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Episode 18: Singing Through Grief with Matthew Brown

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Singing Through Grief with Matthew Brown

I’m honored to introduce you to my good friend Matthew Brown. Matthew is a speech-language pathologist, a keyboardist, and one of the warmest, kindest souls I’ve ever known. In this episode, he shares how learning to sing the Psalms supported him through a really hard time. Maybe not surprisingly, the singing was so helpful that this musical, spiritual practice has stayed with him, five years later. 

For more resources on singing the Psalms, visit Russell Stutler’s Website: http://www.stutler.cc/russ/sing_psalms.html including audio examples and notated music: http://www.stutler.cc/russ/st_meinrad_tones.html

Cat Psalms: Prayers My Cats Have Taught Me, by Herbert Brokering https://bookshop.org/p/books/cat-psalms-prayers-my-cats-have-taught-me-herbert-brokering/8980406?ean=9780806644981

Yes, you can sound better! Opt-in for a free video training on the home page.

Michèle Voillequé is a singer and a voice teacher living in Berkeley, California. 

You can subscribe to Can’t Wait to Hear You wherever you get podcasts. If you have a question about your voice or how you’re using it, please email letters@mvmusik.com

Our music is thanks to Katya and Ada.

The show is edited by K.O. Myers at Particulate Media.

TRANSCRIPT

Your voice is unique to you. It grows as you grow. It changes as you change. If you’re curious about the relationship between your voice and your body, your heart and your mind, welcome. My name is Michèle Voillequé and I can’t wait to hear you. 

I grew up in Idaho Falls, Idaho. My parents moved there because my dad took a job with the National Engineering Laboratory out in the desert there. And at the time, in the seventies and eighties, Idaho Falls was about 80 percent Latter Day Saints and about 20 percent other American religions, mostly conservative.

And though my parents had been married in a church, they were at their, in their hearts, really atheist humanists. So I didn’t grow up with a sense of a liturgical year happening in my home, beyond what you would get from just being in American consumerist society, where, you know, December is all about Santa Claus and chocolate, and the springtime all about Easter and chocolate.

Oh, don’t forget Valentine’s Day and chocolate and, uh, Memorial Day and washing machine sales, and July – potato chips, buy the new car, you know, the new truck, that kind of thing.

But in my friend group, there were kids who observed Lent, and I often would keep them company as they were giving up chocolate, say, in those 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter weekend. So Lent, in that kind of casual way, has been part of my life for most of it.

Then, as an adult, my friend Michelle Favreault offered a Lenten writing challenge where every day during the Lenten season we were offered a writing prompt, the idea being to develop writing as a spiritual practice to bring attention to our soul’s journey through that time period. I did that for a couple of three years with her.

And my friend Matthew – who, today you’ll hear part of an interview we did – we’ve also been friends for a long time, and he’s been a big observer of Lent, and we, you know, we always talk about it.

He and I had a conversation during the pandemic about Lent, and I was saying, “Really, doesn’t this already feel like years of relinquishment and years of deprivation? Like, do you really, you’re really, you’re going to add another 40 days of, um, of, um, asceticism onto it?”

It already felt like such a season of grief I really couldn’t fathom why you would observe Lent in those conditions.

And I wish we had recorded the conversation we had then because it’s, it was brilliant and I feel like I’m going to relate it to you incompletely now.

But the gist of what he said was, thinking about Lent not so much as giving something up, but as putting something down so that you can pick something else up. So, to try to develop a new habit of some kind of paying attention.

And so the interview that follows is him talking about his Lenten practice from 2019 that has become a habit in his life to this day, which is really great.

And I kind of think that’s probably the point of Lent, is that the idea if you, you know, you’re, you’re going to give up that extra glass of wine after dinner for 40 days, the dream would be to keep giving it up, right?

That you, after that 40 day period, you find like, oh, okay, maybe I don’t actually need that. Maybe I’ve been leaning on something that’s not necessary, that’s not essential for me to lean on. Maybe there’s more strength in me than I knew, or there’s more grace in me than I knew.

If you’re giving up arguing, for example, giving up picking fights, some kind of behavioral modification – that was popular among my friends who had siblings, like “I’m not going to fight with my brother for 40 days.” That’s a tough one. That was a tough one.

So let me tell you a little bit about Matthew before we hear from him. He and I met in I think 2009 at the Sonoma Baroque Workshop that was put on by the San Francisco Early Music Society.

He was there as a keyboardist, I was there as a violinist, and it was a week on the campus of Sonoma State University, just learning about Baroque performance and playing in small ensembles, and then at the end of the week, we gave a concert.

And he and I were in at least one ensemble together, maybe two, I don’t recall.

But anyway, um, very early on in the first day, we just. hit it off and just kind of instantly realized we were going to be friends for life. And since that time, he’s gone on to become a speech language pathologist, which means that now our conversations, which used to be about, you know, music and religion and psychology are now also about the voice and how the instrument works.

