It was with great pleasure and a little frisson of fear that I made my way to Nevern village Hall recently for Briony Greenhill’s voice improvisation workshop. Why fear? Well many of us have some childhood experience of being told we can’t sing and some of us know are voices are not as good as they might have been.
I needn’t have worried. I think there were very few of the 15 other participants who did not at some point express similar worries…even the professional singers among us, and while some of the exercises we undertook were challenging, Briony’s humour and skill brought beauty and joy to our endeavours.
We began the Saturday morning with an explanation of how the weekend would unfold from Briony and soon we were introducing ourselves to the group with sound.
Briony explained how important it was to release the bodies natural resonance. Bones, muscles, tendons stretched, opened and playfully tuned to allow sound to form freely.
In our first break I asked Eugene, a tree surgeon and a trainee sound healer with Hara Willow at the college of Sound Healing what had brought him to the workshop. He told me that he worked a lot with men in choirs and men’s groups. “All cultures have different musical expression,” he explained, “but we in the west have got stuck in our heads. I am here to meet likeminded people and free my voice.”
And the group are a delightful bunch. As Briony led us through techniques and exercises, the smiles on peoples faces were a testament to the pleasure that this kind of expression releases. That’s not to suggest that there aren’t some tears along the way. Some of us were challenged when asked to express ourselves in front of the group but all were met with an affirming and supportive sense of coming together.
Briony introduced us to the four part Sound Basket. ( motor, interlocker, counterpoint and solo and the group have an opportunity to experience each of those parts and how they knit together.
She suggests maintaining eye contact and using our feet to keep time. She also suggests using a metronome ( apparently you can download an ap. on your phone) to improvise with keeping time at home.
We create sound alone separately and together that is sometimes unearthly, great swoops and swirls that can carry you into an almost hallucinogenic experience and then we laugh a lot at the ingenuity and humour of our individual expression.
Over a shared lunch I found myself with Brian who works in I.T. and his friend Linda, who lives at Newcastle Emlyn. He had seen Briony on Facebook and was particularly struck with her video of the starlings in their murmuration, as a metaphor for sound. “ I wanted to see how Briony approaches the voice… expression…spontaneity. We have an expectation in the west of how a song must work. Its confining. I came to explore with others ….to be free to explore sound as a whole different canvas.”
Linda only decided at the last minute to attend after Brian told her all about it . As a writer and artist, and someone who has enjoyed singing she decided it sounded. “right up my street”.
Louise from Cwmfelin Boeth leads in a group which is dedicated to devotional mantra chanting. “ Kirtan has it’s roots in the Vedic tradition,” she explains “a kirtan is a call-and-response style song or chant,”
We talk about dementia and how music and singing often bring people back to themselves. Louise expresses her pleasure in listening to people in the group sing. “It’s a privilege.” She says, and others agree.
We move into a meditation with sound and people emerge looking and feeling refreshed and renewed. Someone describes the experience as sounding like heaven, another feels it was like swimming under the sea.
Briony introduces us to OWL vision and we arrange ourselves where we have conscious awareness of all the other members of the group. We take it in turns to be Chief and the group are our tribe, taking up our sounds and forming a background that allows each chief to improvise their own song. Most of the group find the idea scary but the sounds that arise, ranging through jazzy, to folky, to funny, to plain other worldly are met with appreciation and respect.
When we break again I talk with others in the group, many of whom have travelled long distances to be here. Louise , from Reading had worked with Briony at Tribe Of Doris. “ I did every workshop I could,” she tells me,” and she couldn’t wait to do more.
Maggie, an organic gardener and stained galss artist, has been singing for many years, starting a 3 part accapella group after finding many choirs dominated by male singers. She is determined to do more improvisation.
Brionys delightful box of tricks leads us through improvising with random words in different voices and the Quintet, an exercise where the group work in fives and must feel their way through the sounds to create a cohesive piece.
We do floor work….seeing the body as an instrument, starting with the heart, and afterwards we talk a little about yogic breathing.
The sense of exploration is wonderful. The fears and feelings that most people have when standing in front of the group are met with humour and tenderness. Incredible personal songs are created, voices roar and soar.
There are fears and some tears but there isn’t one of us that hasn’t had an amazing time and as we part, not one of us that wouldn’t do this all over again next weekend. We sincerely hope to see Briony back in Pembrokeshire soon.
Want to know more?
You will find an article about Briony and her work that we wrote in April of this year ( 2019) in Pembrokeshire.online, entitled ‘SINGING WITH ALL OF YOU’
You can find out more and listen to ( and buy the album), LISTEN by THE ELEMENTS on her website : www.brionygreenhill.com
UPCOMING WORKSHOPS THIS SEASON ( 2019):
Retreats: A Vocal Improvisation Immersion
23-30 August 2019 | Penpont, Brecon Beacons, Wales
YEAR LONG COURSES 2019 ;
Singing The Land, Re-Wilding the Voice
A Vocal Improvisation immersion.
August 23-30 2019 | @ The Beautiful Penpont, Brecon, on the edge of the Beacons.
