feel sad or in an ‘emotional mood’ either before or after this sobbing. My best way of understanding it is that it is a emotional and physical shaking up, shaking out, shedding and releasing that happens in my musculature as well as through the emotional release.

Something else I’ve noticed in doing the semi-supine is a noticeable drop in my shoulders, and not only do they sit lower, I can also consciously draw them down which is something I did not even know was possible. This release has been accompanied by much tenderness in the muscles there, especially the trapezius muscles. For quite a while there I was almost in constant slight pain / discomfort, and they are still moderately tender, especially after I stand up from semi-supine. I take this as a good sign!

There’s so much more I could say. I’m reading Alexander’s The Use of the Self and there are so many light bulbs going off, and revelations small and large. The questions it is raising are ones such as:

What would it be to extend my awareness to the whole, to the source of my voice and not just what I think in a reductive way, my ‘voice’ is and what it is connected to? What would it be if I did not tamper or interfere with the most blessed and natural workings of the body, but soften, deepen, drop so much deeper than that, right to the inside of the inside? What would it be to place my action here right down at the roots of things, and have that action be so precise, so exactly placed that it need only be absolutely minuscule? What kind of doing is a not-doing, a refraining from doing? Is the very best we can do, to enact ‘right-conditions’ so that life will simply do what life does in us? Where indeed is our agency at all, given that Alexander found, he was completely unable to do what he wanted to do (consciously move his head forward and up) as soon as he had the impulse to speak? What is this tremendous intelligence in the human being that will enact grace in every moment if only it is allowed?

A life well-lived is not a process of error-correction, but living a dynamic posture of readiness, a perfect calibration of engagement and freedom, poise. This is what I long for.

My window has been open for days

The rowan berries are ripe

The rowan berries are ripe

My window has been open for days now, and there is a canopy of life above my bed: spiders, midges, moths, beetles. I’m at my desk drinking a finger of Green Spot whiskey from my thermos lid, listening to David Whyte and practising calligraphy with a swan quill pen.

It’s Thursday evening: the moment of relieved exhalation after another intense three-day-week is completed. Tomorrow there is the washing to be done. And a rehearsal for a service in the concert hall we’ve been asked to sing at to remember all those of the UL community who have died during its 40 years, celebrated this year. And four of “we five” will meet for tea in the Pavilion cafe to debrief, laugh, vent and write our list of things that need to be done for next week.

This afternoon we continued learning a Georgian song “Lazhghvash” from Sydney, a twenty-six year old doctoral student here with a glorious and shining love of Georgian music and people. She’s blind and has the most beautiful smile: a smile that doesn’t know what it looks like. Smile as a pure, simple expression of the inside. She tells us random details of village life in Svaneti. Did you know that the “Greek” legend of Jason and the golden fleece actually originates from here in the Caucus mountains, where they used to use fleeces to ‘pan’ for gold in the rivers? She has us pronounce the ‘v’ like half-way between a [v] and a [w] and try to make the glottal stop like a sound Gollum would make. As you can see from the song title, Georgian (well, actually, ‘Svan’ – a related language) is no stranger to stringing consonants together. Their three-part polyphony is really something. To Western ears it is threaded with ear-crunching dissonance but the amazing thing is that once it’s in your ears it becomes the most natural, effortless, sustaining, robust braid of harmony. It is such a joy to sing, the middle line an unapologetic second below the top for the first run of notes, and the men an open fifth below the sopranos. The sound sits forward right on the outside of your face, vibrating in your nose, while your throat is relaxed. Sydney’s face is a lamp, rippling with expression. You can tell she’s hearing every voice in the ensemble. Afterwards she and I walk back together to Thomond our student village, her hand resting in the crook of my elbow. It’s such welcome touch and human contact. For all the friendly interactions of my days, nothing can ever replace the warmth of bodies touching, and the nourishment of that kind of easy togetherness.

Today I did a presentation on resonance for our vocal pedagogy class. People. I had no idea of the utter miracle it is that we can speak and sing at all and I bow to the intelligence by whom we are created for we are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made. Of all the musical instruments that exist our own humble voice stands alone in that we can consciously control not just the power behind the sound (our breath) and the source of the sound (the vocal folds), but also the resonating chambers within our bodies that shape, filter and channel the sound. The sound of our voice doesn’t simply travel from the vocal folds up the throat and out the mouth. There is an incredibly complex play of echoes and sound reflections which amplify and enrich the sound as it passes through the vocal tract, without which our voice could never be heard at all, let alone above an orchestra in a thousand-seat concert hall (I’m not quite there yet).

