Most of the members of VoiceExchange were first exposed to this world of Circlesinging and improv-choral performance through workshops called Circlesongs held by Bobby McFerrin and some of his long-time collaborators. It’s only in the past three years that these week-long workshops have become an annual event, generally in mid-to-late-August.
A couple of our members had the chance to attend Circlesongs 2013 this year. We’re of course newly-inspired to make our public Circlesinging events as fun and rewarding as the time we had there—frankly, that bar is set impossibly high, but that’s what inspirations are for. But above and beyond that, here are some of the other things we learned while there:
- There is joy in holding your part: We were a large circle, some 170 of us in the large group. (That number fluctuated throughout the week.) In one of the faculty-led Circlesongs, some sections had just 1 note to sing every time the pattern looped around again. It can be a challenge to stay connected to the music and not zone out, but the other parts around the circle depend on your part, even—especially—when it’s just 1 note. It was great to have the occasion to sing our part, pitch- and time-accurate, each successive time better than the previous.
- Simple is a great way to start: Improvisers have such a temptation to be brilliant, and to be so immediately. Many times, starting with something simple gives you lots of freedom and flexibility to add interesting layers. Try trusting that the brilliance may emerge later.
- Before you decide, sing: The students were divided into 6 groups for smaller classes and break-out sessions. At one point during the week, each group was asked to present a 10-15 minute improvised performance. How do 25+ singers, many of whom are seasoned performers, work out just what to do for such a performance?!? As you might imagine, there’s potential for personality conflict there. Some groups entertained the notion that it’s important to sing together first, to build trust within the group, before discussing how the performance should unfold.
- Use your strengths: One of the groups we were in had a couple of professional dancers in it, and (after some singing!) we discussed using their talents as part of our performance. Our member in that group worried that that was somehow “cheating”—wasn’t this supposed to be about improv-singing? Being committed to the group-decision-making process, he adopted a “don’t worry, be happy” attitude and let it be. As it turned out, most groups used the unique strengths of their members. More than one group used dancing; one group had a didgeridoo!
- “Improv” doesn’t mean “it doesn’t matter”: VoiceExchange advertises that our public events are open to singers of all skill levels, from “shower-singers” to experienced professionals—and we mean it. There is no set level of musicianship that we demand from our participants. But that doesn’t mean that we want events to be un-musical. We’re there in part to help draw out and develop your musicianship. We all started at or near “zero,” so (if that’s where you think you are) we’ve been there! There are many musical games to play related to improv-choral forms that can help sharpen musical skills.
One other thing we noticed doesn’t fit neatly in a “lessons learned” bullet list. This was the first time we went with partners that we knew from back home. It changed the experience in interesting, meaningful ways to have someone there that we knew so well, to lean on when things got emotional and to celebrate with on the many occasions for celebration. We think we’re going to benefit from having multiple perspectives on the experience.
All in all, it was great to go back to “the source” and get re-charged for another great year of singing!
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