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Vocal Improvisation, Vulnerability & Play

During the fifth week of my residency I co-facilitated a workshop on vocal improvisation, vulnerability & play with the fabulously talented musician and teacher, Karen Porkka. There were fifteen people that entered the studio, sat in a circle, and exhibited an inspiring combination of bravery and exploration.

It may seem a little convoluted how the current body of work in my visual arts practice, a large-scale monochromatic fibre-art portrait series, connects to the process of vocal improvisation.

On one hand, I think bringing Karen in for the workshop could be seen as a bit self-indulgent because I started becoming active in the vocal improvisation network of Edmonton (VINE) around the same time as I started seriously laying down the groundwork for this series, and I think V.I. is brilliant. Vocal improvisation and circle singing has been both a force of joy and centering in my life since I started participating in it, so when I was applying to become artist-in residence at the ABRS, and I was generating ideas for public engagement, it bubbled to the surface very quickly.


But the thing is, I didn’t need to find an excuse to bring this in, or force some kind of connection, because I truly believe the processes of both these creative modalities are inherently alike. And this likeness has to do with trusting intuition & the embracing of vulnerability that can be gained through this.


When we trust intuition, we let go of the comfortable structures with which we usually make sense of the world . As humans we don’t have claws, we move relatively slowly, and our muscles are weak. Our survival as a species has depended a great deal on our ability to analyze the situations within which we find ourselves, and make judgments accordingly. In a way, this kind of thinking, in which we label, rank & categorize is safe. And we need it to avoid being pummeled by sensory overload and existential angst and the magnitude of it all. But in a creative context, the same boundaries that keep us safe can also sometimes be really limiting. For instance, when we sit down to make a drawing, we can be inhibited by ideas of what a thing ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t look like and the value judgments that come hand-in-hand with that.


A huge component of the evolution of my portrait series comes out of a fascination with mark-making. So when I did my first workshop here in playing with mixed media & string, I started by inviting participants into an exploration of abstract mark-making.

It’s not a rabbit, it’s not a building…it’s just lines. And how awesome is that? We have these amazing tools available to us that will just make marks wherever we please and that’s pretty empowering.


This is where the first similarity between my project and V.I. come up because singing is an immensely powerful experience. Studies in physiology & behavioural science and evolutionary psychology have shown that after group singing, participants (whether or not they are professional singers) experience a release of endorphins and oxytocin. BUT—


Just how someone may hesitate to draw or give up on it right away because it doesn’t look like X, someone might hesitate to explore sound with their voice for fear of it sounding ‘incorrect’. This is reinforced by a toxic culture of thinking talent is innate quality reserved for the few and a separation between performer and audience that creates a fixation on performance or “quality output” over process. This is the reason why there are kids being told by music teachers to “mouth the words” instead of singing, and people grow up internalizing these messages until they become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It breaks my heart because children are such natural musicians!

So thinking back to how do we free ourselves from these internalized messages and judgments? The answer is to learn from the exuberance of the kids we see before these messages set in, and to play. In the case of mark-making, we can scribble. In the case of V.I. it might be exploring all the sounds that can be made with the voice—from beautiful to painful to plain weird. In other words—take the plunge, do something scary & trust intuition.


This String Portrait Project  is supported by the Edmonton Arts Council and the City of Edmonton.

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