CircleSinging brings connection through group improvisation
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The Bay Area is a culture rich place — there’s a lot going on, but people can still feel disconnected or even lonely. Today, we meet a group of singers working to help people connect through CircleSinging — a form of group vocal improvisation
It’s a Wednesday night at a church in Berkeley, and the singer David Worm is standing on a wooden stage. He’s testing microphones while his sound engineer's daughter plays nearby. It may sound like there’s a drum kit up there, but it’s just Dave — he’s known as an expert beat-boxer, imitating the sound of percussion with his voice.
Out in the lobby, Phoebe Ackley stands behind a folding table, greeting people as they enter.
This is a monthly event called Community CircleSinging, and both Dave and Phoebe have been helping to organize them in the East Bay for more than twenty years. CircleSinging brings people together to sing in the round and improvise together.
Phoebe says, “It's something that challenges you to be in the moment. To sing in community. Be vulnerable. Trust that you have something to give to everyone.”
By 7 o’clock, about 30 people have arrived. Dave starts singing, and people take the hint, forming a circle around him and joining him in song.
“CircleSinging is — you create a repeating musical phrase,” Dave explains. “You give it to a section or to everybody and you build on that. So you create this musical motor, if you will, and then on top of that you lay harmonies, you lay syncopated things that add to the dance — to the musical path of what you're creating. You add percussive elements, words.”
The singers stand together in a circle, but the music itself also feels circular, repeating in a loop. It feels almost trancelike. Nearly every culture has some tradition of group singing, going back thousands and thousands of years. But this particular kind — CircleSinging — has more recent roots, here in the Bay Area.
It all started with the pioneering vocalist, Bobby McFerrin, who is known for the huge range of sounds that he can make using just his voice. His music can’t really be pinned down into one genre, but he’s most famous for a song that became a pop sensation in 1988: “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” It was the first a cappella song to hit number one on the Billboard charts, and it earned McFerrin three Grammy awards.
The singer David Worm first saw Bobby McFerrin perform before this song made it big. “It was sort of one of those epiphanal kind of moments," he recalled. "I realized that there's a whole lot more that I can do emotionally with my voice. And I thought, if I could sing like that, it would be amazing.”
Dave auditioned for a new vocal group that Bobby McFerrin was starting, called Voicestra — named for “an orchestra of voices,” without instruments. The idea was to explore group vocal improv, beyond what one singer could do on stage.
A few years later, Bobby wanted to take group improvisation to an even larger scale. He organized a 24-hour group improvising event at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. He invited professional singers to help him lead, and anyone could join in, taking shifts singing around the clock. “It was amazing,” Dave said. "It was a marathon. And at that time he was very popular, so the church was full of people.”
And that’s where CircleSinging was born — an improvisational art, erasing the line between audience and performer.
“I feel like the community is more important really than the music that's made,” Dave reflected. “That the music will come from, from a real dedication to community.” This goes beyond a “kumbaya” sense of togetherness. There are studies that show tangible health benefits from social connection. It’s an elusive feeling these days, and it’s at the heart of what CircleSinging is about. As Phoebe described it, “It's singing in community. It's the most accessible way because you don't have to know anything. You don't have to know the words to the songs because we're making it up the entire time.”
At these Wednesday night events in Berkeley, Dave invites participants to come to the middle of the circle and lead the group, though sometimes it takes some cajoling. The first one to step in is a young man with floppy dark hair. His song builds until he is punctuating his melodies with stomps and he’s leaping into the air. After singing together, with different people taking turns in the middle. Dave ends the last song in breath, and silence. He tells the group, “This breath, this thing that you possess, This beautiful, resonant thing that each one of us has — it's powerful. Take it.” He continues with a laugh, “Try this at home. And come back in a month. We'll see you there. Thank you so much for coming.” People linger in the church afterwards — it seems like after all this communing through singing, now they just want to talk to each other for a while.
On my way out, I stop to say goodbye to Phoebe, who is back at the table in the lobby. She says Circlesinging has made her a better listener: “When you're in this world for a while, it really starts to click. And, and then you start to hear other things, more acutely. It's a brilliant thing.”
As I leave the church, I wonder if just a few hours immersed in CirclesSnging could have had an effect on me. Because walking down Durant Avenue, it really seems like the crickets are singing to each other louder than usual.
This story aired in the February 7, 2024 episode of Crosscurrents.