2015 was a year of trying new things and building confidence for My Heart Sings. About exploring and raising voices. About developing a clearer understanding of what the ‘My Heart Sings’ approach really is and how we can transform society through singing together. And of course sharing lots of great songs, tea and excellent baked goods!

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‘My Heart Sings’ describes community singing circles lead by me (Shilpa), for mostly women. It also describes the unique approach to community singing I’m developing together with the women I sing with. Singing to release the natural, uninhibited voice, with mindfulness of breathing and movement, rooted in community development practice and intersectional feminism.

This is a long blog – unusually and unashamedly so. Singing and community development work in the My Heart Sings way is an oral tradition. As are many traditions in which women come together. Yet history is dominated by the written word, as is academia and the media today. And these words are mostly of and about the achievements of men. Not so much about nurses, teachers, artists, social workers, carers, mothers, activists and volunteers who come together to sing.

These words – and this blog more generally – are written to commemorate the hearts, minds and voices of a bunch of extraordinary women (and a few children), in the hope that these Little Big things become part of Herstory. And help us connect across time and geography with other women coming together to be, flourish and build community and voice. If you and your women’s group are doing, or want to do similar work, do get in touch.

Thank you to everyone who brought their voices to My Heart Sings in 2015. Thank you to partner organisations and to those women who have supported, mentored, encouraged and the children who have energised workshops. And to all my teachers who shared on learning as part of an ongoing chain of song, breath, body and women’s work, passing down the generations.

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Tuesday Night Women’s Circle

The My Heart Sings weekly women’s circle met at St Lukes throughout the year. The circle continues to extraordinary women – they are often change-makers in their families, communities, organisations or through their projects; challengers and innovators. With big hearts and a strong understanding about the connection between singing, wellbeing, resilience and building strength.

In 2015 we took a deeper focus on breathing – mindfulness of the breath, understanding how our breath is linked to our emotions and exploring how we can breathe more fully and in a way that supports our voices. Singers also practised grounding and opening the posture, releasing our natural voices. And developing gentleness in how we treat ourselves. The songs we sang we a real mix, from spirituals and Civil Rights anthems, to Bollywood, to folk songs from around the British Isles. The most exciting development was that many singers shared songs – from their childhood, country of origin, favourite song that meant something to them currently or one that they had written themselves. Of course we had fun arranging these and mashing them up to forge new creations too.

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Special events

In March, our International Women’s Day sing in Dalston,  joining up with Emashi, was a lot of fun and supportive of the staff of Latin American Women’s Aid as they campaigned to stop the closure of their women’s refuge in London.

Working with CADFA, the group hosted 25 young women from Palestine for an evening of sharing songs, stories from Palestine, ideas of Palestine Solidarity, dance (from traditional Dabke dance to Bollywood to THIS, led expertly by Karen). The stories shared by our guests about life under occupation and the beautiful songs sang sparked tears and anger and a desire to take action. We were asked to speak with others about the situation in Palestine as much as possible, from friends and family to colleagues to MPs. And to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign. Mary, a travelling elder of the group and a lifetime Palestine Solidarity campaigner, added words of encouragement via Skype from South Africa.

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Songm story and dance evening with guests from Palestine

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The gift of sharing a song

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Part of the buffet (those who eat/sing together, stay together!)

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Obligatory selfie before dancing

 

We had a lot of support from Keren, Lavinia, Patrick, Deniz, Kelley, Fiona and others at St Lukes, our wonderful community centre venue over the year. As one way of saying Thank You the women’s circle lead singing workshops and big finale group sings at the Fizzfest community festival in June and at the World Mental Health Day festival in October. We especially enjoyed working with Key Changes, an organisation supporting positive mental health through music. We hope some of the artists they work with will be joining our circle to share some of their songs with us (especially Nicci and her feminist anthem Queen of Everything!). The Fizzfest fell on the same day as a mass demonstration at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Detention centre –the highlight of the day was getting 100 people singing Labi Siffre’s Something Inside So Strong in solidarity with the demonstrators and women fighting for freedom inside the centres.

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Key Changes Open mic stage attracts an array of local talent

Activism

Some of the women continued to develop ways to bring singing into social justice activism, particularly on issues affecting the most marginalised women – immigration detention, domestic violence, racist police brutality. 15 singers attended powerful protests at Yarls Wood and Harmondsworth detention centres, organised by Movement for Justice. Teju, Natasha and Steph, three Black women in the group who are leaders and full of courage, organised a singing vigil outside the US embassy after the racist murders in Charleston. It was hugely well attended and was beautifully organised, bringing together songs, poems and chanting – a blend of anger and love, open hearts and voices. Commemorating each of the people who lost their lives in this way created an unusually nourishing and soothing, yet immensely powerful event. They then went on to sing Ella’s Song at the Remembering Olive Morris rally a few days later.

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Vigl for victoms of the racist massacre in Charleston

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Natasha, Steph and Tej singing Ella’s Song the the Remembering Olive Morris rally

The women in the group also donated £400 between us to support Movement for Justice, practical supplies for migrants in Calais, Latin American Women’s Aid and a women’s group supported by CADFA in Palestine.

