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  • Maren Van Nostrand

How it All Began: Giving Voice and Meaning to Community

Updated: Feb 22, 2020

In the winter of 2007, while teaching music out of my home studio in Carnation, Washington, I was listening to many frustrated parents who couldn’t get their children to practice. Yet, they themselves let their instruments collect dust. I wondered, were they possibly projecting their own needs onto their children? Did they need a creative outlet for themselves? After picking up their children, they'd return home and attempt to get their kids to focus on their instruments, while they themselves cooked dinner, went to their computers, and did many other things. Are we adults so busy that we can't pick up our own instruments even for just a few minutes? What messages does this send to our children? These questions motivated me to find ways to interrupt this pattern, and to help people find ways, and reasons, to fold music back into their lives. I would give them something more exciting than screen time. What they needed was attention and validation.

While having these thoughts, about lifting up people and the role of music in their lives, I was trying to think of a gift for my husband’s 40th birthday. I’d been spending many long winter nights listening to his stories, and loving them, but feeling regretful that others weren’t also hearing them. I imagined other couples were experiencing the same thing in their relationships. An idea came to me to rent a stage on which he and our friends could share similar creative outbursts through music, writing, or whatever their creative medium. A stage that Lee Grumman had recently installed in her newly remodeled Millers Arts and Community Center popped into my mind, so I called her and she agreed to leasing the space for a night. So I rented the whole place for the event. Fifty people came! Several of them shared something, including Alethea Myers, a vocal guitarist who's music was a smooth as molasses, and Forest Heintz, my best friend Kelly's son, who played the piano with a surprising and refreshing amount confidence. I especially and personally felt rewarded by hearing Byron's voice fill a room of friends. I knew I'd achieved my goal when afterwards he had an expression of satisfaction that I'd not seen in his eyes for years. The whole gathering created a sense of connectedness and validation among everyone, and people started signing up for the next show!

When we held a show the following month, even more people came and I realized I’d tapped into something special. This form of creative expression in our community began giving our lives hope and meaning. And I knew it would hold, as since time immemorial, cultures around the world have known that sharing stories, songs, and music—any expressive form. Why? It serves so many purposes: it instantly and irrevocably lifts peoples’ spirits, increases their awareness, and strengthens their common purpose, or community. Children are especially hungry for this. It's often the only place for them to learn how to engage in conversation, and how to receive validation for their developing identities. Even something as simple as being physically in the presence of others has become a rare experience for some children. We need only look at the imprinting of birds to see the importance of singing out in repetition in close proximity with adults. Perhaps, in fact, most certainly, we bipedal mammals imprint our offspring in the same way!

By the third show, we really had a thing going! Because in my imagination it so very much resembled a cascade of sound pouring out of all of us like a waterfall, I named the gatherings SOUNDFALLS!...and I made it my business. It combined well with my music studio as I helped both budding and seasoned performers come together nearly every quarter for this sharing and camaraderie…and it went on for ten years. Complete strangers were singing alongside each other and forming life-long friendships. The audiences grew. Eventually, we moved to the loft of the Carnation Tree Farm, a big draw for even more people!

As the size of Soundfalls grew, our Soundfalls team began to hear from people who wanted to participate, but didn’t feel ready or willing to perform on stage. They just wanted to sing or play with others. That is when I created Song and Story Circles, and Healing Sound Circles. These provided a more relaxed opportunity for people to simply focus on the expression itself, and not worry about being judged as a performer. Some sang for the first time in 20 years! Some recovered long-lost memories through the process of singing and sharing stories. Some heard their voices out loud and in public for the first time ever…besides in the car.

With the help of dozens of volunteers—between 2007 (when Soundfalls began) and 2016 (when we had our last round of workshops)—we managed to pull together about 30 shows, 20 recitals, 4 house concerts, and 50 workshops. They involved about 80 artists and 700 viewers (about 200 being children and seniors). The list of artists and supporters is too large to include here. The key people who helped everything happen were members of what had become the “Soundboard” and the “Soundbites” stage band: Stacy Powell (voice, guitar and poster design), Todd Powell (keyboard and poster design), Janice Van Dyke (voice, electric bass, and photography), George Secombe (guitar, mandolin, and sound system), John Coates (recordings, podcasting, advising), Collienne Mason Becker (catering), Lee Grumman and Jules Hughes (owners of venue--Millers), Roger Thorson (owner of venue--Carnation Tree Farm), my husband Byron Ricks (co-host), and my daughter Julia (support and performance).

Now, Soundfalls is entering a new era. We are hosting song and story circles for people who have a story to tell: of survival, of love, of memories, of music. Then, at some point, those who are interested will have the option to take to the stage at one of our shows. Those who are not ready or interested will continue in the practice of circle sharing. We will gather people of all ages and levels.

Do you have a story in your journal that just needs to be aired? Have you recently written a new song or learned a new instrument and want to test the waters on a small group of people? Do you just want to hang out with us? If you are interested in becoming a part of the Soundfalls community, in whatever degree of involvement that suits you, please email:, and I or one of our team members will contact you. We will find the perfect place for engagement!

Stay tuned here, for the next blog entry as Soundfalls participants share their memories of how telling stories and sharing music changed their life.

- Maren

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