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Songs by Heart

Before she moved to Tucson six years ago, Karleena Ravenwood lived in a world very different from the Old Pueblo. While the scenery outside her door in Brattleboro, Vt., was lush and green, Ravenwood's internal scenery was a bit darker. Suffering from a serious bout of fibromyalgia, Ravenwood was "almost nonfunctional."

Today, as the founder and director of the Tucson Women's Chorus, Ravenwood remembers she made a great discovery during this period. "Most of the time, I was down for the count. But I remembered this toning a friend was doing. ... Toning is sustained sound, not by singing a song with various patterns of notes, but sustained sound using one note and one vowel for the toning session."

Ravenwood tried the exercises and found she was able to find comfort by holding one vowel with her voice. She practiced holding for 30 minutes a day and had amazing results. The symptoms of her fibromyalgia--fatigue, aches and joint pain--ceased while she was toning. "I took mini-vacations from ... the debilitated state I was in. Toning made a huge difference in my health and my life. ... Soothing, repetitive sound can revitalize the body."

Seeking to educate others about this technique, Ravenwood trained to become a natural voice practitioner. Her natural voice workshops are "a way of giving people the experience of exploring the voice and expanding how we use the voice. Our voices have an enormous range of expression that we, for the most part, don't access. It's healthier for us to use our voice more. It is an integral part of our body."

Ravenwood started using her voice in song at the age of 5 in Kansas City, Mo. She fell in love with singing while in her first church choir. Since then, she has sung in several choirs, including the Symphony Chorus in Portland, Ore., the Adirondack Community Chorus (in New York) and the Brattleboro Women's Chorus.

When she moved to Tucson, Ravenwood tried to find a chorus similar to the one in Brattleboro. She was looking for a unique set up, where singers didn't have to audition or know how to read music. Proceeds from the chorus performances would go to a worthy cause. Because a group like this did not exist here, Ravenwood founded the Tucson Women's Chorus in the fall of 2002.

"We sing music by heart. It feels different than if you need to refer to notes on the page. It leaves you more free to feel the energy of the whole experience," she says.

Currently, the chorus has 30 adult members and is open to all experience levels--from child to adult. "This can be called a 'grassroots chorus' for all women wishing to sing."

The group performs two fully staged concerts per year--one in the winter, and the other in the spring. Tickets are not sold, and admittance is by donation only. The chorus supports local nonprofit organizations by a majority vote of its members. Profits from past concerts have assisted the Southern Arizona Center Against Sexual Assault, the Brewster Center and the Asylum Program of Southern Arizona.

Ravenwood finds a variety of international songs, chants and rounds for the a cappella group to perform. "These are songs sung in (different) cultures and traditions. You heard it growing up, and you sung it. There is a different feel to the music based on that. It's music that's sprung from the people, rather than from people who are classified as musicians and composers."

The chorus' next performance on Jan. 22 will feature this global flavor. "We will have a melody of goddess chants drawn from women's spirituality, a Hawaiian song, a Russian lullaby, Nigerian greeting song, freedom songs from the Civil Rights Movement ... and a wake-up song I wrote myself."

During each performance, Ravenwood invites chorus members to speak publicly about their experiences with the group. In the past, one member spoke about what singing had meant to her during a difficult period in her life.

Members of the Tucson Women's Chorus sister group--the Chorus of Grandmothers--will be joining in the Jan. 22 concert. Members of the Chorus of Grandmothers are 50 and older or are grandmothers of any age. Ravenwood recently formed the chorus because she "wanted a chorus that could respond to community requests. Members are (usually) more expert in singing and feel comfortable in a smaller number."

Regardless of the number of voices in the chorus, Ravenwood strives to teach members to be comfortable with themselves, using the natural voice techniques in which she has been trained. Even for the person who doesn't feel anyone would want to hear them sing, there is hope in finding something within. "I work with people to find their voice. Singing is an essential part of life. If we don't sing, something is lost."

The Tucson Women's Chorus performs at 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 22, at the Historic Y, 300 E. University Blvd. The suggested adult donation is $8. Children are welcome. Proceeds will go to the Community Food Bank.

Open rehearsals for the chorus will take place on Monday, Jan. 30 and Monday, Feb. 6. For more information, call 753-0991 or visit www.ravenwoodnaturalvoice.com.

More by Irene Messina

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