When Art and Wellness Combine: Meet Patricia Norton, Choral Director of Juneberry Choral Program

Every week I highlight someone in the Upper Valley who falls under the title of "Wellness Professional" and/or a Local Artist. This week I'm combining the two. [Are you a "Wellness Professional" or Local Artist? Email RVCAmy at gmail dot com to be featured here.]

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This week I'd like to introduce you to Patricia Norton, Choral director, singing teacher

Bio and History

Patricia Norton has studied piano, conducting, composition, music theory, and voice with many teachers, including Judi Vinar, Bobby McFerrin, and Alice Parker, despite being told in 1st grade to mouth the words. A graduate of Middlebury College, local choral groups and soloists have commissioned her compositions, and she publishes an occasional poem. In the fall of 2012, she founded the Juneberry Music Choral Singing School, which merged with the Upper Valley Music Centerl in July of 2016. Patricia was choir director and organist at the First Congregational Church in Thetford for 13 years, and continues to facilitate classes in literature and music with OSHER at Dartmouth and the Vermont Humanities Council. She lives in Thetford, VT, in a passive-solar home with her husband, Tom, menagerie, and piano. They greatly enjoy visits with their two children.

The Juneberry Chorus

How is singing a wellness practice?

Not only is there current research about direct wellness benefits of lowered cortisol and other stress responses, but the practice of singing teaches alignment, body awareness, and breath connection. Then there is the connection to the beauty of music, and to the emotional center. All of these things nourish and develop wellness.

How did you get to where you are now?

I've struggled with debilitating mental illness, including major depressive disorder, PTSD, "conversion syndrome" that put me in a wheelchair one summer because my legs and arms weren't responding, and suicidal thinking. Essentially, my body laid it on the line for me: "You have to learn how to take care of yourself!" That continuing journey has involved friendships, yoga, hiking, Pilates, pet therapy, and singing. I find choral singing to be a practice that engages me physically, emotionally, mentally and socially.

Did you ever have any setbacks and how did you get past them?

This question makes me laugh... when am I NOT having setbacks? I am always taking my next step from wherever I am.... so in some ways, I've stopped thinking of some changes as 'setbacks' and others as 'improvements' -- I'm just in whatever place I'm in and doing what I feel I need to do next.

What makes you unique in your field?

I think of choir directors as skilled singers. I wasn't "a girl who can sing" in elementary school, high school, or college. I failed to get roles in musicals, I failed to get into any select choirs, and I wasn't “allowed' to sing for the jazz band. During all this time, I believed singing lessons were for people who could sing. In my 30s, Jennifer Yocom helped me realize that singing is actually a learnable skill.

When did you first define yourself as an artist?

Um... maybe not reliably yet? I think of myself as a person who does what matters to me.

Do you make art for a living? If so, for how long have you been able to do that?

I am fortunate to have a partner in life, and have had many financial breaks, like not coming out of college with major debt because of a generous need-based financial aid. I also have benefited from white, American privilege and fairly inexpensive tastes. All to say my art doesn't have to pay the bills. On the other hand, I do "make art for a living" because the making is like breathing -- it's fundamental to being alive.

How much time do you spend doing art?

I sing in the shower and while gardening; I read books on vocal production and music theory for fun. I'd have to say I spend most of my time on art. Is there such a thing as an art nerd?

How do you work? Do you have a routine?

I used to be a big routine-follower and hands-on time manager. Since January this year, I've been exploring a different way of working -- being very present and letting work and practice "bloom" from inside. I'll get back to you on how that works long-term! But for the moment, at least, I am experiencing a lot of joy and effectiveness in both my work and practice.

Where do you work? What is your studio/space like?

I primarily work in the downstairs of my home with large southeast & southwest windows. I've stored most of my sheet music upstairs so I have to get off my duff and climb the stairs to get it, otherwise I could just sit at the piano and the kitchen table all day. A lot of my work now happens online, listening to other choruses, connecting with choir directors around the world to try to find effective techniques, and not least, looking at chorus organization - how are people making choruses happen, both financially and in organizational details? Setting boundaries on work is important, and harder for me to do with computer time, so I use one particular browser & color scheme/artwork for work, and another one for non-work so I can immediately tell if I'm "working".

What are your passions outside of art? What's something non-creative that you do to balance and recharge?

Our home backs up to the Union Village Dam recreation area. I love to go "woods-scrambling" - following deer trails or no trails, listening to the chipmunks & crows scold me, running if I feel like it, clambering over glacial debris. I like to watch West Wing, Firefly or Whose Line Is It Anyway while eating frozen blueberries. I take naps with our cat curled on my chest, purring.


