By Ramona M. Wis
“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), Christian mystic
I have loved these words since I first heard them in Joan Szymko’s “Vivos Voco” for women’s voices. I began using this phrase in March as my email sign off and now, as we return to our choral rehearsals in their redesigned formats, these words resonate in new ways.
“Well” can be understood in the literal sense of “not ill,” the world’s great mission right now. But “well” also means “fit, thriving, in good form.” I have thought of wellness as “being right with the world,” resilient, filled with grace and grit, or as a state of loving, assured spiritual comfort. However defined, wellness is an integration of mind, body, and spirit, a balance that is challenged every day, every moment.
My hope for all of us is that we would be well as we live this new school year or season. That we remain safe and healthy and that, as conductors, we would embrace our roles as agents of wellness with our choirs and for ourselves. When I find myself distracted by so much that bombards us these days, I try to rewind and ask myself three important questions. Over the coming weeks, we will look more deeply into these questions, encouraging us to move toward wellness in a time that has never challenged us more:
Will I remember that singing, alone or even in virtual community, provides important benefits for building and maintaining wellness?
There is a fascinating array of research on the effects of music, particularly singing, on our mood, blood pressure, increase in oxytocin, and other measures of wellness. When examined in conjunction with research on the effects of breathwork, yoga, and meditation, these findings remind us of what we have known, experientially, for as long as we have been singing and conducting—that the overall experience of singing is a powerful avenue for building and maintaining wellness.
Recently, this interesting read in Neuroscience News encouraged me to see how singing can continue its power even in safe, virtual formats (I want to underscore this point, that the benefits they describe can happen together “via video conferencing platforms” or “mass jam sessions online”):
“Lockdown singing: the science of why music helps us connect in isolation.”
Will I craft strategies that help build a “well “choir, trusting that wellness will fortify us as we learn and create in this era?
This is the “deep work” (Dr. Cal Newport’s phrase I referenced in an earlier post) that we are doing right now and must adapt as we learn what works and what doesn’t with our choirs. Connection, humor, physical and meditative approaches to activities we have always used, skill building, and performance goals can all be part of our planning.
Will I commit to my own wellness, more than ever, and welcome this time as a catalyst for personal growth?
Tough question, right?
Personal wellness is our source from which we give, create, grow, and nurture. If the source is dry, so is our potential for helping others. Even now—more so now—we can strive to make changes within the reality we experience—even small changes like a walking meditation to encourage deep breathing, physical mobility, and a calm mind.
(See “What if I Can’t Meditate?” https://choralnet.org/2020/07/the-conductor-as-yogi-what-if-i-cant-meditate/)
A final, most important, note:
I know some of you reading this are struggling with decisions that have been made about the modality in which you have been assigned to teach and lead this fall; perhaps you are facing a tough decision between job and health for you and your family. (A member of my family is making this decision as we speak.) While I don’t know you personally, I do “know” you as a choral colleague and fellow human, and I hope that however life unfolds, you are and will remain, well.
This Julian of Norwich text can be a kind of mantra, a phrase we repeat and meditate on to calm our thoughts and to invite insight, clarity, and direction. We can remind ourselves—as we teach, lead, and live—that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. As we make decisions and do our work, let us do our best to build our wellness and contribute to the wellness of our singers and all those we touch in this still wonderful, yet imperfect, world.
Dr. Ramona Wis is the Mimi Rolland Endowed Professor in the Fine Arts, Professor of Music, and Director of Choral Activities at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois and the author of The Conductor as Leader: Principles of Leadership Applied to Life on the Podium. Dr. Wis is a 500-hour CYT (Certified Yoga Teacher) with training in yoga history, philosophy, meditation, energetics, pranayama (breath work), anatomy, Sanskrit, and the teaching, sequencing, and adaptations of asana (posture-based) practice.