The Making of a College Nigun Circle

The Making of a College NIggun Circle by Lisa Stein - Photo by Jade Lowe

It’s a rainy, dark, and cold Monday night, and I am surrounded by an Ethnomusicology graduate student from France, a freshman Dance and Neuroscience double-major, a junior Philosophy major who leads the campus Buddhist meditation group, and a senior Government major who coordinates Jewish community programming, among other close friends and people I don’t know yet. As we schmooze about how stressful midterm season is, more students walk into the dimly lit classroom and take a seat in the inner or outer circle of chairs. At about 8:07 p.m., I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and begin to sing. My voice cuts through the conversations and becomes the only audible sound for about three seconds. Another voice joins mine, and our voices become one. Moments later, our unified voice grows in strength as a roomful of college students sing together.

We sing on any neutral syllable that feels right to us personally. I may sing “yai dai dai” while the person next to me sings “yum bum bum.” We sing the same melody over and over again for 10–30 minutes. As the melody becomes a friend to us, harmonies soar above and below it, elevating and supporting the musical magic. When I feel the time is right, I signal the conclusion of this melody by slowing down my singing to a stop while everyone else follows my lead. We sit in silence for a few moments until I open my eyes, mesmerized by what we have just created. Somehow, all of the midterm stress has melted away. Interrupting the powerful silence, I say: “Welcome to the Wesleyan Nigun Circle. What you just sang is called a nigun. It’s a soulful, wordless melody that is rooted in Jewish tradition, but can be a spiritual experience without being religiously exclusive.”

I founded the Wesleyan Nigun Circle at the beginning of my freshman spring semester at Wesleyan University. During my first semester, I took a class called “Introduction to Social Entrepreneurship” where I prototyped a student-led nigun circle as a solution to the problem of stress and anxiety in college. I thought it was a great idea in theory, but I had no intention of actualizing it; I was already overcommitted for the spring semester, and I didn’t think I had the time or energy to start a nigun circle. However, after pitching my idea to the class, a senior raised his hand and asked, “Can you please make this a real thing? I want to experience this.” I honestly was shocked by his question, but I shouldn’t have been. Wesleyan needed this. There is no other singing group on campus that does not require auditions and does not rehearse regularly to prepare for a performance. The nigun circle would fill this gap while still providing the stress relieving and healing power of creating music with other people. All colleges needed this. I thought about his question for a minute and then responded, “Okay, I’ll do it… but do you want to start it with me?”
He agreed, so I went to Yeshivat Hadar’s Singing Communities Intensive over winter break to develop the skills to start what would become the Wesleyan Nigun Circle. I learned how to create and lead a nigun circle—musically and organizationally—from Joey Weisenberg, the Creative Director of Hadar’s Rising Song Institute, and Renna Khuner-Haber, one of the leaders of the Nigun Collective in the Bay Area. I had experienced only one nigun circle before the intensive, and immersing myself in three days of singing nigunim (plural of nigun) made me even more enthusiastic about this enchanting music. When Joey Weisenberg led nigunim, I could always hear his voice, but it was never overpowering. He led with genuine excitement and enjoyment, which I wanted to emulate in the Wesleyan Nigun Circle.

Drawing upon Joey’s and Renna’s nigun circle models, while establishing our own personal traditions, the Wesleyan Nigun Circle meets every Monday night from 8:00–9:30 p.m. to sing nigunim together and sit in silence for a few minutes in between each one. There is no commitment or prior knowledge required. Students can come every week or once a semester; they know it’s there for them when they need it. It attracts students of all faith backgrounds, people with musical training and people who claim they “can’t sing,” both undergraduate and graduate students. As I began to apply what I had learned in the workshop, I saw myself more as a tour guide than a musical leader. If I am in tune with the group and myself, I can vary my singing in subtle ways, playing with the speed and the volume, and the group follows. I’m not dragging them where they don’t want to go; I’m just making sure we all stay together.

Every week is a different incredible experience. The musical journey depends upon the singers, who vary each time. However, the calmness with which I leave each evening is consistent from week to week. In a feedback survey, 92% of students responded that the Nigun Circle is indeed relieving their stress and anxiety. They share that the Nigun Circle is a time to “slow down and just be,” and it allows them to savor the “special moments when everyone is experiencing something powerful.” After an hour and a half of singing in community, students “go back into the real world feeling refreshed and focused.” A root cause of stress and anxiety in college is a fear of judgment, a need to meet expectations, and a constantly busy schedule. The Nigun Circle is a judgment-free zone, there are no expectations, and time seems to stop for a few hours every Monday night.

The Wesleyan Nigun Circle has evolved over the course of a semester and will surely continue to grow in the years to come. The key to its success is that people love coming, so they keep returning and tell their friends. They love the singing, the silence, the people, and the post-singing snacks. A nigun circle is a truly beautiful way to connect to yourself and others, rejuvenating your soul and lifting your spirit.

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