What medium/media do you use? Why do you like it/them?

I work with music and words. I think it's a need to be deeply inside a feeling, and then share that. For a long time, looking at the nuances of words helped me be aware of what I felt; the music magnified it. Hence choral and vocal music that works with texts.

If you had only one kind of art supply to use for the rest of your life, what would it be?

My voice.

What do you do with pieces you don't like?

Stop performing them, and try to avoid the recordings!

Creation and Inspiration

What/who inspires you?

My students and chorus members. Bobby McFerrin, David Worm, Moira Smiley.

What's the best thing about being an artist? What's the worst?

  • Best: Being really aware of my feelings.
  • Worst: Being really aware of my feelings.

How do you get past a creative block?

I use Elizabeth Gilbert's idea of trusting that the ideas are out there looking for partners; all I need to do is make myself available.

What is your dream project?

A series of choral music with thought-provoking texts and varied soundscapes that's designed to be accessible to beginning adult choruses. It could be on a website which also includes ideas and resources for working with shy adult singers.

What are your fears as an artist?

That I'm not good enough to be doing what I'm doing -- that I might waste people's time.

About Art and Artists

What do people not realize about being an artist?

That it takes practice -- hours and hours of practice with attention and focus -- and that this can be a source of deep joy.

What do you admire in other artists?

I love seeing and hearing work that feels both unexpected and inevitable.

Sharing Your Art

Do you accept commissions? What is the process for working with you to create a custom piece?

I do; choruses generally contact me and we figure out the time schedule, the skill of the group, and what kind of text/idea would be appropriate.

Do you offer classes/workshops? If so, what kind and where?

The Juneberry Choral program at the Upper Valley Music Center offers Vocal Exploration classes for the raw beginner or person getting into singing, Choral Skills classes for choral singers who want to develop further as musicians, and a Community Chorus for singers who are ready to try choral music. I offer each class/rehearsal twice a week, and people come to the day & time that works best for them. That way, if someone misses class on Sunday, they can make it up on Tuesday, for example.


What is your fitness/wellness philosophy?

Use and explore what you've got today; play whenever possible.

What's your go to meal for: breakfast, snacks/sweets, lunch, dinner, beverage?

Unlike many singers, I eat dairy!

  • Breakfast: Greek yogurt & whole milk with a mix of sunflower seeds, dates, ground flax seed, coconut flakes, cinnamon.
  • Lunch: usually squash-apple soup that my husband makes in enormous batches, sometimes with a slice of turkey, followed by a handful of chocolate chips & raisins. I drink a minimum of 2 30oz thermoses of plain water or throat-coat tea daily.
  • Dinner: lots of veggies, especially dark greens, and some high-quality protein in whatever yummy dish my husband makes (or leftovers of same). Often we have a bowl of blueberries with kefir at the end of the day.

What's you favorite place to eat out in the Upper Valley? What do you usually get?

Tuckerbox spicy chicken salad, Market Table salad sampler, Yama bulgoki, Isabell's Cafe veggie scramble, The Local Buzz hummus rollup

You're trapped on 12A in West Lebanon starving and you only have $8. What do you buy to get your through your errands?

Chocolate milk.

What's your guilty pleasure (food or otherwise)?

Chocolate and escape reading.

What's something health and wellness related that you wish you'd known years ago?

How to stand in good alignment and listen to my body.

What's your favorite quote or mantra?

The question is not whether or not you'll fail, of COURSE you will! It's how you'll comfort and calm yourself and figure out a small next thing to do.

What are one or two tips you can give to help people be successful in their wellness journey?

Accept with kindness where you actually are, and figure out a very small next action. Rinse and repeat.

Where can we find you/your work?

The chorus performs on the 3rd Sunday of January and on Memorial Day; there's audience participation, it's family friendly, and there are usually moments of both beauty and laughter. Our January concert this year will be "Hunker Down and Cozy Up," and I've written a piece called "Cozy Up" which will be premiered.


Did you enjoy this interview? You might also like:

  • Last Week's Interview -
  •     Wellness: Britton Mann, Doctor of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine,
  •     Art: Joe Carton, Painter 
  • Next Week's Interview - Kelly Kendall Hawes, Owner of Body Wisdom Therapeutic Massage in Lebanon
  • Don't miss a post: Subscribe
  • More about the author, Amy Fortier: A short interview

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