We’re at two ends of the spectrum, where he’s working with folks who have suffered some kind of brain injury and are recovering from it, and I’m working with folks who, you know, their voice works fine and we’re just, you know, trying to make it better.

It’s been a really delightful friendship and I hope you’ll enjoy our conversation about this Lenten practice that he picked up in 2019. He taught himself how to sing the Psalms. So here’s me and Matthew.

Michèle: Okay. So I also wanted to talk to you about, um, or have you talk about your Lenten practice of Psalm singing that you landed on. Right, so when we met, you were, you were playing the harpsichord, right?

Matthew: Yes.

Michèle: You didn’t particularly identify yourself as a singer, although you did sing. But like, if somebody asked you, “what kind of musician are you?” You would have said a keyboardist, right?

Matthew: Yeah, I would still say that now. I enjoy singing. I’ve done so much more accompanying than singing and definitely feel more confident in that role than in the singing role.

But I’ve had a couple occasions to, to do some choral singing, um, and took a couple singing classes in college. And when I was in France, there was, it was like a Bernstein anniversary. And so they were doing a Bernstein concert, and they really needed someone to help them with their pronunciation. So, I got suckered into the chorus there, which was really fun.

Michèle: Can you remember the funniest mispronunciation?

Matthew: Not off the top of my head. I’d have to, like, go back and think through the Candide songs, what the texts were.

Michèle: Well, “you’ve been a fool and so have I. So come and be my wife”?

Matthew: They didn’t sing that one.

Michèle: Oh, they didn’t?

Matthew: No.

Michèle: Oh. Okay, so, but you decided, what, a couple of years ago, a couple of Lents ago?

Matthew: Yeah, Lent 2019.

Michèle: Okay. Pandemic brain, pandemic time.

Matthew: Yeah, Lent 2019. I was having a hard time at work. I was still working at the children’s hospital and had several very, traumatic cases in a row that involved abuse of very young infants. And I was just taking so much of it home with me. I just felt like, so eaten up by what an awful situation it was for these little ones.

And anyway, I was looking for some solace and Lent was upon me and I hadn’t prayed in a long time, but I felt like I could do with some praying. But because I hadn’t prayed in a long time, like the idea of just sitting down and praying felt unachievable, or just too unstructured.

So, I looked for some advice and came across, um, the Daily Office in the Book of Common Prayer. Which was incredibly overwhelming because it has all these different parts to it. And I was like, I can’t do that. But I liked the idea of having some guidance and a rhythm for prayer and a structure that I didn’t have to think up myself. That part felt good.

So I decided, well, the part of this that I can commit to for this Lent is reading the Psalms, because the Daily Office has a pattern of daily psalm reading in it. And I was like, I can do that part. So that’s what I committed to in Lent 2019.

And even though I’d grown up going to church, and had worked as a church musician for a time, I was really surprised to find out how many psalms were completely unfamiliar to me.

I thought I would know most of them, and I knew only a small fraction of them. And particularly psalms that didn’t feel, I guess, as polite, you know? Ones that were angry at God, or, um, angry at being betrayed, or angry at injustice, or angry at corruption, political and otherwise.

And so in 2019, that hit a lot of different notes for me, and feeling like that permission to take those feelings in prayer, and the things that I was struggling with from work, and the trauma I was seeing there, and to have words to put it to that I didn’t have to come up with that people centuries ago came up with, and to feel connected to that human experience of despair sometimes, and wondering why God is so far away at times.

There’s a psalm, I’m going to forget the number, I think it’s 70, but I could be wrong, but it asks, um, “Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has the right hand of God lost its power?” And, at least in the church I grew up in, I didn’t feel like permission to pray words like that.

Michèle: Right?

Matthew: And yet they’re in sacred texts, just waiting to be prayed.

Michèle: Yeah. Mind your manners, Missy.

Matthew: Yeah.

Michèle: Yeah, no, that’s not okay.

Matthew: So, that’s how it started. And then, as I got more interested in learning more about the Psalms and learning that, you know, many of them were sung and sung in a context of worship, I decided to explore singing them.

And I found some information online about psalm tones and chant. I’d never chanted before in my life. And it felt a little weird at first. But it was really interesting. When you, when you sing something, it forces you to slow down, because you can’t sing as fast as you can talk or read.

So you slow down and you have to breathe. And breathing it turns out is really good for prayer too, not just singing. So you slow down and you breathe and also I think there’s this act of like hearing yourself, because it is kind of weird, right?

You know, we don’t go around chanting all day and so you hear yourself chant and you hear words being sung from yourself, and that experience of listening to those words is different than reading them.

And I noticed different things, and different words would come out that I didn’t notice when I had just read it. So that became a really interesting experience to sing psalms, and particularly to sing psalms that didn’t feel very, like, joyful, I guess, right?

I guess it seemed kind of normal to sing a song of praise, you know, that kind of felt like, okay, this makes sense. My heart is overflowing with praise, I’m going to sing. But to recognize that like my heart is overflowing with pain and I can also sing about that. I think that was really powerful.

Michèle: Do you have any sense of how many happy to sad psalms you sang in those 40 days?

