Building Vocal Community

No prior music knowledge is necessary for this interactive singing workshop, which is designed especially for people and communities who think that they can't (or shouldn't) sing. Singing is humanity's oldest form of communication. All human beings are born with an innate capacity to sing, but many people struggle to find their voice, often because of unhelpful messages they receive about singing from their families, churches, or from Western art culture in general. This workshop begins by unpacking some of those messages, and uses simple breathing and vocal exercises to help "non-singers" and seasoned singers alike to find their voices anew. We will build the skills to sing confidently in a group without the use of sheet music, and learn songs from a variety of different oral singing and folk singing traditions.

Screen Shot 2019-07-24 at 10.39.55

Singing as Spiritual Practice

St. Augustine of Hippo once said that those who sing their praises double them, because of the joy and the love that belongs to those who sing. Singing is one of humanity's oldest ways of communicating, and one of the most universal spiritual practices. As early as the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom laid out guidelines for the spiritual practice of singing in the context of Christian community, and it was something that everyone was meant to participate in! This course draws on these ancient guidelines, which describe five inner postures that give spiritual depth to our singing, no matter what our level of musical skill may be. Discover how singing in any context - religious or otherwise - can draw us into a deeper sense of connection with one another and with God. We will learn songs from a variety of participatory singing traditions, including African American spirituals, songs from Iona, Songs of Presence, Taizé chants, and Music That Makes Community.

Spiritual Disciplines: Chant

This workshop introduces chant as a spiritual discipline. We will look at some of the differences between Eastern and Western chant traditions, and examine the ancient roots of Christian chant through the practice of Jesus, the early Christian disciples, and the desert fathers and mothers of the 4th to the 6th centuries. We will learn how to chant, (which differs from other styles of singing), and understand the purpose of chant as it developed in both in monastic and liturgical settings. We will look briefly at some of the different traditions of Christian chant including Orthodox, Gregorian, Anglican, and Taizé. Participants will gain a working understanding of how to engage more fully in liturgical chant, as well as how to incorporate chant into their everyday personal spiritual practice. 

Note: If desired, the workshop can focus specifically on the practice of Taizé chant. It can also be presented as part of a larger series on Christian Spiritual Disciplines.


Singing for Social Change

Music has always played an important role in movements for social change. We will reflect on examples of musical protest and civil disobedience from antiquity and the middle ages all the way up to today, looking particularly at the role of the spirituals during the time of slavery and later during the Civil Rights Movement. We will also look at songs of protest written during the folk revival of the 1960s, the punk era, and hip hop, examining some of the more subtle ways that prophetic meaning can be conveyed through music of all genres. Participants will come away with a deeper sense of how musical meaning is constructed, and why and how music can move people to change the world. 

Note: This topic can be offered as an informational talk or as an interactive songwriting/brainstorming workshop for musicians and social activists thinking about the most effective ways to compose new tunes or choose songs for social movements.

Improvisation as a Way of Life

In his book Improvisation in Life and Art, jazz musician Stephen Nachmanovitch writes, "When people ask me how to improvise, only a little of what I can say is about music. The real story is about spontaneous expression, and it is therefore a spiritual and a psychological story, rather than a story about technique." Improvisation - whether in music, theatre, dance, comedy - or just in everyday life! - requires a willingness to accept the present moment and embrace a concept that artists call "flow." Christians traditionally have understood this as the work of discernment -  listening for and following the guidance of the Holy Spirit. By practicing improvisation, we can learn new ways of practicing our faith, through postures of acceptance and trust. Through easy improv games and techniques drawn from a number of artistic disciplines, this playful and fun course helps participants learn how to trust in the "flow" and say "yes, and..." to the movement of the Spirit in their lives.

Note: This course can be taught as a half-day workshop or a 5-week class. 

What Is "Sacred Music"?