The world is an amazing place.

Love, Wildgoose.

“Though your destination is not yet clear                                                                             You can trust the promise of this opening;                                                                           Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning                                                                         That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;                                                                                       Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;                                                                      Soon you will be home in a new rhythm                                                                                     For your soul senses the world that awaits you.”

From John O’Donohue ‘For a New Beginning’

Oh the things you can do when the sun is shining!

My kind of ruin! Except I couldn't get in.

Desmond Castle: My kind of ruin! Except I couldn’t get in.

Ice-cream weather!

Ice-cream weather!

The last three days have been warm and sunny and everyone is mad with joy. I have to say that living in Fremantle I used to take it completely for granted.. you know… ten, twelve, fourteen hours of sunshine a day. Here in Limerick, the sun peeps out from scurrying clouds and immediately everyone rushes outdoors, girls put on their short shorts, the ice-cream carts tinkle their bells and people start randomly sunbathing on any available patch of grass. It’s pretty fun. On Saturday, Robin and I went on another little adventure trip, this time to the village of Adare, a short bus trip from Limerick City. It was definitely ice-cream weather.

We went to the farmers market where there were all of four stalls and I bought eggs and soil-covered carrots from someone’s garden with the most delicious carroty smell. Then we went to a shop that was selling everything you might want (and many, many things you might not want) as Christmas decorations. I was creeped out by the animatronic teddies blowing bubbles, elves on flying foxes, and Santas, but Robin hasn’t seen Dr Who, so she didn’t know they were about to turn evil, get up off their chairs and start coming for us. We

Cream tea at Miss Crumpet's

Cream tea at Miss Crumpet’s

had scones and coffee at Miss Crumpet’s tea shop(pe) upstairs which was also a bit scary, you know, doilies and decorative plates etc. but Frank Sinatra was playing and we had an in-depth discussion about resonance and what it sounds like when people get nodes on their vocal cords… Like, what actually ARE the vocal cords? Until last week I didn’t even know. I do know now, I’ve been reading up and looking on YouTube. aMAZing, people! As the breath passes through them vocal cords, or vocal folds as they tend to be called these days, look like the trembling lips of a beautiful mollusc, rippling with waves of vibrations. Embarrassingly, I thought the ‘cords’ were vertical (…somehow…), and many. Okay, enough of that before I reveal too much! We have a class called Vocal Health and Pedagogy and I’m learning all about what’s going on down in there. It is so miraculous, so amazing, such an intricate dance of intention and coordination, breath making sound by vibrating the folds, muscles adjusting the resonance chamber and articulating the sound into words and pitches. Wow. Anyway, talking shop made it okay to be sitting in Miss Crumpets.

Looking into the inner courtyard

Looking into the inner courtyard of the Black Abbey

When we left we did my favourite thing: go poking around old ruins. Today’s were a 700-800 year old Augustinian friary thrillingly called The Black Abbey. I thought of the monks walking around and around the beautiful stone cloister come rain or shine. I hope they had a monastery cat who would sit on the window sill and purr. And they I went and sat under a Linden tree which is a holy temple itself.

Auntie Linden tree

Auntie Linden tree

A little way up the river we came across an interpretation board with all the Riperian creatures painted as a mural: kingfisher and otter, dragonfly and oak, marsh marigold, greenshank, red-breasted this and black-headed that… all with their Irish names. I’ve copied them out and I’m going to ask our Irish song teacher Nóirín ní Riain, how to pronounce them. There’s something very precious about being able to address the animals and plants of a place by their own names.

The lovely window and the secret entrance

The lovely window and the secret entrance

From our vantage point we could see the gorgeous old ruins of Desmond Castle – as you see from the picture at the top of this post. I got as close as I could by walking against speeding traffic up a stone wall-flanked road and then climbing over that wall onto its grounds. But sadly it was all closed up and I had to content myself with peering in the arrow slits. Have a look at at beautiful window sitting so sweet in the ruined wall. Who looked out of there at the rising moon, I wonder. At the very bottom of the photo you’ll see an arched entrance to a tunnel. It was a ten foot long passage through to the inner grounds, with only about a foot of clear water  to wade through. I was so tempted to take of my sneaks and roll up my jeans, but something got the better of me. Wish I had, now.

