Facing the Challenge with Song

526 350 Ann Mortifee

GF Strong Rehab CentreA Workshop Experience with Ann Mortifee
by Cecil Hershler
Originally published in REHABILITATION DIGEST / SUMMER 1989  Reproduced here by permission of the author.

A single note becomes a song
A single tree becomes a forest
A single voice that’s clear and strong
Can turn into a worldwide chorus

In 1982, while living in Hamilton, Ontario, I was first introduced to the singing voice of Ann Mortifee. A friend of mine had seen her on T.V. and suggested that I go to a concert of hers at Hamilton Place. The fact that Ann Mortifee was born in South Africa, as I was, increased my interest and curiosity. Crouched in the top row of the upper balcony, I was astonished and moved by a voice that carried throughout the auditorium and seemed not to need even the assistance of a microphone. After the show I went behind stage and convinced the stagehands to arrange a meeting for me with Ann. As we stood and reminisced about our common roots, it seemed as if we had been friends for a long time.

In 1985, I started working as a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation at the G.F. Strong Rehabilitation Centre in Vancouver British Columbia. Approximately two years later, my wife noticed that Ann Mortifee was giving her first workshop which she called “Releasing the Inner Voice” and which, at first glance, appeared to be an attempt to assist people in releasing their inhibitions with regard to singing in public. I enrolled in this workshop which was held on Cortes Island (one of the islands off the coast of Vancouver) and found that Ann was not just a gifted musician and songwriter, but also a natural facilitator. She was not only able to create an atmosphere that encouraged participants to risk singing, she also helped people to release feelings and thoughts that related to the reasons they were inhibited.

As a clinician, I was struck by the therapeutic potential of this workshop environment and I became interested in evaluating the effect of such an experience on participants who were physically disabled. Ann enthusiastically agreed to support my endeavours. In June 1988,I was able to obtain financial assistance from the Rotary Club of Vancouver and rented space in an old Tudor house located near Jericho Beach. It was wheelchair accessible. After advertising by word of mouth, we finally put together agroup of 20 participants. Ten of these had no apparent physical disability, while the remainder had physical challenges that included spinal cord injury, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, polio myelitis and partial sight. The workshop was conducted over a weekend and arrangements were made for participants to return home each evening.

Day 1: Friday Evening, September 9

Initially the group appeared awkward and restrained. It seemed as if each participant had come for a different reason and felt vulnerable as a result. For Ann, the workshop was an opportunity to help people experience a now level of personal expression:
“Getting more of our insides onto the outside so that when we are singing or performing or just expressing our selves in life, there is more personal power, comfort, safety and strength.”

Dianne, who was a family therapist, and had a spinal cord injury and a walking disability, was there because she had a deep sense of the connection between the body and the spirit and a conviction that feelings trapped in the body could be helped by the voice. She also found that, in spite of the walking disability, she could dance to music better than she could walk.

Louis was quadriparetic as a result of a rugby injury in 1977. In recent years, he had been studying pro fessional singing and had been per forming since 1978. He had come because he found it difficult to study and perform in a world where he was in the minority. He found it particularly difficult to get up on stage with his disability, and felt that he held many issues inside which would benefit from open expression.
Pat, who had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, felt drawn to the workshop. She had been a music therapist for 17 years and had worked with Elisabeth Kubler Ross. In the last few years, as her musical voice had weakened, she had begun to withdraw and had cut herself off from her family, friends and her former profession.

After introductions were com pleted, the group was asked to chant the names of each person in sequence. ‘This is a way to learn names, but at the same time it is a way to actually contact a person. When I’m giving a concert, my primary urge is to communicate, it is to actually connect with someone and feel them and have them know me, you know . . . So in saying somebody’s name, it is an incredibly personal experience and to actually give a part of yourself away in your voice, because that’s when the voice gets charged, when you’re in it.’

Already, on that first Friday evening, we had begun to take risks. Each person in the group was asked to sing, totally on his or her own, either a phrase, part of a song, or a whole song. Singing bypasses the intellect, enables one to get in touch with deeper kelings and emotions. That evening we went home feeling somewhat more comfortable with each other, but still tentative.

