A Review of Michael Stillwater’s “Beyond the Fear of Singing”

from Silence to Exultation


BEYOND THE FEAR OF SINGING is now streaming on-demand through Feb 17 at FHFF.org.

It is said of geese that are raised in metal cages on farmland, in captivity (for foie gras and specialty eggs), that when they witness a skein of free-flying geese overhead, it ignites their spirits into pandemonium: flapping their wings, spinning in circles, and honking in anguished desire to join their liberated kindred.

“Beyond the Fear of Singing” similarly juxtaposes the captive with the free-spirited, only, in its case, the comparison is between human beings who have confidence to vocalize musically and those who have had that confidence painfully shamed out of them, often since childhood.

Like all great storytelling, this documentary has an arc of development. It is comprised of IV segments, beginning with “I Silenced” and moving through “II Emerging,” “III Reclaiming,” and “IV Opening.” Bear that hopeful progression in mind. You’re going to have to in order to survive the anguish of “Silenced” which just might leave you imagining a special Circle of Hell (a la Dante) for every teacher, choir director, parent, sibling or spouse who ever callously quashed the burgeoning efforts of a fledgling singer.

You won’t get through this one unhooked, and that’s a very good thing. One of its most dazzling components is the sheer number of prismatic facets through which it examines the longing to sing, the loss of one’s self-confidence to do so, and, in a number of sublime instances, the capacity to overcome self-doubt. It’s a stumble into, and skilled walk out of, an emotional mine-field.

Exiting & healing such exit wounds is done in good company:

There are Singers, of course, and Song-writers, Composers, Voice Educators – all to be expected, and much appreciated. And then we also benefit from a Psychiatrist, a Neurosurgeon, a Monk, a Cinematographer, a Business Consultant, a Fire Dancer, an Economist, an Arts Editor, a Gondolier, a Photographer, a Somatic Movement Therapist....etc, etc.


Let me stop the impressive litany and dive in right there, with the Somatic Movement Therapist, because Katrin Kohlbecher’s contribution is one of the most striking:


If Trauma is at the root of being “Silenced” the state from which we strive to “Emerge” “Reclaim” and “Open” ourselves, then one can hardly imagine a more traumatized population than the one with which she works: former Child Soldiers abducted from homes & schools in northern Uganda on the Sudanese border.


Katrin invites her wounded population to request what they need in order to re-integrate into society sanely after being militarized: “We want to sing! We want to dance! We want to play music!”


This is a call to a deeper cultural dimension of Africa than that of village raids, forced marriages, and other horrific atrocities: Old Africa, where, in some tribes, a pregnant woman is drummed into trance and asked to tune into her unborn child’s Song. This is a Song that is sung not only in times of celebration, such as birth, but also at those times when a person is lost and needs to be reminded of their worth and destiny.


Similarly, some African tribes also believe that we have Ancestral Guiding Stars, and they are unable to find us unless our own Solar Plexus (strong ego) light is glowing. Katrin describes the glory of witnessing just such essential light return, as the children played the calabash, sang, and danced:


“I could see that a life force was shining through them, a kind of hope and light that was stronger than the pain they had suffered.” Alleluia!


This primordial stomping ground is a far cry from the urban Music Halls of sublime orchestration which are also captured in “Beyond the Fear of Singing,” along with everything in between.


Also illustrative of the scope of this chosen cast: While there is a considerable amount of delight, pleasure and joy to be found, one cannot say that humor is a strong element. But the closest thing to being at all comical is a segment where a most endearing man, Bernd Seifried, Psychologist, refers to his therapeutic donkeys’ braying as “singing” and shows them the reverence usually reserved for the likes of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir! If that won’t embolden you to take your singing out of the shower, what more could you need?


When my singer/songwriter husband, Ciaran, instantly pointed out that filmmaker Michael Stillwater, shown in the documentary’s opening scene, was playing his guitar “lefty,” I knew we were in the good hands of that small % of the population who are more aligned to the intuitive, divergent from conventional thinking, creative, innovative, and even able to better tune into the sounds of slowly~changing music. Add to this that Michael’s wife, co-producer Doris Laesser Stillwater, is a psychologist and pathfinder, and you know you’re in for some much-needed, old-paradigm shattering!


So I delighted in, and wasn’t surprised by, the impressive number of men here who, like the donkey whisperer, exhibited great depths of compassion.


One strong example is Bruce Bough, a warm, bearded bear of a Neurosurgeon from Dublin (think Poppa Hemingway) who not only has sympathy for people who were made afraid to sing, but also exhibits sympathy for their subsequent Post-Traumatic Stress (which I don’t call a Disorder, because it’s natural): “Fear is actually wisdom in the presence of danger. Your brain is just trying to protect you from repeating a painful childhood experience.”


If such tender men undermine the authority of prior harsh judgments and thus clear the pathway to healing, a number of the women interviewed hold their own in the Yin dimension by inviting us into an interior source of Song:


Susie Ro Prater, Singer/Voice Educator from the UK, was the first to catch my fascination that way: while the camerawork is always skilled at framing close-ups, in her instance, there is such a stunning, liquid sense of purity and translucency to her face that you fall right into trusting her knowing & nurturance absolutely.


Suzanne Goebal, Founder of Klang Rund in Germany, helps would-be singers tune into “...what returns to you while you’re singing, not just the idea of giving forth to somebody else, but of singing, toning, to yourself. So it’s some kind of feeling of

Paradise inside when you’re singing ~ a contact and entrance to the Inner World that is so fascinating.


This documentary is the third in a Songs Without Borders series, In Search of the Great Song. Those of you familiar with the prior two will be thrilled to recognize two composers from the Pacific Northwest San Juan Archipelago: Alex Shapiro and Morten Lauridsen. To have two artists of such renown cheer on fledgling singers provides an indelible boost!


Alex is positively radiant in her enthusiasm: “I can't think of anything more worthwhile then to encourage another human being to express themselves ~ to express themselves purely, authentically, from the heart ~ not worrying about being judged or not. It's about the doing of it, it's about the joy and expression ~ that’s what matters!”


Morten bookends the film perfectly by sharing a tale from his childhood when a benighted teacher annihilated his creative confidence by deprecating his picture of a little Green Bunny. Of course, the Art world’s loss was the Music world’s gain in his instance, but still it is painfully poignant to witness that, even in his esteemed eldership, he wonders what he missed out on. But he has such generosity of heart that he channels his childhood wounding into a cri de coeur to encourage others:


“We are very vulnerable and have to be extra brave when exerting ourselves artistically. It just comes with the territory because we're revealing ourselves.


“When it happens to you, pay no attention,” he avers with a loving ferocity, “It is your voice, not theirs.


It is your life not theirs.


If it brings you joy, which it ought to, stay the course.”


With its nuanced sweeping spotlight moving from faces, voices, music, water, grasses, clouds, and hands, this film plays your body like a theremin ~ that apparently magical instrument which is sounded by the musician without any physical contact to it. It appears as if hauntingly beautiful sounds are being summoned out of thin air! Similarly, witnessing this film can turn your body into an invisible harp and play on all your lost cords. You just might move into your world afterward, every cell brimming with song!

The Friday Harbor Film Festival is delighted to present In Search of the Great Song, an extraordinary musical documentary series directed by Michael Stillwater and Co-Produced by Michael and Doris Laesser Stillwater who were inspired by their “dedication to the underlying source of music and song.” Watch on-demand February 1 through 17. Screen Individual movies for $3.95 or purchase a trilogy pass for $8.95.