Old tapestry cushion still in use at the Trinitarian Priory

Old tapestry cushion still in use at the Trinitarian Priory

Another church we visited had this little tapestry gem in it. And a marble monument on the wall that said this: “To the Memory of the Reverend John Quin who died by a fall from his horse on the 18th day of November 1789 in the 28th year of his life. Whose eminent virtues adorned with shining talents, captivating and amiable manners will long be remembered and regretted.” Can’t you just see him.

Well, good people, here ends tonight’s little tale. Hope you’re getting some ice-cream weather where you are too.

Love, Lucy

Killaloe: hermits, flags and Harry’s windows

Looking down towards St Flannan's Cathedral

Looking down towards St Flannan’s Cathedral

After a tiring, wonderful and generally overstimulating first week of classes, my classmate Robin and were both keen to get off campus and away from Limerick, to talk about something else besides chant notation, online early music resources, and how to pronounce our names in Irish. Mine’s Sailsa by the way, pronounced SILEsha, meaning emanating light. Hers is Spideog, meaning… Robin. We decided a bit of an explore into the surrounding countryside would be the go. I had met an Irish couple Cieran and Emer (and baby Kate) in our Library cafe and they’d told me all about their gorgeous town of Killaloe [Kill-a-loo] which has a Romanesque cathedral with the best acoustics for singing, plus a lake where you just have to take a boat out to the monk’s cell on an island, plus this, plus that. Cieran got quite excited really. So for our first little trip, Killaloe was the clear winner. I had a look online, found our bus route and a tourist website for the town, and began to get just a bit excited myself.

Rebuilt stone for stone when its little island home was flooded for a hydroelectricity scheme in the 1930s.

Rebuilt stone for stone when its little island home was flooded for a hydroelectricity scheme in the 1930s.

Here are just a few of the wonders of Killaloe in County Clare, gateway to Lough Derg, Ireland’s “pleasure lake.” The town was named after St Lua or Molua who was a contemporary of St Brendan. We’re talking the 500s here. Lua was hermit before he was a saint, and lived in the little house / church you can see here. It used to be on an island in the Shannon river, but when in the 1930s it was realised a hydroelectricity scheme would submerge the little island, they rebuilt it on higher ground, the highest ground in town, actually, in the grounds of the Catholic church on the top of the hill.  Here it stands in all its sweet loveliness and simplicity. And as you can see it was the best weather in Ireland of the whole year.

Actually, where they placed it is most likely where the King’s palace stood. King’s palace? you ask. Well, yes. Because Killaloe was actually the seat of Ireland’s High Kings for over a

King Brian. Looks like the work of the "Watchtower" illustrator.

King Brian. Looks like the work of the “Watchtower” illustrator.

century. The most well known of these kings was Brian Boru (941 – 1014) and the astute among you will see that next year is the 1000th anniversary of his death. He had just been successful against a hoard of marauding vikings at the battle of Clontarf (yes, Clontarf, Fremantle, people) and was chilling out in his tent, when a rogue viking came in and killed him. His hill-fort-palace of Kincora disappeared long ago, but it’s nice to know the layers of history as we potter around Lua’s house, on top of Brian’s house, next to “God’s House” though for me, this particular one I think of as Harry’s house. Oh Harry.

St Brigid

St Brigid

Harry Clarke I had not heard of until I was visiting the Trinity College library shop a few weeks ago and buying them out of Kells reproduction postcards. The nice lady behind the desk said, oh we have some other very nice postcards by Harry Clarke, stained glass artist. Do you know him? I went and had a look and was greeted by the sensual and melancholic gaze of three dark eyed women who apparently were St Brigid, St Ita and St Dymphna. Gothic. Intense. Erotic. Richly-coloured in purples and burgandy and indigo. Wow. Stunning. Harry grew up in an artsy Dublin family in the late 19th Century, went to art school and followed his father as a craftsman and artist in stained glass. Highly influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement as well as the forms and vibrancy of Art Nouveau, he illustrated many books including collections by Hans Christian Anderson and Edgar Allan Poe. He continued to work his whole life in stained glass though, (taking over as designer when his father died) and it was probably what killed him as well: he died at 42 of tuberculosis, a likely result of the toxic chemicals they worked with.

