Last Saturday, over 30 members of the Swarthmore community (including President Valerie Smith) gathered in the Lang Concert Hall to listen to and sing with former member of a capella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, Dr. Ysaye Barnwell. Over the past 28 years, Dr. Barnwell has traveled to three continents to lead her workshop “Building a Vocal Community: Singing in the African American Tradition.” After a long career of teaching, composing, and acting, Dr. Barnwell now spends most of her time as a master teacher and choral clinician in African American cultural performance.
Seated in a semicircle organized by voice range, the mix of students, faculty, and community members listened attentively as Dr. Barnwell began the workshop by introducing the first of four categories: rhythm.
“If you find yourself yodeling, it’s fine,” she remarked dryly during one beginning exercise. Her humor quickly made everyone feel at ease, welcoming latecomers and encouraging participants to not be self-conscious.
Dr. Barnwell leads and teaches by ear. She first sings the parts and then asks the audience to join in, sometimes holding notes until everyone matches pitch exactly. The chant we began with had the ultimate goal of hearing melodies that no one individual is singing — each group (sopranos, altos, tenors, basses) sings the same line, but starts at different times so the notes overlap in a cascade of sound. “I don’t want you to sing… just let the sound come out,” Dr. Barnwell emphasized. After singing pieces from the categories of rhythm and chant, the group tried the more ambitious quodlibet — a piece of music containing several separate melodies. We ended the evening with a hymn, and then protest songs that Dr. Barnwell taught us how to lead, making sure we understood what changes to the song would be appropriate for certain protests and which wouldn’t. This undercurrent of activism shifted the focus off away from the beautiful music we’d been making and towards the possibility of song for community protest and action, which is an equally important part of what Dr. Barnwell teaches.
The event was organized by Emma Kates-Shaw ’16; she received half of the funding from the Music and Dance Department and the other half from a grant through the Cooper Serendipity Fund, a part of the Cooper Series which grants funding for events that could not have been planned within the timeframe necessary to apply for a full grant. Kates-Shaw has been singing in workshops with Dr. Barnwell since she was eight years old, and she was thrilled to finally be able to bring this experience to campus.
“I love sharing something that’s been so important to me with the Swarthmore community,” she commented. Kates-Shaw had been trying to bring Dr. Barnwell to campus for some years now, and was glad that “it finally lined up right” for this year.
All the participants in Saturday evening’s community sing are also, no doubt, very glad that Dr. Barnwell was able to visit campus — the confidence of the group grew with each song that Dr. Barnwell led, and the ultimate effect was, quite simply, phenomenal. Her advice helped the group learn each song, but it is also worthy to remember for everyday life: “I really want you to be aware of how the parts come together… but you must listen, you must listen.”