Singing Circle: Sharing Song With Our Shelter Guests by Holly Phares

Singing Circle: Sharing Song With Our Shelter Guests by Holly Phares
In the recent last four months, I embarked on an experiment to bring music into the lives of our shelter guests. My passion for gathering people together to sing has always been my underlying mission in all I do in my life’s work. Be it directing choirs in church, public school, private school, professional children’s choir, summer choral music programs, choral workshops, Circle Song gatherings (ala Bobby McFerrin’s Circle Singing design) and in the last 5 years, my own Healing Presence Singers and my choir of folks living with Parkinson’s disease, the Parkinsingers choir.
The common factor that has always inspired my desire to continue to create as MANY opportunities in this world for people to come together in song has been the gift of witnessing lives transformed. Through singing in community I have witnessed and continue to be in awe of the power of singing in community for deep listening, Healing not just emotional or spiritual ones but actual physical maladies.
From my first day as Music Director (initially as Artist in Residence) at Old First, I was intrigued by the complex and very interesting gentlemen living in our winter shelter and was hungry to learn more about the lives of those who are experiencing homelessness and how shelters actually support and aid this population through their experiences of living on the streets.
One thing I felt was that perhaps they needed activities and experiences that would lift them out of the daily cycle of survival and despair, hopelessness, shame, and often times mental illness and addiction.
I knew of an incredible colleague’s recently formed street choir down in Dallas, The Dallas Street Choir, and had just discovered him and his choir at about the same time I started at Old First. In the back of my mind, I kept dreaming about how I could bring that energy to our shelter to start with, and then eventually spread that energy into the city to create our very own Philly Street Choir, enhancing the lives of any and all souls who felt led to sing together to enrich their incredibly challenging lives.
Thus was born our Singing Circle.
I had been trying to discern what I could call this “offering“  to entice as many people as possible to try it out, and kept coming back to the Idea of “circle”.
The concept of gathering in circles is not a new one. In many cultures when a circle is “called” in the community, it is usually to gather together to listen to one another and discuss something of concern and discern next best steps. Another impetus for calling a circle is out of concern for someone in the community who either needs help or guidance. The beauty of a circle is that there are no sides. Everyone is facing each other and can truly listen m
fully to anyone else with in that circle.  And then, of course, are the circles formed to sing and dance and CELEBRATE!
Gratefully, with the support of Old First, Bethesda, and coordinating closely with Rachel at Bethesda and our wonderful Outreach Coordinator, Alesha, I was able to offer five Singing Circles since January.
After visiting with the shelter guests either before or after a few Thursday choir rehearsals to simply introduce myself, share my “dream” of creating a city-wide street choir, and invite them to join in the first Singing Circle,  I then made fliers that were posted in the shelter and that Rachel shared with the Bethesda staff, and announced a communitywide invitation to join the circle with us by first joining the shelter guests for dinner to simply share a meal and get to know them before going upstairs for an hour to sing together.
Each Singing Circle included anywhere from 4 to 7  Old First and Healing Presence Singers members, and anywhere from 2 to 6 shelter guests. In each and every one, there was a wonderful sense of unity and love. We would sing songs ranging from call and response social justice songs, traditional hymns, Gospel songs & Spirituals to the Beatles.  The songs ranged from unison up to 3 part harmony as well.  Oftentimes,  some of the guests would be so inspired by one of the songs we sang that they would ask if they could share their favorite song. That was always so exciting to me, as it was one of my underlying objectives to give them a safe place to share their favorite music and be “heard”.
I was very moved when a couple times one of the guests, who was rather enthusiastic but sang incredibly out of tune, and every single person in the circle was leaning towards him and listening intently to try to echo what he was teaching us. The important part was not that the notes needed to be perfect, but that he felt valued and that his voice and what he had to say had value. It also gave everyone else the opportunity to witness the deep listening and compassion necessary to create a healthy and supportive community.
One of the more regular and enthusiastic members, Raphael, at the end of our final Singing Circle for the season, gave me a huge hug & thanked me for creating these singing gatherings, as he has found he sings every day now and it brings him such deep comfort and healing. Additionally, as he is studying to become a counselor, he told me he will be using it with his groups to enhance their healing. Just the look on his face as he shared this with me filled my heart beyond description. I knew at that very moment that this needs to continue, no matter how much extra work it takes to organize and gather even a small group of brave singing souls!
There are many things brewing on the horizon for next season, especially in the fall surrounding the expansion into a city-wide street choir, so stay tuned…..and please consider joining the circle with us in the fall when we resume!!