Story Submitted by Sheri Whittington

It’s More Than Just a Choir

In an article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette dated February 2, 2020, Jeremy Reynolds writes: “1 in 6 Americans sings in a choir — and they’re healthier for it”. He continues, “more than 17% of adults in the U.S. participate in a choir of some sort, up from 14% in 2008. That’s about 1 in 6 adults, according to a recent study by the service organization Chorus America. The study identifies numerous beneficial reasons: Singing in groups has been linked to better mental and physical health, a sense of belonging and feeling connected to others, better social skills, increased civic engagement and volunteering, developing leadership skills and much more.”

So that study represents over 54 million adults who were singing together in an organized setting when the article was written on February 2, 2020. As we now know, seven months into this pandemic, singing in a choir today, is possibly one of the deadliest things you can do. We also know now that the virus is airborne and is spread very expediently through the deep breathing, articulation, and projection required for choral singing. That is over 54 million Americans who were singing in choirs both community and religious, and both professional and amateur who represent now a large group of isolated, displaced Americans.

There have been many studies like the one referenced in the article that prove that singing in a group or choir has many physical and psychological benefits. Extraordinary discoveries like breathing and singing together can cause the members heartbeats to synchronize as well. There are reports and new findings in neuroscience of the effects of how singing together can be a transcendent experience, and it can have measurable calming effects to the mind and the actual heart muscle. Science is starting to understand perhaps why music sooths the savage beast, and why music in the form of rhythmic drums, moving, dancing, singing, chanting, etc. has been part of human history for as long as we have records. I believe it positively moves the soul, brings us viscerally closer to our fellow humans, and brings us closer to our God or higher power source in a way science can’t yet define, and we can’t yet fully understand.

As one of the 54 million Americans, I have been heartbroken and lost without my choir. I know the reasons above definitely make up part of the positive benefits I’m missing, but again, in that way we can’ t explain, I am also missing some extraordinary people. I have a fabulous family, and I’m thankful for them every day. However, my choir family is that added family that I choose. We try to keep in touch now through the pandemic, but in so many ways, we are each other’s touchstone. I can’t begin to list the ways this group of amazing individuals cares for each other and supports each member from birth through death. I truly don’t have words to describe the depth of community, love, and acceptance, that I am blessed with by my choir. It would be the same as trying to scientifically define love. We can’t explain it, but we can feel it!

Reference articles if interested:

Article: 1 in 6 Americans sings in a choir — and they’re healthier for it by JEREMY REYNOLDS – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Chorus of America & National Endowment of the Arts, and others.

Story Submitted by Noa Friedman

Time and time again, educators and artists are burdened with the task of fighting for funding for arts in schools because for some reason, cutting arts funding is the “go to solution” for the “how can we save money?” problem. The decision makers figure that an education in the arts is dispensable, even though endless amounts of studies can prove that opinion otherwise. Why is the funding for the arts considered superfluous and so often the first thing to be cut when its impact has been proven to be essential?
I attended Howard W. Blake School of the Arts where I majored in theatre. Now, even as a junior in college, I often reflect back on my time in high school with such fondness. Not because of any of the science or math classes I took, but because of the time I spent in the theatre department. These were critical years for me. These were the years that made me realize that I wanted to pursue a career in the arts and landed me at the University of Florida studying towards a BFA in acting.
The value of an Arts education expands far beyond the stage as well. Exposure to the arts enhances a person’s abilities in all other subjects. It teaches a person confidence and teamwork. It reflects positively in a student’s performance in their math and English classes, leading to them becoming a more successful and well-rounded human being . I firmly believe that would not have graduated as Valedictorian of my high school class had it not been for my exposure to the arts. Without a doubt, my work ethic and intelligence have been shaped by the skills I learned as a right-brained thinker.
I love the arts. My life IS the arts, and as cliché as it may sound, the access that I was given to the arts in my formative schooling years have shaped the person I am today. Why strip that kind of opportunity from future classes of students?
The arts in schools are essential. To deny that fact would be doing a disservice to yourself, your community, and generations of students to come.
The arts give us so much. Please return the favor.

