Actress Maggie Wheeler finds a deeper calling in leading communal singing
“I used to say, ‘I act for my supper and I sing for my soul.'”
Maggie Wheeler is describing her bifurcated career as a successful actor (most notably in long-running roles in the sitcoms Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond), and as co-leader of The Golden Bridge Community Choir-an inclusive singing group open to all comers. “For many years I was vigilant about not turning my singing work into work. That changed nine years ago.”
Wheeler hasn’t quit her day job exactly, it’s just that running the choir and giving workshops in community singing have taken up an increasing amount of her time over those nine years. Both passions had grown side by side from childhood. At the same time Wheeler’s aspirations to act were first percolating around the age of seven or eight; she spent summers at a camp in Vermont run by Pete Seeger’s brother John and his wife Eleanor, that was a kind of haven for the folk musicians who worked there as counselors. Guitars, banjos, and dulcimers hung from hooks in the hallways.
“So there I was,” Wheeler says by phone from her home in Los Angeles, “a New York City kid, surrounded by music-and the campfire, and people getting up and leading the community in song. It became a touchstone for me. And as I moved out into the world beyond Camp Killooleet” (she spells it for me by lilting the song they were all taught: “K-I-double-L…”), “I found that I was always searching for that campfire wherever I went. And if I couldn’t find it, I would find a way to create it.”
In the meantime, Wheeler pursued her desire to entertain and to make people laugh through acting. “I’ve always loved the sound of the human voice,” she says, “and stretching it to imitate the sounds of different people from different places. As an actress I often make the journey to the character through the music of speech, and the song that exists within every character’s cadence.”
In pursuing this thread of her life’s desires, Wheeler had the good fortune to study and work with the actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith (perhaps most widely known for her role as hospital administrator Gloria Akalitus in the Showtime series Nurse Jackie). The training served Wheeler well as she not only acted in Smith’s first play but also landed a slew of television roles. Yet her childhood passion for communal singing was not to be submerged.
“There’s a mysterious component of what music moves a person. I can’t explain — I think it’s mystical — that I am so deeply moved by African music and gospel music.”
Her fascination led her to visit Africa at age 16, and later to study with Ysaye Maria Barnwell, who sang bass and wrote many of the songs for Sweet Honey in the Rock, the renowned a cappella choral group. Working with Barnwell, among other teachers, Wheeler says she had the extraordinary experience of learning “how you can take a roomful of people who don’t know what’s possible, and you can set the bar way up in the air and you can get everyone to rise to it before they’ve had the chance to think, ‘I can’t do that.’ In our culture, if you don’t belong to a church, or you’re not a sanctioned ‘singer,’ or you don’t read music and you’re not in a band, there are only so many opportunities to sing-and for the rest of the population it’s off the table. I am passionately committed and motivated to putting it back on the table for the rest of humanity.”
Her passion for communal singing is grounded in what she has learned about the role that sharing vocal music has traditionally played around the world. “In so many cultures, singing is something that runs through the course of every day,” she says. “There’s music for celebration, music for sorrow, music for work, music for rest. Nothing is done without song. No meeting takes place before singing has taken place and no meeting is closed without singing. The work I’ve been doing for the past 20 years —and for the past nine years under the umbrella of conducting a choir-is to reintroduce music into everyday life.”
After taking that workshop with Ysaye Barnwell, Wheeler came away with “a vocabulary of song running through” her, and she has continued expanding her vocabulary to include traditional songs from Asia, Africa, Australia, and Russia, along with spirituals and gospel music. “I found that I was able to give myself permission to create song in a different way,” she says. “That set me on a path. I realized that was my work.” The catalyst for her decision to give communal singing equal weight with her acting work was a Community Choir Leadership Training in Victoria, British Columbia, in 2006, where she learned how to work with a non-auditioned choir-meaning that anyone who wants to sing in the choir can join, regardless of training or skill level. In her years of running singing workshops she had been approached by the more experienced singers asking her to start an exclusive group, but her heart was pushing her to open the door for people who might have no other opportunity to follow their own passion. While attending a workshop with Barnwell at Hollyhock, she was urged to take the choir training in Victoria by Gloria Hanson, a long-time member of the Getting Higher Choir in Victoria, who cited a quote from Balzac for inspiration:
“Vocations which we wanted to pursue, but didn’t, bleed, like colors, on the whole of our existence.”
“Those words tapped on my head like a woodpecker until I decided I had to go to Canada,” Maggie says. “I’d been teaching vocal workshops for 15 years, but it was always the ‘excellent’ people who were asking me to start some form of choral group.” She wanted to do something that was “inclusive instead of exclusive” and, because she had a young family, to make it family-centered, and in Victoria the pieces fell into place.
“Then, just before I left for Canada, Gloria called me again and said I should meet a man named Emile Hassan Dyer, a vocal improviser who had taken the same training a couple of years earlier.” Also a percussionist, dancer, and storyteller raised in France and Senegal, Dyer draws on his multiethnic background to add a rich array of rhythms to the mix, including various forms of vocal percussion. Joining forces after she returned from Canada, they were able to create a shared vision of a family-centered community choir based in the Los Angeles area that meets for a series of 14 Sundays at a time. Wheeler had recreated the campfire she’d been looking for since Camp Killooleet.
