Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein

Imagine That!

The Amateur License, 2. The Transformative Power of Community Sings: An Interview with Reggie Harris

Community sings bring out the creative imagination in everyone.

Posted Mar 27, 2010

Recently we went to a community sing in our home town. It was a first for both us. Neither of us can sing, but that was beside the point or points, for there were many. Our first purpose was to experience singing for the fun of it, as beginners testing the waters. The second was to engage in some group culture-making, our preferred avocations being heavy on the solitary side. And the third purpose was to immerse ourselves, however briefly, in an art form that has long been relinquished to the experts, to polished amateurs and professional singers alike. It was a take-back-singing kind of night, even if neither of us could hold a tune.

Bob Blackman, producer and host of "The Folk Tradition" on our local PBS radio station, and host, too, of the Mid-Winter Singing Festival, made us and a couple hundred other folks feel right at home. Indeed, he made a strong case that raising our voices in song is something all people can-and ought-to do. (See his essay on the topic here.) Music comes not just from the radio or the iPod or the concert stage, he reminded us. It does not just come polished and near perfect, in sync and in tune, but unpolished and raw, wobbly and tone deaf. It comes from within, not just as a refined aesthetic expression, but as a heartfelt emotional experience.

Well, all of us there that night had it both ways - pitch perfect and tone deaf, expert and amateur - because we were coached in our singing by a number of professional musicians who shed their "expert" status to become "song leaders." They led us in the singing of old standards, introduced new words to well-known tunes and helped us learn newly-written songs, too. And as the audience swelled their throats, responding with enthusiasm to the singers and the songs, we - that is, Bob and I - began to wonder about the community sing as an imaginative and creative experience.

Kim and Reggie HarrisWe posed our questions to one of the song leaders, Reggie Harris. Reggie is one half of the Kim and Reggie Harris duo, New York state based singer-songwriters combining a strong folk and gospel legacy with a background in classical, jazz and pop music. Currently, Kim and Reggie have a number of CDs out on the Appleseed Recordings label, including two we have in our collection: Steal Away and Rock of Ages. This is what we learned from Reggie.

Michele: As singer-songwriters, you respond imaginatively to the musical traditions that engage you, as well as create within and at the forefront of those forms. When it comes to community sings, like the one you helped lead in East Lansing, Michigan, what's in it imaginatively and creatively for the people seated in the audience?

Reggie: I think that the community sing format engages people in several ways. Clearly, there is the physical act of breathing together..."conspiring" as it were, in a very active sense participation....vocalizing and feeling the vibrations produced by the frequencies, the rhythm and tones from within and from outside the body... stimulating the heart and the centers of healing and other responsive zones in the body. The acts of clapping, laughing and moving, doing motions with hands and arms, deepens the concentration factor with the body now being a fully engaged instrument as opposed to just being the receptor of a performance.

What I hear from some audiences members, at the end of such a session, is that they feel empowered in ways they can't always explain... that they have recalled memories of time and events, relationships or rights of passage or moments in their lives that have been lost to them in a present sense. That they are happy to have been able to extend themselves past the point of their creative musical inaction and find themselves singing more frequently in their daily lives!

For more experienced singers, we always try to have a slightly higher degree of challenge present in we offer to encourage them to try take more risk by creating harmonies... to try to feel and perform more complex rhythms or by giving more background to deepen the experience from an intellectual or cultural context!

M: In your selection of songs, you touched on what I see as the twin poles of any communal culture: tradition, on the one hand, and innovation, on the other. What is the song leader's role here?

R: I feel that the song leader is, first and foremost the "keeper of trust"... the person who is charged with helping the participants to achieve a place of comfort and safety in which the creative self and the willing learner can freely take in and explore what is being offered. This is a tricky situation at times, since no one person can understand all of the dynamics that are present or be in control of what has been brought to the event or how what is being offered is being experienced by each and every person. But, with careful planning, a good base of knowledge, experience, skill and thoughtful observation, I believe that the song leader can help to create an atmosphere that is conducive to bonding a group into a community of song... which gives real possibility for building the level of trust required for people to leave feeling that their effort has been respected and rewarded.

But the leader also should try to make the time meaningful for them as well and should always remember that they have the right to be treated with respect. It is important to remember that leaders can learn from those they are leading which makes the exchange a benefit for all!

Next day, Michele went to Reggie and Kim's singing workshop focused on African-American songs of freedom. These songs, some of which hailed from the days of the underground railroad, sustained the 20th century struggle for civil rights in this country and continue to inspire human rights concerns. Along with others in the workshop, Michele learned some authentic turns of musical phrase, quite distinctive from melodic lines in typical European-American renditions of these songs.

Michele: I was very much taken with the story Kim told in the workshop about subtle and spontaneous variations given to the song, "Over My Head", during the civil rights era. It struck me as such a powerful example of creativity within a group context, within a communal singing tradition! Can you tell it again here?

