Arts & Leisure

Francois sings for the spirit every Wednesday

FRANCOIS CLEMMONS AND Joanna Colwell came up with the idea to offer singing meditation classes at Colwell’s yoga studio in Middlebury. Every Wednesday through June and July, Clemmons will sing for anyone who wants to come, sit, listen and meditate in their own way at Otter Creek Yoga. COVID immunization required and donations welcome. Independent photo/Steve James

The weather is marvelous, parties are being planned and large-scale events are happening again this summer. We have arrived at the beautiful and freeing unfolding of post-pandemic life. And yet, there’s pain, sadness, anxiety and uncertainty that lingers amid these happier times. It’s not so easy to jump back into life as we knew it before COVID took hold — things are different now.

If you’re feeling like your spirit needs a little lift, you’re in luck. Joanna Colwell, who’s been the director of Otter Creek Yoga in Middlebury for more than 25 years, just opened up the studio last week for a very special meditation class. 

What makes it so special? 

Participants sit quietly in a circle — all except one. 

The illustrious François Clemmons — who lives in Middlebury, and is a nationally renowned actor, singer, playwright and author. Many of us know him as Officer Clemmons from the children’s television series “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” or perhaps as director of the Middlebury College choir, founder of the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble or author of his recent book “Officer Clemmons: A Memoir.” 

What does Clemmons do? Why, he sings of course.

“Whatever song comes to my heart, I sing it,” he said. “When meditating there are many different methods of expression that require you to be quiet; well mine doesn’t. It wants me to cry out with all the ancestors and angels. I sing at home. I sing to myself and my plants, and I meditate — it’s my way of meditation.”

“Nobody has been in here for 14 months,” Colwell said in an interview a day after the first meditation session at her Marble Works studio last week. “It’s a way to reemerge from isolation and invite people into the space. Meditation is often thought of as being totally silent, where you have to sit in a certain way and do certain things. American yoga culture can be rigid (I’ve been guilty of it in the past)… but during the pandemic I let all of that go. Now I just want to have a nourishing experience — whatever that looks like for each person.”

The session last week only drew a few people, but Clemmons and Colwell both knew there were many more there in spirit and hope to draw more into the studio in the weeks to come. The singing meditations are scheduled for Wednesdays at 9:30 a.m. in the yoga studio through June and July.

“For us this is an experiment,” Clemmons said. “We’re just letting the spirit flow. I love the profound spontaneity.”

The idea for this came one Friday, when Colwell was bringing her longtime friend a weekly meal. 

“She comes every Friday,” Clemmons explained. “It’s like the birds of Elijah… she was feeding me and I was telling her about my singing meditation practice…She said, ‘Why don’t you come do this at the yoga center?’ I opened myself up to the universe, and sang for her. And she said, ‘Yes, yes you must come.’ And the rest, so they say, is history.”

Singing has connected many threads of Clemmons’s life. For example, it’s how he first met Fred Rogers.

“Fred heard me for the first time when I was singing during a Good Friday sermon at the Presbyterian Church we both attended,” Clemmons explained in an interview back in 2017. “He had never heard the deep feeling of love like this before, and so he asked to take me to lunch after the service… From that day on I never stopped talking and he never stopped listening.”

Singing brought 25-year-old Clemmons to New York City in 1969. In 1980, he formed and directed his own music group, the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble, which took him around the world on music tours, and eventually to Middlebury College’s Mead Chapel in the fall of 1986. By 2000, Clemmons became a full-time fixture at Middlebury College teaching courses and conducting the choir. Since retiring from the college in 2013, he’s been focusing on his writing and exploring his connection to the Divine through song.

“Something special happens when I sing,” Clemmons tried to explain with words. “There’s a vibration…” he paused, not being able to convey his meaning without breaking into song. “Precious memories, how they linger… How they ever flood my soul, Lord… 

“Something happens when I sing,” Clemmons said speaking again. “It’s so inclusive and so fulfilling. ‘Is that what I’m supposed to do?’” Clemmons asked with his palms open, gazing above. “‘Oh boy, yes!’ they say. ‘We’ve been waiting for you to understand who you are and what you have to offer.’”

There is no doubt here. Clemmons said, “I can summon the guides, the angels, the guards and the ancestors — that which has gone before, and that which is next… I’m dealing with vibration, and vocal sound — it immediately goes out and embraces everyone. My meditation stresses forgiveness. Years ago the universe said, ‘Be Kind.’ It’s important to be kind. It’s essential. You don’t kneed anything else if you’re kind.”

Tears and emotion overwhelmed Clemmons, as he remembered that vision 20 years ago. 

Through the pandemic, Clemmons suffered isolation, too.

“I’m an extrovert, Lord have mercy I’m an extrovert,” he said, tossing his hands in the sky. “Isolation was a challenge; not being able to touch or rub or squeeze; that was a challenge for me.”

Song and meditation helped, and now Clemmons wants to share his healing sounds with anyone who wants to come by the Otter Creek Yoga studio in Middlebury on a Wednesday morning. Bring your COVID vaccination cards, a donation if you’re able and show up to listen, learn and enjoy time together wrapped up in the love of the fabulous voice of François Clemmons.

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