Sounding at jams

I often play live music at jams. I’ve done a lot of it, actually; I’ve been improvising on my instrument for contact dancers for over 9 years, and have been an official musician at several large festivals.

Something that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is the problematic phenomenon of people singing along to my playing, or simply singing in the jam space, in a particular way. This type of singing — let’s call it sounding —  occurs fairly often, and has certain characteristics:

  • People sing very long tones in a kind of chanting or ritualistic way.
  • They don’t sing any particular words, just sing on vowel shapes (what is called “vocalizing” in classical voice technique)
  • Most of the time, this sounding is done lying on the floor, with eyes closed, in a sort of languorous state of not moving or barely moving.
  • It often becomes infectious, such that one person sounding triggers another. As more people join in, it builds in volume, and the notes tend to gravitate towards major chords.

I think it sounds similar to “om” chanting that often happens in Buddhist meditation or at the end of yoga classes (please correct me if I’m wrong). It also sounds quite a lot like Pauline Oliveros’s Tuning Score, for you music improv geeks — although quite a bit more tonal, and perhaps with some pentatonic yodeling thrown in over the top.

Singing is good

I do think singing is a really important human phenomenon, and especially in this country, not enough people sing. We tend to view singing has something that you can can’t do. (“I can’t sing.” “I’m tone-deaf.”) In Asian countries like Korea or Japan, people don’t have this attitude. Singing is like walking; yes, some people are physically incapable of it, while some people do it with particular grace or skill, but everyone can do it, and well enough.

But this is not the case in America. And so I know some people often feel like they can’t or shouldn’t sing, and feel liberated in a jam space. They feel unusually free to open their mouths and sing with the voice God or their Creator gave them, without fear of criticism or embarrassment.

And I think for many people, singing in general, and sounding in particular, is a practice with strong spiritual associations, and to the extent that contact improvisation is a spiritual or transcendent practice for them, they may find sounding to be appropriate, or even compelled.

I understand and respect these ideas. But I feel that singing in a contact jam as sounding has some problems.

Sounding is not as good

First, I feel that people who are sounding tend to be tuned into their own internal experience, to the detriment of the experience of other dancers in the room. Making sound is not like dancing in that ears can’t be closed, and sound fills a room. Any sound affects everyone in the room.

When a “sounder” closes her eyes, I feel she focuses on the feeling of singing and the sound of her own voice in her head, and doesn’t relate to what people are doing in the space or how her voice is affecting others. She doesn’t notice what I will notice with my eyes open — that one person might be getting frustrated, that other couples are looking sluggish, that a few couples have stopped dancing. Sounding often affects and dominates the space in a way that is counter-productive to dancing freely. At minimum, when done in this way (with eyes closed, lying mostly still on the floor), it isn’t a partnership with the dancing, relating to it and changing with it, but something happening parallel to it. At worst, it is something hindering it.

Second, I feel that people who sound along with live music tend to interact with the music in a way that is also a bit one-sided. They tend to sing along with the music like it’s on the radio, not realizing that their singing can change the music or make it difficult for musicians to play. Instead of engaging with the musicians in conversation — waiting, listening, responding, dialoging —  they tend to treat the music like accompaniment, or worse, background.

It’s difficult to explain the distinction. Perhaps the mere fact of these long, held tones is an example. Generally speaking, long, held tones tend to be a static but powerful object in a soundscape, fixing the music/sound on a particular anchoring point. Long tones give, generally speaking, less room for musicians to work in, and less opportunity to shape or change the music (although they can also provide a powerful foundation of support in other circumstances) — as opposed to silences, which provide musicians with the most opportunities.

And there can be a problem with sheer volume. When enough people start sounding, softer instruments are drowned out, while louder instruments may be forced to either go along with the wave or give up trying to play. (This is less of a problem for folks who have amplification.)


But I get that some people really love this as part of a contact jam, and find these moments to be special or even spiritual. So what to do about this?

Well, some of this occurred on Sunday at the NYC Underscore, as I was playing with another musician. During the Harvest, I reflected on this, and rather than discourage singing at jams altogether, I came up with some suggestions for how people might do it in a way that is a little bit more aware, connected, and sensitive. (Thank you also to Shakti Smith for our recent conversation on the subject.) Perhaps with these suggestions, people can find their way to balance their internal state awareness with an awareness of the rest of the room.

Here were my suggestions to the group during the Thanksgiving (with some later changes and additions):

1) I strongly invite you to open your eyes when making sound. Discover what is happening in the space.

2) I invite you sing softly enough that you can hear others, including entrances and exits. Discover when someone starts making sound. Discover when someone is no longer making sound.

3) Leave spaces in your singing. Allow listening. Allow things to change.

4) Consider moving as you sing, to make sure that you are relating your sound to movement, and that you are relating your sound to others in the space. [Thank you to Shakti Smith for this idea.]

5) Moderation in all things.

6) To the extent that these are rules or sound like rules, they can sometimes be broken.

And so . . .

I have never tried these ideas, but I would be interested to hear experiences of people that do. Feel free to comment on anything above in the comments below. If you would like to excerpt or use these suggestions, please credit the Contact Improvisation Blog and provide a link to this page.

3 comments for “Sounding at jams

  1. 2013/01/04 at 20:51

    Thanks for your thoughts Richard. I have encountered what I would call “toning” at a jam, and some of the potential negatives you refer to. I think that the most potentially harmful aspect is the fact that sound can fill the room, and so it can become an imposed unwanted stimulus to others. At the weekly jam I organize, we explicitly allow sounding (we also allow speaking but not chatting). Most often, the sounds that come from our dancers seem to be intermittent, and related to motion – by self or others. For example, a “swooping” sound could come out of someone who is about to swoop, is swooping, or has swooped. It also might come out of someone who has seen or felt someone else swoop, or someone who is inviting someone else to swoop. Other times, a vocal improvisation will arise – with spaces for listening and responding. Once, a Beatles song got set off by a “tune” that arose, and then the song was sung by the whole group. Sometimes the sounds rub me the wrong way, or disrupt a contact dance I am involved in, but overall I think they’ve been a plus – and food for thought and movement.

    • richard
      2013/04/08 at 04:17

      My curmudgeonly inclination is to have silence, because the risk of music/sounds at jams going badly or affecting things negatively seems so high to me. But I admit, one of my favorite jam moments ever was at the NYC Open Movement Jam (not technically a CI jam, but a lot of CI is done there), where there used to be a piano. After minutes of banging on the piano, the pianist somehow, for some reason, settled on “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You,” and in a magical moment, the whole room sang along. The whole room sang “Take my hand / and my whole life too … .” Somewhat taken with the woman I was dancing with at the time, I found the whole thing sweet, silly, a little romantic, and entirely appropriate.

  2. K.
    2012/03/12 at 15:26


    Thank you for sharing these thoughts. This is a simple quick reply to note that I have some things perhaps to add. I am soaking in these reflections today. It was wonderful to play with you. I find that we differ in opinion on the above but what I find lovely is that my feelings, intuitions, ideas on sounding by the dancers are linked to your suggestions. I do believe I approach many things in this practice from a spiritual perspective (perhaps somewhat linked to my introduction to this world of dance via Anna Halprin’s Moving Toward Life). As well though – I want to honour the pure science of body (and space) and what is happening neurologically etc to the dancer as well as musician. I find it beautiful that in talking with you I so far have the impression that we are very different in approach but that we have a lot of common ground to stand on as well as respect for other(s) sensitivities, beliefs, and endeavours. I look forward to more practice and conversation!


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