On Tuesday, August 13, a group of music lovers will converge on The Yard in Chilmark to join Roberta Kirn in the final Community Sing of the summer season. Women, men, teenagers, artists, teachers, nurses, dancers, writers, students, families and singles, summer vacationers, year-round workers – the group will be varied as it always is at these informal, high-spirited gatherings. But all will have one important thing in common: they will love to sing.
Ms. Kirn began the all-ages Community Sings 13 years ago when she was teaching music at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School in West Tisbury. Since then, the monthly events have attracted a core of dedicated regulars and enthusiastic drop-ins yearning to raise their voices with others.
The free, hour-long sessions are publicized simply with flyers, calendar listings, and an exuberant group email from Ms. Kirn announcing in oversized type: “Community Sing! All ages welcome!”
The musical gatherings are open to anyone who wants to sing, with no experience or pre-registration needed. They usually take place at the Charter School, outdoors under the trees whenever possible, and have been held at Lambert’s Cove Beach and the Unitarian Universalist Church. This summer participants joined in song at The Yard. Group sizes may vary from a dozen to 30 or 40 singers. The music is different each time, a colorful mix, from gospel, protest, and traditional American folk to songs from many other cultures, especially Africa.
At a recent Community Sing, Ms. Kirn stood straight and supple in a circle of attentive participants. Hair pulled tightly back, eyes glowing, she fairly vibrated with effervescent energy. All eyes were fixed on Ms. Kirn as, hands in the air, she demonstrated a polyphonic rhythm, showing how the parts meld.
Introducing a new song, Ms. Kirn doesn’t hand out sheet music. Instead she begins singing the melody in her strong voice, over and over. Then one by one, softly then louder, the singers join in, following her lead, gaining confidence. Soon, group members have made the once challenging words and music their own and are singing out happily, lustily, with heart-felt expression and big smiles.
“If you’re always looking at the page you’ll never get off the page,” she explained. “People think they can’t sing, and then they sing and realize it feels so good.”
Inspiring, empowering, and healing others is what Roberta Kirn’s life is about. Whether through music, movement, or health counseling, her goal is consistent. A Pied Piper with seemingly boundless energy and clear intention, Ms. Kirn entices, encourages, and leads. Her aim is not to show the way but to allow others to find their own inner guide, inner singer, inner light.
These days, although Ms. Kirn is clear about overall goals, she is seeking new direction, becoming her own Pied Piper. She is looking for different ways to bring her ideas into reality, to serve others, to grow community, and to make a living while she’s about it.
During a recent interview Ms. Kirn said she envisions weaving together all her experiences, talents, and passions in a new venture, although she does not know exactly what it will be.
“I want to work on strengthening the muscles that connect us — through music and dance, so that we can remember those universal languages — that we know, but have almost forgotten,” she said. “What really excites me is working with music as a healing force.”
Music and dance have long been Ms. Kirn’s passions and how she works with others. It is not about perfecting something for a performance but having fun and enhancing life.
A Connecticut native, Ms. Kirn attended Dartmouth College and later Sarah Lawrence, honing in on her love of dance. At Dartmouth, although dance courses were limited, she was lucky to have a mentor who appreciated her talent and determination and allowed her to work on independent projects incorporating dance and music.
She was also invited to join a drum ensemble.
“It completely changed my life!” she recalled, “the way it fits together, the way you make something extraordinary with a group that you couldn’t do on your own.”
At Sarah Lawrence College Ms. Kirn luxuriated in the wealth of dance-related classes, studying movement, choreography, even dance reviewing.
Her next 10 years in New York City were filled with dance — performing on her own, with the Nina Martin and Dancers company and others. Eventually she became disenchanted with dancing in pieces that weren’t her own. “It was hard work, but often there wasn’t joy in it.”
Along with rich dance experience, Ms. Kirn also found her husband in New York. By happy coincidence, she met Nicky Azzollini at her day job at the River Café. “He was the very handsome maitre d’, I was the dancing girl waitress,” she laughed.
In 1989 the couple moved to Martha’s Vineyard with their two little girls, Marta and Teo. Today, after 35 years together, the couple lives in Vineyard Haven, their daughters now 21 and 17.
Ms. Kirn became part of the Island’s music and dance community. She worked with piano technician David Stanwood, joined Sam Holmstock’s iconic percussion ensemble, “Die Kunst der Drum.”
“Built on Stilts” brought her back to active dance involvement. She began participating in the August festival a dozen years ago, insisting that her daughters be part of her performances, as they were for many summers to follow.
A founding parent of the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School, Ms. Kirn was asked in 2001 to teach music there. Despite having no teacher training she took the job and successfully shared her love of music and singing with the youngsters. During that time she instituted the annual “Songs of Peace, Hope, and Light” holiday concert. The popular mid-December performance features adults and younger singers from the Charter School and larger community.
Ms. Kirn’s dedication to group singing evolved from her workshops with Ysaye Barnwell of Sweet Honey on the Rock, a popular African American female a cappella ensemble. She has also been influenced by other proponents of community singing, including Melanie deMore, and she frequently attends workshops to keep her outlook fresh.
Ms. Kirn left teaching in 2011 and headed in a new direction. Completing online studies with the Institute for Integrative Nutrition she began a holistic health counseling practice. Because she believes music and dance to be healing, she saw the endeavor as another way to empower people to grow, learn, and improve wellbeing. Even her website name, bewelldanceforever.com, is an inspiration!
This winter she began a Women’s Drum Workshop and was gratified that some two-dozen women quickly signed up. She plans a new session soon.
As she continues to explore new ways to put it all together, Ms. Kirn is busy as ever with Built on Stilts, Community Sings, drumming, health counseling, and piano tuning. This fall she will conduct a singing program with middle-school students, culminating in an Island-wide performance with audience participation.
Her dreams range from collecting songs in Africa to leading community sings for large groups at conventions or conferences, “to help them wake up, build connection, re-energize.”
“I’m just interested in so many different things,” said Ms. Kirn. “I want to explore and share them.”
Community Sing: Tuesday, August 13, 5 pm, The Yard, Chilmark. Info: 508-693-8028.