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Belinda McArdle — Wonder Woman of the Month

April 30th, 2014 | 3 comments

{ The New Breed of Wonder Women is a monthly feature that highlights a woman whose work is filled with joy + wonder. While the traditional wonder woman archetype perpetuated an unattainable model of femininity, this new breed of wonder women inspire us to be real, follow our passions + above all else: celebrate our wisdom.}

Ever since I was a young girl, I’ve loved singing. There’s something about using my voice in this way that lifts my spirit.


Late last year, invited by a friend, I joined a Reclaim the Night Women’s Choir. I’ll never forget my first practice session with this eclectic mix of women. Here I was singing about the injustices, challenges and stories of womanhood, when I locked eyes with the midwife who delivered my son. I hadn’t seen her since the birth. Tears flowed. And hugs followed later.


Singing with these women, prompted me to find out more about Belinda McArdle (the wonder woman you’re about to meet) and her Acabellas singing groups. Since then I’ve attended weekly singing circles that have brought me home to myself. This would not be possible if it were not for the stunning direction of Belinda. Her warmth, humour and compassion for her students is obvious. And she is so skilled at getting a group of people (with mixed ability + confidence) to create these amazing harmonies that make my heart swell.


So here she is. Belinda McArdle: a singer, choir leader, songwriter, singing teacher, performer, arts mentor, music activist and radio presenter.

Belinda McArdle


Let’s dive in…


As a radio presenter, you’ve interviewed lots of musicians and songwriters about their creative process. You’re a songwriter, tell us about your creative process. (What have you learned over the years?)


I have accepted that songs can come to me in either of two ways; an inspired moment or a disciplined approach. Of course the inspired moment feels better and authentic but I have come to terms with a disciplined approach through the process of being commissioned to write. When I have been commissioned the whole process begins with a purpose and an underlying belief by myself and someone else that I can and will achieve a result. So I have learned to channel those things and commission myself.


I have learned not to accept a part of the song that I don’t like. If it has a cringe quality it needs to be fixed.  I also offer my songs to the community fairly quickly after I write them. If when I am teaching I notice people change something and it sounds good I consider, and often accept, the change.


I have a candle burning when I write because it is comforting and has a ritualistic feel. I am a bit like a cat settling down. I tend to do many circles, prowl around, procrastinate, sharpen pencils and quieten myself down in order to produce anything.


I like to become unstuck swiftly and techniques for doing that include walking, swimming, pulling a card from an inspiration deck on the subject of the song, reading poetry or listening to the radio with creative ears. Sometimes I need to wait to live a little longer so a feeling or experience can resolve itself into lyrics and a melody.


Probably the biggest change to my creative process over recent years is that I have stopped showing half songs to my friends and family and expecting them to love them! I now need to come to peace with a song myself before I release it and then be open to changing it as needed.


A final comment on the creative process is that I love my mobile phone’s recording app. I used to ring my answering machine before I had that app or ring other friends and ask them to remember bits and pieces. I probably record 100 sound files a month which are just mini drafts on the way to something I think is decent.


What do you believe about music? Why is it so important?


I believe having access to music making is a basic human right! It is very important to me to advocate that particularly in a culture that undermines that right in subtle and non-subtle ways. I think the reality shows regarding talent have improved over the years and provided great opportunities but there is still an undertone of mockery and elitism that I work against each and every day. It saddens me how so many  people negate their abilities and feel uncomfortable with the level of musicianship they have. It seems to me so many people wish they could sing or play music yet they are nervous to ‘admit it’ or to feel entitled to do so.


I think music allows us to express ourselves in a way nothing else can so to me it is a fundament of my day – like exercise, sleep and speaking with people I love. We have a limited range of notes in our speaking voice but when we sing, for example, we use many more pitches, we harness emotions in our tone and can tap into how we feel simply by our use of volume.


My passion is ‘singing with’ rather than ‘singing to’. Sometimes people have said to me “you could do so much more – why are you doing this” suggesting that singing in a circle at a hall with people from the community isn’t the pinnacle of my dreams. But in many ways it is. Think about concerts and that part of the night where the performer on stage has the whole crowd singing WITH them and how fantastic the performer feels (they are singing my song!) and how the people singing feel (hey – I am part of this) and the sound guys (hey – I am around some really happy people.) I feel I have created this life where I can be in a room every day where everyone sings with me, and often my own songs. It is such an incredibly good feeling. I love watching people acting silly together, or smiling across the circle about a lyric or complementing one another on a sound. The collaboration of group singing is a heartwarming element.


One thing that profoundly inspires me about the acabellas community is that I regularly observe people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 60s, 70s and 80s take up new instruments or singing for the first time. They are truly living and feeding themselves in such a beautiful way.


As a choir leader, what do you notice about people learning to use their voice?


