This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Songline: When music is like breathing

Photo: Debra Detweiler Brubaker conducts the Women’s World Music Choir at Goshen (Indiana) College. Photo from Goshen College Record. 

Halfway through their spring semester, the Goshen (Indiana) College Women’s World Music Choir was crammed into a rehearsal space, preparing for a tour along the East Coast. Students looked beaten down by homework, lack of sleep and another bleak Goshen winter.

The choir’s sound matched their look—the song from the indigenous people of Australia that was supposed to embody power sounded exhausted and overworked.

Debra Detwiler Brubaker, the choir’s director, was not impressed with the choir’s sound, and stopped them mid-phrase. A soft, confused murmur rose throughout the choir as the singers tried to figure out what would happen next.

Debra Detwiler Brubaker. Goshen College photo.

“Everyone circle around the room,” she instructed. “Get into a low squat. Lower! Good. Now, we’re going to sing from our ovaries.”

Choir members sunk down into a low squat, with their hands almost touching the ground. More uncomfortable giggles circled the room, but Detwiler Brubaker stayed serious.

“Now, sing,” she said. “You have the power to create. You are the beginning of the next generation. Open up and sing with this power you carry.”

I first met Detwiler Brubaker as a prospective student visiting Goshen College. I sat in the front row, a junior in high school, and watched, with awe, as Detwiler Brubaker directed the Women’s World Music Choir. She led the choir in Tai-Chi exercises. She spoke of powerful women and filled the room with passion and excitement. She was like no other choir director I had met.

Now, four years later, Detwiler Brubaker sits across from me. Her laugh echoes around the room when I ask her how she began her musical journey. She speaks quietly yet firmly, in a voice used to commanding rooms of rowdy students.

“I still remember my first piano lesson,” Detwiler Brubaker says, her eyes shining as she recalls her home on the south side of Elkhart in the 1960s. “My sister and I had always grown up singing as little kids; there was always music on in our house.”

“ My first entrance to classical music was Handel’s Messiah,” Detwiler Brubaker continued. “I would sit next to the speakers in the living room with my copy of the score and sing along with the alto soloist.”

At 6 years old, Detwiler Brubaker decided to follow in her older sister’s footsteps and began piano lessons and later took up the violin. Detwiler Brubaker’s early years were filled with practicing; after school, she would spend two hours at the piano or with her violin. She fell out of this pattern in high school, yearning for a more informal approach to music. She stopped taking instrumental lessons and joined her high school choir as a junior.

As a freshman at Goshen College, Detwiler Brubaker was certain she did not want to major in music. But in her first year at GC, she took a course taught by long-time music professor Mary Oyer, Survey of Music Literature.

“I just fell in love with the analysis in music and listening to it and studying the organization of it. But I was not going to teach. Both of my parents were music teachers, and I had sat at the dinner table and listened to them complain about education,” said Detwiler Brubaker with a laugh.

But Detwiler Brubaker eventually “caved into” a music education major. Her first job was at a middle school, which she describes as “not enjoyable at all.” Middle school choir didn’t line up with her passions.

Women’s World Music Choir. Goshen College photo.

So she turned to graduate school. After getting her master’s degree in choral conducting and vocal performance, Detwiler Brubaker taught at Bluffton (Ohio) University for 10 years. She once again returned to school, earning her doctorate in voice and choral conducting. In 1999 she joined the faculty at Goshen College and has been here for 17 years.

“When I came to Goshen College,” said Detwiler Brubaker, “we had a Chamber Choir and Chorale. We had another director come, Jim Heiks, who said, ‘You can’t have a choir program without a men’s choir.’ And I said, you can’t have a men’s choir without a women’s choir.”

At first, Detwiler Brubaker hated the music she found for women’s choirs and felt no connection to it.

“I thought, I have a women’s choir now: What am I going to do with it?” said Detwiler Brubaker. “I love international music, so I thought this is what I’ll do. I’ll start a Women’s World Music Choir.”

Detwiler Brubaker immediately reached for the Mennonite Hymnal: A Worship Book (“the blue hymnal”). This hymnal is knit with international music, from African and Asian pieces to Native American work. Detwiler Brubaker’s time at Bluffton had also instilled in her a love for South African freedom songs.

“I loved the way the chords lined up,” she said. “I loved the power and joy of the singing.”

Detwiler Brubaker recognizes that she is rooted within the Mennonite faith.

“My faith is embodied in music,” said Detwiler Brubaker. “If I’m having difficulties, I’ll go to the hymnal. Sometimes I go to the hymnal before I go to the Psalms.”

“I grew up where music was like breathing,” Detwiler Brubaker said. “I just assumed that people could sing, and I knew that community was created when you sing.”

Detwiler Brubaker started by teaching songs inside her comfort zone and eventually began exploring and expanding her international music library. Now, people will contact Detwiler Brubaker with pieces they find through travels and international connections.

Most recently, a former student who currently lives in Ireland, contacted Detwiler Brubaker with a song she came upon. The song, titled “Stozj pa moru,” connected with Detwiler Brubaker immediately. She played it at the beginning of a rehearsal, telling the story of how it came to her, finishing by saying, “ We just have to perform it.” It was incorporated to the Women’s Choir repertoire for GC’s annual Festival of Carols concert.

The Women’s World Music Choir focuses on connections through song; each song they perform forms a link to women around the world. The choir members sing barefoot, keeping them grounded to the earthly bond that unifies all women.

Each rehearsal begins with what Detwiler Brubaker calls “One Good Minute.” She stands in front of the women, asking them to meditate on a quote, an issue or to just simply be. She says six words—deep, slow, calm, ease, smile, release—and lets the choir be still for one minute.