Story Submitted by Emma Friedman

Having access to an arts education has shaped me into the person I am today. I can’t not imagine what my life would be if I didn’t have access to an arts education in some of my most formative years. It is the reason I wake up every morning with an excitement for doing things. It is the reason why I excel in all other academic subjects. It is the reason I am constantly surrounded by the most incredible human beings and introduced to the most committed, passionate, creative, and inspiring educators. Everything I am is a direct result of having an arts education. It is absolutely crucial that every child is given the opportunity to experience the magic that an arts education has to offer. Hillsborough County, do the right thing and keep funding arts in schools.
Art is creativity. Art is culture. Art is Problem-Solving. Art is History. Art is what makes us human. After all, “the earth without art is just eh”.

Story Submitted by Sushama Kirtikar

Charcoal sketching and oil canvas painting were my favorite leisure activities growing up in India. My grandfather was a commercial artist who did caricatures for news magazine covers and his fine arts paintings of portraits stand today in a couple of museums. My mother is a natural artist and always stoked the fires of my art work. She guided and encouraged me all along. After coming to the US I dabbled some in my art. As I started a family I got involved in the pursuits of raising a family, managing a household and establishing a career. In the last 4 decades my art work languished.

A few years ago while training to become a certified coach I took the Values in Action Character Strengths Survey which immediately highlighted ‘Creativity’ as being on the lower rung of the survey: in fact it ranked #22 out of a total of 24 character strengths! I stared disbelievingly at this revelation. I have always thought of myself as a creative person. What was this?! It put a huge dent in my self-image. Something had to be done to rectify this unexpected upsetting of the apple cart.

I didn’t know where to start. Yes, I have on occasion busied myself with crafts such as cake decorating, knitting and sewing, particularly making gifts for others. But that was never my passion. Visual arts like drawing and sketching were my true passion. How was I going to pick it up again? Someone suggested ‘doodling’. I tried my hand at it and found it to be silly. But wait, it seemed to unlock something within. The first night I saw visions of colorful shapes in my sleep. A creative spark of some kind had been awakened. Nothing tangible yet, just a crack.
Then, I came face to face with cancer last year. It hit hard with full force. I went through a tough journey of comprehending, researching, information gathering and decision making. That was all grist for the mill. This was followed by treatments and multiple surgeries. I came home after complicated reconstructive surgeries, relegated to a wheelchair and total leg elevation for the first few months. My daughter gifted me with an adult coloring book of mandalas with a set of color markers. That opened the door.

I gave myself permission to immerse myself into what felt like self-indulgence. Ouch. Such a harsh inner critic could only be silenced by the realization that since I could not move I could allow myself to ‘play’. It took being immobile to free me up. To think of creativity as ‘frivolous or play’ was a travesty. I have always valued the creative arts as a gift to mankind. But it looks like I valued and admired it in ‘others’ not in ‘me’. I had to be dutiful and tend to mundane matters. Where and when did such self-destructive thinking permeate my psyche? I am still shocked by the utterly enervating effects of such oppressive thinking.

I began my journey into the world of colors. I got my feet wet (pun intended) by playing with colors and filling up the mandalas one at a time as they started to burgeon and burst with hues I did not even know existed. Now, my mother, my daughter and my 3 1⁄2 year old granddaughter name each mandala as it is finished. Each one tells a different story as I pick diverse color schemes and play wantonly letting my instinct and imagination run wild. I no longer feel guilty engaging in coloring. It relaxes me; I notice how the vital signs begin to self-regulate as my breath, heart rate and pulse stabilize and even out. It is the magic potion that soothes any stress whether it is global concerns, national politics, career pivots, house repairs, personal health or concern for loved ones in this pandemic. It is truly a panacea to all discontent. Art is a gift that needs to be received with grace, held with humility, cultivated mindfully and shared generously with others to spread its joy. It has a ripple effect, multiplying and growing as it roils and blends, bathing this one and that one with its infinite glory and beauty. So when my granddaughter announces to me over FaceTime while I am doing sketches for her on a large pad that stands on an easel, “Aji, you are the best ‘drawer’ in the world”, I take that with a smile and think, “Thank you for calling me a ‘drawer’, best or otherwise. I am so grateful for the fact that my long lost love of art has finally come home to roost.” The artist within me has thrown me a life line.

Story Submitted by Deb Kelley

Having the creative arts in my life has been a gift. Writing plays, stories, poems, and lyrics, directing, producing plays, acting on stage, drawing, singing, and photography – these are as much a part of me as breathing. When I first started writing in elementary and middle school, it was an outlet. My dad is a writer and inspired in me the love of the written word. In high school, it was an escape. Being the editor-in-chief of the school paper and a member of the school magazine, being in drama class, and being asked to write a play for production in the class got me through a lousy high school experience and gave me my first taste of playwriting. Being the youngest reporter correspondent for the Tampa Tribune at 17 gave me the confidence to follow my writing dreams to college and beyond.