Much of Wheeler’s motivation to create her inclusive choir derives from her awareness that many people have had experiences that she calls “musical wounding,” like being singled out when your elementary school class is rehearsing a song and the teacher tells you to just “move your lips” without actually singing (I speak from experience). I ask Maggie if she has encountered people in her workshops who absolutely cannot carry a tune.
“One gentleman came to choir who was having trouble finding the pitch,” she says in response. “When I was in Canada during the training, they told us that they firmly don’t believe in people being tone-deaf. A very small percentage of people suffer from something clinical that stops them from being able to reproduce a note-for the rest it is usually something emotional, or traumatic that gets in the way of hearing the note. I’d had tentative singers and scared singers, but there’s safety in numbers and we never point to anybody or ask them to sing alone…
“It’s a loving and patient and safe environment in which everybody gets a chance to get where they need to go.”
When she noticed that this man was having trouble finding the pitch, though, she asked if he would be willing to work with her privately, and he agreed. “So I took a deep breath and said to myself, ‘Okay, now I have to walk this talk.’ He came to my house and we sat down at the piano. I used humor to lighten the moment so he could be a little bit less uptight about the whole idea, because he was scared. I could see that his thought process was telling him that he needed to reproduce the note immediately. So first we slowed everything down and I gave him permission to take his time, until he could find the note. Sometimes he would start below the note or above the note and I would motion for him to come down or come up. And when he found it he could feel that we were vibrating together and he knew something was happening. We did this for quite a while and when he hit the note I would say, ‘That’s it! You’ve got it!’
“And he cried and said, ‘Don’t lie to me.’ I said, ‘This is not my opinion. This is the note and you’re singing the note.’ And in fact he had a beautiful voice-such a beautiful tenor voice and such a range that he was confused about which register to sing in, and finally he confessed that he had been in an a cappella group when he was very young. He was such a perfect example of what is possible and the pain around not trusting himself because someone had told him to stop.”
The Golden Bridge Community Choir is part of the Ubuntu Choir movement, a national network of local non-auditioned choirs that accept people who initially sing timidly or off-key.
Wheeler eschews even the use of sheet music. “The first thing is to remove the idea that help is needed,” she says. “We’re all so profoundly attached to the idea of perfection and I have no interest in perfection. I have an interest in harmony and in giving people the best experience possible. But I don’t have an interest in arriving at that perfect destination. That is one of the things that stops people from being able to freely vocalize. Everybody has a song. We may not have the song that’s winning American Idol this week, but everybody has a voice. I don’t mean that there isn’t room to get better at what we do. But that comes with doing it. I do think that many people are paralyzed around the idea of singing because they think that if they are not excellent they are not allowed. My goal is to get people to stop thinking. The gift of doing the work the way we do it is that there’s no time to think. Before you can let your story or your fear get in the way, suddenly there’s music. The music supplants everything else, and then you’re just filled with joy.
“The list of positive results of this kind of music is endless. It heals loneliness; it heals isolation. It lifts you when you’re sad; it lifts you higher when you’re happy. I’m fortunate in that I’ve doggedly followed my passions in this life and they’ve led me to some incredible places. This passion for connecting through music I’ve been able to take up and embrace because it lives through me. It doesn’t require permission from another. My acting work requires permission. That’s the nature of the business. But this music work I can carry on my back.” (Translation: She and Dyer will travel anywhere to work with groups who want the experience of making music together in this way.)
A big part of the healing she describes comes from the mere fact that when we sing we’re breathing deeply out of necessity. “You’ve expelled all the air you have in the service of the song, and your body needs to fill up again,” she says. “All that oxygen is invigorating. That automatic, unconscious intake of air transports you. That’s the yoga of song.
“People of the World” audiocast: Words and music by Maggie Wheeler; vocals by Maggie Wheeler and Emile Hassan Dyer
Another aspect of the restorative power of song comes from the fact that when people sing together, their heartbeats are in sync. “There’s something that’s healing in the vibration of the song as it’s running through us and the person next to us. I say that it causes a kind of cellular rearrangement. I have gone out to teach when I’m sick and by the time I’m done with choir, I’m healed. And the same can be said for bringing emotional pain into that setting-it transmutes.”
Maggie Wheeler pauses and extracts one final, perhaps unanticipated byproduct of communal singing: forgiveness. “I wouldn’t say I’m setting out to [teach forgiveness], but it’s embedded in the process of creating song. You have to love that song, you have to forgive its failings, and you have to keep lifting it up until it takes flight. And that reflects back to the individuals in the room. We begin to understand that we all long for that same forgiveness of self. The creation of song becomes a metaphor for the forgiveness of fallibility and imperfection. We all walk away with a little more forgiveness of the people around us and of ourselves, and that ripples out into people’s lives, which is a sort of unexpected, quiet gift.
“Until you’ve forgiven yourself for those things that you think are shameful or unforgivable, or that separate you from others, it’s difficult to do the work we have to do in the world. It’s part of the human experience and you have to do it over and over again. One of the things I say about this weekly singing experience is that we sing together on a Sunday, and it keeps you high until about Wednesday. On Thursday it starts to wane, by Friday you know you need more, and then you come back again.”
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