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“When Did We Stop Singing?”. Vocal Improvisation and Circle Singing as a metaphor and tool for community building. Deb Hensley. www.improvox.com www.whendidwestopsinging.com. When did you stop singing?. Welcome, Introductions, Hopes and Concerns around the circle 

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when did we stop singing
“When Did We Stop Singing?”

Vocal Improvisation and Circle Singing as a metaphor and tool

for community building

deb hensley
Deb Hensley



and c oncerns

Welcome, Introductions, Hopes and Concerns around the circle 

Review: safety, confidentiality, permission to "pass," encouragement to try etc.

Vocal ensembling/improvisation as a metaphor and tool for building community: (brainstorm parallels-- v short discussion to set intention for wkshop)

Your Hopes

and Concerns

for today…

some questions to consider
Some Questions to Consider

How often do you actually sing (individually or with others)?

Do you feel free to sing in public...why or why not?

Do you think singing a natural part of human expression?

How do indigenous cultures use singing to build community?

Why has Western culture largely stopped singing in community?

Do you think singing is important to peace-building, sustainability and communities of all kinds?

learned fear of singing
Learned Fear of Singing…
  • A Western invention
  • Relentless assault of riff-raff or public “music”
  • “Expertism” at the expense of accessibility to all
  • Performance verses community based singing
  • Over-dependence on recordings
a serious silencing
A Serious Silencing

…of a basic human need

indigenous cultures sing freely
Indigenous Cultures Sing Freely
  • To establish context
  • To celebrate the hunt (songfeasts)
  • To connect and reconnect
  • To promote interdependence
  • To express place
  • To express identity
  • To indicate solidarity
  • To build social capital
indigenous cultures incorporate singing seamlessly into community
Indigenous Cultures incorporate singing seamlessly into community
  • African “Song of the Child”
  • Singing as a response to socially aberrant behavior
  • T
  • AborignalSonglines
  • Medicine man asking “when did you stop singing?”


  • Open
  • Honest
  • Voluntary
  • Intimate
  • Spontaneous
  • Innate

OOHVISI refers to singing that is accessible to anyone—alone or together

It goes beyond the formal constructs of choirs, glee clubs and performance venues

what makes a community come alive
What makes a community come alive?

OOHVISI singing models a way for communities to establish interdependence, connection and celebration, stronger rhythmic routines, emergent themes, and a defined identity





the new community

The NEW Community:

Design, Story, Orchestra, Empathy, Play, Meaning

- A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink


Big picture thinking

Out of the box thinking

Connecting patterns






Out of the box

Connecting patterns


Accessing the “Overvoice”


Out of the box

Connecting patterns


The Overvoice

The Undervoice


Out of the box

Connecting patterns


The Undervoice

the voice of another

the voice of the self

the voice of the common experience

the voice of narrative medicine

steady beat



melodic themes structure

  • interlocking parts

counter melodies repetition


tempo meter


pitch tone

Deep listening to the voice of another

Embracing silence

Compassionate and bold response

  • Spontaneous
  • Self-initiated
  • Simple or complex
  • Structured toward freedom









“The secret of life is to discover your song and the meaning of life is to sing it.”


warming up the speaking singing and body voice
Warming up the speaking, singing and body voice

"Dig a Duck”

Speaking: Your Story/Our Story --two word story around circle, get it going until it feels like one story

1/12/1/1232/1/123432/1 etc..

Call and response tones/scale patterns/names

Circle-Song (voicestra)

Round: When You Were Born

Long Tones--unison then harmonics and back to unison

Write your name with a lazer beam

rhythm and polyrhythm
The Overvoice

Rhythm and Polyrhythm

Ah maheee boo oh eeaayeee


Hearing the Melodic and Rhythmic "Overvoice"

Ahm ah ee boo” rolling round—

from Ysay Barnwell of Sweet Honey and the Rock)

Whole group sings together, then ask for volunteers to sing as a smaller group. 

Listen deeply to the many melodies created within

this one song when many people sing it together. 

Debrief discussion around these concepts: What did this teach us about community building--collective endeavor, unforeseen ideas that come forward in community, deep listening, attention, holding individual part vital, hearing the "overvoice" etc.


improvisational forms

Improvisational Forms

And what they teach us about community

  • Emerges in the moment
  • A Spontaneous Circle Song
  • Can have words or no words
  • Simple or very complex
  • Start by banishing your brain from the circle!

Group Home--2 or 3 people choose a rhythmic or melodic riff together, then the next three etc--can be harmonies or interlocking parts. Invite volunteers to improvise (2 at a time)

  • Individual Home--(ask for 5-7 volunteers...each person creates and holds their own part. One improviser sings in center of circle and ends piece)
  • Sound Wave—leader introduces a vocal pattern and passes it on…then starts another pattern once that is established down the line….as in vocal “telephone” game

Debrief: how do these vocal experiences relate to community.

What did you have to do individually and collectively to make them work?  

What was difficult/scary/fun/interesting/unifying etc...

of rhythm
…of rhythm

Clapping and Object Rhythms

Body Rhythms

Body Body Body

Sylvie with Body Rhythm

Aie Aye Mo Chi Noomba

  • One, one two one…
  • Clapping meters, body rhythms
  • Cup game
some simple songs that build community
Some Simple SONGS that build community…

Quodlibits: Swing Low/When the Saints/Coming Round the Mt.

When I breathe in I breath in peace…

Deliver me

I will believe the Truth about myself...

The Tarantulas are on the Road

Aie Aye Mo CheNoomba

Lay Down my Sword and Shield (ask for input)

Can't imagine life without...

Choo can get to feeling happy,

What to do if you can't get Pizza...what to do when it rains...

get on board
Get on Board
  • Choo can get to feelin’ happy you can get to feeling good, choo can do most anything that choo thought choo could…
  • Get on board, get on track. Get to where you’re goin’ and don’t look back…
  • Choo take a ride, choo take a ride, choo let it go…step aside…
  • Get on board….Get on track….Get on board….Get on track…

-Terri Garthwate

breathe in peace
Breathe in Peace
  • When I breathe in, I breathe in peace,

when I breathe out, I breath out love

Breathe out….breathe in… breathe out…breathe in….

when you were born
When you were born…
  • When you were born you cried, and the world rejoiced,
  • Live your life so that when you die
  • The world cries and you rejoice
spontaneous circle singing
Spontaneous Circle Singing


Invite people who are inclined, to try setting up their own voicestra and improvise with it


Keep Breathing  (As the chorus of this continues invite participants to consider a time in their life when…..and share this aloud when ready)

Long tones and goodbye....

the spontaneous voice

Voice is inherent in each of us, everyone has a VOICE.

May not ultimately be about physical singing, but YOUR VOICE is vital to the community, both as a support and a melody in itself. Pay attention to it and use it.

Identify where your VOICE lives (what is your primary means of expression?)

Thank you for considering the primal, ancestral nature of music here today and its implications for community building

a bird doesn t sing because it has an answer it sings because it has a song maya angelou
“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.” --Maya Angelou
deb hensley1
Deb Hensley