A quick note from Marion: Today’s post is all about Vocal Improv, but first, I want to say that Sing Portland! is here for you in what seems to be a very hard time for us all. Last week’s rehearsal was one of our biggest ever, as everyone came together to sing and heal. Everyone there felt it was an especially joyful and uplifting respite from the troubles of the world. With that in mind, I want to invite you to bring your friends and family both to any upcoming rehearsals, if you are already an SP! member, or just drop by for hugs, healing, singing, and community. We also have a Singing Party coming up on November 19th. If you would like to join us, please do. It’s completely free and open to all. All the details for upcoming rehearsals and for the party can be found here.
Now let’s talk about Vocal Improv!
It’s one of the most natural things in the world. And yet, when most people are first asked to do it, they freeze in total terror: improv singing.
Even experienced singers often tense up when it’s first suggested to them! Just the idea of standing up with people and singing without a note or lyrics sheet in front of them is enough to silence them. I mean, what do you even sing? Where the heck is it going to come from? What if you end up belting out a note, only to have it sound painfully, shockingly bad? It’s terrifying … until you actually do it.
People often start off slow and shy, but then suddenly, everything loosens up! And you get to experience one of the most beautiful feelings — a whole room of people using their voices to frame, support, and highlight yours.
Wait, what is vocal improv, actually?
Vocal improv is simply spontaneous singing. It’s often called circle singing, but you might also have heard it called improv singing, vocal improv, or scat singing. Bobby McFerrin (who you probably know from his famous song Don’t Worry, Be Happy) is often seen as the face of circle singing, since he created what he called Circlesongs on his tours, where he gave his audience different parts to sing, and then brought them all together in beautiful, totally spontaneous songs.
A few great examples of Vocal Improv in action:
This shows the whole process from start to finish, but the singing doesn’t start until about 2 minutes in, if you wat to skip ahead.
The sound isn’t great on this one, but it really shows how anyone can do this!
But at its heart, vocal improv is about community.
One of the most amazing things about circle singing is how naturally people coordinate themselves with the people around them. You can take a whole group of people who have barely even spoken to each other, and within a few minutes, they’re singing in harmony together.
Singing in this way is one of the most natural, most human things we can do — we’ve been doing it throughout history in formal and informal singing groups, choirs, community singalongs, religious ceremonies, and even chain gangs! It’s incredible how as soon as you start to get a few people together, if one of them starts singing, the others almost always join in.
As to why you should be doing it …
I always believe that you never need any other reason to sing other than that it’s fun — and with circle singing, you get fun, community, and the chance to explore your own voice. But if you’re still unconvinced and need another reason to give vocal improv a try, let me let Bobby bring it home for you:
“Improvisation involves coming into a situation without rigid expectations or preconceptions. We must keep going forward, fearful or not, and be ready for anything that comes our way. That’s how life is. Remembering that life can be full of surprises is always useful. We’re improvising all the time — it’s good to recognize that.”
— Bobby McFerrin