It is 31 years later, and I still am passionate about theatre and writing. I have drama masks, a plume, and “I bleed ink” tattooed on my right arm. I always say, “if cut, I’d bleed ink” because I can’t imagine my life without theatre and creative writing, especially playwriting. I can’t fathom young people today, particularly during the pandemic, having the threat of removing the creative arts from their curriculum looming over their heads. For many kids, chorus, band, art, and theatre class are the only safe spaces they have to be truly themselves. The creative arts provide a nonjudgmental, lovingly dysfunctional second family, especially in theatre. As the many darkened theatres during the pandemic have proved, people don’t have that fun, exhilarating release without the creative arts. They lack that escape into make-believe that makes the stresses we deal with every day bearable. Like the meme says, earth without art is just eh.

Story Submitted by Derek Baxter

Over the past few years I had lost a major part of my identity, my voice. Working in a job where I was performing as an actor and using major vocal manipulation five days a week, working around many animals I was allergic to, and working in a building with dust, mildew, and mold so bad we were constantly sick had destroyed my voice. A few weeks ago I was asked to take part in a fundraiser for a local community theatre and I had to SING!! I was terrified but I wanted to do it to help my friends and this awesome company so I agreed. I am so glad I did. I hadn’t sang for a very long time, it hurt me both physically and emotionally to attempt it. I was extremely nervous leading up to our first rehearsal. The first time through one of my songs went ok. As the rehearsal went on I had some issues here and there and was extremely hoarse afterwards but I got through it. I prayed for light and healing energy on my drive home. As we got closer to the gala I was so nervous about placement and fatigue (especially since there was a double show day on Saturday). I kept praying for light and healing energy and the most benevolent outcome. I got through Friday night and it went well. Saturday went even better and sure there were many issues and flaws but I could sing again, and the healthy habits started to come back a little bit. I would find my placement and remember little tips and tricks to help with breath and support. I still need some major work but the foundations are still there. You don’t know what this means to me, I had been feeling pretty empty thinking and experiencing a part of my identity was forever lost. Not much good has come from the pandemic and quarantine and the shut down but thanks to all of it – I found something I thought was gone forever. After deciding I was done performing (especially singing) and giving my career over to directing and helping others to find their moment in the spotlight this weekend was a spark of positivity I needed. If you aren’t a singer maybe this post doesn’t make since but there is something deep within a singers soul that makes their identity tied to their voice, and I had lost mine. I thank God that I have found it once again, and gave me such an amazing and positive experience.

Story Submitted by Thomas Bostock

Is There a Monster in your Closet?

Writing stories is like breathing to me. Some say it is an art. I say it is a passion. It is part and parcel of who I am. Unlike many writers who create outlines and detailed character charts, I only do one thing, I write. I sit at my computer–my typewriter before-stare at the lighted screen and enter the world of my imagination, populated with everything and everyone I will ever need.

During this COVID-19 community reset, I have written two complete novels and am twenty-five chapters into the third of the trilogy. It gives me purpose each morning when a switch flips in my mind and I am transported from mundane reality to that larger world of imagination, where anything can happen at the touch of a keystroke. My only limits are self-imposed, and I try to keep those to a minimum.

The hundreds of short stories I have written over the last seventy some odd years are the product of growing up with two brothers, one younger, one older. While we waited for my mother to come home after work, I was the designated storyteller. Did you want a tale about a scary monster? How about a trip in a rocket ship? Perhaps your fancy takes you to talking animals? I took them there too. We traveled the high seas with pirates and crossed burning deserts on camels. You could almost feel the burning sands.

Hiding under two overstuffed chairs, turned over and covered with a blanket, with barely a light visible, we had no limitations. If I read a comic book during the week, I added the characters to my repertoire. I outgrew the chairs over the years, but never my irrepressible imagination. Prior to retiring, I worked as a safety engineer for several large corporations. My safety articles, sometimes written tongue in cheek, were an important part of the company safety process. Slowed a little by a heart attack and several bouts with cancer, the impetus to write remained as strong as ever. When asked what advice I would offer a new writer, my advice is always the same, just write! Find the monster in your closet. Do you have one? I certainly hope so.