Whether I am leading a singing group or teaching a private lesson I am always assisting a person to remove barriers. Everyone has what they need to sing. Barriers can be physical   tension in the neck and shoulder muscles or reaching up with the chin for example. I can usually tell if someone snores, grinds their teeth or is anxious from the the way they hold their body or their breath. Often the barriers are emotional. On countless occasions dear students have confided a story of a previous music teacher asking them to mime or move to the back row. The effects of these sorts of interactions are unfortunately much more penetrating into people’s memories than any compliments they may have received.


So my approach is to create a safe, supportive and truly non judgmental space in which to learn. We must feel free to make mistakes if we are to try new approaches and if people are relaxed enough to have a laugh then progress can be even faster. Some authentic humour, honest vulnerability and a willingness to learn make a great combination.


With barriers removed we are left with raw sounds, individual beauty and a place to work from. Some people have naturally gorgeous voices, others struggle to sing in tune but as long as we work toward listening better and developing free listening as well as free singing we can all sound beautiful.


Part of your work also involved mentoring other choir leaders, songwriters and performers. What struggles do you help creative people overcome?


Feelings of Fraudulence. I have learned to hear the word ‘fraud’ as a siren. There is a road going nowhere in our lives and the signpost says ‘Fraud’. Along that street are various shops and buildings with other signs ‘You have no right to do this’, ‘Creative people need to wear flowers in their hair every day and never rinse out the bin’, ‘Where is your Bachelor in Creative Production (Hons)?’ and ‘You don’t deserve this.’


I don’t go down that street. I sat in a room several years ago with 20 or more peers bemoaning that they were frauds (as singing leaders). This was a group of skilled, talented, vibrant men and women and I was overwhelmingly struck by a sense of time being wasted. I spoke that truth and later with my two colleagues, formerly mentees and now cherished contemporaries and best friends, committed that we would work hard to avoid that trap. We would need to honour our own skills and talents in order to inspire the same in others.


So I regularly check in with some questions my accountant ask me every year. “Have your skills, experience and knowledge increased in the past 12 months?” And I believe every person that does this will rest their head and sleep soundly – or have a very clear beginning of a ‘to do list’ that has momentum.


Other struggles I work with people on are how to be comfortable promoting themselves, the discipline of keeping productive and the loneliness of working from home. Often in creative work the rewards come long after the efforts so we need to establish sustainable ways to stay motivated, strong and engaged in our work.


What advice do you have for aspiring songwriters and wordsmiths?


I think it is equally important to know both what you are saying and why you are saying it. In my case, I am writing a song either for my community singing group, for my trio, for myself or for a commission work. So, my advice is to include the energy of the intended listener in the message; otherwise it is a diary entry.


Choosing repertoire for my groups is something I take fastidiously seriously. I won’t ask people to sing messages that aren’t in some way constructive. When contemplating the lyrics of songs I need to see if they are confronting, provocative or judgemental. If they are those things they are still very valid songs but it is not for me to ask people to sing them – they are songs people will need to access for themselves. As a songwriter I like to leave space in my songs, I like to pose questions and write affirmatively so I am part of a group of people reciting positive messages.


So having said that I am unsure that my advice has a wide application to songwriters or wordsmiths not writing for a community singing group. On a very practical level I know that the words “our souls” don’t sound great when sung together (I have made this mistake) and lines ending in ‘s’ are hard to sing in a group. Words that rely on being seen to differentiate themselves from others (such as sew and so; or prey and pray) make for weak lyrics.

Writing – songs or prose – is such a satisfying activity and those who enjoy it can relate to that feeling of intrinsic reward that money can’t buy. It never ceases to amaze me how much space there is for us all to be dynamically creative – we will never replicate the uniqueness of another and when we are amongst others buzzing and brimming we share a healthy nirvana.


And there you have it. Check out the beautiful sounds right here. Belinda has been kind enough to share a sampler of her latest CD.

To find out more about Belinda & the Acabellas visit acabellas.net.au You can even purchase Belinda’s latest CD Beautiful Dream (yep, those sounds you just heard) right here.

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3 people have commented
  1. Belinda, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom, knowledge and honest advice with us all. This post is such a treat: it is so nice to read your philosophies about creativity, songwriting, business and self-belief. I hope I’m not embarrassing you by saying you’ve facilitated me making pretty profound changes in my creative life – I’m constantly inspired by you! (Kate, you’re great too xx)

  2. Jacki Lauder says:

    Belinda is one of the most talented and friendly people i have ever met. She has welcomed me into her singing circle with open arms. I am in a wheelchair and i have an Assistance Dog and Belinda always welcomes us every week and she worries if we are not there. The thing that has been great for me is that it has helped my confidence once i wouldn interact with other people but now i have lots of true friend ijust want to thanks Belinda

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