The Transformative Power of Group Vocal Improvisation
by Elena Mariakhina
When vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Renée Benmeleh was three years old, her grandmother gave her a cassette of children’s music called Cri-Cri: El Grillito Cantor, which launched her love for music. Since then, music has always been within her. During difficult times, singing became her refuge, “a place of safety” where she could reconnect with inner peace.
While studying at Mills College, Benmeleh became interested in dissonant, atonal, and polyrhythmic music. After years of participation is Molly Holm’s vocal improvisation ensemble, Flux, Benmeleh led a vocal improvisation class for the first time in 2011. Today, she facilitates drum circles, multi-age instrumental music workshops, and Berkeley Vocal Improv.
During monthly vocal improv workshops at Subterranean Arthouse in Berkeley, California, she leads others to open up an inner vibration and start sounding with their hearts. Benmeleh explains that group vocal improvisation can have a great effect on one’s emotional balance, feelings about life, and relationships with others. It can provide a release for difficult emotional energy in the body. She says that in our “emotionally contracted” culture, people don’t usually have a chance in their everyday life to express themselves with the full range of emotions, drama, and intensity.
“If we are carrying pain inside, our tendency is to hide it instead of vocally releasing it as we might have when we were children. For example, any song can start with a sound like ‘aaaa.’ It may not necessarily be considered musical, but it’s an incredible healing process to make a sound and to let it reverberate in your body. It helps to move the energy of constriction,” says Benmeleh.
She says that singing and improvisation can be used to shift from one emotional state to another. “You can improvise from a place of pain, if that’s what’s happening for you in that moment,” she says. “You can use the singing as a way to bring up that pain, feel it, and facilitate healing by simply being present for it. Start to howl, cry it out, meow, bark, whine, or moan—whatever it is. Use your voice to access silly nonsensical sounds to encourage more playfulness and silliness inside yourself. All of those sounds can be aspects of improvisation. They can be the beginning of a road towards an incredible expression, and depending on how far you take it, it can become a composition.”
While improvising in a group, Benmeleh’s students have a chance to connect to each other while singing. To make students connect more deeply, she uses a combination of vocal games, rhythm, and tonal pitch matching exercises to create the atmosphere of playfulness, as well as facilitate musical learning. Each participant who is willing to take the risk to express themselves becomes part of the creation of safety, possibility, and inspiration for the rest of the group. “We sing together because we have the opportunity to touch each other deeply and offer the gift of witnessing,” she says.
Having studied with several original members of Bobby McFerrin’s Voicestra, Benmeleh uses the Circle Singing model brought forth by McFerrin: a layering of melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. From that foundation, she sets the stage for each individual’s personal expression in the circle.
“It can be a funny way of communicating,” Benmeleh explains, “Most of the time, we are using gibberish—made-up language. This allows the freedom to communicate with each other without having to engage the aspect of our brain that searches for language, thus allowing for more freedom to focus on the sounds and emotions. Plus, it’s super fun!”
This allows students to feel more relaxed and open to connecting with their voice. Benmeleh has found that group vocal improvisation helps people listen to each other, make space for each other, and access more honesty in their verbal communications in everyday life as a result of accessing honesty within themselves.
She says singing is one of the most useful paths to inner freedom, comparing it to flying: “when one is willing to open their inner wings.” When people improvise together, release their emotions, and share their feelings in a playful way, they have the ability to create beauty in the moment, learn the art of living on the edge, and become more truly connected to each other.