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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 people who have like one of my cds and they say they will put it into the. They put it in the car when they're driving with the kids and it just settles them down. Yeah. And that's without it being the kid songs. Just the resonance of the instrument and the melodies


Sylvain: On a different note. I often see on the podcast that for many of us, the handpan has allowed us to bypass status and what I mean by that is that you don't need to be a certain type of person to play the handpan. And while this has largely been true historically, the handpan has had a male dominated culture. So the question is how is it navigating this handpan world as a woman?


Judith: Great question. So I know that the first time I went was going to a handpan gathering. It was to, handpangea in 2013 and I was going with Collin and I was nervous about it because like you said, what, what, what I was seeing online was primarily dread head dudes fairly young. And he ensured me, assured me that no, there were all kinds of different people and it wouldn't all be that. And while that was definitely my experience when I got there that there were a lot of different people. The other, the other thing that I noticed is that primarily who was up in front, who was, who was performing were men, although Colin brought me up to do a duet with him at that event, which was so much fun. So for me personally, it's been, I have felt like part of my, something that was there for me to do and to be, was to show up as, come on women come on, you know, come up front, be, don't, don't just be the music in the, you know, the harmonies, the vocal harmonies don't just be the kind of not, not uh, not really, uh, just like not a diminishing. But wanting to be a, you know, waving a flag to say, come on, we can play too. And there's something in recognizing there's a kind of a it seems like there's a difference, which is not to say that there aren't women who play really fast and really skillfully with all of the you know, bringing in all of the extraordinary percussive elements. It's hard. It's, it can be challenging when it occurs, like that's the ideal and if you can't play like that, then however it is that you're playing is like, it's a different arena and, so that's, that's there. It's that the difference in percussive skill levels and the kind of music that comes out of that.


Sylvain: Yeah, I've, I've noticed that because I think at its core when you share a performance piece live or recording online, it seems like it should be about sharing your art, this expression of your creativity and imagination. Um, so it should be about just sharing your art. It should not be about comparing yourself to a standard. Right? But I think we're guilty of that in the Hennepin community. Art really can't be measured. It's so subjective and it's not to be, um, necessarily even critiqued. Art is just an expression. It's there whether you like it or not, it doesn't always make sense. It doesn't have to fit into a box. Does that make sense?


Judith: Oh, absolutely. That I participated in something called the artist conference network, which is a peer, structure for empowering artists in whatever, whatever media they use and with, with a set of questions. And a process, I've been doing it, I've been in it for a number of years and part of at the heart of it is there's no critique. There is only an acknowledgement of what was your experience, you know, what did you experience as someone observing or hearing or viewing whatever the artist is sharing and then asking the artists well, what was your intention and what do you say happened with that? And it's, there's a skill actually in learning to be able to provide that kind of feedback because we're so, I mean we're wired to judge, right? Our brains are wired to. I like it. I don't like it. It's good because of this, this, this. I didn't like it because of this, this, this. It's like what our brains automatically do that they just fill up and it takes something to simply experience and then be able to share, you know what was that? What was the feeling that you got?


Sylvain: Yeah. I agree wholeheartedly with that philosophy and I also recognize that we need to be more affirming to women handpan players and give room, give space to everyone to experience that creative freedom. No, I mean it is a first-world instrument, right? It's, it's an expensive instrument. Players are mostly located in the west. Hopefully it will become more accessible, but yeah, I, I appreciate your answer and I think we always need to be aware of these dynamics, these social dynamics and uh, be able to empathize with the other, with people who are different from us.


Judith: Yeah, it's interesting. I remember when I first started playing and part of how I connected with Colin was that there was the basic how to video on youtube and I'm always struck with what he said in that which was, okay, so here's some basics, but now turn this off and just go play and see what comes out of you in your interaction and exchange with the instrument. And I would, I mean, my sense is that, that kind of freedom is what gave the, the percussive, you know, the percussive players, the ability to bring that in and then, uh, those who have, who have actual lyrical songs to sing, it allows for that to be an expression to how do you accompany yourself when you're. Does a song come out of the melodies that you create,


Sylvain: Right.


Judith: Um, or is it mood? Does it. I was playing something the other night waiting to get the call to go to the hospital for my daughter having her baby. And um, my housemate at one point said, could you take that upstairs? I know that it's giving you an outlet for the emotions you're having so little hard to hear. So you haven't just as a, as an expressive mood vehicle.


Sylvain: Yeah.


Judith: One of the things that this instrument has definitely done is I have, there are people that I know and I feel close to who are in far reaching parts of the world.


Sylvain: Yeah. Yeah. Because you've been to a lot of gatherings over the years. I think you've even helped organize some gatherings. Um, tell me a little bit about that.


Judith: Well, I've been to, I went to Panoz, I think it was the second one.


Sylvain: Wow, all the way to Australia.


Judith: Oh yeah. That was so wonderful. And two and I've been to the UK for two of them now. And HOUSA, uh, I'm part of the background and some of the front end helping Imani support, supporting Imani in what happens at HOUSA for maybe the last two or three years and have done some supporting at Pantasia in Joshua Tree.


Sylvain: Yeah, that's amazing. Without, without the hand pin, maybe it would have manifested itself in your life in a different way through a different art form. A different craft. But that's amazing, right?


Judith: It's totally amazing. Well, the other craft that I did prior to that was art quilts and wall hangings and using fabric and I thought that got me far because it took me to an event in Michigan every year, but this is so much more and also much more collaborative. Again, feeling like both the collaboration in playing with other people and the improvisation that happens in the magic of that. And then that element of how do we gather, what, you know and the, that's a whole other, a whole other conversation is the, how do we gather in what has, what was it, what is it, what's it going to be like?


Sylvain: Yeah. And what's it for? What is the purpose of gathering?


Judith: Yeah.


Sylvain: Yeah. Well that's amazing. There's a lot to unpack and reflect on here. Thank you for sharing these insights, Judith, and um, although we will wrap up for today, I hope you'll be back on the handpan podcast.


Judith: That would be. That would be a. That would warm my heart.


Sylvain: All right, take care.


Judith: Thanks. You too.


Sylvain: Alright. Before we wrap up this episode, I want to make one observation. Bare with me here. That'll make sense. So a few weeks ago here in the US, we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr Day. This was a man who played a central role in the civil rights movements of the 1960s and who stood for one race alone, the human race as symphony of brotherhood, as he called it. It reminded me that our handpan community isn't very diverse, not just from a male female perspective. As brought up during my conversation with judith, but also from an ethnic perspective, so I found it helpful to remind myself that our very own handpan art form through the steel pan, originated from a different ethnic group than mine. Now you may or may not know this, but it was African slaves of European colonists in the Caribbean who originated this art form. They had been stripped of their cultural identity and their traditional music, so they created new music using things they found laying around specifically oil drums, which they turned into steel drums. This is an amazing heritage that we should celebrate, and I'm not even mentioning the massive influence of African percussion within handpan community, but my hope is that as a handpan community we can be affirming to people of all ethnicities and share this instrument with people who are different from us. Actually, I'll link to a video of an awesome jam I had with a steel pan group from Trinidad several years ago. It was a magical moment and it was reciprocal too because as I experienced the magic of the steel pan, they experienced the Hang, so as mentioned, I'll put the video in the show notes of this episode at thehandpanpodcast.com. Also look for the drawing from Judith's dream under this episode. There you can also click merge to purchase cool stuff from the handpan podcast, which by the way helps keep this podcast ad free and you can find my just a thought blog type series at thehandpanpodcast.com as well.


Sylvain: That's it for this episode of the podcast. Thanks for listening and talk to you in the next one.


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