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Thinking About Choir Directors and Facilitating Interdependence: the role of supports to people with disabilities

December 28, 2011

A common question in our workshops about supporting people with disabilities to have relationships that are better, deepening our own facilitation practice, or even finding ways to appreciate more those who do it well is how do we talk about what’s “natural” (making and having friends) without getting “clinical.”    On the one hand, to quote Ram Dass, “We’re all just walking each other home.”   On the other hand, what if you don’t have anyone to walk home with, and you don’t know how to ask?

25 years ago when, to my surprise, I found myself working supporting people with disabilities it was hard enough to explain what I did.   So are you like a practical nurse?  People would ask.   Are you like a house parent?  Are you like a teacher?   You’re probably really good at this because you’re big and strong and those people are intimidated.   Yikes.  None of these ideas really reflected the kind of joy I found in the relationships I developed with people, some of whom could only smile, or move their eyes left or right, so I would talk about what we did together.

Every year one of our family’s holiday traditions is to catch a performance of the Universal Gospel Choir.   We like their message of appreciating difference and similarities, and their intention to bring people together, and the loving energy with which they perform, and we have friends who sing with them that we like to see on stage, appreciating them, too, in these different roles.   Years that we go to a performance are better than years that we have missed them.   They enspirit our holiday season.

Singing amazes me.   Music amazes me.   I have no natural musical talent and until recently had little musical education.   Well, none.  I’m not from a musical family – we didn’t listen to music, we had no stereo, no recordings, and the radio was tuned to weather forecasts.   When I turned 50 I began music lessons and learned a great deal – enough to convince me I should focus on other areas on enrichment but also enough to be able to listen differently – but that’s another story.   But is it a story about a “clinical” approach to something I wanted to know?  If I’d waited for what might be a “natural” approach to learning more about music, I’d still be waiting.   And this year, for perhaps the first time, I was able to at least clap along to a beat I could hear.   I was able, in some way, to participate.

The Universal Gospel Choir enters the room in a kind of informal, pregnant procession.    Kathryn Nicholson is the Musical Director and she says a few words and then she raises one hand, and then the other, and she begins to move her fingers and palms and arms and body and the voices begin to soar – linking together like flocks of birds suddenly in alignment, then some drop out, others join in, soaring higher and higher.   I spend the whole evening watching her.   How does she do this?  – I understand there are cues I am not trained in which the choir is responding to, and that they’ve done this again and again in rehearsal and performance so they know their way around the soaring intimately… and then one voice flies further and perhaps it’s something new and unexpected and perhaps Kathryn does something and then other voices follow… a kind of jazz responsiveness.   Perhaps this also happens when a singer makes mistakes, but I wouldn’t know a mistake if I heard one – but I like to think of someone in the choir caught offguard by, perhaps, a memory and his voice quivers instead of soars and the other singers, somehow organized by Kathryn in a single moment, swoop down – the tenors fly under to cushion him, the sopranos rise to give him some kind of map to re-locate himself, and then he is again part of a congruent whole.   And everyone is richer for it, including people like me who don’t even know the details but appreciate the gift.

One of the choir members, speaking to the audience, says that while we get to see Kathryrn’s hands and arms and body move the choir, facing her, get to see her emotive face, and follow her expressions of joy and hope and sorrow and connection…  there’s a part of the dynamic that we don’t even know about.

I think of my music teacher – a genius who can do anything with sounds – and how one day he was trying to teach me the 8 bar blues and I’d been practicing for a month but still had to keep count, laboriously keep track in a way that wasn’t natural for me.   And he said, “let’s try this, you just play, just move your fingers over the strings and pick notes.”  And as I did he responded with his own guitar, riffing, grabbing my awkward notes and turning them into something else, something song-like.   For a moment I was proficient.  “There, you see, you’re not half bad after all!” he said.

