Experienced song leaders share what they've learned about the special magic of bringing together a group of ordinary people in song.
Choral singing is a more accessible, participatory art form than many. But in most performance settings, there is still a “fourth wall” separating the people on stage singing from the people in the audience listening. Community sings tear down such walls.
Unlike a community chorus or church choir, a community sing is about ordinary people joining their friends and neighbors in a public place to sing, just for the fun of it. As one couple wrote of their first experience at a community sing sponsored by the Mid-Winter Singing Festival in Michigan, “It was a take-back-singing kind of night, even if neither of us could hold a tune.”
In recent years, organized singing events that encourage community spirit have been gaining in popularity. Betty Tisel, who formed the nonprofit Minnesota Community Sings and studies the history of community singing in the state, sees group singing as an expression of community activism. As she told Jim Walsh of MinnPost, “If we're going to draw others into the work of building a just, sustainable world, that world's got to look like a place we would also like to live in. We need joyful, local, participatory culture."
Choral organizations are taking the lead to establish that culture in many communities, but pulling off a successful community sing requires different skills and a different mindset than traditional programming. “It's different from a choir: everyone is welcome and there is no practice or performance,” says Tisel. “It’s different from a concert: there is not an audience. Everyone sings.”
To find out more about what it takes to pull off a successful community sing, we talked with five song leaders. Each leads community sings regularly and is passionate about drawing ordinary people into an experience of group singing.
You Gotta Believe
Anyone leading a community sing must be convinced that the people sitting before them, no matter their innate talent, can make beautiful music. They also need to be able to instill that confidence in the group. “It is a joy to get people who are uncomfortable, who say, ‘I can’t sing but I sure would love to,’ to be in the midst of other people and in two hours sound like a choir,” Ysaye Barnwell says. “I really believe that by the end of the evening we can sing something in six parts or eight parts.”
Like Barnwell, Nick Page approaches his community sing events with the conviction that the participants are capable of doing amazing things. The biggest doubters, he says, are middle school boys. “They will tell you that they hate to sing, can’t sing,” he says, “but when you get them to sing well, percussively, with energy, with emotion, they are kind of in awe. It is ‘Oh my goodness, we sound good!’”
The most effective song leaders present music that they love and believe in, our experts agreed. “I am not going to bring a song that I am not comfortable with,” Barnwell says. “That doesn’t give confidence to anybody in the group.” She draws the songs she teaches mostly from the African and African-American traditions, in which participation is expected. “In an African world view everybody sings,” Barnwell says. “It is not about how you sound, it is what you bring, knowing that singing together is a powerful thing and expecting that whatever you need to happen can be made to happen.
“It is more than entertainment,” she says. “We are singing because this baby has been born…there is always a reason. If people understand that, they lose their fears and inhibitions.”
Page, who studied with Barnwell, found the same participatory ethic in the world music traditions that influence his work. “In other parts of the world, if someone is playing, you are playing along or singing along or dancing along or are doing something,” he says. “That had a huge effect on me.”
Mark Growden started his musical life as an instrumentalist and came to singing as an adult. So he understands the reluctance many people feel about opening their mouths and letting it rip. “It’s easy to hide behind an instrument,” he says. “When you are singing, it is very vulnerable. It is just you, the most elemental instrument of all.”
In the community sings he leads, Growden teaches tunes he has written as well as folk songs from various cultural traditions and incorporates games, improvisation, and movement into the experience. Having the different activities helps participants to let go, he says. “They aren’t thinking, ‘Am I singing it right?’ They are just singing.”
From Listening to Harmonizing
To get a group of people to sing beautifully together, Alice Parker starts with getting them to listen. At her sings, she lines out the melody and then asks participants to listen to each other as they sing it back. “I have to sing the melody myself in a way that totally engages me,” she says. “You have to make it interesting.”
In a tune such as “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People,” Parker finds the inherent dance-like rhythm of the piece. “Usually we do it very legato, which is as dull as dishwater,” she says. “But if you look at the date, it is Renaissance. People used recorders as they sang. So if you do it like a recorder it will sound like a lilt. It will sound more modern.”
Parker expects participants to sing a line back to her as she sang it to them. If they don’t, she asks for a do over. “People catch on very quickly because I am doing voice to ear and they are doing voice back to my ear,” she says. “Once you get that sound established, then you can say, ‘All right, harmonize it.’”
Page takes a similar approach. “To find the pitch, you have to listen,” he says. “You can’t sing a pitch unless you can hear a pitch,” he says. He finds that those first moments of singing can be very awkward moments, especially for men. “You have to help them over that hurdle,” he says, “and you have about one minute to do it.”
