Barbara McAfee has loved music for as long as she can remember–her grandfather sang on the radio in Iowa, her mom was a church choir director and her big brother played in a band. But for a long time, Barbara didn’t think she pulled from the family’s musical gene pool.
Then, when Barbara was 23, someone overheard her singing when she thought she was alone. That person told a piano-playing friend about Barbara’s voice, and before long, she agreed to regularly perform with a jazz trio at a hotel in her hometown of Minneapolis, Minn. While she found joy and release through singing, it took her seven years to get over the stage fright that gripped her so tightly that she shook. The lessons she learned by asking, “Why am I so afraid?” are ideas she now brings to others.
“So many life lessons–harmony, dissonance–are present in music,” says Barbara, now 50, who marries her work as a business consultant with her passion for singing, songwriting and voice coaching. “Music is a core metaphor for how I see the world. It expresses things that are too big for words.”
It wasn’t until age 31, when her father died of pancreatic cancer, that Barbara began writing songs. She spent endless hours with him while he was ill, and was with him during his final moments.
“Something cracked open in me,” Barbara says. “I started trusting life when I looked right at death and thought, ‘You’re not that scary.'”
Now making a living as keynote singer–as opposed to a keynote speaker–she helps others push through their own fears. Businesses such as Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Wells Fargo and Best Buy hire Barbara to give musical keynotes, in which she sings about change, vitality and balance, during their business gatherings, conferences or company retreats. Her most popular keynote, “Who You Gonna Be While You Do What You Do?” is part of a presentation that inspires employees to bring more life to their work.
“I love getting people singing who think they can’t,” Barbara says. By creating a safe and nurturing atmosphere, she leads both business groups and private clients on a journey with sound. Singing in groups creates a feeling of community and forges connections, Barbara says, explaining that it also offers lessons about cooperation and balance.
People who attend Barbara’s keynotes all leave with one of her CDs, and many report back that they use her songs in their offices or professional settings. For instance, one woman from an international leadership institute played Barbara’s song “Brain Rats” during a three-day retreat. The song takes a humorous look at the negative thinking that can plague people and hold them back. “There was a serious, emotional conflict among people in the team,” says Barbara. “Because of the song they could bring more levity into the conversation. They used that language to talk about what was going on.”
Just as Barbara found her voice in her 20s, she’s using her talents to help her clients find theirs. “Music opens up places you can’t get to in any other way,” Barbara says. “That’s why people sing at funerals. Music helps illuminate the big questions and make sense of them.”
Whether you sing in your car or dance to your favorite tunes, music is good for your health. A rundown of the latest research:
- A review of 23 studies found that listening to music could decrease blood pressure, heart rate and anxiety levels.
- Blood samples taken from chorus members before and after they sang Mozart’s “Requiem” showed increased levels of immunoglobulin A and cortisol, indicating enhanced immunity, say German researchers.
- Singers surveyed in a British study reported improved lung capacity, higher energy, asthma relief, better posture and enhanced feelings of relaxation and mood.
- Doctors at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston teach stroke patients who have little or no spontaneous speech to associate melodies with words and phrases.