The TLA Network is thrilled to introduce our new coordinator, Deb Hensley, who is currently working alongside Callid Keefe-Perry, our present coordinator, and will take the reins Nov. 1. Deb is a singer, collaboratively and solo, and she has performed widely with her improvisational singing group, Improvox. A writer, artist and musician, Deb brings to the TLA Network over 20 years' experience designing and directing programs, grants projects, mentoring/coaching, and teacher training, particularly in the field of early education. She's worked extensively with public institutions and non-profit organizations, often focusing on arts-based programs, and she's the author of a number of books for educators and parents. After two decades as an early education professional, she discovered TLA, or as she tells us, “I feel like TLA discovered me. I had been practicing transformative art in my singing life for many years but hadn't really assigned a name to it.” She completed her MA in TLA in Goddard College's Individualized MA program in 2011 and has been working as an arts and education consultant. After the Power of Words conference, Deb will be our coordinator, and Callid will transit out of this position and into the role of Chair of the TLA Network Council. Please feel free to drop Deb a line to welcome her at email@example.com, and you can contact Callid at coordinator@TLANetwork.org to wish him the best in his new adventure as a doctoral student in theology at Boston University.
The following interview was done via email between Deb Hensley and Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg.
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: How did you discover TLA, and was it resonance at first sight?
Deb Hensley: Well, in a way, I feel like TLA discovered me. I had been practicing transformative art in my singing life for many years but hadn’t really assigned a name to it. When I decided to pursue a masters program at Goddard, TLA jumped up off the page and yelled-me me! Here I am! This is the program for you! Yes–resonance at first sight. I mean, I believe all art is transformative and intrinsically valuable– but I also discovered that joining with a group of dedicated individuals willing to give deep consideration to the implications of what that transformation means was further important work for me–beyond the art itself. I have loved investigating how artistic practice cuts across all vocations and eliminates categories of age, race and rank with which we are taught to separate the world; how it banishes boundaries, and fertilizes both artistic and professional endeavor and builds community.
TLA embraces and defines Daniel Pink’s 6 word vision for what he believes professionals and business leaders need to embody in order lead in the coming century in his book A Whole New Mind: Design, Story, Orchestra, Empathy, Play, Meaning. I think he’s saying we need to bring artistic elements intentionally into the world of business and commerce and politics. And I don’t think that’s just a nice option to try. I think it’s vital to our survival as a species. The TLA concentration was an excellent platform for exploring this.
CMG: You explore the voice in your singing, writing and art. Could you share what you've been discovering over your life about how opening your voice in one way affects opening it in another (such as how improvisational singing might affect your writing, or how writing might affect "finding your voice" when making a big decision in your life)?
DH: When I started attending to birdsong as a model for re-inhabiting the voice, I paid some serious attention to crows and ravens. Who do not have “pretty” voices. Nor are they cautious about using them. But Me? Over the years I got stuck in a singing voice I believed needed to be “pretty.” Thus I had been overly cautious about using it in new and different, OK bigger ways. Moreover, I actually believed my singing voice was truly incapable of being big. I was positive–I mean absolutely convinced I would never be able to truly belt out the blues or hold forth with soulful gospel. But the ravens got me going in the right direction and with them as a model, I began experimenting with new croaks and sounds and ways of letting my voice out. Oh it was just chirpy and weird at first, but it was a start and I made incremental progress.
Just recently I had a big breakthrough. I was asked to sing at a wedding this past spring and one of the songs requested was “At Last” by Etta James. If you know this song you know it’s a BIG song. With big soul and big sound. Well I thought–no way. I don’t do Etta James. I can’t even begin to sing like that. Not even in the shower. I’ll just have to do my breathy high-voice-white-girl version and hope for the best.
Concurrently, while practicing with my singing group one day, we were working on a song that needed someone to belt out a really strong note at the end. They decided it should be me. I needed to bend the ending note and hold it out strong like a hot jazz singer. I told my singing mates, not me…can’t do it. But they wouldn’t let me off the hook right? So–Ok I thought. I’ll go for it. And I just opened up my throat and did it. Just like that. (…kudos to the Ravens)
Wow. I couldn’t believe at first. There was my voice –doing that thing I never thought it could. I drove home howling. And when I sang at the wedding, I sang “At Last” with that voice. For the first time I sang the blues. I mean I’m no Etta James! But it was wonderful to be set free of that limiting view of myself.
So that is just one example of how opening my voice has been personally and literally transformative. And as you might imagine, it has carried over into other areas of my personal and artistic life as well as my work as an education consultant. For instance, I feel like a far better leader as I arrange and present trainings to teachers. I have been experiencing increased confidence in stating what I need and who I am personally and professionally. I’ve come forth with bolder ideas and taken bigger risks in my personal and professional life. I have better physical and emotional endurance and care less and less about how I’m perceived by other people. It’s more and more about what feels true from the inside out.
CMG: Where do you find replenishment and inspiration in your life?
DH: Praying, singing (alone and with others), writing and a good night’s sleep. I also like to play outside and take great inspiration from wild nature. I’m fortunate enough to live near the Maine coast with opportunities to sail and fly and I don’t take this for granted. I feel very blessed. I also love love love to ride my bike. I get on my bike and turn immediately into a ten year old. I’m a big believer in what the Early Childhood Ed. world names “primary experiences.” When I ride my bike, or sing, or move, or dance, I have those invaluable primary experiences–the real thing. That’s when I replenish–when I can live in the primary experience–touching, tasting, smelling, seeing, hearing.
CMG: As a Transformative Language Artist, what do you wish to bring to your community? Can you share an experience of helping others find their voice(s)?
