In December of 2016, my senior year, I was invited to Conference Allstate, to sing among 500 best high school vocalists in New York State. Coming from a high school choir where students rarely sang in key, couldn’t comprehend rhythm, and didn’t care what they sounded like, this was whole new experience for me. I was surrounded by people who had the same passion as me, with so much more talent than what I was used to. Returning to my mediocre high school chorus after that moving experience was somewhat sad.
While scrolling through our optional extra credit assignments, one in particular caught my eye. It happened to be Dr. Ysaye Maria Barnwell’s “Community Sing”. After months of regret for leaving music behind as part of my high school career, the word sing practically jumped of the page. But after reading the description I was a little more than skeptical. How would this director manage to get a group of strangers, many inexperienced, to sing in unison? I felt like attending this may be close to being stuck in high school chorus all over again. But, I dragged my skeptical self to the presentation anyways, and I’m very thankful that I did. Dr. Barnwell taught me a new kind of music and gave me a whole new perspective on the world. She began by teaching us spiritual songs like “Kumbaya” ,which means “come by here.” She added easy harmonies, nothing too challenging. Then she moved to slave songs, like “Wade in Water” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” During these songs she painted the picture of slaves wading through the water, far enough out that dogs could not pick up their scent, and they could escape to freedom.
This moment was when I realized that she did not gather the community together to teach us perfect technique, or make sure we were singing the correct harmony. She joined us together simply to share her love and passion for soulful music, to teach us where the beautiful songs came from, and why they are still sung today. She was not expecting anything complex, she was just hoping to join us all together in song, and I was truly moved by that. I was never expecting such a beautiful song to come out of a group of strangers.