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 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 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 between 10 and 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 me. 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.
“Welcome to the Wesleyan Nigun Circle,” I say, interrupting the powerful silence. “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. 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 to start one, but I had no intention of actualizing it, as I didn’t think I had the time. 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 was shocked by his question, but I shouldn’t have been. Wesleyan needed this. The nigun circle would fill this gap while still providing the stress relieving and healing power of creating music with other people. 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. 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.
The Wesleyan Nigun Circle meets to sing nigunim together and sit in silence for a few minutes in between each nigun. 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, undergraduate and graduate students.
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 percent 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, 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. Some root causes of stress and anxiety in college are 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 coming back 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.
Lisa can be reached at email@example.com.