Tonight in NYC we had a ritual lab. I wanted to share some notes from it. (This is written as a set of instructions you can either follow, or take inspiration.)
The pattern I’ve settled into for Ritual Lab is “start with a rough idea of the kind of experience you want to explore, discuss it and refine it into something workable, and then try out the experience. (Ritual Lab is optimized for learning, rather than for executing a complete experience, but ideas can then be further refined and made more complete)
Tonight’s concept was “improvised music.” With minimal explicit instruction, starting from silence, could we create a shared group musical experience? Would it be meaningful?
Introductions (Getting to know each other, setting the tone)
We began going around, sharing our names, and saying “what brought us to ritual lab this night?” (Many of us gave fairly general answers about why they appreciated ritual. I may want to refine the wording in the future to prompt “what are you specifically looking for tonight?” so that it remains a useful introduction even if everyone knows each other.)
Someone suggested ALSO telling everyone our names again at the end, when people were more likely to actually remember. But then we forgot to do so. :P
7 Minutes of Reflection: Value and Concern
A “new tradition” I’ve been trying out lately is to begin each Ritual Lab with 7 minutes of silent reflection. During this time, people are encouraged to meditate and bring themselves to a tranquil state – and then think about 2 questions. Tonight, the questions were:
Have you had any music experiences, improv’d or otherwise, that were meaningful to you?
Do you have any concerns – either logistical or emotional, about ways an improvised music experience might go poorly?
Afterwards, people go around the circle briefly describing their answers to one question, then again around the circle briefly describing their answers to the other.
After THAT, more freeform discussion follows as people respond to each others’ ideas. The facilitator should gradually direct the conversation towards a concrete plan of What-To-Do.
The intention of the 7 minutes is multifold:
- It helps people reach a tranquil, ritual-receptive state.
- It gives people opportunity to practice thinking, both about how ritual can be valuable and about how it might go wrong. In some cases “wrong” means “unsafe and dangerous” but in other cases it can simply be “some people might get confused or uncomfortable because X – maybe we can fix it by doing Y?”
- The simple act of asking both questions can be reassuring to newcomers.
Music, Round I
We set a goal of “maintain a very long improvised music jam, for 15-30 minutes.” I suggested this goal so that people would have time to fully lean into the experience, and also because it was an interesting challenge.
We did not end up going more than 5-10 minutes, but it did feel like it reached a meaningful conclusion. (We ended up deciding multiple shorter sessions were better, because we could learn from each one)
Format for the first round was:
- Begin with one person making a repetitive sound, rhythm or movement.
- One by one, going around a circle, each person adds another small loop of music, drumming and/or dancing to the existing sounds/rhythms.
- Eventually, a particular designated leader would do something to change the vibe of the music, to keep it from getting stale.
- Theme – we felt it would be more poignant to have a theme, but it ALSO would be easier to jam with non-verbal music. We decided to have a theme of “Growth”, which people could interpret on their own, find emotions that tied in with it, and let those emotions come out through non-verbal song
Results: We spent about 50% of the time grooving in the zone with each other, and 50% feeling slightly unsure of ourselves. We realized that because there were SOME instructions, but not many, people were a bit afraid to add new things without stepping on the designated-leaders toes
Music, Round II: Whatever the hell you want
So we tied it again without any instructions whatsoever (people could pick their own theme/emotion to cultivate), and it actually worked pretty well – hit a very solid groove. Some people got to a relatively deep “ritual space”, others just found it relatively fun.
(This doesn’t reliably work with arbitrary people, but this group had >50% skilled singers)
I decided to cultivate the emotions of anguish and hope during the second round, and I was surprised how easy I found it to steep myself in those.
Round III: Dance
I had a vague hope that we’d organically start dancing during the first two rounds, but it didn’t really happen. So for the third round we instead listened to music and tried to focus on moving rather than singing.
It’s fairly hard to find a song that EVERYONE likes to dance to, but the song we used – Level Up, by Vienna Teng, worked for most of the people there, and the people it DID work for found it really moving and transcendent. We ended up listening to it once again just to learn the lyrics, and then danced a second time to it, this time fully “getting” the song emotionally.
Debrief/Thoughts for the future
Between each round, we talked about what worked or didn’t work for us. We ended with some vague plans for how to continue to polish a series of improv music/dance/thematic exercises that take people on an emotional journey, and how to scale it up so more people can participate.