Sunday, February 1, 2009

Song Circles

The other day I talked about song circles as a way to share music with other people. Some of you might be wondering, what's a song circle? My friend Gene just wrote a great post on his blog about song circles. And that reminded me that I once wrote an article for the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals' newsletter, Folkprints on the topic. Here it is:

Last night, I did something I do almost every week. I walked into the house of someone I didn’t know, I sat down in their living room for five hours, and I sang with them. Am I a member of a strange cult? Well, not exactly, but I am addicted. My addiction has brought me to houses across Toronto for the pleasure of singing in a group. What am I addicted to? Song circles!

Song circles come in many shapes and sizes, but the basic idea is a group of people getting together to sing and share music. There are song circles all across Ontario, each with their own unique character, attended by people who want to sing and make music with others. The great thing about a song circle is, anyone can start one, they don’t have to cost money, and it’s a great way of connecting with other musicians and music lovers.

The weekly song circle I attend in Toronto was started by a group of people who had attended Mariposa in the Woods (now called “The Woods Music and Dance Camp”), and it’s been going for almost twenty years [note: now it's more than 25 years]. The format is simple. We start sometime around 8:30 pm every Friday night. We sit in a circle (or as close to a circle as we can manage), and over the course of the evening, each person in the circle has an opportunity to lead a song, request a song, pass, or “defer” (meaning they can’t think of anything at that moment, but they might want their turn later). After everyone has their turn, we take a break, during which we eat all the snacks we brought. After the break, we continue, but we dispense with taking turns, and things become a little more spontaneous.

Before the break, we announce the next few locations (members volunteer their homes), and we line up more if necessary. Attendance is completely open-- anyone can come, although there is no formal advertising besides word of mouth. You can come as often or as rarely as you like. I have been to song circles with as few as three people or as many as fifty, but the average is somewhere between twenty and thirty people.

The emphasis in this song circle is on songs with good choruses or refrains that allow everyone to sing along. Over the years we’ve sung songs from many different traditions –sea shanties, lullabies, work songs, rousing gospel numbers, old-time country songs, Caribbean songs, pop songs, songs in different languages, contemporary folk songs, and lots more.

Here are some basic elements that I think can help any song circle work:
  • Agree on the format. When you first meet, have a conversation as a group about how you’d like your song circle to operate. There are lots of options! After you’ve been meeting for a while, have another conversation to see how it’s going and find out if you need to make any adjustments.
  • Adopt a format that gives each person a turn. If I had to name one aspect that’s essential to a good song circle, this would be it. It means that each person knows they will have their time and space without having to push themselves over someone else who might be louder or more confident.
  • Foster respect and appreciation for each person’s contribution. Some singers have difficulty with pitch, rhythm, or general confidence. But you will often hear “Nice song” or “Good job” or some other encouraging response when they are done. It’s amazing to see the progression over time as their confidence begins to grow. Fostering this kind of culture within the group requires a few people to “model” the behaviour in the beginning, but over time it can become a natural part of the group.
  • Listen to each other. The most important element of making music isn’t actually creating sound. It’s listening. At the Toronto song circle, things are more oriented toward voices than instruments. Although there are often plenty of instruments, we’ve learned over time to take our cue from the person leading the song – if they begin singing a capella, we don’t automatically jump in with instruments. On the other hand, sometimes a person will say, “this is in the key of G. I’d love to hear lots of guitars.”

Meet in a comfortable space. The right space will create the right environment. Private homes are wonderful that way, but if you are choosing a public space, try to find something that’s not too large for you—you don’t want to be completely lost—and look for a space that has warmth—comfortable chairs, good lighting, and so on. Wood surfaces are good for sound and atmosphere. Cement walls and tile floors usually make for a cold space that won’t feel cozy.

Those are just some of the things that I think make for a good song circle, but I started this column by mentioning that there are many different types of song circles. I’d like to hear from you about the song circles you attend.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Gene Wilburn said...

Eve, this is a great piece! I'm so glad you found it and posted it here.

Gene

February 5, 2009 at 7:54 PM  
Blogger Eve Goldberg said...

Thanks Gene! I hope other people find it useful...

February 6, 2009 at 10:12 AM  

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