School of Movement Medicine - Mindfulness in Motion
 

Back to contents

Issue: February Newsletter
First and Foremost I am a Musician – My experience working with Susannah and Ya’Acov

By Phil Berthoud
Preamble: Age 7 – Noddy Holder playing electric guitar and singing “Come on Feel the Noise” on Top of the Pops is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. Age 8 – Legendary Flamenco guitarist Paco Pena, live at Bletchley Leisure Centre. I was told it was guitar and expected something like Noddy Holder. What we witnessed was one man (dressed in black – no top hat, covered in mirrors), one acoustic guitar in a huge gymnasium. I was utterly blown away.

Age 9ish – my record collection is bigger than my parents. I play guitar with a tennis racket and regularly beat the hell out of an armchair pretending it’s a drum kit. Music becomes very important to me. It is my light in a dark, frightening and painful world.

Age 13 – My lovely Dad dies. In amongst all of the chaos of my upside down world, I get a proper guitar and retire to my room for some years. The guitar becomes my voice. I am obsessed and possessed – I love to copy the sounds I hear on my favourite records, but also to compose my own music through improvising and experimenting.

Teens – I am painfully awkward socially. Musically, new voices speak to me – Hendrix, Zappa, Beefheart; Bartok, Shostakovich and Beethoven. I love their individuality – their unapologetic and uncompromising creative expression.

Twenties – I discover Irish music and take up the fiddle with gusto. North London pub sessions swimming in Guinness. Drink becomes a prop to blot out the pain. I hear people talk of great Irish musicians who lost the plot – “Ah, the drink got him,” being the reason. My twenties pass in a blur.

Thirties and forties – A beautiful wife and children accompanied with extensive work on my damaged life (including properly letting go of my Dad), damage which had become more exposed due to significantly lower intake of pint-glass administered anaesthetic. I play with lots of different bands – some great, some not so great, but performing music starts to become a nerve-wracking experience – I want to hide in the shadows and avoid the spotlight at all costs.

It was maybe 13 years ago that I received a call from Susannah Darling-Khan, who had seen my ad in the Dartington post office advertising guitar lessons.
At the time, I was teaching in secondary schools and also had a few adult students – the school kids wanted to learn Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jack Johnson and the adults liked the Beatles, folk and classic rock. It paid the bills. I also played in a band – barndances mainly – again the income was useful, but it felt like I could have been replaced by a CD without anyone noticing (this was OK in a way though, as it kept me out of the spotlight). I sometimes used to play out of tune on purpose (Les Dawson-style) to see if anyone would notice. Nobody, except the others in band, ever noticed.

People told me how wonderful it was to be able to work in music like this. And, yes, it was better than working 9 to 5 in an office for some faceless company. But I’d lost sight of what drew me to music in the first place. The excitement had gone. I spent my working life watching the clock, feeling resentful and depressed.

It wasn’t long before the meaningless of it all got to me and I started to get panic attacks when performing. I gave it up altogether and resigned myself to the “fact” that I simply wasn’t cut out for playing live. I just about managed to keep a few students going, and threw myself into writing. I got several books published on playing music, which was great. Perhaps I’d found my niche. It was certainly easier to cope with the solitary work of writing books, than the stress of playing in public.

So, I went round to Susannah and Ya’Acov’s place in Huxhams Cross, with my Beatles, Hendrix, Bob Dylan sheets in my bag. When I arrived, I soon realised this was going to be something different. The house was amazing – calm and beautiful; spacious and yet filled with striking and unusual objects. I was warmly welcomed and soon felt very at ease.
We worked on various different aspects of guitar playing, and soon moved on to songs that Susannah & Ya'Acov had written, which became the main focus of the sessions.

Each time I visited, I became more and more aware of the amazing lives of Susannah & Ya'Acov. From booking lesson times to fit in with trips to the Rainforest, or giving workshops in the Czech Republic; to turning up to give Susannah a lesson and passing Ya’Acov on his way out to bury some willing participants for the weekend on Dartmoor.

I don’t think I realised it at the time, but somewhere in the back of my mind, I realised that they were doing what I dreamed of. Their gift was movement and dance, which they shared in the most meaningful way. They didn’t have to give lessons in tap-dancing and ballet to pay the bills before they did the meaningful stuff. Their lives were brimming with meaning and they were doing what they loved. They worked hard, but didn’t look dragged down and diminished by their work, like I did after a ceilidh or day teaching in school. They glowed.

Roll on a couple of years and I got another call from Susannah. She wanted to record some of her songs and would I be willing to help out on guitar? I jumped at the chance. I love recording! She also said that she was looking for a violin player – someone who can play in a folky style rather than classical. “I may be able to help with that,” I said.

