Human Murmurations

I joined the Voice Energy Project in September, looking for an opportunity to sing a Capella harmonies, which I love. I was in a choir in my old south London neighbourhood, and when I moved to the opposite end of the city, I really missed the boost it gave me each week. There’s loads of science about how singing with other people makes us happier and less stressed – and you only have to try it yourself to know that it feels good.

Any communal singing can give you these benefits, but there’s something special about the Voice Energy Project. It’s really satisfying to sing 4-part harmonies with a small group, and the music Michaela chooses comes from all over the world, which is a fun challenge. We have a great time with beat-boxing and body percussion – I especially love this because I’m a real rhythm geek. The people in the group are wonderful, too, and it’s quite unusual in my experience to find a choir full of artsy young professionals – I immediately felt at home. The size of the group (only 12 of us) means that we get to know everyone in the choir, not only the people in our section. There are some nice social activities, too, including a karaoke night and some trips to the pub.

All of the above makes this group unique and lots of fun – but what surprised and delighted me the most was improvising. It’s not something I’ve done in a choir before, and I was a little unsure to begin with. Sure, we sound great together on the song we just learned, but we know what notes we’re supposed to be singing. Improvisation is a free-for-all! How is this going to work?

We stand in a circle, facing each other, and someone starts. She sings a few bars and then repeats on a loop while the rest of us listen and chime in with a droning low note or a bit of percussion or a counter melody. It’s the listening that is really key for improvisation, and the song keeps changing as we each try out different ideas, sometimes offering a new melody and sometimes giving support to what someone else is singing. It reminds me of a murmuration of birds, constantly changing shape but always together. Then, after a few minutes, the dynamic changes. Without anyone conducting us, it feels like it’s time to end the song. We get quieter and quieter and then, like magic, we stop as one, and the silence rings in the little chapel where we rehearse.

This synchronicity is possible with a group of singers who have only known each other for a few weeks – and I am so excited to keep practicing next term, and see how our improvisations develop when we are together for months. Come and join in: we start again in January, and you can find out more on the Voice Energy Project website here.

starling murmuration photo by Daniel Biber.