Harry's Angels

Harry’s Angels

The sacred heart

The sacred heart

There are three windows in St Flannan’s Catholic Church by “J.Clarke and sons” which means that they are amongst his earlier works when he was still working under his father as master craftsman. They do not show the pure flamboyance and originality of his solo work, but as you see, they are absolutely stunning.

So I’m on a mission now to visit as many of Harry’s windows as I can while I’m here. There are over a hundred I think. Amazingly, there is also one in Australia: St Stephen’s Cathedral in Brisbane.

… Anyway back to Killaloe.

Robin and I had a gorgeous day of gorgeous weather. In case these two churches weren’t enough, there was also St Flannan’s Cathedral down on the river bank, a gorgeous old girl, solid and sturdy with her square tower apparently climbable, but sadly not this day. Inside was a twelfth century High Cross and a carved stone with both (Viking) runes and Ogham. Who knows how long and how many blood blisters and stubbed thumbs it took Thorgrimr to carve it. He wrote: Thorgrimr carved this cross. A blessing on Thorgrimr. Bless him indeed.

The Cathedral also has a Romanesque doorway from the 1100s, which has a quiet, vibrant loveliness to it, with its Chevrons (the v-shaped carvings) and menagerie of strange animals and vines, curling around the balanced and simple form. Of course you’ll think we sang in there, but actually we were both a bit shy, and it was so very resonant, it’s like you had to be pretty confidant to just launch into something. Work in progress, the old chant, eh.

The Romanesque arch

The Romanesque arch 

Apart from churches, we found a great health food shop where I ran the risk of spending my life savings on some organic buckwheat, some red lentils and a bottle of shampoo. Robin bought a Clare flag. Up Clare! they say here. Up the banner! Clare was in the all-Ireland hurling championship Saturday week ago, and in a thrilling point scored as the buzzer sounded, drew the match with Cork. They will

Up the banner!

Up the banner!

play again next weekend, and in the meantime, the blue and yellow is strewn far and wide, flags hanging from every window and bunting across the streets. My gosh, hurling is a sport. Actually it’s the fastest field sport that exists, sort of a bit like hockey crossed with lacross but without a little net to hold the ball on your stick. The slither (ball) is made of hard leather and head protection only became the norm a few years ago. How many teeth are lying an inch under the turf on the hurling fields around Ireland I hate to think.

Anyway, thank you Killaloe, we love you. We’ll be back in 2014 to celebrate your millennium and hopefully organise a staged reenactment of the Battle of Clontarf on Clontarf Hill in Fremantle, eh!

And on we go into week two!

Wildgoose signing out.


Hitting the ground running

Well I’ve been on campus for ten days now and it has felt like a ceaseless, vibrant and dizzying flow of beginnings. No time (or conducive space) for journal writing, calling home, going for a run – or this blog, as it seems, unless I very purposefully carve it out. Here goes!

So MARCS (Master of Arts in Ritual Chant and Song) is a full year course with two taught semesters and then a final project to complete over the Summer next year. This can be a dissertation, half research and half performance, or a full performance. Though it’s very early, I’m leaning towards the half-half option. Even though I’d love to sink my teeth into a longer piece of research, the performance side is definitely going to be the more challenging for me and therefore offer more room to grow and develop. The course itself is considered to be half applied (performance) and half academic based, with the performance side covering Gregorian chant, early music polyphony, Irish vocal traditions including Sean nós, and world sacred music. The academic side will involve aspects of ritual studies, history and notation of chant, and some ethnomusicology. Then we get to choose electives for both semesters which can involve specialised study in whatever area we wish. This is VERY exciting and I already have a hundred things I wish I could do.

