A Woman’s Place is On Top of a Mountain

It’s raining. Well, the sky was half-heartedly snowing and then it lost its half-heart and the snow weakened into tired grey sleety lines and now the air is just dripping and seeping and the colours of the sky and the air and the clouds and the trees and the ground are all on a palette that flows from palest grey to deepest green brown.

I’ve lit the stove, so I can smell the outside inside. I’m sorting papers. Piles and piles of sheet music are spread out on the living room floor spanning 40 years – yes, really – of singing and thinking and writing and music-making. I keep finding poems lost amongst the notes.

I wrote this one in 2005, I think….can’t quite remember. It feels to me like I wrote it this morning.

a woman’s place

is on top of a mountain

in any weather


in the fog

tracing the outline of earth’s body

with solid boots


in the sun

merging earth and sky

a clean channel


in the rain

dripping with simplicity


so the thing is to go to the tops of mountains

and then sing

you can sing the colours

and you can sing the air


you can breathe up there

you can touch the bones of the earth

up there


on the tops of mountains

water is clear

stones are hard

earth is scanty


skeletons and feathers

speak to you

of endings and beginnings

the dense ground

the rotting vegetation

speaks to you

of endings and beginnings


so the thing is to go to the tops of mountains

and then sing

silently is fine

loudly is also fine

on the tops of mountains

your loud feels very quiet

and your quiet fills cathedrals


a small immensity of skylarks

welcomes you

so sing


Ground Elder

It’s a pretty plant. Soft, luminous green; pointy leaves – you can look it up. The thing is, it strangles everything else in the flowerbeds. So I am trying to remove it from the little sheltered side garden of what used to be my parents’ house here in the west of Ireland, in order to have blooms. I want the flowers of childhood memory – nasturtiums, sweet williams, lavender, jonquils, ox-eye daisies, wild roses, night-scented stock, phlox…

I have not yet closely examined why I want these flowers so much, in the garden of a house where I will probably spend no more than three months of the year, and half of that when the flowers aren’t in bloom; yet I am driven. Ground elder breaks off easily in the hand, and this is not a good thing, because it makes it harder to get to the roots. First attempts to clear the beds were not a success. I then began to learn that you have to  – literally – root around deep down, with the gloved hand, and find the matted web of bleached root-rope that supports them. This weaving seems to stretch under the entire garden. The deeper I dig the more I find, and the longer the threads that I tear out. I feel as if this rooting out, this disentangling, this excavating might never end  – every time I leave the garden for a few weeks and return I find a new brushing of the tender shoots in a new place. They appear to be growing weaker, however – I think I am starting to cut off the nourishment and diminish their power.

I think it is time to replant. The bare earth invites the creeping tendrils of the buried past. Tomorrow I will bring new plants to colonise this raked over soil, and begin the garden again.

Bem-te-vi Six


I’m no geographer or cosmologist, but I’m certain that the light in the Southern hemisphere is different to the light in the Northeast of England. It has a flat, sharp quality; a deep intensity that seems to me to illuminate with particularly unflinching exposure. It feels concrete and palpable, something to touch, resist and be absorbed by. Between 4.30 and 6 pm the light is positively animate; nostalgic, accusing, revealing, caressing…. In that light I can hear the great tall buildings of Sao Paulo strike against the sky like a choir of metal bells; the drapes of shadow on the low houses murmur lost pasts; the bustling, jostling, strolling crowds in the streets seem to whirl and flock  and call and cry like wild birds before night roosting. The morning light starts dull, teasing me gently awake around 6 am, and as I assemble myself after the dissolve of sleep, so does the light, growing in character and confidence until by 7:15 or so it is determinedly washing the city clean for the day.