This is a week for confident experienced singers who want to dive into the challenging, thrilling, sacred art form of Vocal Improvisation.
Vocal improvisation – the Contemporary American approach to which was pioneered by masters like Bobby McFerrin and Rhiannon – is the art of vocal composition in real time, alone and with others. It’s a medium for performance, community music, music learning and teaching, therapy healing and growth, spiritual life – and perhaps recording!
This is a week-long retreat on the edge of the Brecon Beacons for up to 16 experienced singers, to dive into this delicious artform. We will:
Open the full resonance of your body and come more vibrantly into your true voice; singing with ease, power, beauty and authenticity – as well as vocal health and sustainability.
Sharpen our chops: we’ll refine our use of rhythm, harmony and melody, and integrate these ‘chops’ into our musicianship.
Learn to improvise with lyrics. You can do it!
Learn forms for improvising with others, from introductory to advanced.
Connect to a wellspring beneath all of our creativity, and surrender to it. We’ll be nourished by it. I hold it as sacred.
Support one another. Singing goes deep.
Be outside a lot! When the weather is clement. We’ll study by the river, sing to the river, sing to the land and the sheep and the hills.
Eat healthily and detox. It’s a drug and alcohol free week. The food is organic, sugar-free, wheat optional. Every morning 8-9 will be optional yoga, dance, or you’ll walk or run on the land if you want to.
Ultimately, these weeks support your voice, your musicianship, your creativity, your aliveness, your growth and your wellbeing. They always sell out.
Sliding scale: £700 – £500 sliding scale which includes five days’ tuition, 7 nights sleeping 2-3 to an (exceedingly comfortable) room, and full organic and very healthy board cooked by one of our wonderful chefs; you’ll be asked to help with washing up.
Friday 23rd August 3pm onwards: arrive and settle in, welcome dinner.
Saturday: Opening, getting started with Vocal Improv.
Sunday: Free day! Packed lunch provided after breakfast. Explore the beacons. Rest. Be.
Timings for Saturday and Monday – Thursday:
8-9am | Yoga or dance
10 – 1 | Morning Vocal Improv session
3 – 6 | Afternoon Vocal Improv session
There’ll be one led evening session, and the option for self-led campfires, jam sessions and so on.
Thurdsay 4pm: Closing circle
Friday 30th August 10.30am: leave Penpont.
Briony Greenhill teaches vocal improvisation internationally in weekend, week long and year long courses. Briony typically teaches performing and recording artists, music teachers and graduates, choir leaders and those with a deep relationship with singing.
This will be pitched at an intermediate level with capacity to take it in a slightly more or less advanced direction; improvisation is flexible and ‘personalisable’ like that.
Briony has studied with Bobby McFerrin, and has studied and performed with Rhiannon. She released the world’s first entirely improvised 5 voice album, Listen, with The Elements quintet. Briony teachers, performs and studies; and is currently geeking out on non-diatonic harmony, transcribing Esperanza Spalding and Abduallah Ibrahim by ear, and is basically deeply in love with music.
Please direct questions to Daniella Dean: Dee@brionygreenhill.com.
Penpont is a beautiful, 350 year old home with extensive grounds on about 2,000 acres of land, including a 2000 year old yew tree; on the banks of a beautiful river with swimming holes right by the bridge.
Previous students have said:
“It was epic – and that’s an understatement.”
“You are a master.”
“Briony is the Rolls-Royce of voice teachers!”
“It was deeper than an ayahuasca ceremony; I grew more than in workshops with leading psychologists, and it’s the safest I’ve ever felt in a group.”
“One of the most powerful experiences of my life! I feel changed on a cellular level!”
“Being bathed in beauty. Being held in love. Being winkled out of a shell. Being birthed into a new world.”
“You made it feel like a womb. Protected, loved, nourished, warm and holding.”
“Most unqualified joy of the entire week.”
“Some singing teachers teach you sing with your voice. Briony teaches you to sing with your heart and sing from your soul.”
“What a joy! Such delicious healing offered in the sound therapy in small groups. I intend to emulate her in my own workshops and include several of the exercises she offered.”
“At the end it was like “Wow! did that happen?”
“Everyone I send to you comes to me afterwards and says, “she is f*****g rocking my s**t!””
“Watching you facilitate was a demonstration of a kind of mastery (or should that be mistressy!) of the energy flows around groups, singing and Improvisation.”
“You take people through the window of music into the Cathedral of consciousness. The spiritual energy is grounding, uplifting, beautiful.”
“It was seriously fun, crazy, inspiring, opening and meditative, all at the same time.”
“Classically experiential. Heartfully and skillfully and humbly led and deeply moving for those in my little group.”
“Briony really made us all feel at home – starting off with exercises that didn’t force me outside of my comfort zone, and a no judgement pact, really allowed me to feel comfortable with the group, which then gave me the confidence to try out some solos.”
“I work with Briony because she teaches me how to use my voice to get to know myself, express myself, and expand myself.”
“it gave me confidence to be more playful and enjoy my voice which I’m often nervous about in non-classical settings.”
“I am so glad that I did it – what an exhilarating experience!”