By Milva McDonald
Issue 123, March/April 2004
I was always told I couldn’t sing. Growing up, I heard the requests to “Keep it down!” when I sang with the radio, the laughter at my attempts to belt out well-loved songs, and the remarks that I just couldn’t carry a tune. I don’t doubt that this scenario sounds familiar to many adults. Let’s face it—most of us have singing phobia. But the fact that I’m in the majority has been small solace.
There is good news, though. I have found greater joy than I could have ever imagined by taking up singing in adulthood with my whole family. For four years now, we have lent our voices to the Boston-based Family Folk Chorale, an intergenerational chorus that has proved an inspiration to its members and audiences. Partaking in this community-based, amateur singing group has created growth for me as a singer and a person. It has also bestowed gifts I could never have imagined on my entire family, allowing my children’s voices to emerge confidently in many areas—not just music.
The first time I heard the Family Folk Chorale perform, they sang three songs as part of an open-mike performance at Club Passim, a venerable and well-known folk-music club in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Under the direction of the tireless and enthusiastic Chris Eastburn, I heard Pat Humphries’ “Swimming to the Other Side,” Tom Chapin’s “Wheel of the Water,” and Eastburn’s own “I’m Going to Spangola.” My eyes kept moving from one person to another, amazed at this multi-age gathering of people singing in a completely genuine, uninhibited fashion. The visual impact alone was breathtaking: children and adults of all ages standing together and singing, beautifully and happily. And where else had I ever seen nursing mothers on stage, their babies feeding contentedly in their slings?
Interspersed with the choral parts were soloists of all ages: the tiny three year old who stole the show with his three-word contribution, the mothers and fathers of my own generation, and the senior citizen with the rich, wizened voice—all stepped up to the mike. Not everyone was perfect, but everyone could and did sing. The power of people coming together and singing resonated in that little room.
I joined up right away, and, one by one, my family members followed. First, my 12-year-old son decided it was worth a try. My husband, a musician by profession, offered his services as a clarinetist, and sang when he could. My 15-year-old daughter had the privilege of writing a song for the chorus and performing it with us. My six year old has been singing and soloing since she was three, and my four year old, who’s a bit more reserved, proudly delivered her first solo this past spring. We have sung traditional folk tunes from Appalachia, premiered new songs by local songwriters, and explored themes including youth, aging, nature, and peace.
And yes, we perform. We have sung at libraries, homes for the elderly, museums, churches, farmers’ markets, and theaters. One of our most moving concerts was presented two months after September 11, 2001. We called it Songs for Our Times, and, with a packed house at Club Passim, we experienced the power of music to heal and comfort in times of trouble. On that program were such classics as Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer.” There were also songs of hope. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” sung entirely by the children, brought people to tears. We crowned thy good with brotherhood, then sisterhood, and motherhood in “America the Beautiful,” and we all learned enough Arabic to perform “El Hulm, El Arabi” (The Arab Dream), about the human longing for a world filled with harmony and justice.
We may be amateurs, but our music director’s belief that everyone can sing well has proven true. We have consistently improved our individual and choral sound, and last year we even created Links in a Chain, a recording of music by Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger. I’m especially proud of the cover, a photo collage illustrating important moments in the lives of our members. There are weddings, scenes of childhood, and the home birth of my youngest child, Abigail.
Our 50-member chorus has come a long way, and we’re fortunate to have a fantastic musician at the helm. Chris Eastburn doesn’t have to spend a good portion of his professional life working with a rambunctious group of homeschooling families, but rehearsals are that unbeatable combination of fun and work: He pushes us just hard enough to discover our potential. He knows the power and excitement that can come from a real tapestry of voices. And he knows the rewards of watching singers, whether children, adults, or senior citizens, come into their own.
I, too, have had this pleasure: watching the elation of the struggling alto section finally hit a harmony right, seeing the men bonding in their own rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” and smiling as the kids take it away in Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” have provided meaningful, lasting memories.
The kids have a much easier time of it than we adults. Singing in the Family Folk Chorale makes it apparent, once again, how capable, competent, talented, and beautiful every child is. While we grownups fret over our notes, sweat to get the harmonies, and work at memorizing the words, for the kids it’s just effortless. Those who are more shy might take a little longer to emerge, but they always do, and these are priceless moments—as are the moments when a terrified, insecure mom or dad who can barely open her or his mouth finally discovers her or his voice. One of our newer members recently called an old friend and sang a snippet of “The Old Folks at Home” to him over the phone. As she told me this story, the look on her face was one of elation as she described how her friend exclaimed, “You can sing! You can sing!” Singing in the Family Folk Chorale is actually a sharing of our whole beings, and of the entity that we have all become from our chaotic weekly rehearsals and our gathering together for meetings and performances.