Many mornings I leave the house around that time to take the metro to Luz, the station nearest to EMESP, where Guri Santa Marcelina is based. The journey takes around 25 minutes, and as I emerge into Luz at the Rua Maua exit in the lemon grey morning the streets are still relatively quiet. Every few yards or so someone is asleep on the pavement, often under an ripped grey blanket; sometimes just on the ground, limbs akimbo in the defenceless grace of sleep. Some people are sitting up, many shaking in anticipation of the day’s first fix, some just staring quietly. Snack bars, newspaper stands and cheap clothes shops are just opening and there’s a powerful cocktail of smells – cheese, piss, sweat, tobacco smoke, coffee, excrement, garlic…..

Sala Sao Paulo, the premier concert hall of the city and home to OSESP (SP State Symphony Orchestra) is five minutes’ walk from Luz. Its grand 19th century doorways make shelter for night sleepers, and its elegant façade looks out over a square that is a focal point for the hundreds of crack addicts, trash pickers and other homeless citizens who live here in what is also called Cracolandia. People sit on the street in a dazed lethargy, then spring up and with jittery manic gestures move swiftly to new spots. All are thin, and many look injured or are lacking a limb. Crack and dope dealing take place quietly, visibly and efficiently. Many people wheel carts or shopping trolleys filled with scrap and garbage which can be sorted and traded, or carrying limbless people. An anxious young woman crosses the road and drops a shiny 10 inch kitchen knife from her sleeve. An old man washes his hands in water from a bottle before eating rice from a paper plate on the pavement beside his piles of trash.

Each time I walk through Luz I experience it as a bright mirror held up to my own soul, reflecting back to me the fear, embarrassment, shame, and denial that rise up as I walk past these sisters and brothers. This is not something about Sao Paulo – this is something about being human, and how we choose to distance ourselves from the suffering of others in order to protect our own illusion of well-being. However, there are people here pushing through that veil of denial. I had the profound privilege to walk around Cracolandia with the coordinator of De Braços Abertos (Open Arms), a programme that reaches out to offer support, friendship, health care, training, employment and housing to the estimated 1,000 or so addicts and homeless people here. Evilásio de Jesus is a small man, with bright eyes and a quiet, focused manner; glowing with love, strength, and an absolutely steely determination. As we walk past the makeshift shelters and the huddled groups, people jump up to embrace him, gripping his arm and gesticulating, words tumbling out to be translated, telling me all the ways that he and the project are bringing light into their lives – help with doctors, a hostel bed, a job – but what shines stronger than all of these material things is the radiance of respect.

The project has a simple premise – people need to work to earn money to live. The work at this stage is mostly street cleaning, but they are now providing training in a number of practical trades. There is also a safe street level space where anyone can come for a rest, to play music, have a soft drink, see a doctor; and a restaurant where project members cook and serve food to others. No one is required to be drugs clean to participate in the programme – if you can turn up to work you get paid. If you are too stoned to turn up to work, you don’t get paid. Not everyone in SP agrees with the premise of the programme; but to me it seems utterly brilliant – touching, loving and respecting the inner light of in each person, and inviting each soul into a warm embrace. There are nearly 400 people now participating, with clear positive impacts.

Walking back to Luz station in the evening the energy is different. People sit in chairs on the pavement and drink beer, workers stand in the cafes eating pastels and drinking coffee, women lean on doorways to the narrow stairs leading up to rent-by-hour hotel rooms; there is laughter and shouting and many different kinds of music coming from the open fronts of bars, shops and cafes, children and parents hurry to bus stops. We crowd at the edges of the pavement, watching men dart out on the crossings to clean car windows, sell water or sweets, juggle or breakdance, or just walk down the lines of traffic holding up cardboard signs saying JANTAR? (dinner?). We wait for the red to change to green and surge towards the station, pouring down the escalator into the tunnels, turning away once more from the sharp, revealing, demanding light of Luz.


