Finding Your Voice with Judith Lerner

What's your heart's desire? That question is one Judith pondered all through her life. But when she encountered the handpan, the answer was clear. Listen to Judith share about the "instrument and the community and the places you'll go and the people you'll meet and the thing you'll do" in this episode.

Picture from Judith's dream:

Hang Meets Steelpan Video:

Podcast Transcription

Sylvain: Hey, it's Sylvain and this is the handpan podcast. This episode of the handpan podcast is a heartfelt conversation with my friend Judith Lerner. Judith walks us through her before and after story, which helps understand the profound impact the handpan has had in her life. She also talks about how it feels to be a woman playing the handpan in this community and she shares refreshing ideas and creative projects around the Hampton. So let's jump right in to my conversation with Judith Lerner.

Sylvain: Well Judith, thank you for being on the podcast. How are you?

Judith: I'm doing all right. How about yourself?

Sylvain: I'm great. Thanks for asking and first off, I want to congratulate you on the birth of your new grandchild. It's very exciting.

Judith: Thank you.

Sylvain: Yeah. What's his or her name?

Judith: His name is Ryan.

Sylvain: Wow.

Judith: He's cute and sweet. And adjusting very well his first week.

Sylvain: Well, welcome to the world. Ryan, can you imagine being born in a world where handpan already exist?

Judith: Oh, and he's been played to already.

Sylvain: Oh Wow. Okay.

Judith: In utero.

Sylvain: That's awesome. Well congrats. So Judith, I knew from previous conversations with you that the handpan has had a profound impact in your life. Could you please describe that before and after story? What was that like for you?

Judith: Well, let's see. So before it's very definitely a delineating event. Discovering the handpan. Definitely a delineating event. Um, so when I first discovered it was, that was a year and a half post a cancer adventure and I was on a mission to follow my yes. And I was looking for one thing online and tripped over a youtube video of a handpan instead. And in a manner of speaking it was like, well that's all they wrote, it was like, okay.

Judith: My mother had always asked me what was my heart's desire and you know, all through my life, you know, she'd just be, so what's your heart's desire? What's your heart's desire? And I would have to think about it and you know, at different times it was. I mean, when, when my kids were little, it was a, I don't know, you know, being able to go to the bathroom and close the door might be nice. And when I discovered the handpan, it was, oh, that's what, that's what heart's desire feels like this. Just pull to... Like it's a Pied Piper, like the instrument and the community and the places you'll go and the people you'll meet and the things you'll do, just opened up a whole new horizon.

Sylvain: And that question that your mom asked you, that's a profound question. That's a beautiful question.

Judith: Yeah. Yeah. Got It. It was a, you know, when she would ask it as I was growing up, you know, it never really resonated for. Yeah as profound a question as it was just like, what do you, what do you mean?

Sylvain: Right. And I think that, I mean we can go through the motions, we can just go through life without necessarily taking a pause and asking ourselves what do I want my life to be about? Or what gives me joy or how can I bless others or all these big questions. And so the answer comes sort of spontaneously. It seems, right? Kind of out of the blue.

Judith: It does. And then also there's, like I said, I was on a mission to follow my yes.

Sylvain: And what do you mean by that?

Judith: Well, for one thing it means recognizing the yes, when it hits, when it calls you, like you sit before something and it's like, do I want to do this? Don't I want to do this? Is this. I mean I think the Japanese woman who is all over everything now with the. Does it bring you joy? The tidying, that whole tidying thing is like does it. I guess her question is does it bring you joy? And for me it was, is this a yes? And in part you actually, I found I actually had to tune myself to well how do I know? How do I know if it's a yes because my head goes off in a million directions with reasons and trying to find justifications and things like that. And so, I know, one thing that I often do is I use a pendulum. It goes in one direction for a yes goes another direction for a no. And sometimes if I just want to know yes or no, I hold, I hold the pendulum and it tells me. And then it's like, so that's one way. But the internal like, is this a, does this delight me? Do I get goosebumps at the thought of it? That kind of. Yes.

Sylvain: And so with the handpan, it sounds like you didn't need that pendulum. You just knew right away.

Judith: It was so striking. It was so immediate. I mean, even now as you say it, the goosebumps, chills or up and down my body. It's like, yes,

Judith: It, it lights you up, the very thought of it lights you up.

Sylvain: So it's being more in tune with our reactions to maybe our environment and things we come across. Being more self aware maybe. Yes. Wow, that's beautiful.

Judith: Yeah. On, uh, and, and recognizing it on a, somehow on a physical level rather than just an intellectual or I mean that the emotion actually has a feeling to it and being able to recognize that feeling.

Sylvain: So what is the feeling? I mean, I guess you described it, it's goosebumps.

Judith: Yeah.

Sylvain: Yeah, yeah, that makes sense. That makes sense. For me, it was when I first discovered the Hang in 2005 the following night I dreamed all night of the sound of the Hang and I, I just couldn't shake that feeling and so first thing in the morning when I woke up the next day, I just knew I had to pursue this because it had deeply impacted me in a strange way, you know, like goosebumps. That dream was, it was a feeling, not just intellectual, but an actual impression on my heart. I'm a strong impression.

Judith: Yes. It's interesting back. So like I said, about a year and a half before I had had a cancer adventure and I wrote down a dream that I had at some point, and it might've been, I'm not, I don't remember where it was, but there was this. I drew a picture of an instrument that you played with your hands. It was kind of like, I thought it was maybe like a guitar or something, but it had a drum kind of body on it so that you could get, you got notes, you've got sound, but you were. But it was kind of like a drum, but it looked like a woman lying down with a belly. That was the instrument.

Sylvain: Wow.

