You know that bucket list fantasy you might have, that one day you’ll get up on a stage in New York, let’s say, and sing with Sweet Honey in the Rock?
It kind of happened this morning. 150 songwriters and musicians sat groggy and expectant as Dr. Ysaye Barnwell just off from nearly a quarter century with the Rock, ambled up and took a seat in all her massive self.
From the moment she presents herself, you can’t help but think that this is what a fully actualized person must look and feel like: passionate, brave, mindfully scolding, patient, of brilliant intellect, and even greater heart.
You all get in a circle, she orders. We need to be in a circle for this. Two deep, bass to the left, sopranos on the far right. No matter the circle was three deep, and who knows if people were sitting in the right place.
As musicians you all only need to know how to count to four, she declares. Sometimes six. But we’re going to count to eight. It goes like this: one, one two one, one two, three, two, one, she sings. And so on. We’re going up to eight. With that she launches.
Man, you guys sound terrible, she announces when we conclude in something slightly more than a disorganized jumble. Again, she says, but this time instead of singing the number four, I want all of you to clap. And off she leads us. And then again, this time in round and then faster. Succeeding or failing at this exercise ceases to have meaning.
Which leads to the second lesson. Why are we here? Why is Mazie here at a weeklong song workshop in the Rockies? Why are any of us here?
Dr. Barnwell has us sing a quodlibet which, she explains, has two meanings. The first is a legal argument of which she knows little about. The second is a song in which different melodies (and even different lyrics) are sung in counterpoint to one another.
My soul is anchored in the Lord, sings one group.
Lord, I done done, sings another.
And through it all Dr. Barnwell begins to weave us together with her own voice.
Her three octave range seems to stretch out as she pitches notes to the highest soprano and then back down to whatever the basses can muster. Within minutes she has 150 people singing in different keys, different lyrics in round that merges into a a tidal chorus.
Lord. I done done. Lord I done done. Lord I done done what you told me to do.
If only we all could say that.
Say yes, Barnwell counsels. Don’t matter what it is. Just say yes. You may not know what they’re asking you to do, and you may not think you know how to do it. But don’t worry. You all will figure it out.