Little Big Things

The sense of community in the group continued to grow – a special blog celebrated this on the Tuesday circle’s second birthday. Singers supported each other through moving jobs, bad health, family bereavements. We celebrated birthdays, a solo gig by our own Steph who sings with Big Joanie and a couple of weddings. A notable Tuesday night circle after the election in May saw the mood shift from depressed to angry to steely resolve in 90 minutes flat.

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Steph’s solo gig rocked!

It was decided to form a constituted group – called London Women’s Voices. A committee (Day, Habiba, Lucy, Mary, Meg, Natasha, Nutan) has boldly come together to steer the group’s activities. There are plans to adapt the format of Tuesday night circles and other activities in 2016, to encompass the idea of building voice more generally (think spoken word, storytelling, dance, etc) – watch this space.

After discussions about tackling racism in 2014, a number of Women of Colour in the group came together to organise safe spaces in which to share experiences of oppression and support each other. This connection has evolved over time and singers have reached out to others (including Women of Colour attending Jilly’s excellent inclusive Yoga classes) to create a regular informal supportive meet-up currently dubbed ‘Survive and Thrive’.

After a busy year, the group’s focus turned more inwards as winter set in, with a focus on self-care and gentleness towards as the days got shorter. We saw a notable increase in home-baked treats and sofa-naps-during-singing during a time that many of us find difficult.

 

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Ali presents her banana/mango/berry cake tower for the triplet’s 6th birthday

 

 

Shilpa’s work with Singing for Better Breathing

I ran weekly singing workshops for people with chronic breathing problems as part of a research programme called Singing for Better Breathing led by the Sidney de Haan centre. The research is exploring the impact that regular group singing can have on lung function. This little film explains it best. I have enjoyed singing with groups of positive, fun, mostly older people in Lambeth and Southwark and seeing how singing is making a difference for them – ‘ I walked in the park for the first time in five years after singing last week!’. I learnt a lot about better breathing over the year, in a way that’s relevant for all, not just people with a breathing condition. I’ve particularly appreciated working alongside and learning with the inspiring Guillermo and Phoene in this role.

 

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The Surrey Docks Sing for Better Breathing group

 

 

Other My Heart Sings projects in 2015

2015 started with a bang, getting 30 civil servants at Her Majesty’s Treasury singing together as part of their Mental Wellbeing week. There was definitely some trepidation at the start (what? She’s asking us to swing our arms around and make weird noises?!) but everyone was soon singing and dancing with ease.

Tuesday evening Singers Day, Katie, Nutan and Mary and attended an academic symposium on the role of choirs in creating belonging in communities. The day was filled with interesting presentations, particularly the inspiring and deeply radical Reverend June Boyce-Tilman who uses singing to build multi-faith community and Dominc Stichbury from the Chaps Choir.

I spoke on one of the panels about why I started My Heart Sings and how I believe community singing can challenge inequality and transform society. Day, Katie, Nutan and Mary spoke about their experience of attending the Tuesday circle and how they feel singing can support individuals and communities. One of the organisers wrote an event summary here. My favourite sentence: ‘To my astonishment, Shilpa managed to get the entire symposium on their feet, waving their arms like a trunk of an elephant and singing in unison.

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Elephants in the attic

 

I also piloted workshops with women at a number of women’s organisations, including Women and Girls Network and the women’s wing at Peterborough Prison (with Trishna Shah, a write up is Gal-Dem magazine is here).

 

Wishlist for 2016:

Last year took My Heart Sings along lots of exciting paths and flows. Here are six of my wishes for 2016, shared in the hope that anyone reading who wants to work together is inspired to get in touch.

  1. For the Tuesday night women’s circle held by London Women’s Voices to grow stronger. And generally more My Heart Sings opportunities to bring women together to breathe, sing, and be. I have been awarded a small amount of funding from the Network for Social Change to develop My Heart Sings to do more of this work in 2016, particularly with grassroots organisations working with groups fighting marginalisation and oppression.
  2. Start a new women’s singing circle in Tottenham, where some Tuesday evening singers and I have run some pilot workshops. I’m looking for a local community organisation and venue to anchor this group.
  3. Create learning and mentoring opportunities for experienced or aspiring singing leaders who want to learn from the My Heart Sings approach
  4. Some instruments for workshops – a few drums and other fun percussion. And a heartfelt dream to get hold of one of these. I experienced the immense healing and soothing powers of a sounding bowl a while back and would love to offer this to women in these workshops. Anyone got £3000-£4000 spare?
  5. A series of workshops or conference about self-love and self-care for women who are active on social justice issues, particularly migrant rights, gender-based violence, Palestine and Mental health (issues chosen last year because of the disproportional impact on women).
  6. Create a short film showing off this work – an awesome feminist film-maker looking for an interesting project is needed!

 

Are you/your group interested in working together on any of these goals? Please get in touch if you are, it would be wonderful to hear from you.

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A moment of gratitude

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