For anyone who feels that their creative inner voice has been dormant, uninspired, or restrained, spending even a few minutes with Madison Youth Choirs’ Teaching Artist-in-Residence, Onome (ah-nuh-MAY), can provide a spark that reignites imagination.
Onome, a Nigerian-American music educator who specializes in improvisation, possesses a stunning ability to inspire workshop participants of all musical abilities to embrace spontaneity, trust their imaginative impulses, and revitalize their creativity.
This fall, people of all ages in the Madison area will have an extraordinary opportunity to discover the boundless capacity of their own creative expression, as Madison Youth Choirs (MYC) will be offering multiple free workshops, community events, rehearsals, and performances with Onome, who also serves as a music educator at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute.
Circlesinging: An Improvisational Pathway to Self-Discovery
Onome expertly uses the practice of circlesinging, a spontaneously composed choral form, to guide participants into the flow of improvisation, encouraging them to use active listening skills and discover the infinite possibilities of sound in a liberating setting.
Engaging in circlesinging for the first time can be a revelatory experience, as it was for hundreds of local students and arts educators at MYC’s first set of workshops this October. A Madison elementary school music teacher who participated in the workshop remarked “I noticed my own hesitation, and the hesitation of other professionals just like me to get involved at first, and it gave me a new appreciation for how students who are hesitant to participate in an activity may feel, even when that activity is amazing.” After watching other participants take turns releasing their creative voice and finding unexpected joy in the process, many teachers described the experience as rejuvenating and powerful.
For over 400 MYC singers (ages 7-18) working with Onome in rehearsals, the experience of taking creative risks in front of their peers requires bravery that results in inspiration and self-discovery. As MYC singer Isaac Gildrie-Voyles, 16, described his first circlesinging opportunity, “When you’re on the outside of the song circle watching Onome pull songs out of thin air, it’s jaw dropping and you’re certain that no one else could do it. But when you’re the one improvising and she leads you to the point where you can do it too, it’s awe inspiring.”
Olaife Adegbite, 14, was likewise inspired by Onome’s leadership. “She helped me step out of my comfort zone when I had the opportunity to improv with three other people. I was in a lucky spot and had to do a solo. I was very nervous at first, but she made me feel more comfortable. She inspired my solo. Onome reminded me of jazzy tones so I sang in a jazzy style.”
A Musical Bond Built at Carnegie Hall
MYC conductors Margaret Jenks and Randal Swiggum first experienced Onome’s ability to expand their teaching toolkit while working together at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute. Watching Onome lead an activity for fellow music educators, Jenks was struck by the way Onome’s performance revealed not only her own artistry, but the artistry of others. Through circlesinging, “she drew everybody in on their own time, with no preconceived template for the resulting sound, and honored the perspective of every ensemble member,” Jenks recalled. Thinking of the 400 young singers in Madison who would greatly benefit from Onome’s inspirational leadership, both Jenks and Swiggum began dreaming of ways to welcome Onome to Wisconsin for a long-term residency.
In December 2022, MYC received a Community Impact Grant from the Madison Community Foundation to support a yearlong project with Onome, followed by grants from Dane Arts and in-kind donations from Park Hotel, providing the essential, robust community support necessary to invest in Onome’s residency throughout the 2023-2024 season.
“We’re so grateful for the substantial support for this project, kicked off by a landmark grant from the Madison Community Foundation,” shared MYC’s Executive Director Lynn Hembel and Artistic Director Mike Ross. “Having the capacity to bring in an outstanding teaching artist like Onome not just once, but many times over the course of a year, gives our singers and the whole community the chance to build much deeper skills with a music educator whose gifts are rare and abundant.” Margaret Jenks is especially appreciative that over 100 music educators from across southern Wisconsin will also be practicing circlesinging with Onome throughout the year. “This is such a special opportunity for students to see that we are all lifelong learners. We’re always growing, moving, changing,” Jenks said.
Your Invitation to Join the Circle
The wider Dane County community will have the chance to try out circlesinging with Onome at MYC’s free intergenerational singing experience, “Madison’s Big Sing,” on Saturday, November 18 at 10am in the Starlight Theater at MYArts. While there is no cost to participate, attendees are encouraged to RSVP via the form on MYC’s website at https://www.madisonyouthchoirs.org/the-big-sing.
MYC’s nine performing choirs will present a semester-culminating concert series on January 20-21, 2024 at the Middleton Performing Arts Center as well as a spring concert series featuring Onome on May 18-19, 2024 at the Verona High School Performing Arts Center.
Students interested in joining Madison Youth Choirs for the second semester beginning in February 2024 will find more information on MYC’s website at https://www.madisonyouthchoirs.org
Following the first weekend of workshops at MYC, Onome shared her own gratitude for the opportunity to take part in creative fellowship in our community, “I got to witness people leap beyond their comfort zones, and smash self-limiting beliefs in real time.” She encourages all of us to move beyond our inhibitions and embrace the power of vocal improvisation to awaken creativity: “Approach the improvisational experience with a beginner’s mind. Let the song start off wonky and awkward and off-key. Trust that it will evolve, that you will evolve through consistent practice.”