Building Strong Communities through Communal Singing: Music as Resistance and Resilience

A hand holds a small lit sparkler light
Shared music has always held the power of community resilience and trauma healing

This week we were struck by images coming out of Ukraine of the National Ukraine Philharmonic performing despite, or in spite of, recent Russian missile strikes to the power grid within a context of nearly a year of war and trauma on Ukrainian soil. Performances were capped at 160 guests– the number of audience members who could fit in a bomb shelter. Since Russia first invaded Ukraine, this isn’t the first time that music has been used in protest, solidarity, and resilience- another example is the Ukraine Freedom Orchestra. The band plays on. 

We’re also remembering the collective anthem of protest during the Civil Rights Movement through the song, We Shall Overcome, sung here by Mahalia Jackson. In fact, during the time of slavery, enslaved people sang together while working in the fields, creatively innovating a genre we now refer to as Negro Spirituals, or songs of hope, resistance, and resilience. In the face of sorrow, trauma, and pain, music is often the seeds and roots of persistence and social change.

At Treehouse Learning, we honor the power of music, particularly singing in groups, to build strong communities and even heal collective trauma. Singing together in a group is powerful and joyful. Many spiritual traditions have long incorporated group singing as a form of worship, and Indigenous people around the world hold ceremonies and celebrations based on drumming, dancing, and singing. 

Beginning Our Day In Community, Singing

We are thrilled to celebrate as a community that after a 6-year hiatus, Big Circle has also returned to Treehouse Learning! This unique, community-building ritual encompasses our program-wide values of relationship-based community via movement, music, and whole-person integration. We’re honored to witness the positive impact we began to notice within days of re-integrating Big Circle back into our community, an impact that has only continued to build momentum.

As early childhood educators, we are beneficially guided by the social dynamics of shared musical experiences, where children of all ages learn from one another. Music is also the delivery method for all sorts of learning that we typically associate with academics, such as math, language, and social concepts. For this reason, we begin our day at Treehouse Learning each morning by gathering in the Big Room for Big Circle to greet the day and one another, in song. Teachers, staff, children and even parents join us in this beloved ritual that truly makes Treehouse Learning unique.

We use Big Circle as a vehicle to deliver quality early childhood experiences and the essence of our curriculum at Treehouse Learning. Whole person development and integration readily and spontaneously occur through songs, music, and joyful movement. Quite literally, our commitment to whole-person learning through social-emotional literacy and movement-based brain-integration techniques through Brain Gym are expressed through the music shared at Big Circle. At Treehouse Learning, we are also songwriters creating a series of simple and engaging songs to practice the Brain Gym skills that activate all the parts of our brains to prepare us for receptive, creative, and joyful learning.

Light & Love Celebration: A Community Sing-Along

During three evenings in early December, Treehouse Learning hosts our annual Light & Love Celebration, a winter singing and shared music tradition that has persisted nearly since our founding, 25 years ago, where we use songs to learn about holidays and cultures all over the world and interweaving objectives of gratitude, celebration, rhythmic patterns, storytelling and more.

In previous years, Treehouse Learning has hosted this event as a performance at the Lafayette Public Library for our oldest preschool and kindergarten children, with our youngest group of preschool-age children performing in the Big Room. This year, we positively embraced a scheduling conflict with the Library to host Light & Love in-house, Big Circle style, where the emphasis shifted towards community and togetherness via a participatory sing-along.  

In prior years, children stood on risers facing an audience of parents, grandparents, extended families, and lots of cameras filming them! Children were in the spotlight, performing, with lots of eyes on them. Whether by age and development or temperament, some children truly thrive and shine when given the opportunity to sing in front of others, and others struggle. As educators and teachers, we seek to navigate fostering an inclusive environment that appropriately aligns expectations and intentions in order to be able to meet each child where they are at. 

Though Light & Love originated as a performance, our intentional focus on supporting whole-person development and integration and objectives for community-building has guided our responsive shift towards experimenting with Light & Love as a participation-based sing-along in the style of Big Circle where we all sing, move, dance and play along together. Because we also value building intergenerational relationships, we encourage siblings and grandparents to attend as well. 

In thinking about what is most developmentally appropriate for young children, we also recognize that performance can put a tremendous amount of pressure on young children to sing in front of an audience. Plus, it creates an unnecessary and artificial separation of performers/audience, as opposed to a unified group of “us” where all belong and all are welcome. 

Big Circle as a Model for Building Community

We’ve chosen to replicate the model and format of Big Circle to bring additional consistency to this important community-building routine for our children, as well as give families an opportunity to participate and experience Big Circle, especially those who might not be able to make our 8:45 am daily routine. Big Circle is one of the ways that we build a sense of belonging to a community, as children learn that they are part of a larger community that extends beyond themselves. In fact, our closing song, to the tune of This Little Light of Mine, sings over each of our classrooms by name. We are all part of the Treehouse Learning Family, no matter what classroom we’re part of!

Singing, and Creating Brave Spaces for Positive Change in the World

Finally, a quick note about the singing part. Children never judge us for how well we sing. Children simply notice that we sing.  They simply want to share joy with us more than anything else on the planet! We also recognize that there is a bit of vulnerability in the singing-in-front-of-others part! We acknowledge this!  We’re also going to pull the Brene Brown/Optimal Childhood Development card and invite everyone into the kind of brave risk that serves to model vulnerability, creativity, and resilience for our children. If you’ve ever sung Happy Birthday, you can sing. 

Additionally, moving along with, experiencing, and enjoying music is by nature inclusive and accessible to all. Musical appreciation is fully independent of musical ability.  Also, because music naturally encompasses so many of our senses and parts of our bodies, we can experience music exactly where and how our bodies are in whatever capacities and abilities we have.

With that, we view community singing as a powerful opportunity to shape the kind of world that we’d all like our descendants to experience. Music is an invitation into brave spaces where we can both find hope within the shared suffering of the collective human experience, as well as imagine the kind of world that we’d like to be part of. At Treehouse Learning, we share this vision not just within our Treehouse Learning Family, our community of children, parents, families, teachers, and staff, but also with our larger community beyond the walls of our physical building. 

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