On the heels of last week’s post about following your heart, here’s a profile I’ve written about one of the most inspiring people I know. I met Vanessa Lindsay-Botten in 2011 when I joined her community choir called You Gotta Sing!. Being part of the choir has been a profound experience on so many levels: finding and sharing my voice, creating beautiful music with others, and often being moved to tears by a feeling of oneness in a choir of hundreds.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s words are true: “I am, because you are. I need you to be you so that I can be me. A choir is a choir only because its different parts work together harmoniously. Yes, a person truly is a person only through other persons.”
If you’ve got a dream and aren’t sure how to make it a reality, if you’re dying to sing your heart out, or if you simply long to feel more alive, read on! I hope Vanessa’s story will inspire you.
The Bluenose Marathon. The Multicultural Festival. Voices for Hospice. The Peggy’s Cove Festival of the Arts. The You Gotta Sing! Chorus has performed at all of these Nova Scotian community events. Happily. Joyously. With much laughter and many smiles and huge hearts. It’s the choir’s MO. Singing for the joy of it. And singing to bring people together.
All of this is directly tied to YGS founder and director Vanessa Lindsay-Botten. Vanessa is the You Gotta Sing! Chorus (YGS), although she would never say that herself. One of the first things you’ll notice upon meeting Vanessa is her modesty.
“This choir is a gift that’s so far beyond the idea of one person being the leader. Sure, I’m in the middle of it all, but it’s a collective. All of our energy, all of our voices – creating community and being there for each other.”
YGS was created out of Vanessa’s conviction that singing is our birthright. Not just for those whose voice is praised by their music teacher and not just for professional musicians. For all of us!
Early experiences in Toronto, more than 15 years ago, sparked this passion. She was drawn to a women’s song circle, led by Moon Joyce, who has remained a mentor and loyal supporter of Vanessa’s work. “That was the first time I discovered that songs could be taught orally. Up to then, I’d only ever learned with sheet music. It was like a whole new world opened up.” Vanessa admits she was nervous but curious. A professionally-trained musician who plays piano and harp, she also had years of experience in high-level choirs. “What I noticed right away was the absence of judgement with the song circle. It felt very safe and very, very welcoming.”
It was a rich, introspective time in Vanessa’s life. She was in her early twenties and was just getting to know herself. “I realized the importance of self acceptance in those years and that extended to having to sing in a certain way. It was very freeing to try new modes of expression.”
Vanessa challenged herself to work with different voice coaches, all the while feeling strongly that one day she would like to help other people find and free their voices through singing. A few years later, after she and her family moved to Halifax, she hired a business coach to help her take the next steps in making this dream a reality.
Although the growth of the choir looks seamless to an outsider, for Vanessa, birthing the YGS baby wasn’t a walk in the park. She kept coming up against the influence of that nasty inner critic. “I knew I had something to share and that it might help people, but I would hear that niggling voice asking ‘Who wants to hear you lead songs? Who’s going to pay money for that?’”
Despite this fear, and with good support from people who encouraged her to let her light shine, Vanessa decided to start small. In 2009, she offered her first nine-week workshop, quickly followed by three more, before officially transitioning, in 2011, to the YGS of today.
It was her training with Denis Donnelly and Shivon Robinsong of the Ubuntu Choirs Network in British Columbia that really propelled her forward. “Their community choir model is what I based YGS on. I learned so much and was eager to apply it as interest and momentum built.”
Vanessa understood that consistent membership would give YGS a life of its own and that it would allow the choir to really start making a difference in local and global communities by raising money and awareness for important causes. It would also enable her to offer free membership to those in need, something she has continued to this day through bursaries.
YGS gives back to community with proceeds from twice-yearly concerts going to local and global causes and charities. Hope for Wildlife, Feed Nova Scotia, Sleeping Children Around the World, the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre, the Ecology Action Centre, Phoenix Youth Programs, and the Stephen Lewis Foundation Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign are just some of the initiatives that YGS has supported.
No singing experience is necessary, no one auditions for the choir, and all ages are welcome. Of the over 1000 alumni members, there are as many different stories as people. Some members love to sing but don’t know how to read music. Some have been in choirs all their lives. Some have been told for years that they couldn’t or shouldn’t sing (the school choir director who told them to mouth the words, the parents who said they were tone deaf or couldn’t carry a tune).“Every single voice matters. And each voice contributes to the whole.”
Little did Vanessa know that the first You Gotta Sing! workshop back in 2009 would develop into her life’s work and become her extended family. “Everyday miracles happen when people sing together, and I get to witness that on a regular basis.”
“There are moments, sometimes in the middle of a concert or a rehearsal, when I look up into all these beautiful, courageous faces and I think: ‘How did I get here? How did I get so lucky?’ And I am filled with such gratitude.”
So are we, Vanessa. So are we.