Have you ever gotten so into something that you have a hard time remembering that other people don’t know about it as much as you do? For me, that’s vocal improv. Also called circle singing, it’s a key part of my teaching and practice. But I know that just the idea of “improv” turns a lot of people off. If you’re one of them, you should know just what vocal improv really is — because far from being an awkward, forced performance or some sort of totally out-there experimentation where you’re clueless about what you’re supposed to be doing, it’s…
All are welcome in vocal improv. Nobody’s ever put on the spot, no one is forced to sing. It’s totally up to you whether you want to have a part to sing, make up a harmony, or lead a circle song yourself. No one is left behind, no matter what. The only way circle singing happens is when there is room for all. Just as in society, we can only survive together.
True confession: I once led a circle song with a partner, and was resentful throughout most of it. We were supposed to be partners, but the other woman got so excited that she ended up leading the whole song. I didn’t get a chance to share my ideas in that circle song, and to be honest, I was pretty disappointed about it. I wanted my turn!
Then I looked over at her, and I saw her face — pure joy. It was her first time ever leading a circle song, and she was so transported by the experience that she got lost in it. My disappointment instantly evaporated; I took such delight in her pleasure that I couldn’t feel bad any more.
One thing that turns many people off about improv is that it’s, well, improvised. And it does take courage to stand up and not know exactly what you’re going to do ahead of time. But the truth is, the music really does come to you, as long as you show up with a listening ear. It’s usually a random note, but if you can trust that one random note and believe that it will lead you to the next note, you’ll be amazed at what happens. It really is that simple –– and once you start to get out of your own way, you realize that the only thing that’s holding you back from giving your whole self is your own criticism, expectations, and preconceived notions.
Circle singing is all about making the people around you look good — and you can instantly tell when you’ve accomplished that, just one look at the singers’ faces tells all.
But I want to make sure you understand me when I say that generosity has to work on a foundation of equality. It’s not me being generous to you by, say, sharing my great music as an example, or by trying to save you if you hit a “wrong” note. It’s the generosity not to worry about a wrong note, whether it’s coming from me or you. It’s the generosity to hear what a singer intends to offer, whether it comes out that way or not. It’s the generosity to give yourself time to figure out what music comes to you. And it’s the generosity to trust that you can figure out your own music, you don’t need me to show you how it’s done.
Improv requires trust both in the music and in the people around you — and it’s almost always richly rewarded. The whole process is a dance with the sounds of the ethers, a willingness to expand your idea of what music is, where it begins and ends. It’s not just coming up with cool stuff to do with your voice. There’s a bigger picture.
What vocal improv isn’t? Impressive.
Seriously, that should never come into consideration. (Besides, who wants to be impressed when they can be taken to heaven instead?!) It’s certainly not showing off, and it’s not trying to become the teacher. It’s not perfect, and it’s also not totally random. Music is about the relationships, the intervals, the timing, and the mood. It becomes interesting as soon as two tones meet each other. This means that while it can be experimental, it’s not random. There is no “right” way to do it, but it does have to be connected.
Finally, if you go by Bobby’s take on it (and I do), it’s not a performance. In fact, when Bobby started circle singing, he meant it to be practice! So it’s not meant to be experienced as a performance, as a “me showing you” type of relationship. Instead, it’s us showing up, just as we are, together.