Maggie Wheeler, best known for her role as Janice Litman on the TV show Friends, united Cornellians in song during her presentation on Friday, musing on the connective power of music in forming communities.
Wheeler was the keynote speaker for the Collegiate Treble Choir Conference held over the weekend by the Cornell University Chorus.
Though Wheeler is perhaps best known for her TV roles, she emphasized that music, not just acting, has always been important in her life.
“It’s been a theme in my life that I have followed the music where it has called me to go, and it continues to call me home to my deepest self,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler described her current work with the Golden Bridge Community Choir, an organization she co-founded that encourages everyone to sing. For Wheeler, the mission of this organization aligns with her belief that music is for everyone.
“It is everyone’s birthright to sing,” she said. “Pieces of our identity live in the music that we carry and the music that we collect.”
Likewise, Wheeler encouraged the audience to sing along with her, regardless of embarrassment or perceived ability.
“There is so much to be gained from singing with other people” she said. “It’s an antidote to isolation and loneliness, medicine for the soul, it transforms the way you’re feeling, and can take you from the weight of your sorrows to a state of unbridled joy.”
Wheeler said music has always remained a dominant force in her life, and that from a young age, she has been surrounded by it. Her passion began when she attended a folk music camp at age 9 and has continued through the community choir she leads today.
Wheeler’s journey, she said, could be traced back to that first camp, where she loved the iconic experience of singing around a campfire — an experience that she said formed a community.
Later in life, Wheeler met an influential teacher at a music conference. Although she had not thought previously about teaching, she soon realized its power.
“All of my great teachers have shared that quality,” she said. “This kind of irresistible enthusiasm and a belief in the possibility of what we can create together.”
From this encounter and later reflection, she decided that teaching was her calling.
Teaching “reminded me that I could carry music on my back, and that, in any community in which I gathered, I could build the campfire that I am searching for in this life,” Wheeler said.
Similar to the way music established communities in her own life, Wheeler extended this impact of music to a global context.
In urging the audience to sing along with her, Wheeler introduced a variety of different songs from all around the world, including a welcoming song from the Aborigines, a work song from Ghana, a rally song from the civil rights movement, a love song in Zulu and a song of connection by an Australian songwriter.
“There is a real magic that happens when we sing the songs of other cultures,” she said. “When we enter into the vibrational field of the music of the world … it strengthens our global connections and helps us to understand each other, and our world needs that so much.”