Every August, master vocalist and improviser Bobby McFerrin leads a week long workshop called Circlesongs. He does this with and a crew of other phenomenal vocalist-educators including Judy Vinar, Joey Blake, David Worm, Rhiannon, Christiane Karam. The name is taken from an album Bobby recorded in the ‘90s with his Voicestra. The other instructors have been members of this “voice orchestra”. The Circlesongs workshop has become internationally renowned. It draws people from all over the world who journey to Omega Institute in upstate New York, stand in a circle for seven days, listen, and sing. This summer, my mom and I joined the circle.
My mom was my first music teacher. Lessons were not really formal, although when she started expecting me to remember complex classical piano theory at age five, I rebelled. I grumbled, didn’t practice, and instead picked up the guitar a few years later. But mom and I would often sing together, in harmony. We mainly sang songs she learned as a girl at camp, sometimes songs from her days living in a Sufi commune where I was conceived, and coincidentally where Omega Institute was conceived and had its infancy.
My mom has not been playing music much the past couple decades. I think it’s one of the reasons she’s been less joyful than when I was a kid. At her core my mom is vibrant, she shines; but she hasn’t been shining much lately. I knew there was a ton I could learn from Bobby McFerrin and the other teachers to deepen my music practice, but I also wanted to go with my mom; to sing with her, bond, and see her shine. She was resistant for a couple years, but this summer she finally got on board.
At the beginning of the week when we stood in the circle, my mom’s face had a constant expression of worry — her most consistent Jewish past time — and her lips barely moved. When I put my ear near her mouth her voice was hardly audible. I kept thinking “we have a week, keep the faith.”
THE EXPERIENCE OF CIRCLESINGING
The practice of Circlesinging is hard to explain in words. Sometimes it feels like a pulsing melodic portal to another dimension. Other times it’s a chaotic cacophony limping along in an unclear direction. The first experience is the goal, but both are learning moments. For a more technical understanding I highly encourage anyone interested to find a local group who practices the form. In short it involves multiple interlocking melodic and rhythmic parts, sung in vocal sections, that create a foundation on which one or more vocalists will solo. Both the creation process and solos are generated through improvisation. The syllables sung are rarely actual words but instead are sounds that serve the feel of the specific part. Copying the specific sounds and cadence of the part given to you is both a study and a service. A high level of listening is required but you do not need to be a master singer to participate. Part of the practice is for different people to take turns composing, conducting, soloing, and rejoining the ensemble.
As an artist and composer I realized really quickly that Circlesinging is an amazing tool for composing and arranging. The practice itself helps me better tune my ears for that work. But it also struck me as a tool for building social healing, and perhaps on some level even justice. Both musical & social harmony — social justice — require a high level of listening. They also require us to show up in a way that supports the greater whole. Throughout the week many of the teachers kept asking us, “How do you listen?” I was surprised by how many different answers I heard.
Along with creating surprisingly beautiful music, there is a deep sense of community generated through Circlesinging. The experience illustrated to me that for a community to be effective each member needs to know how to drop into a role of listening, patience, and support. But it is also essential to know when your unique and individual voice is needed to further the conversation. Through the practice of composing and conducting in the circle, much is quickly revealed about what works and what doesn’t as both a creator and a leader.
Throughout the week, the group witnessed each other’s skills, energies, characters, and reflected back how they appreciated each other on breaks, over meals, in line for the bathroom. It was a real gift for me to hear how my character and vibration impacted people, that my intentions of compassion and zero tolerance for intolerance, did not need language to be palpable. We need communities to reflect us back to ourselves so we can better know who we are. I am grateful and incredibly privileged that Circlesongs gave me this experience.
EXPANDING THE VISION
At some point during the week Bobby shared how he began singing in this way. “I had a vision of me performing on a stage, alone, without any instruments. So I had to fill in the sound.” He shared that he thought it was a crazy idea but it seemed important. So he practiced two hours a day for six years and then started performing solo vocal improvisation. At his first ten minute set people laughed; they thought he was a comedian. As he developed more recognition and started playing larger rooms he realized he could use the audience as additional instruments to expand the sound.
When I hear Bobby sing alone he evokes in me a feeling of interconnected circles. His breathing is very circular as are the multiple melodic parts he holds in one voice. When he gives a part to the audience, or workshop participants, we become another interlocking circle. Often there will be a second and even a third part. These circles create ripples, so even after the song stops there is a moment of silent vibrational waves pulsing through the space.
Decades after this “crazy idea”, the initial vision has rippled. First he expanded his own practice from solo to ensemble and fine-tuned those methods. There are now countless circles around the world learning the gift of voice and community by using these methods. This example of the power of vision struck me really hard. Diligently honoring a vision — a “crazy idea” — can eventually build a dynamic community, much bigger than the single person who had the vision, bringing deep meaning to the lives of many people. As a creative with my own “crazy ideas,” this is really inspiring.
The week was no doubt transformational, as most weeks at Omega are intended to be. I rededicated myself to enjoying the daily discipline of singing practice; to welcoming the self-realizations and musical discoveries that inevitably happen as a result. Wonderful new friendships were built as we basked in a nighttime choir of crickets and tree-frogs. I was also reminded of the complexity of places like Omega, and the self/social transformation culture I was raised in. There are many beautiful aspects to it. There are also complex tensions and I have questions about access, about cultural appropriation, and about the intended audience of participants. I believe these tensions diminish the capacity for the social transformation to be as powerful, healing, and justice-building as it can be. More on that in another post.
The main transformation, though, was on my mom’s face. By the end of the week, I could pick her voice out from the group of altos and second sopranos. Her face was beaming. “We’re coming back next year, right?” she asked. I do hope so.
Bobby McFerrin and his current group Gimme5, comprised of most of the teachers at Circlesongs, will be on tour this fall. I highly recommend catching a concert. They are fantastic. The many years of love and humor they’ve shared while singing together is palpable. Check dates here.
SPECIAL THANKS TO: Jason Seigel, Arlee Leonard, and Edwin Marcelin.