He uses a variety of techniques to establish a comfort level among participants. “I will start with having them simply echo me in sol-me-sol. Then I might have the men go to the falsetto range right away so they realize there is a high and a low. Then I’ll start a familiar song and maybe have some plants in the group to help out.”
He also uses what he calls the “Nick Page No Fault Harmony Technique.” “You find a note that sounds good and sing that note till it doesn’t sound good anymore and find a new note,” he says. “If you sing the wrong note it is nobody’s fault.”
Parker emphasizes that good listening is the key to beautiful harmony. “If people are listening to each other they can immediately sound absolutely wonderful no matter what kind of vocal possibilities there are in the group,” she says. “If they are not listening to each other, the vibrations of their voices will cut against each other and you can get a false kind of jollity, like we are all doing a football cheer. But you are not making music.”
Some song leaders teach music completely orally. They feel that having no song sheets or musical notation of any kind helps break down barriers to group singing. “It is just me and my voice,” Barnwell says, “and them and their voices, so there is no barrier.”
Marilyn Haskell, a trained organist and church musician, came to this approach through her affiliation with Music That Makes Community—an organization that teaches church musicians and congregants how to make beautiful music without the aid of instruments—and in some cases, even without musical scores.
”I began to realize that people were not singing when I played the organ,” she says. “So I started getting off the bench and going out to the congregation and teaching them to sing something without the organ.”
The Sunday morning service she leads at St. Paul’s Chapel, part of Trinity Wall Street in New York, is entirely sung—a cappella and in harmony. To draw more people in from the surrounding neighborhood, Haskell launched a series of community sings organized around themes: love songs around Valentine’s Day, Beatles songs, and even pirate songs.
“People were amazed that they can just come and with no paper in front of them sing in harmony,” she says. “Most of the people were not those who had ever sung in harmony. They just like to sing.”
Song leaders who use song sheets still have the goal of getting people’s faces out of the page. “The page doesn’t give you any help with the sound,” Parker says, “and the sound is the basic thing. I tell people, ‘Go for the sound as if you are going for the jugular. Ignore everything else.’”
At community sings she leads, Parker prefers using songbooks with only tunes and texts and no settings. “I love the page, I live by it, but when it is used to make unmusic, it cuts me to the quick,” she says. “We are not asking people to read the page, but to sing the music.”
What Makes a Good Song Leader?
Each of these five song leaders approaches a sing differently, but they all agree that the qualities of the leader are important—just perhaps not in the way one might think. “The leader is vital to how people respond,” Haskell says. “They want the energy, they like variety, you have to be constantly on your toes.”
But you may not have to have a huge personality. “I can project big and I can pull back,” Growden says. “It is just like performing. You have to have a range and use it.”
Page agrees. “As the song leader you don’t want to be the main source of energy,” he says. “It is not God created the conductor and then God created the singers. You have to get rid of the hierarchy.” To do that, Page often brings someone from the group up to the front to help lead the first song. “Suddenly the room takes off with emotion. The cork is unscrewed. That person coming up has given everybody else permission to let out their emotion.”
Being willing to give up some control can yield amazing moments, Haskell says. At a community sing several years ago, a participant asked if she could teach the dance that went along with a particular song. “I didn’t know there was a dance, so she took over the leadership for that song,” Haskell wrote in the Trinity Wall Street blog. “It’s an exciting thing that happens in group singing…I have to be aware when the community is ready to take a song on their own. I have to step out of the leadership role.”
Parker uses what she calls her “small” voice to advantage in breaking down the walls between song leader and participants. “God knows I have no voice at all for any real singing purpose—at my advanced age it is extremely untrustworthy,” Parker says. “But in a way, a beautiful trained voice gets in the way because people will shut up and say, ‘Well, I can’t do that so I won’t sing.’ My inadequate voice spurs them on.”
In fact, the usual choral education credentials may not be required for good song leading. “Leading a sing is much closer to what a kindergarten teacher does than what a well-educated conductor does,” Parker says. “Your face has to show it, your body has to show it, your gestures have to show it. You are singing for the fun of it. You want to tap that thing that is so apparent in little kids, which is apt to be very covered up in grown ups.”
“I want to reawaken in them that sense that ‘Oh, this is a perfectly natural means of expression.’”
Kelsey Menehan is a writer, psychotherapist, and longtime choral singer based in San Francisco.
This article was adapted from The Voice, Spring 2014, a special issue devoted to community engagement.