So, I went round with guitar, fiddle, mandolin and bass in hand. We started recording songs that would feature on the album “All the Earth is Sacred”. The studio was the lounge at their house in Huxham’s Cross. From the basic foundation guitar tracks, the songs started to grow with the addition of other instruments. Susannah directed the music and I did my best to recreate the sound that was in her head. Sometimes she would just ask me to let go and play whatever I wanted. The songs really started to take shape. Other people played on top – percussion, flutes, cellos, vocals…

My wife Mahrey, contributed recorder and my son, Louis was brought in on drum kit. I think he must have been about 12 or 13 at the time. He’s now studying music at Leeds. Music has always been his passion. Back then, he was just a little lad behind all those drums, but the sound he made was so big, so professional.
When I heard the album for the first time, I couldn’t believe how beautifully it had all come together, with all the beautiful harmony singing and Ya’Acov’s amazing vocalisations (I can’t think how better to describe them!). It was particularly special for me to hear the tracks that Louis played on, like Sun Song and Earth Under Our Feet. It’s difficult to put into words how beautiful it was to hear him and me playing together on the album.

I’ll always remember the powerful emotions that I felt when recording the bass part to Oh Lord God, which is probably my favourite song on the album.
Soon after this album was released, Susannah and Ya'Acov asked if I’d like to come and play for the Winter Dream Dance – I think this was 3 or 4 years ago. I was not performing at all at the time. I had a lot more teaching on and avoided playing in public like the plague. One of my fears was falling apart on stage – bursting into tears. The fear of that happening would often lead to the panic attacks.

My initial feeling was to avoid playing for the Dance. Then I thought about it and came to the conclusion that bursting into tears in this situation would not be a problem at all – quite the opposite. So I decided to go for it. This turned out to be a major turning point for me in my life as a musician. Something for which I will be eternally grateful.

I was nervous when I arrived to play. It was not like any gig I’d experienced before. The hushed, sacred atmosphere, dimmed lights, altars to the elements. Susannah talked through the plan for the evening – some of the songs from the album were going to be played – “OK, fine,” I know them, I thought. But there were also going to be sections called “Mind”, “Heart” and “Community” to name a few. No pre-planned chord structure, no sheet music. Just play…
In my mind, I felt a bit thrown by this. But, in my heart, I was coming home. The freedom was what I was craving – getting me back to my initial excitement in music.

As we began playing on that night, everybody got up and started to move and dance. I’d played for ceilidhs, but this was very different. There was no-one yelling down a microphone telling people to move 8 to the right, 8 to the left, do-si-do, swing your partners. This was free. Free music and free movement. It brought a whole new level of meaning to the music I was playing. It all made sense. A beautiful evening and not a hint of panic – I breathed freely and felt on top of the world.

Later that year came the amazing Long Dance. This was like the Winter Dance, except bigger. A massive tent, 200 dancers and a big band – I was surrounded by percussionists. Time wasn’t a relevant concept, yet the thought of playing for 5 or 6 hours non-stop would usually be daunting, to say the least. But, here, I felt I could have carried on indefinitely. My confidence was growing and I’d rediscovered my love of improvising, at the same time discovering a new love of playing for free dancing.

Since then, I’ve played at two more Winter Dream Dances and one more Long Dance, as well as working with Susannah on Torch Songs, an album with which I feel a strong emotional connection. Before recording a new song, Susannah would tell me the inspiration and the story behind the songs, which enabled me to connect on a deeper level than simply following a chord pattern and reading a pre-written part. We’d sit and strum through the song together for me to get a feel for it, then switch the mic on, build up the layers and watch as the song blossomed in front of us. I love all the songs on the album, from the delicate Water and Stars to the huge build-up of Moon Song. The Force of the Forest was very moving, having played at the Long Dance and met Manari from the Amazon. The death of my father, along with other difficult memories, came up at times during the recording process, particularly in the song Let Her Go. I feel like I opened up, let go and gave much more of myself – which was made possible by the fact that Susannah and Ya’Acov are both so generous with their love and support.

Postamble:

Age 50. A milestone – a new beginning. I’ve discovered that music heals and want to share it with more people. I don’t want to hide any more. I’ve also met an amazing drummer/ percussionist/ didgeridoo player, called Ash – when we play there are no set-lists, no plans, no rehearsals. We just let go and play and it works. A subtle shift is happening. A move from “teacher who does a bit of performing on the side” is changing to “first and foremost a musician who does a bit of teaching on the side”.
I love recording and playing live, and I am available. Please get in touch if you want help with a recording project or if would like live music for whatever you want to do that needs live music. My email is philberthoud@hotmail.co.uk and mobile is +44 (0)752 7006437.
The albums “All the Earth is Sacred” and “Torch Songs” can be heard at www.music-medicine.co.uk.

Thank you Susannah and Ya’Acov for playing such a big part in my healing and growth.

Back to contents

The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the School of Movement Medicine. Roland Wilkinson, Nappers Crossing, Staverton, Devon TQ9 6PD, UK Tel & Fax +44 (0)1803 762255 http://www. schoolofmovementmedicine.com