Using Circle Singing to Enliven Choral Creativity
By Stuart Chapman Hill and Joshua Palkki
Let’s play a quick game of word association: when you hear (or read) the word “improvisation,” what immediately comes to mind? Is it the members of an improv comedy troupe, building hilarious sketches from a single activating idea? Is it the saxophonist in a jazz combo taking her turn to “solo,” or the mandolin player in a bluegrass band stringing together “licks” during the break between the chorus and the next verse?
A New Approach in the Choral Classroom
We could be wrong, but we’re willing to guess that the first thing you think of in relationship to improvisation isn’t a traditional choral rehearsal. Choral music teachers lead students in important, powerful music-making and skill-building experiences each day—developing vocal technique, studying and interpreting texts, refining sight-singing ability, listening across the ensemble, and learning to make musical moments come alive together—but, to this point, improvisation may not exactly have been our “bread and butter.” But we’re also willing to bet that choral classrooms could easily become lively, active spaces for improvisation, as long as teachers and students have the right tools.
What could choral improvisation look like?
We look to famous singer, composer, conductor, and improviser Bobby McFerrin as a model. With his ensemble Voicestra, McFerrin has developed a technique called “circle singing” that engages singers in the co-creation of improvised, layer-based “circle songs.” This video from YouTube shows McFerrin and Voicestra at work:
Although McFerrin and the members of Voicestra are experienced professionals, and their work is outstanding, is there any reason this kind of creative practice couldn’t find its way into our choral classrooms?
The Building Blocks of Improvisation
Improvisation can be scary for musicians who haven’t experienced a tremendous amount of it; the ideas of “just making something up” or “staying in the changes” can be intimidating for those of us who are used to having all the information laid out in the score in front of us.
The great thing about circle singing is the way it uses brief, ostinato-like layers as the basic “building blocks” of improvisation, giving teachers and students just enough structure to help them know how to begin, but just enough leeway to allow them to open up and be creative.
Our session will explore the basic fundamentals and “compositional technique” of circle singing, but we’ll also focus carefully on how to take what Bobby McFerrin and Voicestra do so expertly and adapt it for “real” classrooms with “real” students. We’ve recently worked with a local high school choral program on some circle singing activities, and we’ve learned some exciting things through these “experiments” that we’re looking forward to sharing at the conference.
Students who emerged as leaders during the circle singing weren’t necessarily the same ones who typically assume leadership roles during rehearsal.
In particular, we’ve learned that students are not only excited about this “fresh take” on choral singing; they’re also quite good at it—from the newest beginner to the most seasoned veteran. Strikingly, one of the teachers with which we worked pointed out that the students who emerged as leaders during the circle singing weren’t necessarily the same ones who typically assume leadership roles during rehearsal, suggesting that incorporating practices like these might help even more students “find their voice” in the choral classroom.
We’re both novice teachers of circle singing, and we can certainly affirm that it (a) involves quite a different skill set from the one we employ when we’re in “rehearsal mode,” and (b) requires a little bit of practice before it’s completely comfortable. But we’re thrilled to imagine the ways that this creative practice could enliven choral rehearsal spaces—and the way that the benefits of this improvisational activity can “transfer” to all the other important aspects of the choral art.
We can’t wait to share what we’re learning with you, and we look forward to seeing you in Nashville! (Read a followup article on Stuart’s and Joshua’s sessions and videos of circle singing.)
About the authors:
Stuart Chapman Hill is a Ph.D. candidate in the College of Music at Michigan State University, where he studies music education and choral conducting. He is also a member of the choral faculty of the Governor’s School of North Carolina (East campus). His scholarly interests include music teacher identity, the teaching and learning of songwriting, and connections between neuroscience and music pedagogy. Stuart is a choral composer whose works are published by Hinshaw Music as well as an active guest conductor/clinician with upcoming engagements in Michigan and North Carolina.
Joshua Palkki is completing a Ph.D in music education (choral conducting cognate) at Michigan State University. He taught middle and high school choral music in Maryland and California and holds degrees from Ball State University and a master’s degree in choral conducting from Northern Arizona University. Joshua has a keen interest in LGBTQAI+ issues in music education, choral teacher education, middle school choral music, and music education and social justice. He will conduct the Nevada Middle School All-State Choir in 2016.
Stuart and Joshua will be presenting on their topic “Using Circle Singing to Enliven Choral Creativity” at the 2015 NAfME National In-Service Conference this month in Nashville, TN! Register today!
Join us for more than 300 innovative professional development sessions, nightly entertainment, extraordinary performances from across the country, a wild time at the Give a Note Extravaganza, and tons of networking opportunities with over 3,000+ other music educators! Learn more and register today: http://bit.ly/Nafville2015. And follow the hashtag #Nafville2015!
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