Reggie: I will recount it for Kim here... I've heard it enough time and have talked to Bernice myself as well.

Bernice Johnson was a young leader in the struggle for civil rights. A singer in her church and a growing activist, who, even as a teen, came to understand the power of song in a vibrant way! She was part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in college and a frequent song leader at marches and demonstrations and, as a member of her church in Albany GA, she was familiar with and steeped in the use of songs at services and meetings before and after protest events.

She says that at one meeting that followed a very hard day of protest, the marchers gathered back at the church to sing and rally their considerably tired spirits. They struck up a familiar song "Over My Head"... a song she had sung many times!

She was helping to lead the verses and as they came to the verse that says, "Over my Head, I see trouble in the air!" she had a revelation. Knowing that the tradition encourages a song leader to speak to the present nature of life's reality, she says " I realized in that moment, that we all KNEW we had trouble!" She knew that this verse no longer spoke to the present reality and dreams that they were working so hard to achieve, and so, in that instant knew that a word change was needed to move the group to a new place.

The verse that came out of her mouth at that moment was "Over My head...I see FREEDOM in the air!"

And the elders of the movement sang with her and sanctioned her as a new leader in the tradition.

M: We think traditions, musical and otherwise, never change, but in order to remain vital, of course, they do respond to new needs and purposes. I was also taken with Kim's remarks during the workshop about people of different ethnic backgrounds learning each other's songs with sensitivity and attention to nuance. Might community sings that include many song traditions help us imagine and create new possibilities for multi-cultural awareness and acceptance? What do you think?

R: I believe that our songs, dance and other artistic mediums are powerful devices to opening us to new experiences of each other's cultures and the differences that so often divide us. They can be, with careful consideration and some thoughtful discussion, marvelous ways to introduce us to the variety of ways that humans approach the world and express themselves in it! We need to be cognizant of the fact that, our cultural expressions and artistic practices are not just "fun things we do" but are also repositories of meaning, ideas, patterns, symbols and years of history and practice... The experience of crossing those boundaries and enjoying those interactions, as fun as they may be, must be done respectfully and with care. Particularly, we have to remember that social location, oppression, privilege and appropriation can be damaging in these exchanges if not handled well. But music has the amazing ability to bring about profound change and even without language facility, barriers can be erased and an affinity for others can be fostered.

There is much to process in Reggie's thoughtful responses to our questions. If we could summarize adequately, we'd say that community sings can and do engage people imaginatively, even creatively, and in a number of ways. Engaging our bodies as instruments of awareness and expression, we all of us stimulate the sensory apparatus of our inner imaginations. In the act of singing, we open ourselves up to a flood of thoughts, memories and associations. In the atmosphere of safety created by the skillful song leader, we may even find ourselves entertaining insights new to us or empathizing with ways of thinking and feeling that have not, hitherto, been part of our experience. Buoyed by a sense of togetherness, we may even risk change in behavior or attitude. Perhaps we sing where we never sang before. Perhaps we find emotional insight where we never understood before. Perhaps we create a new sense of ourselves in community with others whose musical - and cultural - backgrounds may be very different from our own. One thing is clear: taking part in community sings can be transformative.

Michele: Reggie, is there anything else you'd like to say about the transformative effects of community singing?
Reggie: I have watched groups of people who can barely stand the sight of each other come to the point of willingness to reach out and find a common ground because of a singing session. I have seen people who have been unresponsive and in some cases mute, come into a sense of awareness and start singing a song that they have locked inside them to the astonishment of family, friends or caretakers.

MY favorite composite comment from thousands of group singing interactions would be... maybe thousands of times is, "When I came here tonight...today... this week, I was so low and feeling down. I almost didn't come."

When you asked us to sing I said "No way!" I remember my 3rd grade teacher (mother, sister, husband, wife, music teacher, friends... etc) saying, "You can't sing.. shut up"... Don't EVER sing!!"

"But I heard people singing around me and before I knew it, my mouth was open! I can't believe how great it made me feel."

"I can't believe we all sounded so good. I am leaving here feeling like I can go back out there and make a difference in the world!"
"When is the next time this happens?"

Even as I write this, brings me to tears and makes me feel so blessed for having the talent, willingness and the opportunities to carry on this work!

That it is. Whether or not, we can sing.

© 2010 Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein; Reggie Harris

Additional links and sources:

Kim and Reggie performing "Wade in the Water" for children @ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J0I5RS2S-Ds&feature=player_embedded

Ratliff, Ben. (February 10, 2008). Shared Song, Communal Memory. New York Times
@ http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/10/arts/music/10ratli.html?_r=1&pagewante...

Learn How to Sing, Tips for Amateur Singers @ http://singinglessonssite.com/Tips_for_Amateur_Singers.html