Bem-te-vi Five

The Procession of our Lady of Achiropita

My friend Paulo Bezulle and I  walk northwest from my apartment through a pleasant, very Paulista mix of modern apartment buildings with metal picket fences and electronic gates jostling with  one, two and three storey concrete and stucco buildings from the early 20th century painted in bright colours; many little bars, newsstands, lanchonetes(cafés), laundrettes, drugstores,  barbershops, tiny groceries, dentists; a jumbled, jostling mix…   We head down Rua Treze de Maio past the little square of Dom Orione and into Bixiga;   an old Italian neighbourhood, narrow hilly streets, cobbled pavements, low apartment buildings and little houses with balconies covered in washing, plants in pots and trees with sharp coloured flowers growing up out of cracks in the ground, many small bars and cafes selling pastels (these are pasties you eat, not drawing tools)  and coffee and beer. The streets are full of people setting up food stalls for the festa after the procession – stand after stand preparing to sell pastas, sausages, pastels, beans, rice – vats of deep red tomato sauce, buckets of grated mozzarella, ropes of glistening Lugarian sausage looped around scaffold poles, piles and piles of long Italian bread loaves. There is an air of waiting, young men and women leaning against walls at street corners laughing and drinking, competing sound systems broadcasting samba-reggae, Brazilian popular songs and a full on operatic version of Ave Maria…..We stroll along and come upon a street laid with a processional ‘carpet’ made of coloured sand and sawdust – each section of is around 6 foot square and carries the names of different community groups, or of our Lady of Achiropita, or just a cross….vivid colours and wild textures. The carpet leads up a hill where there is a line of people waiting to receive Our Lady and bring her into the church.  We walk down the hill towards the sounds of samba, when the procession appears around the corner. Children, adults, family groups, men’s groups, women’s groups all singing songs of praise to our Lady, gently dancing along the way, and at the centre of the procession held high aloft is a beautiful icon of our Lady of Achiropita with her Baby on her lap – they are both golden brown-skinned and beautifully gilded, with touches of sky-blue about Her robe and a crown upon His head.  The singing is light and joyful and the atmosphere changes from waiting to rejoicing as people sitting outside the cafes and bars stand up and join in to wind through the narrow streets to the  church.

Meanwhile, we continue our detour towards the sounds of samba and find VaiVai samba school, one of the best in SP, rehearsing outside at the bottom of the hill – the grooves of samba and the singing of the pilgrims mingling with the roar of motorbikes, the thumping of samba-reggae sound systems and the voice of  wobbly baritone leading the processional hymns through a small PA in the back of a van….VaiVai are working hard on a complex series of breaks cued by two very focused young men. The group is around 50 strong, men and women of all ages and appearances, playing with deep concentration. People stand around watching intently, some tapping the grooves on their bodies or mouthing the patterns as they watch, and occasionally jumping out of the way of impatient cars or motorbikes trying to navigate the crowded junction. It is a mesmerising display of musical discipline and communal creativity.

We walk back up towards the church, where the procession has now assembled. The square outside the church is packed as the priest says prayers and blesses the crowds, our Lady held high aloft. Then everyone is singing Ave Maria – young men with dreadlocks, elderly women with shopping bags, fathers with children on their shoulders, smart couples with shiny sunglasses, tired looking men with their homes in sacks on their backs….It’s about 5.30 pm and the light has reached its beautiful pre-dusk moment – low, long and lemon coloured, defining the buildings against the flat blue sky in sharp outline – and then there are crackling silver fireworks barely visible in the evening sky and cheers and balloons released to float away over Sao Paulo  as Our Lady and her Baby and the pilgrims fill the Church to celebrate….after a short mass the party will start in the streets and go on for many, many hours. We walk a little away from the Church to Sabelucha – the café of our friend and colleague Marta Bruno’s partner –  for coffee and delicious sweets. Excited children with balloons come past pulling their parents towards the street party, silver bunting shimmers from all the buildings as the light fades, the wild mix of music gets louder and the enticing smells of garlic, tomatoes, cheese, meat and baking pull the crowds down to the heart of Achiropita.  We are peaceful in Bruno’s tiny space, open to the street, perfect for rest and conversation and contemplation of the falling night.

Bem-te-vi …..four

Four out of thirteen

It is four weeks today since I landed in São Paulo. I feel joyously alive, present and  deeply grateful.