Who are we? Well there are five of us in our course: Robin from South Carolina is a choir teacher in a girls’ school with a piano background and she’s taken a year’s leave of absence to be here. Morgan is from Pennsylvania, a church organist and music therapy graduate – and our only guy: a lovely tenor. Femke has lived in Ireland since the age of two (from the Netherlands) and graduated last year from one of the Irish World Academy undergrad programs. She has a little daughter with her fiance who she met doing ethnomusicological fieldwork in Ghana, and is currently our fount of knowledge for how things work in the academy, where things are on campus, and how to do the trilly ornaments in the chants. Meg is from Sydney and has been singing the Latin Mass (ie. the Gregorian chant that we are learning) for three years, and hence asks all sorts of technical and informed questions that make me nervous. She wants to solidify her experience in chant performance in order to bring it back to Australia. We range in age from 24 for 43, and so far are all getting on very well! This is good because though we have some classes which cross-over into other discipline areas, like ethnomusicology for instance, for the main part it’s just us.

We are automatically members of two vocal groups in the Academy: Lucernarium is just the five of us and will focus on early music, different Western chant traditions (think: Gregorian chant) and polyphonic music (my favourite! In harmony). Sonas is a larger group and – wonderfully – is taught completely aurally, so no reading music or burying our heads in the words. It is a world music choir and I think different people can introduce songs as we go along. I’ve also been asked to join a Georgian voice ensemble which is one aspect of the doctoral work of Sydney Freedman who is doing a PhD in arts practice (youpie!!). For those of you who don’t know, I sang for a year with an a cappella group Shalva who sing Eastern European music and I just love it. Georgian music has thrillingly dissonant harmonies.

I’m writing this on Wednesday evening of our first week of classes and we basically have three full days: Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday into which fall the majority of our 20-odd contact hours. With extra rehearsals, private lessons, observing other lessons, fitting in our electives and.. errrr… living, I think that will be plenty! It has been a very tiring couple of weeks with so much information to take in, uni administration to take care of, hoards of people – all of them new to me – and all the normal settling in to a new place. Kudos to all international students out there, especially those in a foreign language setting.

My little room in Thomond Village

My little room in Thomond Village

I’m up in my room / study on the third floor of Thomond village (pronounced TOEmond, not theMOND as I had thought) with the light fading outside and a trembling wall of green. When the window’s open I can hear the Blackwater river shooshing and murmuring down there, its last solo melody before joining the Shannon just fifty or so metres further down. I love my room, little sanctuary, and already feeling homey. It’s one of four in an apartment which I share with three Irish lads, Alan, Mikey and Daniel, studying Music Technology (the first two) and a Grad Cert in P.E. Alan and Mikey and I have already had a week or so together and get on like a house on fire. Daniel just moved in last night, and is a sweet fellow, huge, with a tick* Kerry accent that I have trouble making out.

Sorry folks, I’m running out steam, here, so I’m just going to give some broad brush strokes of other aspects of life here and the course. We begin our three big days with either Alexander technique or a yoga / pilates / somatics class, all geared towards body awareness and suppleness, and finding and accessing the natural voice in the most easeful and economical way – some (much) of which involves unlearning a lot of the postural and tension habits reinforced over time. I am so thrilled about this aspect.

I’ve had two solo voice lessons so far, one with Catherine Sargent who is one of our chant specialist tutors and the other with Marie Walsh who is going to be “tormenting us” (her words) with technique. I was SO nervous before the first lesson. All the other four have a stronger musical background than me, and it feels like a huge leap to be singing in this way and to this standard. I haven’t had a singing lesson since 1994 (failed voice lessons at high school with Mrs Saltmarsh) and haven’t had anyone work with me on my voice or technique or anything. So I’m sort of half a little bit freaking out which isn’t helping when I’m trying to sight sing or listen to and repeat a melody. From a slightly bigger perspective, I tell myself that I’m doing just fine, to not expect myself to be someone I’m not, and simply to learn the absolute most I can from this. The steeper the learning curve the better the view from the top, no? With Marie, we are beginning with breathing, and I’m doing daily exercises involving holding breath and shhhhing and sssssing in various positions for different lengths. And from Niall, our Alexander teacher today, I actually felt what it’s like to breathe into my back and not all out the front. Amazing!

Okay! First entry done. Off to bed to read (boring dry) textbook on Gregorian chant and (juicy, inspiring) book called Freeing the Natural Voice.




* I kid you not, it is a very tick accent