Can singing change the world?

Coop member Amy Bowles travels to South Korea and examines the possibility of positive individual and communal change through singing.

I began singing in public in 2018 when I started working as a musician in critical care on ICU (Intensive Care Unit) hospital wards. Initially I found that when I played classical guitar people were comforted by the soothing and calm nature of the music and could enjoy moments of respite from their own circumstances within a stressful environment. As I observed other singing practitioners, I learned that patients processed their emotions through engaging in music making and singing together was an incredible tool for facilitating these communal experiences.

After a few technically focused and unsatisfactory singing lessons, I asked around and I kept hearing the name Frankie Armstrong and about the Natural Voice Network (NVN). The NVN have an ethos of allowing each persons authentic, natural voice to be developed in a nurturing and non judgemental environment and I felt something inside click immediately. I emailed Frankie and explained about my background and the Community Music Co-operative and when she phoned me, we agreed that I’d set up a workshop for her to run in Manchester. Once that was sorted the conversation flowed along very easily and after an hour of chatting Frankie brought up a situation that was causing her some grief.

Frankie had been invited to deliver a presentation about her work as a singer and campaigner for Peace at the World Peace Summit 2019 in Seoul, South Korea. Frankie has glaucoma and is severely visually impaired and she would need a companion to assist her on the long journey and to help navigate a busy conference itinerary. I couldn’t believe it when Frankie asked, “Are you doing anything on 4th Dec? Would you like to come to South Korea with me?” While a bit shocked and wondering if I’d heard correctly, we talked over the details and I found myself excitedly accepting. A week later I met Frankie and her lovely husband Darien and was welcomed warmly into their home in Cardiff the evening before our flight to Seoul.

To people who know Frankie this probably sounds quite normal as she is free spirited, warm-hearted, curious and caring to others. Over one phone conversation I was immediately charmed, fascinated and excited to meet the lady behind the voice.

Frankie Armstrong has worked as a singer in the folk scene, within the women’s movement and as a trainer in social and youth work. Involved with folk and political songs from the 1950s, she has performed and/or recorded with Blowzabella, The Orckestra (with Henry Cow and the Mike Westbrook Brass Band), Ken Hyder’s Talisker, John Kirkpatrick, Brian Pearson, Leon Rosselson, Dave Van Ronk and Maddy Prior. Frankie’s pionerring work as a vocal teacher in the 1970’s led to the foundation of the Natural Voice Network who celebrate their 25th anniversary in 2020.

The 2019 Seoul Peace Conference: Peace Beyond the Walls, began with congratulatory address by the Prime Minister of the Republic of Korea, Hong Seok-Hyun and a flock of press cameras hurried to the front of the stage completely obscuring the view of the audience. His steely gazed bodyguards efficiently returned him to his seat and the days itinerary of presentations began. Highlight of the first session came next from the warm and humorous Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and former President of Timor, Jose Ramos-Horta who discussed the peace in North East Asia and the impending world water crisis.

Language barriers between multi-lingual speakers were dealt with by the use of a solitary ‘earphone’ playing a live feed of two Korean women expertly translating the same speech from a darkened perspex box at the back of the room. I eagerly prepared myself for the next speaker, but within a few minutes I could feel my eye lids getting heavy. The subject of his speech was fascinating (I know because each speech was duplicated in the conference programme on my lap!). But with his monotone delivery and endless graphs, I just couldn’t stay focused and I wasn’t the only one. Many in the audience felt comfortable enough to fall into sleep propped up on one arm or openly scroll through the internet on their phone, only looking up as the drone of one speech finished to be taken up by another.

After a lunch of seven small delicious courses delivered by a waiting staff with the precision of a Russian corps de ballet, Frankie and I retired to her room where she began warming up and deciding on the final order of the material of her talk. Due to her visual impairment Frankie does everything off the cuff as she isn’t able to see enough to write it down or to read it. Watching and listening to her audibly edit herself was fascinating and as someone who relies so heavily on the written word gave me some encouragement to trust myself and not wait so long before trying new songs from memory. Then Frankie began her warm ups and the room filled with her resonant voice soaring over vowel sounds, chirping rolling Rrrrr sounds, repeated phrases sung in ascending and descending sequences and a whole range of exercises designed to warm up different parts of the face, body and throat.