Some of the ways I have watched my children grow in the Family Folk Chorale have had little to do with music. When my son was 13 going on 14, he began acting strangely at rehearsals. He had always sung in the children’s section, but began behaving distractedly during the kids’ practice time. He hung out in the alto section for a bit, then moved toward the tenors and basses. He’d get a chair and plant himself in the middle of the guys, but he didn’t always sing—it was more like mumbling. Watching him wandering around the rehearsals, just sitting in a chair while the grownup males worked hard on their parts, rankled me. When I expressed my frustration to my husband, he encouraged me to relax. “When he’s ready to stand with the men, he’ll stand with the men.” Light bulb! I backed off and just watched. My son eventually did take his place with the tenors, and I realized yet again the marvels this experience was putting before me.
How does this ecstatic experience of the Family Folk Chorale unfold? First and foremost, we have a music director whose vision supports it. We keep a mix of ages. We don’t have auditions. Everyone sings, and every person is welcome to solo when he or she feels ready. I don’t know whether I would ever have been able to stand up and sing in front of other people without the support of that group behind me, but the children come to it easily. They often hum Family Folk Chorale tunes, sing them in the car, talk about the ones they like and don’t like. A couple of years ago, someone asked my five-year-old daughter what her favorite song was. “My Back Pages,” she replied, surprising us all with her choice of a vintage Bob Dylan song. Snippets and phrases of songs become parts of the children’s lives—as when a friend’s toddler ran around the house repeatedly, wailing “naked, joyous run”—a line from a song by Boston-based songwriter Oen Kennedy.
While the Family Folk Chorale is special, what it offers is not out of reach. The Chorale began when a few homeschooling families decided they wanted to sing together. They found Chris, and the Chorale unfolded. While performance and musical skills are important parts of our chorus, these aspects don’t exclude anyone from participating. No one is ever berated or chastised for singing a wrong note or forgetting the words. On the contrary, we all gain pleasure from supporting each other’s growth and efforts. We even encourage fledgling instrumentalists to play. Our band consists of Chris and couple of fathers who are also professionally trained musicians, and that instrumental backbone lays the foundation for mentoring relationships to develop between professional and amateur players of all ages. Right now we have a 12-year-old bass player, two teen guitar players, and assorted members who pitch in on tambourine, bells, and other percussion instruments. Our 13-year-old banjo player honed her skills in the FFC band. We’ve got a few kid violinists ranging in age from seven to 15, and one mother-daughter pair of fiddlers. Just as with the chorus, inclusiveness doesn’t amount to a mediocre-sounding band. It’s amazing what people can accomplish with a combination of opportunity and faith.
The fact that the Family Folk Chorale is composed almost exclusively of homeschooling families may contribute to our successful dynamic. Most of the families knew each other before we began singing together, and we see each other regularly in a variety of settings. This intensifies both the joys and difficulties of the group process, making the experience meaningful for all of us. The social setup works well—children rehearse with the music director while adults socialize, then the roles switch, before we all come together to practice as a group. As homeschooling parents, we’re used to having a lot of kids around who work and play hard, so the noise and seeming chaos that sometimes characterize rehearsals are all in a day’s work. Outsiders occasionally drop in, and are often surprised by the activity level. But it simply signals that enthusiasm is rampant, and the individualized nature of homeschooling coexists nicely with our music director’s drive to help each person’s musical self emerge.
Ultimately, what the Family Folk Chorale is about is the spirit of the music and the people, and the power of the human voice to excite, entertain, and express the range of human experience. I have always wanted to sing, I’ve always wanted my children to sing, and I’ve always suspected that singing is an integral part of being human. Now I know that to be true. So grab your partners, your children, your parents and grandparents, and make some music together, even if it’s only in your living room. Plant a few notes, and watch what they grow into.
For more information about singing, see the following past issue of Mothering:
"Singing with Your Children," no. 83.
Milva McDonald lives with her husband and four children in Medford, Massachusetts. Besides singing with her family, she enjoys writing, bicycling, and homeschooling. Her articles and stories have been published in The Boston Globe, Natural Health, Growing Without Schooling, 96 Inc., and the Beloit Fiction Journal. For more information about the Family Folk Chorale and their recording, Links in a Chain, see www.familyfolkchorale.org.
Photo by Andrea Bird.