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At the beginning of 2014 I joined a local Natural Voice Choir: Yoxvox.  This is a drop-in choir that is led at alternate sessions by Tracy or Helen.  There are usually between 20 and 35 singers ranged between twenty-something and seventy-something but mainly somewhere in the middle, with more women than men.   Many singers come very regularly, some only occasionally and it doesn’t matter because each week is a self-contained session.  There is no practising of pieces for performance, and songs are seldom so complex that they need to be learned over several weeks, and when they do we re-visit what has been learned previously and newcomers soon catch up. Everyone is only ever there because they really want to be.

The first time I went to Yoxvox on a cold January night last year, I was warmly welcomed.  Helen caught my eye immediately and came over to introduce herself to me.  Neither effusive nor overly inquisitive or expectant, she just made me feel welcome and she made me feel seen without being sized-up or judged.  

Yoxvox sessions start with a vocal and physical warm-up.  Not all participants are robust and certainly they haven’t come to do some kind of keep-fit but the warm-up like all things at Yoxvox, is voluntary. It is a chance to slough off some of the stagnation or weariness that may have accompanied us to the session at the end of the day.  But always we are invited to join in as and how we want.  The result of this freedom to opt out, is that almost no-one ever does.  We stand/sit in a large circle and after our warm up we start to sing.

The songs we sing are an eclectic mix of old and new, traditional folk songs from around the world, and more recent natural voice arrangements.  These songs we sing are either rounds or multi-part harmony songs.  The melodies are simple, short and easily learned.  We sing accapella (unaccompanied) without written music and with words on a white board that we can refer to if necessary.

Whoever is leading, teaches us the melody and then the harmonies, a phrase at a time.  After a few repetitions we start to learn the tune and so we go on.  Sometimes the teacher will help us by using hand movements to indicate timings and/or the intervals between notes.  Progress is gentle and seamless.  When we start to sound good, and we can all hear when this happens, the teacher may say something like – "That’s sounding gorgeous!"  We are never criticised, ever.  When we take a bit longer, well, then we take longer.  The atmosphere is both light and fully attentive, with everyone giving of their best and learning from one another. And we learn quickly.

Importantly, in Yoxvox we all listen and attend closely, but we nevertheless manage to sing like there’s nobody listening and feel like there’s nobody watching.  Yet, we do nevertheless feel both seen and heard in an environment that is embracing, non-judgemental and which fosters trust and a sense of unconditional regard.  No-one is laughing at us though we may laugh together – indeed we often do.  

Sometimes when we sing the pitch of the group can drop.  When this happens, Tracy or Helen will check with a pitch pipe, and may suggest that “we” have dropped a bit – never an accusation, never a suggestion that it is anything other than an unintended oversight in which we are all involved and for which no-one is to blame.  The singing is co-influential and co-creative because we all participate and contribute.  Sometimes that contribution may be a more passive one – sometimes someone stops for a bit.  They may have lost the tune and so they listen for a while and then re-join the singing.  They stop to receive what is being freely given, and then are able to actively contribute again to the music-making that we are all immersed in.

While the songs that we sing have simple melodies, once we have introduced a number of parts, the sound that we produce is many-layered and complex, often hauntingly beautiful harmony singing.  I am often astounded at the sound we create because it seems to take place so easily and yet we are an untrained group of mixed ability singers, and not all group singing is as lovely as this.  Something very special is going on here.

I think of that something special as “participatory presence”. What do I mean by participatory presence?  Well, in the context of a singing in a choir I am referring to an interaction between singers and leaders that is co-creative, mutually informing, attentive, empathetic and supportive.  I am talking about an environment in which not only is one present in the sense of being there in person, but present in the sense of being fully engaged with what is going on.  When I talk of participation I mean much more than that one opens one’s mouth to sing. By participation I mean something that is more to do with how one shows up, with the way one is rather than what one does – I’m referring therefore to a quality of being rather than of doing.  

Participatory presence is characterised by an atmosphere of trust, of generosity, of mutual respect and freedom, even of love.  The affect attached to being part of that atmosphere is one of well-being, positive energy and joy.