My current vocal warm up before beginning to sing on the ward as part of my critical care sessions is to clear my throat, open mouth and sing. I know that warm ups are important, but I can hear myself saying this in the same way we complain about eating vegetables when we’re younger and I think that its time to grow up. Maybe I fear this as some sort of arrogant acceptance of myself as a ‘proper’ singer, but I think its more arrogant to assume I don’t need warm ups and my voice is fine without them. Even more ludicrous when you consider that I’ve spent years as a guitarist and guitar teacher working on and espousing the benefits of this essential routine.

Having decided that she was going to sing as part of her presentation Frankie invited me to sing the refrain (chorus) to the parts of songs she had chosen. In my head I thought ‘No problem! I’ll sing at a world conference in a foreign country, on stage, unaccompanied, from memory…I’d love to, what could go wrong!’ But I heard myself say ‘yes’ and I genuinely did mean it, although I wasn’t sure why at the time. We rehearsed a few times, Frankie continued to warm up for short while (not easy with all those air conditioned rooms drying out your throat) and then we headed back to the conference.

After two long haul flights, jet lag, a morning of sitting very still and a big lunch, the chance to get up and shake my arms about fully re-energised me for the afternoon session. Frankie’s segment was preceded by a vibrant presentation by Ruth Daniel, the CEO of In Place of War an organisation that brings music, arts and dance into areas of conflict in order to bring about positive social change. Frankie and I met Ruth during the morning coffee break and there was no time for small talk in our animated chats about the upcoming UK election, music and the arts as a tools for communication and creating communities and women’s issues.

During her presentation Ruth shared short stories of musicians in areas of conflict that she has supported to reach their potential and engage their community in arts projects and develop them within the UK music scene. After a morning of abstract political discussion Ruth was a breath of fresh air and as I was on stage seated next to Frankie I could see heads popping up and people paying attention.

As Ruth shared images of the people she’s worked with, there were names and faces of real people that were using music and art as a way of expressing their feelings (usually around war, violent conflict or living under oppression), processing their emotional responses to their environment and creating sustainable frameworks with which to support themselves and their communities. You can read some of the case studies here. Ruth concluded her speech by commenting on the use of the word peace itself and asked what it actually means. Does it mean the same thing to a refugee, a gang member or someone living in a conflict zone? Ruth prefers to use the word ‘change’ and finds using ‘peace’ can often have negative responses from people around the world.

Prior to their talks beginning Ruth and Frankie met to discuss the structure of the talks with a moderator who would then follow their presentations with questions. During this meeting Frankie also invited Ruth to sing the refrains with us in an act of sisterly solidarity. As the question left Frankie’s mouth I thought I could imagine the thoughts going through Ruth’s mind while considering standing up in front of a predominantly male, predominantly Korean and very formal setting and singing something she’d been introduced to half an hour before going on stage. I also experienced this feeling of complete acceptance to what could be perceived as a challenging request. But Frankie’s complete authenticity as a creative and sensitive musician, the simplicity of the short refrains and the support of three voices singing in unison was enough to entice both Ruth and I to not feel exposed and to want to sing. The powerful, accessible and completely relevant setting of the words made me connect with the message and want to tell this story in this context. It was exhilarating to stand up and sing something that really resonated with me as a musician and as a woman and have it listened to in this environment. These are the songs written by Frankie Armstrong. lyrics here with permission from Frankie.

Shall there be womanly times or shall we die (Title – Ian Mckewan)
The missiles wait in concrete tombs
Shall there be womanly times or shall we die?

Born of the head and not the womb
There will be womanly times, we will not die

Listen, hear the Mother’s cry
Shall there be womanly times or shall we die?

What gift is life if the Earth must die
There will be womanly times, we will not die.