You may have noticed that I wrote three blog posts within  a week and then went very quiet….this is not because the last three weeks have been without incident – rather the opposite! I have found myself paralysed by the complexity and immediacy of my experiences and unable to step back far enough to describe, narrate or analyse. So the job of this post is to push through that impasse and re-establish a rhythm of public reflective writing.

My days are very full. I  am working with groups – young people, teachers, managers – exploring leadership, creativity, singing, musicianship and various specific questions. I am meeting fascinating people and finding out about their visions, projects, challenges and questions. I am having touching social and personal experiences with old and new friends – singing, eating, talking,  hearing music, seeing beauty. And I  am being reminded that of course you take yourself with you wherever you go, and  that this can be both disturbing and inspiring in equal measure.

There are three narratives unfolding at once – professional, social and personal – and then there is a fourth  thread which stitches those three together. This fourth thread is an elusive, free-flowing inner voice that jumps and skips between the professional, social and personal journeys, connecting them with the occasional flash of insight so that in brief moments I have an  integrated understandng of what is going on; most of the time however my understanding is running to catch up with my experience. …..which is refreshing, enlivening and actually rather relaxing…

The main barrier to writing this blog which I intend to dismantle for myself with this post of course IS the need to understand. These four weeks have whirled and tumbled and spun along  and I´ve taken yards and yards of free-form notes….and now I begin to see some shapes emerging in the blur.

So, more anon…..

Bem-te-vi ……..three

I Sing Because…..

On Thursday last (17/7) I spent the day working with the Coro Juvenil (Youth Choir) of Guri Santa Marcelina, and the next day we all travelled together to Porto Alegre for the ISME 2014 which starts Sunday (today). The journey was a wild delight, and Porto Alegre is a sunlit city of dreams, of which more anon; but right now I want to talk about the youth choir, and singing.

I’ve worked with this choir (about half / two thirds of its members at any rate) before, and Giuliana Frozoni, their current conductor, and the overall manager of Guri’s extensive programme, is a good friend.  We are going to work together in several singing /choral contexts over the next three months, so Thursday’s workshop feels both part of a familiar journey and the beginning of something new and thrilling.

We begin with our bodies, waking up and finding our energy, breath and movement, and then we start on I Sing Because…., a riff-based part-song created by Mouthful (a cappella ensemble that I belong to).  I’ve worked with many groups of young singers over the last 35 years, and I can say that there is something particular and remarkable about the dynamic of this youth choir. They come to singing with a truly profound spirit of joyful, open-hearted willingness, and a complete lack of self-consciousness,  or the awkwardness that can sometimes afflict teenagers when exploring new approaches to voice and body. We become very interested in messing about with rhythm, shifting our time signature from 4 to 3 and back again, experimenting through movement  and body percussion with finding our balance and feeling the tiny shifts of emphasis that distinguish the two rhythmic viewpoints. We are explorers, investigators, researchers in groove; we’ve lost the separation between leader and followers, or choir and conductor….just following the trail of the music.

Later in the day we talk. I want to hear why singing is so important to them, and why they commit so much of their lives to  participating in choir – travelling very long distances; juggling school, family responsibilities, part-time jobs and a range of other challenges. They say……  “Music is my life – it’s how I know who I am”…….”It transforms my life”…..”When I am in choir I am totally happy”… This fundamental  passion translates into a dignified, serious focus that belies their youth  – aged 12 – 21, they feel and work like a seasoned, professional ensemble.

Two days later in Porto Alegre we continue our work. I introduce some exercises for sharpening physical and aural self-perception, and for establishing deep listening within ensemble. The singers stand in pairs, with the front of one pressed against the back of their partner. The singer behind feels the breath of the other, and settles their own breathing to the same rhythm. The front singer sound a long note on a single breath, and their partner joins, tuning their voice to replicate as closely as possible the voice of the other. The young people are deeply engaged; slowly and patiently working and making discoveries about their own and one another’s voices. One young woman tell us “Now I know what you mean when you (Giuliana) tell us to listen to ourselves” and all her comrades applaud her. We continue, working back to back and in circles of resonance and tuning; shared revelations arise to do with breath, tone, individual voice, collective voice, feeling of self and the sense of sound itself. The room  is filled with light, and stillness, and a warmth of voice; with affection, respect and delicacy supporting vulnerable, exposed work of extraordinary quality.

