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  • Writer's picture Brian E Pearson

Finding our Voice

A performer blanking out on stage is a veritable train wreck. You've built up a head of steam, you're barrelling along, you've got momentum. Then, for a split second, you allow yourself to look away, to forget what you're doing. This is going rather well, you may think to yourself, taking your hands off the controls. But when you return from your little reverie, you see to your horror that the tracks have disappeared before your eyes.

Here comes that line you remember changing. But which is the correct version? Which will rhyme with the line that ends the verse? Your mouth is reciting the last words you remember, the last bit of track beneath your wheels. You're running out of space; you're running out of time. Your brain scrambles--think, think, think! But it's too late. You leave the track for a yawning chasm. You make something up, you mumble, you plough on through, anything to bridge the gap ... until you can feel the track re-materializing beneath your wheels, the next known words.

This experience is commonplace among performers. We may rehearse until we can say the lines in our sleep, we may refuse to eat before a show, we may create a "zone" and then stay there, blocking out all distractions. But the danger still remains. Don't look away, don't lose your focus, don't let the thing get away on you. Own this moment.

There is, however, another way. Recently, I asked Meredith Heller, a poet and a songwriter, what accounted for the unearthly strength and confidence we hear in her voice. For she sings and she speaks as if something is flowing through her, as if she is yielding to the words, not trying to hold on to them. And that's essentially what she told me. She listens when she uses her voice. She doesn't listen to the words coming out of her mouth; she listens for the Life Force finding its way from the depths of her soul.

This may well be a lesson for how to live our lives. It's not about rehearsing till we get it right. It's about listening till we get it true. The song, or the poem, or the play, wants to have its way with us. It doesn't ask us to "own" it. It asks us to let it flow through us, like Life itself. It asks us to be its servant, perhaps its midwife, not its master.

Something miraculous happens when we welcome this shift in the ego-driven control room of our minds. That terrifying spectre of self-consciousness that threatens our performances and undermines our best artistic efforts gives way to a kind of ... grace. Suddenly, it's not us who carry the words; it is the words who carry us.

Meredith learned the power of words the hard way. Leaving home at the tender age of thirteen, words are what helped her survive her feral teen years. Through the poems she wrote and the lyrics she sang she learned of the Life Force her words were capable of bearing. They sustained her and upheld her until surviving turned into thriving.

She has spent a good part of her adult life, since, teaching others the power of words. School children, inmates, groups of women--all seeking new life--have discovered that Life through the words that have risen up from the depths, giving them the same strength and confidence I heard in Meredith's voice.

Through her many poetry workshops, Meredith has helped people find their own words. Her most recent book, Writing by Heart, is a guided workbook that invites readers to write poems to the deepest parts of themselves, and to learn for themselves the voice that wants to emerge from inside them. It features, as inspiring examples, the poems of women who have participated in those workshops, which is where I witnessed for myself the power they had found in their voices.

My conversation with Meredith Heller for The Mystic Cave includes both her singing and her poetry, so you can hear her voice for yourself. To listen, just hit the Play button below. To learn more about her workshops, her books, her poetry, and her music, follow the Information button (i) to the show notes.

I may still keep a copy of the words close by whenever I perform my own songs. I'm seventy, after all, which is my excuse. But I now know where the real power of those words comes from. And it's not me.

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