The Power in Vocal Communities

Ysaye Barnwell

Last summer, I spent a week with my friend Ysaye Barnwell in her annual workshop “Building a Vocal Community” at the Omega Institute. In this workshop singers and non-singers (like I used to be) learn to sing in the oral tradition. (No music to read. No words to read. We learn by listening and repeating.) We also learn the history of the African American experience of song. We explore African chants, Spirituals, Gospel Music, and Songs of the Civil Rights Movement. We divide ourselves into sopranos, altos, tenors, and bass. Ysaye sings all the parts, and we match it. Each group learns their part, and then we put them all together. For the non-singers, we realize that we can sing in community. The oral tradition empowers voices to come alive in connection, and awakens our primal need for community. Our voices blend together under her masterful direction. We unite as a vocal community. There is something powerful about the experience of singing together. When voices unite, people will stop and listen.

“I used think that I couldn’t sing, now I realize that I’m a co-dependent singer.”

Building a Vocal Community

At the end of the week, we performed together for an audience of a couple hundred at the retreat center. And then, something happened that was beautiful to watch, Ysaye took the audience of a couple hundred, divided them into a choir, and taught them their parts. In a short time, we all sang together. When hundreds of voices combine into one voice, magic happens … building a vocal community.

Songs Unite Us

In her TED talk, Ysaye Barnwell tells us that when we sing together, we share a common bond. Singing galvanizes community. Every group has songs that say, “This is who we are. This is what we believe.” When we sing together, people stop to listen. We sang through every major movement in America, most notably the Civil Rights Movement. We sang to show unity in what we believe. However, today, our social demonstrations and movements rarely unite in song. We are losing this ancient part of our humanity. We no longer raise our voices up together. Her TED talk encourages us to take up the power of singing again … and build vocal community.

Listen to the TED talk, and sing along…

Dr. Joel Ying, MD

Physician, Educator, Storyteller. He hosts this website for "Living the Present Moment" as a conscious journey of Body, Mind & Spirit. Holistic and integrative, his practice includes Tai Chi and Yoga, Craniosacral Therapy, Healing From the Core, Meditation. Always exploring his edges, he shares them in the blog, newsletter, courses, and online study group.

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