Then we return to I Sing Because… and they are wild, joyous, rhythmically brilliant, touching, funny and profound in their celebration of the community of their choir, and how that community becomes the community of all of us who sing or share the singing with our listening ears and hearts. We sing because we love.



Bem-te-vi ……two

And breathe….intertwined personal and professional reflections


Waking up after my first night on the 14th floor I absorb the different quality of the light; the sudden arrival of morning rather than a slow dawn,  and the sharpness of the shadows cast.  It is both startling and  refreshing. The next thing I notice is an extraordinary sensation of lightness, a lift in my shoulders and a feeling of space….as I realise that today I am responsible only for myself. This brings  a powerful elation, and surge of wakeful energy. I breathe slowly. Three months away from Sage Gateshead – and from my ordinary life routines –  is a remarkable gift. My brilliant colleagues in our Learning and Participation team are spreading their wings too, as they take on additional responsibilities for the period that I am away, and I can see that we will all learn profound and valuable lessons from this experience. It will be interesting to find out how easily I can let go of the need to connect with too many of the small decisions and trust them just to get on; and to find out how easily they can learn to trust themselves.

So, now responsible  –  for the moment at any rate!  –  only for myself, I go with Giuliana Frozoni, Guri Santa Marcelina’s extraordinary programme director, and my good friend, to participate in part of a training programme  for all the choir and vocal teachers from Guri. The concentration is immense as they tackle Norman Dello Joio’s amazing ‘To St. Cecilia’.  This is the second week-long  block of the training programme, which began with a week in January. The thinking behind the programme, conceived by Paulo Bezulle,  Guri’s  visionary supervisor for the singing teachers,  is to immerse them in the process of making great vocal/choral music themselves in order to  inspire and challenge their ambitions for their students. It also provides a context for peer-debate, networking and shared evolution of a vision for the choral and vocal practice. I recognise the ambition for this training programme, and can see that there will be many things to compare/contrast and learn from in relation to Sage Gateshead’s new programme of training for our musicians which starts in September.

This business of the balance between musical skills, performance skills, pedagogy, facilitation and teaching skills is the subject of constant debate in the music learning / community music professions. Do you need to be a great musician to be a great teacher or facilitator? I think this is going to be a core question for the next three months. I have seen here, in England and other countries throughout the world, many examples of inspirational teaching and leadership / facilitation from people who do not identify themselves as performers, or even as great musicians; and yet I have also seen how getting closer to that sense of total emotional, technical and performance-driven immersion that performers experience constantly does surprise and inspire teachers/facilitators to find new ways to go deeper  in turn enabling students/participants to realise themselves musically beyond their own expectations.

I am also beginning to understand how the concept of social pedagogy, and the deployment of complete team of social pedagogues and social workers alongside the music educators, sheds  a different light on the question. It changes the role of the music educator, or at least re-balances it, so that the consideration of each student/participants’ total well-being is shared amongst this wider team, meaning that the leaders don’t necessary need themselves each to have all the skills required – musical, technical, intellectual, personal, facilitative, didactic  – for the holistic support of the individuals in the groups    …we will keep returning to this.

Meanwhile, back with Dello Joio, I am asked if I am willing to coach the English language pronunciation in the last third of the piece – of course, yes, delighted – and I read the adapted Dryden full of feeling, in my best projected tones. ‘Ah but could you do it in a North American accent please, because the composer is American?’  Now there’s a thing….can I find my buried inner American at no notice, sight-reading a text I’ve not looked at for over a twenty years at least??? I breathe slowly, and proceed in a new voice, working through the  sounds with gesture, movement, imitation, repetition, laughter, focus, intention, shared purpose….responsible now for being the best role model and voice coach for these words that I possibly can…..and so the new life begins.