Debby Watt can harmonize with a dryer.
“I love every sound. It can be dogs, it can be birds, it can be just your hands — and we start with that, we build from that,” said Watt, who leads monthly jam sessions and a University of Washington Experimental College class on circle singing, a type of improvisational singing in which Watt provides vocal structures and participants follow before breaking into harmonies and improvised riffs.
It’s a model of making music that defies traditional judgments like “good” or “bad.” Instead, every voice is considered a natural extension of the self.
Even Watt considers herself less of a singer or vocalist and more of a “resonant being.” As the most active teacher in Seattle, her circles bring up to 25 people.
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Circle singing is at the opposite end of the musical spectrum from classical, where Watt began her musical career.
“I was always delegated to sing someone’s song in a certain way, and I was always trying to change it and make things my own,” she said. “But there was no room for that.”
She began experimenting with folk, spiritual, blues, jazz and free jazz before discovering circle singing. Founded by Bobby McFerrin with the creation of his improvisational Voicestra in 1986, the form is just beginning to become popular in the Northwest. Watt has made it her mission to bring the musical form to the public.
“In the U.S. we have people that we assign as singers and we put on our headphones and listen to the professionals,” she said. “We don’t have a culture that supports people getting together under a tree and making our dinners and taking care of our babies and singing our stories.
“It connects people to people on a really dirt, ground level.”
At Watt’s last jam session at Dusty Strings Music Store and School in Fremont, about 20 people contributed to what can only be described as harmonic cacophony. Watt gave different groups in the room parts to sing and improvised on top before ceding the spotlight to someone else.
At some points the music became more rhythmic; other times it swelled and flowed. The resonance of different voices coming together buoyed moods, soothed anxieties and turned a group of strangers into a spontaneous community. After the group sang for about an hour, Watt asked participants to describe, preferably in one word, their experience.
“Better than usual.”
“It’s that authenticity of nonlanguage,” said Todd Keeling, who found circle singing through Watt’s UW class last spring. Keeling had what he called “a strange desire to sing” after struggling with stress after his stepson was assaulted by a sheriff’s deputy five years ago.
“There’s something about making noise that just seems to be beneficial when other things might not be,” he said. “Something about the voice; it comes right from your soul. After you do it, it just feels good.”
V Calvez, who also runs a Meetup.com group called “Ecstatic Singing” and hosts his own circle sings, finds the practice fulfilling and “a delicious way of being creative.”
“To me it’s one of the pinnacle experiences, to sing in community. It’s indescribable. It’s like heaven,” he said. “This experience of not being about to hear your own voice because it’s merged into a whole, to be able to look into people’s eyes and have this wordless communication. People turn it into almost like a church.”
Circle singing appeals to a broad swath of society. Young and old, professionals and artists, men and women all come to Watt’s circle sings.
“I’m the plow, I’m the fire starter, I’m going deep into the ground and I’m looking for people who want to play with me,” said Watt. “When they do, something clicks. They bring their friends, they bring their moms, they just come back.”