Matthew: I went through all of the Psalms and I, there are lots of people smarter than me that categorize them into different types – you know, history psalms and praise psalms and all that kind of thing. But I feel like there’s more psalms of lament than there are other types. At least that’s the impression I get.

Michèle: And did it help, on the whole? How did you feel at the end of, do you remember?

Matthew: When I first started this habit it felt very difficult and I felt like, although I committed to it and I wanted to see it through, it did not feel easy or natural. And so there was a lot of effort, I think, to try to stick with it for the full Lent.

And at the end of it, it felt like such a integrated part of my day that I have kept up with it since. Not always singing them, but I’ve kept it up as a daily practice of engaging with the Psalms.

Michèle: And do you cycle through them? Are you on a liturgical calendar or do you, like, pick the one you need?

Matthew: I’ve done it different ways. The Book of Common Prayer has a cycle. So I’ve used that sometimes just to, to make that

Michèle: Think less?

Matthew: kind of automatic. Yeah. I have some other resources that have cycles kind of broken up seasonally. Um, so kind of like a different cycle for different parts of the church year. And then I’ve just sometimes dwelled with certain psalms more because they were what I needed at that moment.

Michèle: Yay. Thank you. I love that!

Matthew: Oh, yeah.

Michèle: Have you noticed your voice change?

Matthew: With singing them?

Michèle: Yeah.

Matthew: Well, yeah, I guess.

I felt like when I first started, there was like the mental gymnastics of figuring out like, okay, how does this psalm tone work? You know, this pattern of tones that I’m trying to put to text, like, how does that system work?

And so I was trying to figure that out, and there was that kind of internal distraction of, okay, I’m trying to figure this out, but I’m also trying to pay attention to the words I’m, I’m singing and give them their space.

So now that I don’t have to think about the psalm tone anymore, like I know how those work and I can use them much more automatically, I think my singing is more relaxed. Because I think when I was doing all those mental gymnastics, I think that manifested in some, like, tension in my voice, too.

Michèle: Yeah, for sure. The less we can think when we’re singing, the better we sound.

Matthew: Yes, yes.

Michèle: More than once my voice teacher has said to me, “Michèle, you would, if you were just a little bit dumber, this would be so much easier for you. You’re thinking so hard…” about, you know, like, exactly what you’re describing.

Like, trying to track all the things, make it all make sense, get a handle on it mentally. When, if, if you could just not care…

Matthew: yeah.

Michèle: Or know it well enough that you’re out of the figuring it out mind, and you can just let that part of the brain rest.

Matthew: Yeah, to have like the motor memory of, of how the voice moves and not have to have to consciously dictate it.

Michèle: Hm-mm. Yeah. You’ve been so sweet to talk to me, you are not an extroverted person, so…

Matthew: No, definitely more shy-natured than not. I do feel like I have to be extroverted for work, but that is like, that is work for me. It’s not where I most comfortably sit.

Michèle: Do you have anything else?

Matthew: I just got a new book called Cat Psalms, Prayers My Cats Have Taught Me, because you’re used to seeing my cats photobomb our FaceTime sessions. I saw this one yesterday called, “Don’t Laugh At Me.”

And I was feeling very nervous about recording myself on your podcast because that’s definitely outside my comfort zone. And so this little psalm, from a cat’s point of view, about not wanting to be laughed at, really spoke to me.

Here goes.

“I can have my feelings hurt. It can happen when I walk into a window by accident. I’m embarrassed. I act like it didn’t happen. If I slip on a waxed floor or lose my balance and miss a leap, I hope no one is looking. If I tip my milk bowl over, I pretend I did not do it or that I did it on purpose. I lick up the milk as though it’s easier that way. I do not want their angry words. I do not like blame or shame. Sometimes I need to tear through the house. A sudden dash across the room. A bounce off the wall. A leap onto a table. Then I am finished. I am elegance once more. This always surprises them, makes them point and laugh. I do not like this. Then I get cranky and sulk. I walk away. Cats are not to be laughed at. Cats have dignity.”

And then this is followed on the next page by a prayer.

“Dear God, I am easily embarrassed. I do not like being laughed at. Sometimes I will bump into a thing that’s right before my eyes, or forget a name I know by heart, or blunder when guests are watching. My soul likes to be right, to be admired, respected. I like being at my best. It is hard to forgive myself when I am clumsy or foolish or wrong. I’m quick to blame others, to feel blamed, to show shame. You know this about me, you know how I am. I can strike back, run away, hide, sulk. I can act as though I did nothing wrong, or that it is not my fault. Oh God, you know how I am. Teach me to laugh at myself. Teach me to love myself.”

Michèle: Thank you. Perfect. Okay, bye.

Matthew: Okay, bye.

If you enjoyed today’s episode, please rate and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Every positive review helps new people find the show. Subscribing ensures you’ll learn about new episodes as soon as they come out. If you have a question about singing or speaking or being, please send me an email at letters@mvmusik.com.

That’s letters at M as in Mary, V as in Victor, M U S I K.com.

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