“When one is working with a single gender choir,” said Detwiler Brubaker, “the room just feels different. There are unspoken assumptions and ways of being that automatically go into effect—people relate more clearly, it feels like more of a safe space.”

Brynn Godshall has been a part of Women’s World Music Choir since 2014. Now, as a senior, she reflects back on a fond memory of Detwiler Brubaker.

“My freshman year, spring of 2014, we were singing this really cool song that we all liked well enough, but a few rehearsals in a row we just weren’t getting the sound that we (or Deb) wanted,” Godshall said. “Finally, after a frustrating several minutes of trying and failing to get us to sing the right timbre, Deb stopped and said, ‘You know what? Everyone close your eyes.’”

Sudden stops like this are normal for Detwiler Brubaker, but as a freshman, Godshall wasn’t used to them. Once the choir closed their eyes, Detwiler Brubaker said, “I want everyone to think about your all-time, absolute favorite food.”

“A few girls chuckled, a few stomachs growled (5:00 on a Thursday afternoon is not a fun time to talk about food),” said Godshall. “Then Dr. B said, ‘Picture a very long table that you’re standing at the head of, and picture that favorite food covering every inch of this table.’ Even more stomachs began to growl, and I felt myself smile as the image began to form in my head.”

“Deb continued: ‘Now, you obviously can’t eat all of this food yourselves, so I want you to imagine yourselves inviting everyone you love, family and friends, to come to this table to eat your favorite food with you. Now, open your eyes and sing this song to all of those loved ones you want to invite to the table.’”

The choir, opening their eyes as Detwiler Brubaker instructed, began the song.

“I had to stop singing because I was so choked up by the immense power and love I felt pouring out of our bodies as we sang this welcoming song to all of the people we love,” said Godshall. “I will never forget how it felt to sing that song that day for what felt like the very first time, and I will never forget the overwhelmingly proud look on Dr. B’s face as she cut us off after the last note.”

“Denko” is one of Detwiler Brubaker’s favorite songs to perform with Women’s Choir. She describes it as a “song that presented itself to us.”

“I have had this experience several times, where, it’s kind of a vacuum: we need a song, haven’t found one, and all the sudden, a song appears at the right time,” said Detwiler Brubaker.

Denko presented itself to Detwiler Brubaker in 2007, right before the Festival of Carols.

“We [Women’s World Music Choir] were still untested in how our music fits in with the general theme of Festival of Carols,” said Detwiler Brubaker. “I came across this song in a songbook compiled by Sweet Honey and the Rock.”

Denko illustrates the story of a woman who prays for a baby and receives the answer to her prayers. The woman’s entire community takes responsibility for this child, saying that they need to work even harder to make sure that the baby is raised well.

“I thought, this is perfect for Christmas!” Detwiler Brubaker exclaimed. “The song is so symbolic in so many ways.”

The song is acted out by the choir, a drum wrapped in African-style fabric becoming the baby.

“Denko just… People could just hardly not clap when we got to that point. It was so meaningful. It’s just such a powerful piece,” said Detwiler Brubaker.

Directing a Women’s Choir is not always easy in the “boys club” of choral conducting.

“I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever had anybody say to me ‘No, you can’t do this because you’re a woman,’ but, my guess is that because I don’t fit into the fraternity of choral conductors that I have been left out, a lot,” said Detwiler Brubaker.

All of Detwiler Brubaker’s the choral conductors at the University of Northern Colorado and the University of Kansas have been men; the majority of whom she did not get along with. Detwiler Brubaker felt that these directors had lost the community aspect of choirs—focusing on cutoffs and all of the smaller details in singing.

“In that respect, I don’t have a community of likeminded graduates and colleagues that I can go back to and say, ‘Hey, what do you think of this,’ or, ‘can you come work with my choir on this?’” she says.

Nonetheless, Detwiler Brubaker has always had strong support from both her family and church. Her parents, both music teachers, were enthusiastic and affirmative of her choice to follow music. The church consistently offered a performance space; prelude music is always needed on Sunday mornings.

“The church has always supported me. They’ve never paid me, but they’ve supported me,” Detwiler Brubaker said with a big laugh and a wave of her hand. “But I’ve learned how to say no.”

Detwiler Brubaker looks at her life through the idea of a Songline, what she describes as “your life in music.”

“It refers to how music has been a thread or a line through your life,” Detwiler Brubaker explains, her face lighting up as she describes the concept. “How has it formed you, shaped you, helped you to reach out to other people? But a bigger aspect to the Songline is that it started before you, and it will keep going onto your descendants.”

Detwiler Brubaker looks at hers as a web, reaching out to people all around her. Through Women’s World Music Choir, Detwiler Brubaker’s Songline is connected to women of all cultures. As a woman, Brubaker’s Songline is connected to her female relatives; she sings the stories of her ancestors and descendants.

“When one part of the web vibrates, the whole web vibrates and we become more aware of each other. When someone has a question, they feel free to raise it, and not sit quietly, worried that they might be seen as ‘dumb,’” she said. “People begin to realize that their notes, rhythms, and movements affect someone else across the choir, and they rise to the occasion, singing more into their best self.”

Detwiler Brubaker has taught seminars on what happens when women sing. She speaks about releasing space and opening up, instead of yielding to society’s call of weakness. It’s why she calls for her choir to sing from their ovaries—to remind each woman that she carries the seeds of the next generation within her.

“When women feel safe and cared for, their natural divinity blossoms forth,” said Detwiler Brubaker. “We are not taught that we are divine beings. But before there was Christian patriarchy, there was earth-based matriarchy. In most indigenous cultures, the matriarchy was subsumed by the patriarchy when the earth-based legends were turned into Christian celebrations. Dig deeply enough and you will find this truth.”


Maggie Weaver is a senior Writing major at Goshen (Indiana) College from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Sign up to our newsletter for important updates and news!