We will examine how "sacred music" (or "Christian music") has been defined in our culture - by secular music institutions, the corporate music industry, and different Christian denominations and subcultures. We will also look at concepts like the "devil's music," and why our culture tends to define "bad" music as being morally corrupt. Tracing this impulse all the way back to the ancient Greeks, and looking at examples from early Christianity, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the 20th century (particularly the blues, rock and roll, and hip hop), we'll begin to see the relationship between music, language, and religion more clearly, and understand the difficulty of defining "sacred music." Participants will be challenged to extend their music appreciation to genres and styles that they may have previously rejected, and will come to a deeper understanding of the overall connection between the music they love and their spiritual and religious lives. When taught within a Christian context, this discussion will be placed within a larger theological framework that includes practical suggestions for how to discern the spiritual, theological, and religious content in music for liturgical use or otherwise.

Note: This topic can be adjusted for both religious and non-religious contexts and can be offered as a lecture, workshop, or a 5- to 15-week class. Click here to read Kristen's academic writing on this topic, which was the subject of her Master's thesis. Click here to learn about Kristen's work with music in the context of liturgy and worship. 


Songwriting & Spirituality:

A Conversation with Kristen Leigh

This presentation looks at the relationship between songwriting, meaning-making, and spirituality, through a conversation with singer-songwriter Kristen Leigh. Vignettes from Kristen's life as both a professional

musician and a person of faith will illuminate some of the ways in which churches often unwittingly hinder the development of art and artists by attempting to control the outcome of the creative process, leading to stagnant and stale forms of both artistic and religious expression. What does it mean to truly create from a place of faith? How can we create works that express both theological depth and emotionally sincerity? Drawing inspiration from the literary tradition of the Scriptures (particularly the clever artistry of the parables), Kristen encourages artists to reach beyond the tropes and trends of contemporary culture, in order to ponder anew the question of how meaningful and truthful content is best conveyed through creative and artistic expression. Musicians and non-musicians alike will discover new ways to deepen their faith through an appreciation of music outside of church contexts, and fellow songwriters will be encouraged to dig more deeply in their efforts to convey what is most true at the heart of life. This presentation will include performances of Kristen's original music

Note: Kristen also offers basic songwriting and recording lessons outside of faith-based contexts.

Songleader Trainings

After attending a community singing workshop, people often wonder where they can go to continue participating in this style of group singing. While there are lots of community singing groups that meet all over the country, if there isn't one near you, why not start your own? Kristen can train those who have taken one of her introductory workshops to lead paperless communal and/or congregational singing. Formal music education is not required! All you need is a relatively good sense of pitch, a relatively solid sense of rhythm, and the ability to be confidently vulnerable in front of a group of people (the latter is usually the hardest part!). These small, highly interactive group sessions teach participants how to lead community singing. We will develop and practice song leadership skills in a supportive group atmosphere that will give firsthand experience of how to start your own participatory singing group. 


Professional Background

Kristen has been performing as a singer/songwriter since the age of 16. Click here to learn more about Kristen's music.

Kristen studied music at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and earned her M.Div. from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where she focused on Theology & the Arts. She has completed graduate-level coursework in liturgy, aesthetics, improvisation, music & social justice, African-American spirituals, and music in ritual space. Kristen's master's thesis focused on the theology of music, offering a deconstruction of the modern Western category of "sacred music." She has published articles and presented at academic conferences on the subject of music in antiquity and the vocation of artists. Click here to learn more about Kristen's writing and academic work

Kristen was trained as community song leader by John Bell of the Iona Community in Scotland, Ysaye Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock, Kim & Reggie HarrisPaul Vasile of Music that Makes Community, the Taize Community, Ana Hernández, Ruth Cunningham, Emily Scott, and a variety of song leaders at the Swannanoa Gathering in western NC. She is an experienced leader of congregational singing and chant in a variety of styles, and has led music for liturgy and worship in Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, UCC/Congregational, Lutheran, Quaker, Baptist, Non-Denominational, UU, and interfaith contexts. Click here to learn more about Kristen's work on music in liturgy & worship.

All classes and workshops can be presented within Christian, secular, or ecumenical settings. Length, depth, and presentation of subject matter can be adjusted to meet the specific needs of your organization or group.