I watch people in rooms – people with and without disabilities – as they move from person to person, small groups flocking to them, connecting, leaning in, smiling laughing, parting, reconnecting in other forms.   Someone introduces someone to someone else; someone connects someone to a new person, knowing they have something in common.   Someone, knowing that someone else is looking for a job, guides them over to someone who is hiring.   Someone goes to the woman standing alone in the corner, speaks gently, smiles, and as she leans forward they move slightly backwards into the larger group and the woman follows, a kind of dance and then she is suddenly part of something.  She’s smiling now.  Oh, says the person who introduced themselves, have you met her – she made this beautiful scarf – you’re interested in knitting so you’ll like so and so…  and this is another person – they drive right past your house on their way to yoga every Thursday night and they could pick you up and drop you off.    They hate to drive alone.  Connecting…

I have some people in my life who can do this.  I married into a family of people who do this constantly.   They are so good at it they have no idea they do it – after repeated practice their abilities have become intuitive.  The more time I spend with them the better I get at it.  I am lucky enough to work with some people who can do this.  I was lucky enough, when I went off to university, to meet professors who excelled in this and they taught me how to do it.  It’s the most important thing I learned at university.    It’s also the most important thing I learned as a People First advisor – self advocate Arnold Bennington would say things like, “I like to go and talk to the new person in the room who doesn’t know anyone because they need a little welcome and later on they’ll never forget it Aaron.   And we always need more friends.”   Indeed.

So I am better at it than I was raised to be, because I’ve learned from masters and I wanted to learn.   Learning how has allowed me to meet and introduce myself to some of my greatest heroes, who have become friends and colleagues, and it’s allowed me to form connections that, when I need them, are glad to be there.   The evidence of the last two decades in research around being connected and being lonely suggest that I will live longer because of this connectedness, I will have more opportunities, I will get sick less and when I do get sick I will recover faster, I will have less tendency to depression and will be less likely to suffer from mental health concerns.

Research in the new field of interpersonal neurobiology shows that the more connected we are, the more capable the executive functioning of our brains will be.   Think about this for a moment.   We disable people by not focusing on connectedness in their lives.

My most important mentor did not say these things to me, because we didn’t know them then, she said the thing I tell my son now, “It is our obligation to make people comfortable because in the end it’s all about graciousness.  It is about making each other’s lives easier and better.”   This idea positions one differently and is a way to re-think our positions as informal choir directors in social settings – one of my mantras is, “Everyone here is less comfortable than I am.”   When I started saying it to myself I believed it was an affirmation, not a reality.   But it has actually become a reality.  This is quite different from my old thought, which was that I was the shyest person in the room and it would be much harder for me to say hello to someone than for anyone to say hello to me; thus, I should just wait to be greeted.   I was owed a greeting.  That mantra gets you nowhere.   Mostly people are so grateful when you come over to say hello, when you introduce them to someone, make a connection, build depth in the conversation so that they can talk about what they love with someone who also loves that thing.

The study and practice of this does not, I think, denigrate it.   I think to not pay attention is more likely to do damage, and we more routinely ignore connectedness.   In the lives of people with disabilities we think of it as a kind of whipped cream on a good life – once we do the rest – get someone healthy, find them work, find them a safe place to live – then we can talk about their connectedness and community.   Yet, approach it the other way – help them build a community of people who will keep them safe, who know more about what jobs they’d like than we ever could, who will help them connect to communities they are already part of, in ways we can rarely parachute into as staff or professionals.   We don’t talk about it enough, we don’t help each other enough to figure it out and we don’t value it.   To imagine that it is either “natural” or “clinical” is to miss the point – we are all in a process that is partly out of our hearts and can be assisted by our brains.   We can all get better at this.

I was thinking of looking up how a choir director learns how to be a choir director – but I think I will leave it to be a mystery.   I don’t need to know.   I don’t want to be a choir director.  I’m quite happy to actually be able to clap along.  However, if my work was to increase the potential of the choir, to keep them enthused and motivated and feeling good about their involvement and willing to show up for all the rehearsals, until what seems in performance quite natural has been practiced into intuitiveness, I’d want to know how.   I’d need to know.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 13, 2012 4:40 am

    Thanks for the article – I SO enjoy your writing! On the topic of listening and sound this guy is interesting:


    • January 13, 2012 5:45 am

      thanks for the feedback, Caroline – appreciate it 🙂 aaron

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