Message from Mother Earth
You clear the forests, uproot the trees
Poison the air, pollute the seas
Remember I give you birth, remember Mother Earth

Why can’t you hear, why can’t you see
You kill yourselves, when you kill me
Remember I give you birth, remember Mother Earth

So take good care of yourselves and me
Cherish the air, the Earth, the sea
Remember I give you birth, remember Mother Earth

Frankie’s way of singing isn’t a rigid dogma or a step by step guide to getting it right. It’s a fundamental belief that singing is our birth right. She says, “given that science tells us that humans have been singing for over fifty thousand years, it seems to me that it’s simply part of being human”. Frankie explains that she doesn’t feel as if she’s performing to an audience, but that she’s singing with them and always inviting them to join her.

I have similarly made this connection with people by using music as a tool for connection within healthcare settings and now completely feel no barrier dividing audience and performer. In many ways I wish I’d discovered this while studying at a prestigious music college as I might have had a very different experience. I don’t understand how anyone can responsibly teach music at advanced level without considering the relational parameters between performer and audience even at least at some basic philosophical level.

Directly after Ruth and Frankie had spoken, people rushed up to the front of the stage, comments of ‘Thank you!’, ‘I felt so moved/inspired by your singing’, ‘It warmed my heart’, ‘It was so personal’ ‘I feel very moved’, ‘the singing made me very happy’. I could see most people who spoke wanted to hold Frankie’s hand and connect with her personally as a way of demonstrating the effect her music had on them. In contrast, when directed to give enthusiastic applause by the highly polished MC, the audience couldn’t muster much more than a ripple of polite applause for the more political and academic speeches. I felt alarmed by the prophetic statistics about global issues that are a threat to world peace, but all the factual information didn’t make me connect with it in on a personal level and just made me feel helpless.

Another important point to notes is that I counted eight female speakers and nineteen male speakers. This hardly strikes a fair balance for gender equality at a conference whose opening line from their statement purpose is ‘when differences become the reason for discrimination and inequality, the seeds of war are sown’.

There was something markedly different in the way that Ruth and Frankie and their female moderator and the other all female panel of former Prime Minister of New Zealand Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of the Republic of Korea, Han Myeong-sook and former minister of gender and equality, Chung Hyun-back conducted their sessions. The women turned to each other as they spoke, mirrored each others body language, smiled, shared jokes and personal stories relating to the bigger issues. The men were stiff, rarely made eye contact and I felt a huge chasm open up between the stage and the audience. Helen Clark commented on the huge changes in the New Zealand parliament, with 40% of the cabinet women since adopting proportional representation and throughout her speech I began to realise that I’ve never seen a relatable senior female politician speak with such humanity that I was impressed by.

One final speaker I’d like to mention is Jo Berry. Jo is an inspiring speaker who works to resolve conflict around the world. Sixteen years after her father was killed by an IRA bomb, Jo first met the man responsible, Pat Magee. This initial three hour-meeting led to them speaking on over three hundred occasions, on a shared platform around the world. After this first meeting Pat said he was disarmed by the empathy and curiosity Jo showed him, by trying to understand how he had come to plant that bomb. He expected them to stubbornly argue from a place of righteousness, instead she touched his heart.

I mention these final points only as it seems that as long as without the womanly times we sang about, radical and essential change isn’t likely to happen any time soon. This can only happen when people connect through curiosity, understanding, empathy and strong leadership and with a good tune they can all sing together! Reflecting on this whole conference and relating it back to my work as a musician in healthcare, I’m reminded that simplicity and accessibility are so importantly when trying to engage with people. Remaining curious and respectful will enable me to help them find their voices.

People were genuinely moved and affected by the music and the message within it. The music reached into people and had such a profound effect that brought joy and meaning to what we were all there to discuss. So how many speeches do you need to hear to get the same message as the refrain of a song, singing simple melodies in clear voices grouped together? No wonder people are disillusioned by modern politics, in many cases it’s difficult, complicated and meant to befuddle and to make people switch off. You can’t misunderstand simple lyrics of a song about a relatable subject and you’ll probably find yourself joining in.