Joy and harmony at a Point Pinole song circle: ‘Just come and we’ll see what we can create together.’
on November 6, 2023
Saturday’s bleak forecast in Richmond may have meant fewer parkgoers than usual at Point Pinole, but the dreary skies didn’t seem to faze Eileen Hazel and her band of 14 vocalists. Bundled in their winter coats, they carried on with the “Sing with the Season” event.
The crew came prepared. Many brought chairs, some brought snacks, and some sat on picnic blankets. When everyone found their place, Hazel began what would be her first time leading a song circle, a non-formal, community singing style said to have ancient origins.
“The leading of song circles is sort of a newer expression of music for me,” Hazel said.
Hazel has considered herself a musician all her life, but only discovered song circles around half a year ago and fell in love with the concept shortly after attending her first few sessions. Since then she has been receiving circle leading training to host her own gatherings. Hazel believes one of the most powerful ways for humans to connect is through song, and she felt especially connected to her community when they would sing together.
“I experienced a sense of joy and community and just really felt inspired,” Hazel said.
While the exact origins of song circles are unknown, the earliest recorded performances of communal singing date to biblical times, according to the late Lawrence University music professor John Koopman. The modern version of the art form has been attributed to American jazz singer Bobby McFerrin.
McFerrin pioneered the a capella music scene with his 1997 studio album “Circlesongs,” characterized by improvisational techniques and polyphony, a musical feature in which members of the group sing different melodies to create harmony. Drawing on McFerrin’s foundation, Hazel says she wants her song circles to not only be a place of musical exploration, but also one of refuge, where participants can find peace in connecting with others and nature.
Song circles in the Bay Area are nothing new. Facebook features groups from San Francisco and the East Bay. McFerrin, who now lives in San Francisco, also hosts song circle events in Berkeley most Monday afternoons at Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, where he sometimes is joined by other renowned Bay Area musicians.
Adhering to song circle traditions of minimal to no accompaniment, Hazel handed shakers to four of the 14 participants at Point Pinole. Often she would establish a beat with a shamanic hand drum, but the performances never swayed from being predominantly vocal. Most of the songs were tributes to some aspect of nature, including water and the seasons. There was no written music given to participants, and Hazel directed the group based on real-time assessments she conducted of peoples’ skill levels.
“It’s kind of an experiment,” Hazel said, “You don’t have to be a great singer or anything like that, just come and we’ll see what we can create together.”
Like many of the participants, psychologist Anna Weisberg lacks a formal music background, but that didn’t deter her from taking on some of the bolder soprano melodies. She says she’s always loved music, playfully adding that she watched “American Idol” for 17 years and would want to “reincarnate as a singer.” But for Weisberg, choosing to participate in song circles goes deeper than simply enjoyment of music.
“Doing things like this feels like church to me,” Weisberg said. “It connects me to what’s bigger than me. It speaks to my spirit.”
Passing the baton
Around an hour into the event, Hazel decided to relocate from the grasslands adjacent to the parking lot where the group had settled, and they slowly made their way deeper into the woods. It was quieter there. Besides the occasional jingling of dog leashes, one could only hear the rustling of eucalyptus leaves as the unrelenting breeze swept through. Music student Fei Hu said she appreciated the opportunity to have a change of singing scenery, and that she believes outdoor song circles can be a way to destress.
“I think the idea is connective and meditative,” Hu said.
After a few songs, Hazel passed the baton to Meg Yardley, a social worker with a music background. Yardley led the group into harmony, singing her original song, “Draw Down the Sun,” which she released in 2018 as a tribute to the summer solstice. Shortly after the song ended, sun rays pierced the gray sky, and the group erupted in hearty laughter, joking that they had sung the gloomy clouds away.
Yardley has led small song circles in the past. She said the pandemic was particularly difficult for her, as she had been trying to get more into communal singing but it was considered unsafe to do so. Now that she can seize the opportunity, she hopes to be more active in song circles.
“Being here singing in this beautiful setting and the trees, I feel more alive,” Yardley said.
As the group began getting the hang of the process, Hazel introduced more parts to each song, creating a vocal layered effect. Sometimes singers would miss their cues, but there was no penalty. Part of the beauty of song circles, Hazel said, is the emphasis on community over skill.
Software engineer Oliver Crow described the relief of knowing you aren’t being judged as you sing, saying it allows people to focus on just enjoying the activity.
“It’s so freeing to not be attached to that anxiety,” Crow said.
Batya Gelfand arrived during the latter half of the performances, hauling a large pail full of pineapple guavas from her garden. The singers passed the pail around, noting the fruits’ sweet fragrance as they ate. Gelfand says she enjoys “sharing the harvest” as a way to forge communal bonds.
Gelfand does not carry an extensive musical background, but said she’s been exposed to the world of musical performance as a Jewish person who grew up attending worship services. She believes singing as a group can promote “spiritual sustenance,” a concept she believes is vital for healthy communities and individuals.
“It’s powerful to be in the presence of other people who both love to sing and honor the Earth. And doing that in community is inspirational and encouraging at a time when there’s so much war and suffering in the world,” Gelfand said.
After two hours of singing, Hazel directed the group in their last song, “How Could Anyone,” written by Libby Roderick, from 1988. This time Hazel broke the circle and encouraged everyone to walk around, singing to each other as they did. Participants beamed as they sang to each other “how deeply you’re connected to my soul.” Weisberg could feel herself becoming emotional, and Hazel reassured everyone that all emotions were welcome. This was a safe space.
“Crying is OK,” Hazel said.
(This story was updated to correct the name and writer of the last song the group sang.)
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