DH: Music and singing creates tribes. It bonds strangers and friends, strengthens and heals family ties and connects people with each another on so many levels. It creates meaning. I just want to keep doing it. I’ve brought my TLA practice into school groups (High School and College) professional conferences, teaching circles and early childhood communities. Every time we sing–and especially when we create vocal music in the moment, there is an outpouring of delight at rediscovering the joy of spontaneously singing together. I’ve experienced the joy of bringing improvisational song forms to circles of “singers” and those who perceived themselves as non-singers. Seeing individuals light up with sound and song has been a great source of satisfaction and hope.
One time I was leading a singing circle and there was a woman from Egypt in the group. As we began to sing I noticed tears coming down her cheeks. At the break she came up to me and told me that in her culture and family, singing as a woman, and especially publicly, was looked on very unfavorably and that this singing was the first time she had been able to ever really let her voice out. She expressed deep gratitude for the opportunity and said she was committed to keep doing it.
One time a young woman I know gave her parents the gift of an Improvox Vocal Exploration Workshop for a Christmas present. As she brought her mom and dad into the workshop space it was very clear from the start that her mom was absolutely terrified of singing. As we always do, we did our best to create a safe emotional space and then gently encouraged but never required, participation. Because the improvisational forms we use are non-threatening and created mostly in the moment, she responded almost immediately. Soon she was singing and creating her own music on the spot and completely and utterly delighted about it. We got a three-page thank you letter a few days later expounding on the experience and how meaningful it was to her to find her voice again.
CMG: You name one of your websites, "When did we stop singing?" Can you tell us more of what's behind that question, and what, over recent years, you've been discovering about that question?
DH: I’d love to encourage readers to visit my website: www.whendidwestopsinging.com for the fluffed out version, but for me the question played out something like this: One day I heard about how the medicine man from the Aboriginal culture addresses sickness and depression. He doesn’t give drugs. Doesn’t offer therapy. He simply asks the person who comes to him for help “When did you stop singing?” The message, of course, is clear. Go back to that point. Figure out why you stopped. Then start again. Start singing.
After I heard this I realized something important was missing in my home, my work place, my social interactions–my life. I began to recognize that I had lost that free and easy singing voice I had as a child. That it had been co-opted by expertism. So I decided it was imperative to re-inhabit it.
At the same time I realized the larger culture we live in–our homes, our work places, our street corners, our classrooms (how sad is that?) our social interactions, our marketplaces, our lives–are largely bereft of spontaneous, open, voluntary singing. So I wanted to do something to contribute toward shifting that.
Interestingly, I’ve discovered through my TLA work that what I thought was a project in creating songs related to bird music was also and maybe even more importantly, very much about having that “primary experience” I referred to earlier. All art is about primary experiences, of course. But I didn’t realize until more recently that answering the question “When did we stop singing?” would be so far reaching. That it would create such relevance to my so called “day job.” That it would cause me to inhabit not only my singing voice, but my professional community in a different and far deeper way. Which is the whole point of TLA right? And a very important point I think.
CMG: Some of your work focuses deeply on bird song, and how learning to listen helps us come home to the living earth and to who we are as part of the earth. Could you elaborate on this?
DH: One day I got hold of some old Roger Tory Peterson vinyl birdsong recordings. I put one on our old turntable and the first birdsong to play was the wood thrush. I turned the revolution rate down to 70. Not slow enough. I slowed it further with my finger and listened again. What emerged was so compelling I held my breath– what pure tones and stunning intervals!
From that point on, I made a pact with myself to listen to birds for a whole year and understand what they had to teach me about singing. I learned the reasons they sing, how their double voice boxes allow them to sing duets with themselves and how extensive their repertoires can be. I watched them fly around in my woods filling it with sound and sometimes with silence. I learned how intertwined their songful communities and economies are and how they ebb and flow. I learned their songs as variously, defensive, territorial, plaintive, desire-filled and jubilant. And I watched them just hanging out– bartering beauty for beauty—mostly at dawn, sometimes at dusk and more or less in between.
I learned that their voices constitute their identity as much, if not more, than their feathered bodies do. They sing right on key, and right on purpose, weaving sound patterns into a powerful force field of polyphonic colors. They sing to answer a thousand questions, a thousand dawns, a thousand other birds and simply because they have a song. Moreover they must sing it to survive.
Here’s what the birds said to me: If you really want to sing, listen to us first. Look for holes in the fabric of the air and find your own song. Sing that one. That's the one the world needs.
CMG: What have you been creating and focusing on lately? Where do you feel yourself being called in your singing, writing, artwork, etc. in recent seasons?
DH: I’m learning to play the harp, which is so very sweet–with the intention of bringing that instrumentation into my TLA practice and songwriting. I’m also fascinated with the architecture of fiction. So I’m currently pretending to be a novelist, practicing what it feels like to create not only nice characters, but interesting, damnable and quirky ones. Oh and kill people– (…like I said, you might want to edit this…). It’s nothing publish-able yet but it’s a wonderful practice. I’m currently in the process of starting a collaboration with another female singer/songwriter/dancer and visual artist. We have begun exploring ways to present “the sounding and moving possibilities of the divine feminine” –which is enormously satisfying. Beyond this, my calling is songwriting and leading song circles when I can which is always ongoing.
CMG: What led you to apply to apply for the position of TLA coordinator, and what's your intention, wishes and hopes for your work in this position?
DH: My overarching intention is to carry out the wishes of the TLAN council to the best of my ability. My hope is that together we will continue to distill the focus and mission of TLA and fully define it as “emerging field.” I am committed to increasing the membership base, investigating grant-writing opportunities and discovering new fields and venues where TLA might take root. What led me to apply? Instant resonance again. And my love for the arts and how art can transform. A desire to see the concept of TLA succeed and flourish and to be a part of it’s evolution and growth. And because it fits into my life as just the right patch in the piecework quilt I’m calling a career.