Day 2: Saturday, September 10

On Saturday morning, a feeling of bonding within the group began to emerge. Some had never known each other before and were beginning to relax and feel safe. Vocal and breathing exercises as well as visualization helped relax and promote communication.

n Saturday afternoon, people began to talk about their feelings. Michael, who was quadriplegic, felt that the emotions of anger, frustration and all the negatives did not need to be acknowledged. Otherwise it could become a habit. Ann responded that, rather than denying negative feelings of anger and frustration, one should use the energy of such strong feelings in order to activate oneself. In other words, we should be talking about how to transform feelings of anger and frustration into positive action. Ann felt strongly that there is a place within each one of us where nothing is denied and everything is accepted, and that once this place is reached, freedom becomes available. The positive feature of owning our anger is that it allows us to recognize our own passion.

Veronica, who had no apparent physical disability, spoke of how she, as a relatively younger woman, was married to a man who was 40 years older than herself and who was now dying. She expressed with great emotion to the group how her life felt slowed down, cut off and arid, and yet she knew that she had chosen her situation and that it had not been thrust on her as those with trauma induced physical disabilities.

Kerris, who had suffered brain injury and hemiparesis, shared that the most difficult part of life was trying to adjust to what everybody else wanted or expected of her.

By the end of the day it was apparent to everyone that it did not matter whether one had a physical disability or not. The quest for meaning and joy in life was a common aspiration among all people. Saturday’s session ended with the group singing together. A feeling of closeness pervaded the room.

Day 3: Sunday, September 11

On Sunday morning, the group was close and more supportive than ever with each other. Many of the participants began to share themselves with intimacy and great feeling. Sunday was exceptionally powerful for Pat. She was the young woman with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis who two years ago began to exhibit the same symptoms as her father. He had died only two months before the workshop. Pat shared how, as she had become weaker in the past few years, she had gradually lost contact with people who had been close to her. She and her life partner had separated six months previously at her request because she felt that he would want to be with someone who was healthy and who could move and do the things that she couldn’t do. He then married her closest friend. She had been a music therapist but, because she had lost 2 1/2 octaves from her vocal range, she felt that she no longer had value and so had stopped singing altogether. With the group encouraging her, Pat then sang a song that she had written:

‘Last night I thought that this was it
I’ve seen this world
There’s nothing left
So I closed my eyes and my ears to life
And I waited for my final breath

Keep on coming
I’m moving along
Into the world
We can do anything

This world, it’s hard
It’s hard to figure out
It’s light and it’s dark I have no room

I must start out
On my road to die….’

At the end of the song, each person in the group felt profoundly moved and intimately connected with Pat’s pain. Pat’s final declaration of her love for her father and former partner represented for me the essence of healing, and each person in the group saw the possibility for themselves of healing their own wounds. Pat’s final words were:

‘I want to be a part of what this is. I believe in the power of music. I know and I respect it. And I think if anything can change the world it is going to be through people using music.’

Since this workshop, a presentation has been made at the G.F. Strong Rehabilitation Centre which was warmly received. In view of the fact that this workshop was experimental, involving a small sample of people in a special set of circumstances, we are now working on a proposal to introduce such a workshop program into the conventional rehabilitation process. A key factor in the proposal would be the creation of a long-term follow-up process after workshops, to help people deal with some of the psychological wounds such an experience can open up.

Therapy utilizing music has been going on for many years and this workshop illustrates again how the voice can be used to assist people in releasing deep feelings and becoming more aware of their own potential. Seventy and 30-minute videos of the workshop have been made and are now available for those who are interested.

What difference does such a workshop make? It obviously has immediate short-term effects. It also appears to have a carry-over. Pat, for example, has changed her lifestyle since the workshop and has begun to record her music and write her auto-biography. Her attitude has become more positive and this has continued for the past months.

‘You and I are one

We are simply just one voice

One single voice

If you say you can

Well then you can

You can.’

Dr. Cecil Hershler is a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation. His specialty is pain management. His office can be reached at (604) 732-7060.

email: chershler@home.com

Ann Mortifee

Singer Ann Mortifee is a genre unto herself. Blessed with a remarkable four-octave range and a gift for impacting hearts with her music and lyrics, her albums, concerts, full-length musicals, scores (ballet, film, opera, TV), and In Love with the Mystery book have generated national/international distinctions and awards. She is an Order of Canada Member, the country’s highest civilian honour. A world traveller, compelling storyteller, and sought-after keynote speaker for major conferences, Ann creates and facilitates inspiring arts and consciousness workshops and co-founded two foundations - for social innovation and for forestry conservation. Based in BC, Ann is the wife of the late jazz flutist, Paul Horn.

All stories by: Ann Mortifee