Music, Mindfulness and Matriarchs

This week’s Postcard is from our Dean, Virginia Peden, MA in Counseling Psychology and Expressive Arts Therapy from the California Institute of Integral Studies, Registered Yoga Teacher and Mindfulness Educator .


Dear SF Girls Chorus Community,

Well, here we are at the beginning of another year. For me, this time of year always seems to bring with it a sense of excitement, optimism, and hope for what another year of living and learning together may have in store.

The SF Girls Chorus has been through a number of changes throughout its lifetime of thirty something years. It, like all of us, continues to grow and evolve in its own organic manner. It has been many things to many people. I appreciate that one of the cornerstones of its evolution has always been the support and empowerment of girls and young women. My role is to aid in empowering our choristers in all areas of their lives, and I approach this through integrating mindfulness into their education.

So what is mindfulness?

Somewhere in the middle of what was and what will be is this moment. Right here. The present. Watch out, it’s easy to miss. But if we are able to take the time to practice presence, we may find ourselves becoming aware of new depths of ourselves, our experiences, and our capacity for developing a greater sense of self-regulation, resilience and creativity. As a staff member of the SFGC, I often get the question: do you sing? My frequent response is “no, not really, only in the shower.” This is not entirely true. I sing all over the house, in the kitchen while I cook, on the sidewalk with my daughter, in the car with the windows down if a good song comes on the radio. While all of the SFGC choristers could easily school me in music theory, music has always been a part of my life in one way or another.

I grew up in a city whose very soul is rooted in its musical identity: New Orleans. As a city that does not shy away from any excuse to “laissez les bon temps rouler,” there are constant opportunities to gather, be present, and enjoy the love of music and song. Music is an integral part of the landscape, whether it’s being played by the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, a funk band in a dimly-lit club in the French Quarter, or a pop-up brass band in the streets. I cannot remember a time when music was not part of my world.

A love of singing has run in my family for generations. My grandmother and namesake, Virginia “Jeanne” Burke was in a singing group with her sisters during the 1930's. The Burke Sisters traveled the country with big bands playing for all sorts of audiences - listen here to one of their recordings.

Here is a vintage poster of my grandmother's singing group.They sang and tap danced together, in the style of song-and-dance girls like the Andrew Sisters, and developing tight harmonies like the Boswell Sisters (they all performed a lot of the same jazz numbers.)

Up until right before her passing, my grandmother was still performing, bringing song, dance and joy to people at senior living centers, despite the fact that she was the same age as many of her audience members.

The Boswell sisters were a similar well-known trio. Click the image above to play the video.

So, how does this music, mindfulness and matriarchal lineage all tie together for me?

It might have something to do with when and how I became interested in mindfulness. I had recently relocated to Austin, Texas to finish my undergraduate degree when Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath uprooted everything and everyone in the place I called home. It was a surreal time, to say the least. You know the look of the shore at low tide -all the debris of the sea washed ashore, haphazardly dispersed and laid bare at the same time? After Katrina, that’s what life looked like to me, and many of us were unsure about how to make any sort of sense of it.

When I discovered mindfulness practice, it was like jumping into cold water; it shocked me awake and back into the world. I started singing with friends again. As I learned more about mindfulness and meditation, I developed some tools to manage these challenging feelings I was struggling to understand, and skills to handle the lessons life would continue to teach me. The practice also helped me put my experience in perspective, helping me uncover new levels of awareness, compassion and gratitude. It opened me up to community, to the world, to living.

As a grad student, working as a school-based counselor in under-resourced schools, I became more interested in how the kids I was working with could develop their own sense of ownership and autonomy when managing challenges in their lives, rather than having to regularly rely on any sort of outside providers. It is my belief that children are resilient and innately wise and creative, but they are also attempting to manage a growing barrage of stressors and responsibilities. A couple of self-care tools in the back pocket never hurt anyone. Since working in that school-based program, I’ve gone on to do more training in mindfulness and education.

For me, there is a very natural connection that exists between the practice of mindfulness and music making. There are a number of studies about group singing that point out the physical and psychological benefits of singing in community.

Singing in a choir has also been demonstrated to decrease stress and encourage connection. In fact, a Swedish study found that our heart beats can synchronize when we sing together. Kids always think the above clip (click to play) is pretty cool when I share it with them.

It is pretty special to be able to continue in my grandmother’s footsteps--in my own way--by supporting young people in their love of music and song. I feel so grateful to be a part of providing a space where girls and young women can practice being present, confident and brave; brave enough to be curious about something as innately personal as finding their own voice within a group setting. We’ve all seen it when they stand up and perform for an audience after putting in hours of preparation: these kids are courageous.

So, I ask you, how do you think being present in the moment could affect your practice?

Want to give this mindfulness thing a try yourself? Click on the image above and try a short bit of practice with mindfulness teacher Sharon Salzberg.

See you around the Chorus!


Virginia Peden,

Dean of Choristers, SF Girls Chorus