Judith: And I came across the sketch of that recently and thought, ah, it was the handpan.

Sylvain: Now, that's amazing.

Judith: Yeah.

Sylvain: And, and when, when was that? What year was that?

Judith: Uh, I don't remember. I didn't remember the date. I did make a copy of the, of the page that I wrote it on, but I don't know that there was a date on it.

Sylvain: Yeah. And when you had that dream, you didn't know that the Hang existed or that hanpans existed?

Sylvain: No, I didn't know that it existed. And the note that I wrote about it was, um, maybe I should get some kind of, um, maybe somebody could make it. Maybe I could find, maybe I could find a. I think I actually spoke to a luthier who makes guitars to see about it and they were like, I don't know how that works.

Sylvain: Wow. If you are able to find that drawing and you're willing to share it, I'd love to put it in the show notes of this episode. Because this is surreal.

Judith: Yeah. I actually I can send it to you and then in the text message.

Sylvain: Cool. Wow, that's, that's quite a story. So I want to ask you a question that I've heard you use before, which is where has the handpan taken you? Not just geographically, although I'd love to hear that, but also in a broader way. What have been some of the highlights of your artistic journey with the handpan?

Judith: That is a great question. The artistic journey. My head just went in like five different directions. So one of the main things that happened and so I played the violin classically trained from the time I was nine and played in orchestras and was first chair through junior high and high school. Didn't have one, so it was in a... Anyway, I played the violin, but it never was my voice, so one of the, one of the journeys the handpan has taken me on is that it feels like it gives me an outlet for expressing emotions and feelings and like expressing my song, not necessarily with words, the songs of my heart, the melodies of my heart, the melodies of my being it, it allows me a, an avenue for expressing in a way that the violin certainly didn't.

Sylvain: Do you find yourself drawn to certain scales or moods?

Judith: Yeah, actually the, the Kurd scale in any key.

Sylvain: The magic scale.

Judith: Yeah. Although the, the keys are different. Um, so mixolydian because it allows for like more traditional songs that are all that already exist. Kids songs for example. Um, that scale plays. When I first started playing, I was introduced to and I had access to some of the more exotic scales and could not find my way into them. Um, I remember the person who introduced me and who I was so fortunate to have introduced me was Colin. I connected with him really early on and he, he shared this story about that the scales are like dating and some scales you sit down with and you can just, you know, from the very get go all is well, smooth, easy. Others you have to kind of take them out court them a little bit, take them to dinner, call them, talk with them, but then you get the hang of it and then some you don't know from one time to the next if you all will, they hang up. Will they play with you? Will they not play with you? And the Hijaz scales were like that for me at the beginning was like, I can't even. I can't even remember your phone number.

Sylvain: It's such a fun analogy.

Judith: It is.

Sylvain: Colin is a really good storyteller.

Judith: He is. And then a couple years ago I was introduced to a Romanian Hijaz and all of a sudden it was like, oh, wait a minute. This is. This is my heritage. This scale is, you know, my background. The scale is in my blood, but I couldn't play it at first. It's a melancholy.

Sylvain: So you alluded to playing handpans for, for kids. I want to talk about that for a sec because I don't know that it's something that's being done much. Have you spent much time thinking about or playing handpan music for children? Where does that like?

Judith: I have been thinking about it for awhile and playing some. Not Having a whole lot of experience of playing for kids with it though I did bring one into a, a music for a group of, you know, where the kids and the parents are together and doing music. I went into one and brought it so the f Mixolydian plays every children's song from Frère Jacques to Itsy bitsy spider to get. It's just that it's that key. And I initially had this idea of like weaving in, in between a children's melody and then look where else you could go with these notes and then coming back into another children's melody. And so I have been playing with that myself and with some other friends who play other instruments to see what we do, but every, every time it's spontaneous. So there's, you know, it takes a lot of listening to go, oh wait a minute. Which, which children's Song Are you playing now?

Sylvain: Right.

Judith: Uh, what I have done is when I've been performing, sometimes I'll bring it, if I had that pan with me, I will start playing that and to older audiences, people come up afterwards with crying because it took them back, it takes them back to the childhood stuff. And the other day I was actually listening to an old Pete seeger concert and I was kind of thinking about that in terms of, okay, so what would I want to do? Aside from a children's, you know, an album or something, but what kind of structure would that be? And is it to have the kids sing along? And so listening to how Pete seeger would just go through a whole string of songs that I, being one of the kids in his audience at that time, we knew them and we'd sing them. And so now I'm kind of thinking, Huh, is that direction I go, or is it simply that I'm gonna be the one bringing music to Ryan and continue to do so with Colin's kids that's just playing for them and singing with them.

Sylvain: Yeah. That would be such a creative project that would be such a, such a refreshing project around the handpan. Um, I really hope you do it. It would be a ton of fun because kids are mean that childlike innocence. They're the best audience.

Judith: Yes.

Sylvain: I've only had a couple of opportunities to play for children. Um, one is actually kind of a funny anecdote. When I moved from France to the US in 2011, I had a flight from Paris to Chicago and our airplane got struck by lightening in Paris. Yeah, we were all fine. Um, it hadn't taken off yet, but we were stranded in Paris for a couple of days. And then actually stranded in Istanbul for a day, which I wrote a piece in during that trip called stranded in Istanbul anyways, but you know when you're stranded it in airports, you have to wait a long time to get rebooked for another flight. And there were a lot of families with younger children and out of complete boredom of having to wait for so long, I pulled out my Hang and started playing and one mom after the other rolled in with their, with their stroller and their babies to make them sleep. And I had this kind of surreal moment where I was playing for babies in strollers.

Judith: Yes. That is a wonderful story. I have a other no other peop